Why Closed Books are So 19th-Century


This document will explain why it is a bad idea, in this day and age, to write a book that is not available online for everyone to see, link to, redistribute, and possibly modify.


Recently Ask Bjørn Hansen (of perl.org and Perl fame) has reviewed the book JavaScript: The Good Parts on his blog. I wrote the following comment:

Hi Ask!

Interesting. Is this book available online for free?


Shlomi Fish

To which he replied:

Why would it be available for free?

Please support the publisher and the author by paying them the $20 (Amazon US) or the £13 (Amazon UK) to buy the book.

- ask

This essay is my reply to that.


Since the invention of the Press, the traditional method of spreading knowledge was to write a book, and get a publisher to publish it. Indeed, we can recall many important and influential historical books. However, as computer networking became faster, less error-prone, and more ubiquitous - a different medium of communicating knowledge has emerged: the Internet. To quote Cory Doctorow:

The Internet has one overarching feature that makes it superior to the technologies that preceded it: it can copy arbitrary blobs of data from one place to another at virtually no cost, in virtually no time, with virtually no control. This is not a bug. This is what the Internet is supposed to do.

As a result, more and more people depend on the Internet for getting information, and getting more knowledge and understanding. Not only does the Internet allow information to be retrieved, it also allows one to publish information and collaborate on it. Perhaps the most prominent examples for that are the various Wikimedia projects of which the English Wikipedia is the largest and most popular. Thousands of large-scale contributors, and 100’s of thousands of minor ones, have individually created an online encyclopedia that contains mostly comprehensive information about practically every imaginable topic.

And despite all that, we can often see that books are getting published on paper, and are either completely not available online, or their free re-distribution is restricted. They are often available on Peer-to-Peer networks or illegally, but their use is still restricted, and complicates things.

In this article, I’d like to note why non-open books (or at least books that are not available online) are as pointless as non-open-source software.

Some Quotes

In my older essay the Case for File Swapping, I made the claim that while copyrights are an important concept, the Law must not restrict non-commercial distribution of copyrighted works. Naturally, due to a generation gap, governments and copyright-owners have not yet given in to the fact that the Internet practically changes the ability to regulate the free distribution of copyrighted material. Therefore, the Law in most countries was still not modified accordingly.

As producers of copyrightable works it is therefore our choice whether what we generate will be available online for all the public to experience (and possibly re-distribute and enhance) or that we’d rather make it an “All-Rights-Reserved” document that is only available offline or illegally.

Here’s what Paul Graham wrote about online encyclopedias:

The second big element of Web 2.0 is democracy. We now have several examples to prove that amateurs can surpass professionals, when they have the right kind of system to channel their efforts. Wikipedia may be the most famous. Experts have given Wikipedia middling reviews, but they miss the critical point: it’s good enough. And it’s free, which means people actually read it. On the web, articles you have to pay for might as well not exist. Even if you were willing to pay to read them yourself, you can’t link to them. They’re not part of the conversation.

Graham continues to say that:

One measure of the incompetence of newspapers is that so many still make you register to read stories. I have yet to find a blog that tried that.

Mr. Graham is not the only or the first one to say things along this line. Previously, Eric S. Raymond had written his “How to Become a Hacker” (= software enthusiast), and has been propagating similar ideas in his “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” series of essays (an older version of which was also published as a paperback book). Quoting from the guide:

2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.

Creative brains are a valuable, limited resource. They shouldn’t be wasted on re-inventing the wheel when there are so many fascinating new problems waiting out there.

To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that the thinking time of other hackers is precious — so much so that it’s almost a moral duty for you to share information, solve problems and then give the solutions away just so other hackers can solve new problems instead of having to perpetually re-address old ones.

Now, if you ask me, publishing a non-open book is a classical example of requiring other people to solve the problem you’ve solved again, because they cannot share your work with other people.

The Problems with Closed Books

I can think of several important problems with the fact that some books are closed:

1. Their Closed Nature Makes One Unable to Effectively Link to Them

If I want to point someone at a text on the wikipedia, I can give him a direct link to the article, or even a sub-section of it, an anchor or that of a previous version. On the other hand, with the online Britannica, the link will likely not work, because my friend won’t be registered. This is even worse for books that are not available online.

In this day and age, people give links in chats (Instant Messaging, IRC, etc.), on web pages and other documents, in blog posts and comments, on web forums, in emails, and in an increasing and more diverse forms of Internet mediums. They are also given in many non-Internet methods: books, newspapers, scientific papers, notes, voice calls, SMSes, etc. People who get these links expect these links to just work and show them the goods - not require registration or payment.

So if you’re making your web resource closed, you’re likely to alienate a large amount of people who will experience it, tell it to their friends, link to it on their blogs, etc.

If you’re worried that without registration you won’t be able to track what visitors do - don’t. There are several software packages that allow you to track what every individual visitor did, and deploying and utilising them is justifiable if you want to better monitor your visitors. I personally don’t go to such extents, because I feel I have better ways to spend time on making my site more attractive, like by writing more material, or by doing white-hat publicity and Search Engine Optimisation, but your kilometrage may vary depending on your resources and philosophy.

2. It Makes Quoting and Re-using The Books Harder

It’s much easier to quote an online document than an offline one. Either by “copy-and-paste” or by inspecting the HTML markup. Compare this to a paperback book where you have to type the text character-by-character or use OCR. Or to O’Reilly’s Safari service, whose pages are scrambled JavaScript junk, meant as a measure of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). It’s nothing the “View Formatted Source” of some Firefox extensions cannot cope with, but it’s still annoying.

On the other hand, a freely available document can easily be quoted, re-used and re-distributed. One can save it as a self-contained file and send it to friends. One can refute it part by part. One can quote it in the context of grander document (like I did earlier).

3. Closing the Books Doesn’t Prevent Illegal Use

When J. K. Rowling released the 6th Harry Potter book, she decided not to make an Electronic version available, in order to prevent piracy. However, it took less than 24 hours before “pirates” had made a complete online version available for everyone to read. Now, if the publishers had made an electronic version available, then at least they could have made money by selling many electronic copies.

It’s not hard to find books online illegitimately. There’s a Ukrainian site carrying many O’Reilly titles online (if you don’t like the link then send me a DMCA takedown notice), which is easily found using a Google search. Whenever people give a link to this site on Perl IRC channels or mailing lists, many Perl hackers mention that it is illegal and should not be used. But it’s there and accessible, and many people, especially young ones, won’t feel or know they’re doing something wrong. And if you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with non-commercial redistribution of publicly-available content.

There’s also the element of convenience. Some people will buy a book because it is a physical object. If we take Harry Potter as an example, then most people will not be content reading it on the computer. Moreover, Joel Spolsky has published many articles on his Joel on Software site, and later compiled many of them into a book. The latter has become a best-seller, and even I decided to buy it as a gift for a previous workplace, so they could read it and learn from it.

Similarly, after reading the 3rd edition of Programming Perl which I borrowed from the Israeli Perl Mongers library, I decided that I liked it so much, and so bought it so I can read it at home.

By making your book available online, you’re giving yourself a huge publicity, and earning a lot of repute. You can also make some extra income from ads, store affiliations, and other revenue. If it’s under a strict-enough licence, then you can also make money by licensing it for commercial use. And some people will still want to buy a paperback book, an electronic copy, or license it on commercial book-viewing sites (such as the previously mentioned Safari).

In short, keeping your work closed undermines legitimate uses, but does not prevent illegitimate ones. So you become bald from here and from here.

(A correspondent to this article mentioned the book Far from the Madding Gerund, which is a compilation of articles from the authors’ blog Language Log , which has been selling very well, as another example of a book based on articles from a blog.)

4. Closing the Books Makes Critique and Commenting Harder

If you have a non-publicly-available book, and you discover an error in it, then you must give some convoluted instructions for finding it. This is instead of just linking to the relevant part, using a commenting service such as StubmleUpon or Digg or even being able to use the page’s inline commenting system.

For example, I was once offered a contract by an O’Reilly editor to review the new edition of HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide. I detected a lot of problems there (in an otherwise good book), and reported them, and eventually received the money and a thank-you note.

Now I hope my commentary has been integrated into the final version, but still cannot be certain of it, and while I still have a copy of the drafts, I don’t have access to the published book. If I were going to buy the book, and wanted to comment on it, I wouldn’t be able to legally point my readers to the exact place, so they can read it themselves.

No text is set in stone. It is likely that even if you don’t allow Wiki-style editing to the document, you’d like people to comment on it, and revise the document in the future, and allow some derivative works based and inspired from it.

5. It’s an Admission of Failure

Let’s say you’ve found that the current built-in documentation of a software project is inadequate and you’ve decided to write a closed book remedying it. What does it say? That the online documentation is bad, and that thanks to you, it will remain this way. So don’t do that.

On the IRC, I discussed my frustration with the current state of of the documentation of git, whose commands have extremely terse and unintelligible --help displays, and exhaustive and confusing man pages. Then someone told me he suggested Randal Schwartz to write an O’Reilly book about git. Now, if this book will indeed be written (and not made available online for free), it will not improve the bad documentation of the current system. Instead, it will be an admission of failure.

I voiced similar concerns about the Perl documentation back in my time in my old “Usability” of the Perl Online World for Newcomers essay. Quoting from it:

I don’t have anything against people trying to make money off Perl by selling books. But these people are the same people who are the Perl project leaders, and so are responsible to make sure Perl is well-documented. If people get frustrated learning Perl, and become unhappy with it, they will criticise “Perl”. Not the Perl documentation. Not the Perl community. Not even the Perl leaders. “Perl”. If Larry Wall et al. care enough about Perl, they should make sure it has good online documentation.

Such books need not be available online if their authors so much don’t desire. However, Perl is very hard to learn from public electronic resources alone. I believe there may even be a clash of interests because the core Perl people also write them and so may not have enough motivation to improve the online documentation. Making them public will resolve that.

I may have been a bit too blunt there, but I think you get my point.

Also consider Ruby-Doc, which illustrates the pathetic state of the online Ruby documentation (at least in English). Only one available free book, and it already has two closed newer editions, which are more up-to-date. And it doesn’t even cover the so-called “Ruby-on-Rails”.

Many newer books were published, but none of them were made available online, and I was told that what most Ruby newcomers do is download illegal copies of such books.

If you care enough about your technology or topic, make sure to publish your work online too. Otherwise, you’re admitting that the current documentation is inadequate, that you care more for getting money than for making your work more popular, and that you don’t care enough about the legitimate uses that I mentioned.

6. Keeping the books closed does not Encourage Sales

Many books (and other works) that were made available online have become best-sellers. Nine Inch Nails have placed their Ghosts I-IV album online and made it legally distributable, and it turned out to be a huge financial success. After I downloaded the first part, I opted to pay 5 U.S. Dollars for downloading the rest, and many people did the same.

I also mentioned the Joel on Software book and also of note is Paul Graham’s Hackers & Painters Book, which contains essays he had written on his site or placed there since.

There are many other examples. Generally, most closed books fail in the marketplace, so keeping them closed won’t likely make them more popular. Making your book available online can also give you free publicity, and allow people to experience it before buying it, which may also help your book succeed eventually.


In this day and age, you should look into online publishing as another way to reach your audience, and to allow them to experience what you had to say. As a creative person, I want the maximal possible number of people to experience and make use of my work, and I’m sure it’s the same for you.

Putting legal and technical obstacles in the way of people who want to share, comment, expand upon and refer others to your work, is something that you should know better than to do.

Optionally, you should consider applying more elements of freedom-as-in-speech to your work’s legal status, as this will make it even more usable. Refer to such projects as the Creative Commons for more information.


Thanks to firespeaker for doing some copy-editing of this document.



Creative Commons License

This document is Copyright by Shlomi Fish, 2008, and is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 Unported (or at your option any later version of that licence).

For securing additional rights, please contact Shlomi Fish and see the explicit requirements that are being spelt from abiding by that licence.

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