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Coming to a Tablet Near You

Coming to a Tablet Near You

Faculty turn to writing e-books to get speed and relevance on an issue they care about

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Durham, NC - Duke faculty members are riding the e-book revolution to bring public policy analysis, textbooks, symposium proceedings and even an international thriller to a growing number of tablet readers.

Quick publication and easy updates allow non-fiction authors to keep abreast of quickly changing events.  For those venturing into fiction, e-books allow them to get a foot in the door, attract attention and perhaps a publisher.

"I almost certainly would not have done this were I still an assistant professor who was still to be reviewed for tenure," says Don Taylor of his "experiment" last year with Kindle Direct Publishing in hopes of influencing the federal budget debate. "I decided I would rather try and have my ideas have an impact and was therefore willing to risk getting less 'academic credit.' Further, I am a professor in a school of public policy, and we claim to be interested in 'policy engagement,' so I decided to move ahead."

Below is a sample of some recent e-book forays by Duke faculty members:


Don Taylor: Tackling the Federal Budget

In the heat of the federal budget and debt battles last summer, Sanford School of Public Policy associate professor Don Taylor decided he wanted to make the case for why progressives have a stake in supporting a balanced budget -- to leave room for some spending on a progressive agenda.

He first thought about bringing the book out through an academic press, but was concerned Congress would reach a debt deal before he could get the book in print and have an impact on the policy debate.  Friend and fellow economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason University had e-published his 25,000-word book, "The Great Stagnation," which helped to convince Taylor to start with a short, timely e-book that could serve as a proposal for a bound book.

"This is my version of what the world should be," Taylor says. "This format gives you the opportunity to get a book out there quickly."

Readers can highlight favorite passages in a digital book, giving prospective buyers a glimpse into what resonated with others. Three readers liked this passage: "The bad news is that our health care system is on autopilot to bankrupt our country.  The good bad news is that we are not getting our money's worth for all of the money we are spending, so that it should be possible to reduce the rate of health care cost inflation without harming patients."

Thus far the e-book has sold about 250 copies through Amazon, peaking in late August. "In my experience, relatively small amounts of sales change the rank a lot in e-books, at least for non-fiction," he said. One week ago, it ranked No. 1 among books on Social Security and No. 4 in the health policy category, while this week it is out of the top 10 on both.  Taylor makes $1.39 on each $1.99 e-book Amazon sells.  People who buy the book get Taylor's updates for free.

But Taylor's endorsement of e-publishing comes with a caveat when it comes to the technical issues. The process from monograph to Kindle store took more than 20 hours of effort, with Taylor approaching the initial upload "like the soft opening for a restaurant" while he tackled some formatting issues. Ultimately, it took three updates over the course of a week to fix those issues.

Taylor has a contract with global publisher Springer for a second edition of the 148-page book to come out in both print and e-book formats in April. Read more about Taylor's experience here.


tiger king

Robin Kirk: A different approach to human rights

While Don Taylor went electronic to study the national debt, Robin Kirk went the fiction route to explore issues of human rights in her novel, "The Tiger King."

Kirk, director of Duke's Human Rights Center, expects her e-book, published in December, to appeal to readers interested in Colombia, human rights and international intrigue, but she admits she first needs to do the work of a publicist.

"There's a tremendous burden on the e-book writer, who becomes in charge of designing the cover and marketing," she says. "With a book like this, it's challenging because there's not a set audience."

Kirk has reported for U.S. media from Peru and has previously published award-winning poetry and three nonfiction books, including More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America's War in Colombia (PublicAffairs). She hopes her novel will spark new conversations about human rights. "Through fiction you can approach things in a different way and begin to express how really hard it is to know a place and what their real desires are."

With the novel it is easier to show people's conflicting motives. "One character is a humanitarian aid worker with a past, a connection to a man who is a Colombian guerilla at the center of the book. She helped him do something that she really regrets." The Kindle virtual "book jacket" says the book's international setting "is complex and interconnected, giving equal weight to the elegance of Rome and the chaos of Freetown" in Sierra Leone.

Kirk finished the novel in 2008 and found initial interest from a traditional publisher but wasn't able to seal a deal, so she put it aside until recently. "With the revolution in e-books, I thought I would give this a try," she says. She found it surprisingly easy to format and upload the book using the Scrivener Word Processing program.



The first interactive marine science textbook and speedy filmmaking

For David Johnston, a research scientist at the Duke Marine Lab, the goal of digital publishing is to show undergraduate students what his scientific field has to offer.

Undeterred by e-book publishers who told him the subject matter was too niche, Johnston went about creating a free, app-based book that covers the latest science of marine megafauna such as whales, dolphins and seals. A team of Duke computer science graduates built the platform in one semester on a $5,000 budget.

"We've created a simple tool for specialized subjects where there isn't a textbook, and knowledge advances quickly," Johnston told Wired Science. "Being an open source effort gives academics the flexibility they need."

At Duke's Center for Documentary Studies longtime instructor Nancy Kalow, a folklorist and filmmaker, created an e-book last year to tout advances in digital moviemaking. "Visual Storytelling: The Digital Video Documentary," published to the center's website, offers guidance to those who want to make a short documentary using a consumer camcorder, digital SLR camera or cell phone.

Kalow brings a wealth of experience to her digital textbook. Her video documentary Sadobabies, about San Francisco runaways, was a winner of a Gold Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival and the Special Jury Trophy at the San Francisco Film Festival. She has been co-chair of the Selection Committee of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival since 2003. "Actually, the e-book is a sometimes-opinionated distillation of all that watching," she told a colleague in an interview.

In the book she says she is "passionate about the democratization of documentary filmmaking." The story and the characters may need to be documented now, she says, before a lot of production money can be raised. "Low-budgeted documentaries don't have to look low-budget, and the e-book explains how to do it."

educated women

Duke Libraries and Digital Publishing

Duke Libraries has also turned to digital publishing, most recently working with Women's Studies emeritus professor Jean O'Barr to publish a set of conference proceedings as a free e-book. "What Does It Mean to Be an Educated Woman?" can be downloaded to Kindle, Kindle app for PC, iBooks app for iPad or other Apple device to open source readers like Calibre.

"The symposium was in 2009, and since then we've received a number of requests for a printed version of the proceedings, so we did this instead," said libraries communications director Aaron Welborn.

Readers can access all the many Duke library e-books through the "ebrary" program. For example, Orin Starn's new book, "The Passion of Tiger Woods," is among them.

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