Ill-informed critique of Verso

The last post reminded me of this ill-informed critique of Verso, particularly in terms of its response to the mass-sharing of its books on download sites. Many of the books mentioned, and certainly many of the books in Verso’s catalogue, are translations. Verso is one of the major sources of French, German, Italian and other language work in English, especially in areas I work in. Let’s leave authors and the publishers out of this for a moment. Translators need to be paid – some are academics, certainly, as a day job, but others are trying to make a living by cobbling together various projects. The pay they get, not generally a large amount, needs to be recouped by the publisher. This is a legitimate cost, and part of the price of the book. Why, then, should those books be available free? If they are, doesn’t this risk further limiting the number of translations being made, to everyone’s detriment?

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3 Responses to Ill-informed critique of Verso

  1. Mark Kelly says:

    I initially read your questions here as rhetorical, but it occurs to me that perhaps you are actually asking. In any case I am going to answer them, effectively in defence of file-sharing. I will address your specific claim that at least translations need to be paid for, allowing that currently some valuable translations appear only because there is a model for publication that allows translators to be paid. Even allowing this, it is not clear that that justifies Verso taking action against those making available free electronic copies of its titles. While it makes superficial sense to believe that any downloading of copies will negatively impact on sales of books, it is not empirically clear that this is the case. There is indeed significant evidence to the contrary, namely that allowing electronic books to be made freely available is a stimulus to the sale of physical copies (e.g. this somewhat equivocal study – http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jep/3336451.0014.109/–free-e-books-and-print-sales?rgn=main;view=fulltext). It is manifestly the case that one can make money while offering electronic downloads of the book for free, as there are several publishers who have now adopted this as their publishing paradigm (e.g. re:press). And this is in the case of making perfect quality electronic copies freely available. In the case of pirated copies, these are often poor quality scans, for which there will be an even greater incentive for readers to pay for either better electronic copies or physical copies. This however leads me to another point, specifically about Verso, namely that they don’t make electronic copies available themselves at all. People (certainly this is true of me) increasingly arrange things in such a way that they prefer electronic copies of books to physical ones (the obvious reason for this, and my main reason, is how much physical books weigh and the limit to how many can be carried). Anyone who wants an electronic copy of a Verso book is thus likely to download it illegally, even if they already own the print copy. Verso thus seems intent not only on preventing piracy of its titles, but in stopping people reading them electronically at all.

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Mark. I appreciate your comments, and on the whole issue of file-sharing and publishing I am more than open to the possibility I am wrong. I think that academic publishing is entering into such new areas that we haven’t yet worked out how things are going to go. I’m especially persuaded by the comment that Verso don’t make electronic versions of their books available legitimately. You’re right that people who do want them that way would have to use pirate sites, although it’s not so many years ago that no books were available that way, so for me that’s an inconvenience rather than a genuine problem. In that they just appear to be behind the curve.
      I’m not sure that re-press, punctum etc. are necessarily proof that the free pdf and physical book at cost model actually works long term, and across the breadth of publishing. Both publishers offer admirable services, but they are pioneering and whether they are sustainable, and indeed how they are financed, long term is something we will need to wait and see. Some books will sell well in hardcopy despite a pdf being available, I just don’t know if it would work for all.
      And I do fear that prices of hardcopy books will continue to rise, and that certain types of books – especially translations, ones with images, complicated layouts, long books, niche books etc. – will be increasingly difficult to place. But as I said, I’m more than open to being wrong – I’d actually like to be wrong on many of these points.

  2. Noldoli says:

    To be fairly honest, it has to do with a bit of empirical reality that surrounds the world and not simply Europe. Verso doesn’t operate everywhere and it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to access these books in third world countries. And once you factor in the differences in currencies then they are not cheap either. I think it’s one of the fantastic achievements of the digital commons so to speak, through which people all over the world are able to access books that are being published. In my country at least, it’s difficult if not impossible to find academic books that have bee published in the last two decades.

    And financially speaking, it seems like Verso is doing quite well.

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