A saga of e-texts

I’m not a luddite. You’re reading this on my blog, for pete’s sake, and I’m already on Google+ (lest you think, “OMG, blogs are sooooo last decade” or something).  And I’m not snobby about electronic books or sentimental about physical books, either, despite being a medievalist who sometimes works with manuscripts. (Perhaps it’s because I have a long view of the history of the book that I’m open to new forms of it. And it’s also because of that knowledge that I know new forms and old can overlap for centuries and have different but parallel functions.) I have a Kindle and love it to pieces for many kinds of reading, both personal and professional. And if all of my students had portable e-readers on which they could easily read the texts I’d assigned in the precise editions and/or translations I’d assigned; and if they could easily annotate said texts and see those annotations and the text at the same time; and if we could all quickly get to the same place in the text together in the classroom, I’d have no problem with a classroom full of e-texts. I need you to know that before I tell you my little saga.

Unfortunately we’re not at that ideal place yet, that happy picture of the future with students all reading and writing along in their sleek tablet computers, and we may not be there for a long time, at least not for those of us who work with primary texts. The reasons why have less to do with the technology than with the humans and corporations involved and their very different motivations for doing what they do. But this is all very vague, so let’s skip to the infuriating experience I recently had with the Rust Belt University bookstore (or, more precisely, with the corporate entity that owns it).  It has a happy ending, at least, but the infuriating part exemplifies better what the problem is.

So. Flashback to last spring, when one of the managers of our campus bookstore — run, like many of them, by Barnes and Noble — came to our last faculty meeting of the year to introduce us to two new options for textbooks that the store was offering to students, where available: book rental (yay! I said in my head) and e-texts (uh-oh, hmmmmm, I thought as the alarm bells went off). Now see, as I am on sabbatical and I have a tendency to procrastinate from my research work with other forms of productivity (as you’ve seen), I had already a) done my books orders, b) planned my syllabuses (because I had to do that to do the books orders), and c) vetted the Kindle versions (if any) of the texts I ordered, because that’s the e-reader I have. I know what the potential problems are with e-texts, especially ones hastily converted from an in-print traditional book, and I wanted to be armed if a students spontaneously downloaded an e-text version of one of my class’s books and asked if s/he could use that.

A carefully done e-text is an awesome thing, but right now publishers and book sellers are so eager to jump into this growing market that they’re pushing all sorts of crap out there, with a lot of problems from the mildly annoying to the infuriating. So, for instance, any book that relies on static pages and page layout to make sense — say, for example, anything with marginal glosses or footnotes or sidebar text-boxes — is going to be unreadable, to some degree or another, in a scalable font e-text if it’s been hastily scanned for the Kindle/Nook market without careful re-editing and re-designing to include hyperlinks instead of the static layout. And even with continuous prose with fewer layout issues, there are OCR (optical character recognition) problems. Although I’ve seen many that are easy enough to mentally correct, a really poorly done book can be distractingly full of them.  And there are a *lot* of books out there that have been scanned quickly and cheaply from public domain books and from publishers’ back catalogs that have these problems.

But the problem that worries me the most is the mismatch of editions and translations from print version to e-text that I’ve seen all over Amazon.  Again and again, an Amazon page for X title edited and/or translated by Y person in the print version is linked to a Kindle edition that’s still X title, but Z translator or editor. (To be fair, Amazon does this with print and audio editions, too.  And they do this with the reviews, matching them up by title instead of edition or format, even though some of the reviewers might be talking mostly about the pros and cons about a specific edition, translation, or media. Drives me batty.) For example, if you go to the Amazon page for the Penguin Classics edition of Jesse Byock’s 1990 translation of The Saga of the Volsungs, you’ll find a Kindle Edition listed for a mere $0.95. Wow, you think, that’s a lot cheaper than the $11.20 Amazon wants for the print edition! Excellent. And so you click on the link and go to the page for the Kindle edition.  Hm, the first warning sign is that the cover is entirely different — that’s weird. But the editorial review listed mentions Byock and all the user reviews are about Byock’s translation, so it must be the same text, right? Wrong. As a close examination of the product description shows, it’s actually the 1870 translation by Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris (which I verified by downloading a sample text), which, btw, is in the public domain and available for free on many sites on the internet (including in PDF form, which you can send to your Kindle if you like). So even if you want that version, you can save your 95 cents.

So far, all this means is that if you’re going to use or allow e-texts in the classroom, you have to carefully vet them, and if you don’t want students to get the wrong editions when they order things themselves (as they sometimes do to save a few bucks), you should warn them about using ISBN numbers and paying attention to editors and/or translators — all true for print editions as well as e-texts.  And that’s what I did on my syllabus — I even included a paragraph about why the Kindle editions of Saga of the Volsungs  and other texts in our class weren’t acceptable.  But when the bookstore on your campus comes in and says they’re offering the students the electronic versions of the texts you’ve carefully handpicked and vetted using your professional expertise, that has the potential to completely undermine all the work you’ve done for all of the reasons discussed above. And so when our Barnes and Noble bookstore representative told us about this great new option — which would save students money! she cheerfully exclaimed — my alarm bells went off and my hand shot up.  I asked if faculty were able to vet the e-texts first and I raised all of the issues above. I even used Saga of the Volsungs as an example.  She told us, no, it was something automatically done through Barnes and Noble and their Nook Study program — when an e-text was available, that is.  I told her I had very good reason for not wanting e-texts at this time, especially if I couldn’t vet them, and summarized the issues, and asked if I could just have any and all e-texts blocked from my book orders.  She said no, that we’d have to talk to her and she’d deal with any problems on a case by case basis, and, if necessary, remove any options for e-texts upon request.  Through all of this, she was a little confused. She didn’t know what OCR errors were, for example, and when I used the “Kindle edition” as an example, she hastily brushed that aside and said these aren’t Kindle books, they’re Nook Study editions, and students won’t need a special e-reader to read them, seemingly missing all of my points. So I said, yes, I realize that, but can you guarantee me that the Nook version of the book I ordered will be the *exact* *same* book? In other words, if I order the Jesse Byock translation of the Saga of the Volsungs, I’ll get that version and not some other?  Oh yes, she said, we’ll only offer the exact book you ordered.

Other questions we had included whether students could print texts and bring them to class — something very important for the study of literature, as our “textbooks” are the primary material of class.  She said that it depended on the book and that some books would let you print only 10 pages at a time. This was a problem for all of us — even those of us who aren’t likely to have issues with translations or editions — and she seemed unsympathetic to that, or at least confused by why we were opposed to something that would save students money. (I’m going to come back to that, so keep it in mind.) This reminded me of all the times I’ve railed about bookstores that don’t order enough books for my classes, whether at RBU or elsewhere.  Every time they tell me that “some students don’t buy the books” and every time I tell them that in my classes the books *are* the class, and if my students are telling me they don’t have the books, and need the books, and want to buy the books, then clearly they are *not* skipping out on buying the books.  Why is it that our bookstore people can’t understand that not every discipline works the same way? How hard is it for a business to have flexible policies? (Yeah, yeah, I know — e-texts would solve this particular problem, but right now,  e-texts create other problems. Keep reading.)

Anyway, I was skeptical. And also a little worried that my authority over my own damn classroom and subject of study was being a little more than undermined. But I decided to wait and see.  And sure enough, a few weeks later, when the bookstore put up the available books for my class on the web site, there was a Nook Study option for exactly one book among the many I had ordered.

Want to guess which book it was?

Go ahead, guess.

Yup, that’s right, it was the freakin’ Saga of the Volsungs. Motherf@#%&r! So I calmed down, download the g&%damn Nook Study software and, through my campus bookstore site (replicating exactly what the students would have to do), sent Barnes and Noble $6.00 for a Nook Study version of what I thought was a Penguin Classics edition of Jesse Byock’s translation of The Saga of the Volsungs.  Actually, even this part of the process was a little infuriating.  I used PayPal to order the e-text though the bookstore web site (because I could and because I felt like doing so), but when I downloaded the e-reader software and submitted the code that the purchase receipt included, the book showed up in my Nook Study library but wouldn’t open. When I clicked on “tell me more” (or whatever the help button said when I tried to open the book) it said I had to register a credit card at bn.com. O rly? Are they going to charge me again? So I called Barnes and Noble Nook Study support (well, I had to go through a few menus to get to the right people on the phone) and the friendly guy on the phone told me that yes, I still had to register a credit card even though I’d purchase the book through my school with my PayPal account.  How many of my students do you think would give up before this point?  A few, I think. Some of them don’t even have credit cards. We’ve got broke-ass students who live hand to mouth, but remember, it’s all about saving students money!  (Not the last time I’ll bring that up.) And even after all that, it didn’t seem to want to open right away, and so I re-downloaded it and had to manually transfer it into my library. And then the original appeared and I had two copies.  Sigh.

OK, so technical difficulties aside, I finally opened up the book.  Guess what I found.

Go ahead, guess.

That’s right, the freakin’ 1870 translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson.

*headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*  Motherf@#%&ng *headdesk*

Look, if I were teaching Victorian medievalism, the Morris and Magnusson translation would be teh awsome1! omg!  But I am not and it’s not the translation I want (not least because they write in this craptastic, fake old-timey language that’s like a bad modernization of Middle English and has nothing to do with Old Norse — they use “hight” for “called,” for pete’s sake!). But it doesn’t really matter why I don’t want it, because I am the g@%damn expert here and the books in my freakin’ class should be my choice, based on my freakin’ expertise, not the result of some corporation’s sloppy computer match of titles.

What’s more, remember the local representative’s mantra that e-texts would save students money?  Maybe that’s true in other cases, but it sure isn’t in this one. Sure, $6.00 is less than $11.20, but that $5.20 savings is worthless if the prof tells the the student it’s the wrong freakin’ book and they have to go buy the right one. Oh, and guess what? The bookstore won’t (usually) refund the e-texts (nor can students sell them back), so with the wrong plus the right text, they’re out $17.20.  Oh, but wait, there’s more.  Remember what I said about the Kindle version above?  That’s right, Barnes and Noble is trying to sell the students a public domain book that’s available for free on the internet!  So even if it were the right edition, they’re cheating the students by charging them $6.00 for something they can get for free!

The good news is that I called the bookstore and arranged to have the link for the Nook version removed from the web site — though they had to call the corporate offices to do that and it took a week or so. I have to double check that they remembered to remove the card for the e-text from the physical bookshelves, too, but I’m sure that’s not difficult to handle. And the manager said that if any early-bird student did happen to buy the e-text before we could do all this, the bookstore would, in this case, refund their money. And I alerted all my colleagues and so maybe they’ll vet all of their texts, too, and if this comes up again, maybe the people in our bookstore will start to see the pattern of the problem, and not just think, Oh, there goes that crazy Dr. Virago again.

There’s a bigger problem here that what’s the best translation of The Saga of the Volsungs, and that’s that Barnes and Noble is trying to pass off craven money-making as being a champion for students, all the while getting between me and my authority in the classroom and over my subject — and I’m sure it’s not limited to my experience. It’s not a problem of e-texts, per se, but e-texts are a vulnerable area right now for such things to happen because they’re so relatively new and the practices surrounding them (the ways we purchase, use, and consume them — the difficulty of reviewing them) are in flux. It is, however, a problem of corporate-owned campus bookstores (not at all new — my own undergraduate bookstore was also a B&N store, and I just past my 20th reunion year) and, possibly, of the greater corporatization of higher education in general, especially in the edu-tech sector. Frankly, I don’t see giants like B&N and Amazon ever caring about whether the e-text they’ve forced on us are the right texts. As long as their quarterly profits go up because of this venture and as long as their cogs in the machine buy that they’re saving students money and chirp that mantra happily to professors and students, they’ll keep it all up, and more of my time (and yours, and yours, and yours) will be spent wrestling with these tasks instead of working with students and the knowledge we produce.

14 thoughts on “A saga of e-texts

  1. Awesome. But the real problem, I think, is that the bookstore are B&N and Barnes at all. What’s going to happen now that one has declared bankruptcy and the other is going on the auction block on, I think, Monday? They have already closed almost all of the stores in the Bay Area, and if they sell off/wipe out the chains completely, what’s going to happen to the uni-related bookstores? Who will keep control?

  2. I think you should shorten this down into an opinion column for your college paper or local paper or Chronicle or something. It’s a really good example and story.

    Sisyphus, did B&N go bankrupt? I thought it was Borders. Both?

  3. I like this too. I don’t have the same edition/translation concerns (I’m in history, so it’s different) but at the same time, footnotes are a huge problem. Like you say, some of these e-books are done properly and have hyperlinked footnotes, and most don’t, and it’s an enormous pain in the ass to get to the material. Also, citations require page numbers. Yes, the new Kindle has that capability, but the old Kindle doesn’t, and the old Kindle isn’t that old. I got mine a year ago, and it doesn’t have the page number capacity.

    So I’m no Luddite when it comes to this stuff, but I don’t think that the technology is universally where it needs to be for course adoption. Also, if at the moment students can only print a tiny portion of the text, then the assumption is that all students have laptops that are theirs (and not shared by the family) and that can be brought to every class, or worse that all students will have some sort of e-reader. That’s foolishness, unless B&N intends to supply them.

    But I really like your final point. Aren’t we, as the class instructors and the people designing the course, supposed to be the ones determining what our students are reading, not some low-level corporate administrator/salesperson?

  4. Another agreement with Dance; also, I think I need to bookmark this in case anybody at my school gets ideas. Your rants are so well thought-out and clearly argued.

  5. Maddening! The next time someone facilely says to me, “If only all the students had e-readers, they’d save so much money! And so much paper!” I’m going to write the URL of this post on that someone’s arm. In Sharpie. (An ancillary annoyance is that people talk as though e-readers had no environmental impact.)

  6. This really is a scary issue, much as I love my e-reader and enjoy reading books on my laptop. Students come into my class with the wrong editions and don’t know why it’s a problem until we come to assignments they can’t complete because their version lacks the part we’re using (this happens with the multiple Penguin editions of Gilgamesh running around, for goodness’ sake). One reason I’m assigning a very obscure text (The Short Chronicle of Jeanne de Jussie) for my western civ students’ primary source analysis is that I won’t run up against many of these unhelpful alternatives. There’s one edition I can find, it’s well-done, it paginates parenthetically on a wide range of ereaders and it’s not too expensive in any version.

    One simple aid would be to have booksellers stop linking electronic editions to print editions without them, you know, being submitted by the same publisher. I’m tired of all these public domain texts being converted by someone into an ebook that’s falsely linked to a modern, scholarly edition by a careless bookstore policy.

  7. testing the comments… oh — actually, this isn’t a problem, because I can comment as ADM with my ADM email address at hotmail, and my blogger ID isn’t tied to any of the log-ins. Stupid G+ is even stupider.

  8. So where exactly is your G+ account linking to your ADM account, then? Did you set up your blog under your RL gmail account? I’m confused. (And yeah, I’m now using my WordPress ID everywhere. I get these comments sent to drvirago2 at gmail, but I never check that using the web interface — I download it to Thunderbird.)

  9. Meanwhile, back to the topic of the post:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I’m not sure this rant would work on its own in our local paper for a number of reasons, but if more of my colleagues report errors like this, something collective might be worthwhile — at least to inform the general public. In the meantime, we’re going to try to arrange a majors meeting of all English majors to address this issue.

    And JLiedl — Yeah, it’s not just an e-text issue. Students come in with crap editions in print of older texts, too.

  10. Agree with all above: this post is awesome and should be required reading for bookstore people and everyone else confronting this problem, which basically means all of us.

  11. Pingback: Making my classes better for them *and* me | Quod She 2.0

  12. Pingback: Thursday Midday Links: “Beauty and the Beast become a single character” - Dear Author

  13. Pingback: Barnes and Noble and their Nook Study: evil, incompetent, or both? | Quod She 2.0

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