Look Before You Write
3 Why Should I Give My Work Away?
A while back, during a presentation I was making at a faculty workshop, an instructor sitting at the back of the room looked unconvinced as I described the advantages of using open textbooks in the classroom. When the discussion turned to open licences and how they worked, she raised her hand and asked, “Why should I give my work away?” I had heard this question before and thought it was a legitimate concern. However, that instructor’s blunt query made me think about my own writing experiences and my decade of work with other authors before I joined BCcampus. I remembered a time — before the Internet and open-copyright licences — when a writer’s livelihood depended on the sale of their articles and books.
Yes, I understood an author’s hesitancy about giving their work and the rights to their work away for free. However, things had changed. The sharing and collaboration of material and permissions between educational writers and teachers have and are leading to many good things, though it can feel like a sacrifice to the individual author.
I concluded that individuals asking the question — Why should I give my work away? — have two concerns: one, they worry that by giving away their work they won’t make any money. And two, allowing others to make changes to their text book means losing control over the content. Let’s take a look at the financial concern first.
I’ll lose money
I wrote two books and was certain that my hard work on each would pay off with a big cheque. Like many book authors, even those who sign a contract with a big publisher, I didn’t see any royalties after my initial advance. But maybe self-published books are different, I thought.
Not so, according to a 2013 survey conducted by Dana Beth Weinberg where she analyzed responses from almost 5,000 authors who took the 2013 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. She found that nearly one-fifth of self-published authors earned no income from their writing and for those that did, the annual median income was less than $5,000. Even authors who worked with a publisher only made between $5,000 and $10,000 per year.
So you’re probably not going to miss out on riches by giving your work away. And for those searching for financial backing to write and publish an open textbook, there are various funding sources available. (See Who Pays for This.)
Now for concern number two: won’t letting others make changes to your textbook undo your hard work, steal your control, and lead to chaos?
I’ll lose control over content
In his chapter, “You Can’t Sell Free, and Other OER Problems,” in Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science, Robert Biswas-Diener discusses the concern many authors, and potential authors, have with their “control over content” if released into the Commons. He says:
Most peoples’ concerns regarding losing control of their intellectual property or reputation are understandable in spirit but do not play out in fact. A large part of the openness in OER is related to removing obstacles to sharing information.
What’s in it for me?
If you’re not going to get rich and you’re giving up control, what reason is there to write an open textbook? During the faculty workshop I describe above, I didn’t try to defend the benefits of writing an open textbook. Instead, I asked the audience why — and if — they thought this was a worthwhile venture. This is what they said.
- Your work will be more widely read.
- There is a movement underway in which it is believed that work that is funded or supported by public funds should/must be openly shared and covered by an open licence.
- If authors release their original work or revisions made to someone else’s work openly, the risk of repeating existing knowledge is decreased. Instead, sharing one’s work promotes building on existing work and collaboration.
- Some people see this as a social justice issue in which knowledge and education need to be available to everyone, in particular members of marginalized groups who face systematic barriers.
- Having access to open textbooks and OER helps authors who wish to customize, or adapt, an existing work for their course, institution, region, or country. (See Reasons to Adapt an Open Textbook from the BCcampus Open Education Adaptation Guide.)
There is no doubt that writing a textbook requires commitment, time, and fortitude. Yet, there are certainly benefits for the author.
- Authoring a textbook is a form of scholarship that can influence your field and contribute to your credibility.
- Writing a textbook can lead to more professional opportunities. At the University of British Columbia, e.g., their Guide to Reappointment, Promotion and Tenure Procedures at UBC 2016-17 [PDF – New Tab] states that “Contributions to the practice and theory of teaching and learning literature, including publications in peer-reviewed and professional journals, conference publications, book chapters, textbooks and open education repositories / resources.”
- Sharing one’s work as an open textbook will contribute to the knowledge-sharing community and, hopefully, lead to new ideas from others who then share these out.
Show Your Work
On November 3, 2015, Sarah Hinchliff Pearson from Creative Commons introduced Austin Kleon in her blog “Anatomy of a book: Part 1 – inspiration”. She talked about Kleon’s book Show Your Work and how it “is built around 10 fundamental principles for creators.” Kleon says he shows “…how to deal with the ups and downs of putting yourself and your work out in the world…” and proclaims “…it’s time to stop worrying and start sharing.”
- Does giving work away really lead to lost income?: Money by Eric L. is used under a CC BY-NC-SA Licence.
- Are you losing control or sharing your knowledge?: Cardboard (cropped and border added) has been designated to the public domain (CC0).
- D.B. Weinberg, "The Self-Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction (Part 3 of 3)," Digital Book World, December 4, 2013, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/self-publishing-debate-part3/ (accessed August 16, 2017). ↵
- Robert Biswas-Diener, "You Can't Sell Free, and Other OER Problems," in Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science, ed., Rajiv S. Jhangiani and Robert Biswas-Diener (London: Ubiquity Press Ltd., 2017), 261. https://doi.org/10.5334/bbc.u. ↵
- "Why do universities support faculty writing textbooks?" Academia, April 16, 2013, https://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/9372/why-do-universities-support-faculty-writing-textbooks, (accessed August 16, 2017). ↵
- Sarah Hinchliff Pearson, "Anatomy of a book: Part 1 - inspiration," Made with Creative Commons, November 3, 2015, https://medium.com/made-with-creative-commons/anatomy-of-a-book-56c46eabb9e1 (accessed August 15, 2017). ↵