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A colleague of mine has recently edited a book whose subject I find very interesting (I know several of the authors personally as well). Unfortunately, like most things published in academia, the copies available from the publisher are quite expensive (and I would have to pay with my own personal money). Is it OK to message him and ask for a soft copy?

I'm not sure as to what is the usual publishers' practice in that case. Would I decrease my colleague's revenue if I don't buy and thus asking for a copy would be considered rude? Or maybe by the time of publication the editor has usually already received her remuneration?

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    They will depend on the agreement they have with the publisher. My typical tactic to broach the topic tactfully is to ask which outlet gives then the biggest kickback. If they've already gotten all they'll ever get, they'll tend to go ahead and offer a digital copy. – user0721090601 Oct 5 '17 at 17:04
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    Are you working at an university? In that case you could convince the library to buy it. – DSVA Oct 5 '17 at 18:13
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    @Mark I'd imagine it's along these lines: in effect, something like a special issue of a journal, but published in book form. – Pont Oct 5 '17 at 20:17
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    @Mark Maybe in other fields it's not common, but in the humanities such books are very common. Depending on the way the papers connect, each one may be called an article or a chapter. The editor works with each author and normally contributes a paper themself, in addition to writing an introduction that draws the connections between them. – user0721090601 Oct 5 '17 at 21:04
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    @Mark In the field of electrical engineering, the IEEE published many books of that type. Of course, they used to sell more when online access didn't exist, but I still go to the library from time to time to take one because there where papers written explicitly for those books which I can't retrieve online. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 5 '17 at 21:30
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Asking directly for a free copy, unless you have a close friendship or working relationship with the editor, will sound rude. (And if you do have such a close friendship, there's a strong chance you purchased a copy, or you may have even been gifted it.)

What I have done is an extension of a model I use for friends who publish music or books. I never expect to get anything free or at a discount, as supporting their work is important to me, and most of the time each work sold has direct implications on the royalties, etc, that they receive. So instead, I ask them which way of purchasing (directly from them, digital download from a given store, physical copy from a retailer, etc) gets them the most, that way I can also recommend the same method to friends who may want to purchase it.

In academia, I apply the same model, but there's one (not so) small difference: oftentimes, the author/editor has already received all or virtually all that they will get from the book publication, so they don't care if anyone gets a free copy. When I ask, even for books I intend to purchase because they are worthwhile to have in my personal physical collection, I have occasionally been offered a digital copy of the book at no cost.

In reality, this isn't too different than with articles — many of us will happily send out a copy of our articles to someone on request because rarely (never) does anyone make money each time an article is paid for. That and citations.

But, if you go this route, note that you should be fully prepared to actually pay if they offer to personally sell you a copy. It would be at least as rude to reject such an offer after you've effectively said you wanted a copy and were willing to pay $x, and when offered it less than $x, you backed out for cost.

  • I think this answer most correctly gauges the realities of these situations... – paul garrett Oct 5 '17 at 23:01
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Yes, it's rude. Your colleague worked for months, and possibly years, on editing his book. The amount of money you are trying to save by not purchasing the book is likely on the order of 1-10 times your hourly wage. See the disproportion here? The point is that your colleague has much more invested emotionally in the book than you do in the money the book costs. He is likely to find your request rude and to be offended by it, not because of the lost royalties from the publisher, but because it would signal to him (correctly, as far as I can tell) that you don't appreciate the large effort he made to create something that would be of value to others.

In academia people don't write or edit books to make money (as discussed on academia.se occasionally, that would be one of the lousiest money-making strategies ever devised), but because they feel it's important and find meaning and satisfaction in it. Much of the satisfaction comes from getting the very modest amount of positive feedback the author gets from the rest of the world, which comes primarily in the form of sales figures and the occasional meager royalty check. Your request would be undermining both of those sources of positive feedback. So again, it's rude, and in my opinion inadvisable.

Edit: if the book is really expensive (e.g., 200+ euros, which is a price I haven't seen myself recently but some people say is common), and you would be paying for it out of your own pocket and not from research funds, then asking for a digital copy seems to me a bit more reasonable and less inappropriate.

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    "is likely on the order of 1-5 times your hourly wage." Such books are usually 200+€. Most hourly wages are not between 40 and 200€... – DSVA Oct 5 '17 at 18:12
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    Thank you for your answer. The general feedback seems to be not to ask for a copy - therefore I won't. However, I do not wholly agree with arguments. Firstly, claims as for my hourly wage are rather unsubstantiated; secondly - my idea of asking about a copy (that I heard once from a professor who said he does that because of publisher's prices) was exactly out of my interest in his work (feeling of its importance). Your answer contributed however to my understanding, that asking might be received as impolite toward the author - something remote from my intentions. – lukeg Oct 5 '17 at 20:46
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    @lukeg Why don't you simply ask your university library to buy a copy (maybe your colleague has already donated one...)? Or buy it with your research funds instead of your own pocket? If you need the book for your work, there should be no issue. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 5 '17 at 21:34
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    @lukeg But, really, check with the library: many libraries accept suggestions for books to buy, independently from the field. Don't underestimate the power of libraries and librarians ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Oct 5 '17 at 21:44
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    @lukeg or also consider ILL. As a graduate student (and maybe once or thrice thereafter), I requested a handful of books via ILL and scanned because my library didn't have, and the book was difficult or impossible to purchase due to price, unavailability, etc. – user0721090601 Oct 5 '17 at 22:39

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