Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A less expensive Mohandas?

Guru points us to Mukund Padmanabhan's review of Mohandas, Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of his grandfather, Mohandas 'Mahatma' Gandhi. The book seems very interesting, and I guess I will eventually get to it. However, this post is not about the book. It's about the price.

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Amartya Sen's Argumentative Indian -- which sold for about Rs. 600 in hardback -- became a minor bestseller after its paperback version was issued at under Rs. 300. It was a lesson well learnt: his following book -- Identity and Violence in its hard cover edition -- had a sub-300 rupee price tag! And of course, Rupa showed the true power of the bottom of the pyramid when it priced Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone under Rs. 100. This novel went on to become a mega best-seller (by Indian standards).

Some pioneers have gone farther, and their tales are worth repeating. Cory Doctorow has made all his sci-fi novels freely downloadable, though the dead-tree versions are also available for anyone to buy. Even in the highly lucrative textbook segment (undergraduate econ books sell for more than 100 dollars each!), Bruce Eckel has made available all his books on programming online; he too has dead-tree versions (and they sell very well too!).

James Boyle has a nice article (it appears to be the first in a series) exploring the new internet-driven culture that encourages copying:

Yochai Benkler is a prominent academic. His widely praised book about the network economy, The Wealth of Networks, was published by Yale Press – a publisher not known for its radicalism. Yet with his publisher’s approval Benkler’s book is available for free online under a Creative Commons license. Instead of paying $40 one can simply download the book. Its sales are reportedly in the top rank of academic books. Benkler is delighted with the additional 20,000 readers who have downloaded it.

Benkler is following in the footsteps of Larry Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons and author of Free Culture. Lessig’s work has been central to the practice of making books available for free online under licenses that make it legal for readers to copy, print and share them with others. He stopped counting downloads of his own work once the count hit 500,000. Yet his mass-market books continue to sell well.

Doctorow has a great quote in this article:

My biggest fear as an author isn’t illicit copying, it is obscurity.

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I just wish Rajmohan Gandhi knew of these possibilities. At Rs. 650, his Mohandas is unlikely to reach a wider audience beyond the history/literature circles. And that would be such a pity! The message of the Mahatma deserves better.

While I would go so far as to suggest that Mohandas be freely downloadable, I realize that it is too late. Let's hope that the paperback will be priced at below the psychological barrier of Rs. 200.


  1. Saravan said...

    Mukund Padmanabhan review link is not working

  2. Abi said...

    Thanks, Saravan. I have fixed the link.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Amartya Sen's Argumentative... cost Rs.600/=? Shocking! If people had bothered to read Tunku Varadarajan's incisive review here http://tinyurl.com/qa4rr they could have saved themselves a lot of money. Leave it to Tunku to deliver the royal diss, "Mr. Sen, inescapably, is a member of Bengal's bhadralok, or gentleman class. (As the joke goes: One Bengali is a poet; two Bengalis are a film society; three are a political party; and four are two political parties--both leftist.) What Mr. Sen really wants is for all of us to be "fair" to each other. Fair enough. But his idealistic thesis twists and turns to remake the world in its own image. Ultimately, his picture--though pretty--bears little relation to reality." If Sen's earlier book was riddled with errors (it is just a compilation of his lectures to students who don't seem to have lapped it up all. The second one looks like it's straight out of the raddi mill. Sen, an economist who knows some languages has the cheek to call himself a Sanskritist! He sounds more like the late great Tamizhvaanan of Kalkandu fame (Tamizh readers of the '70s would know) who had the letters MAS after his name - Master of All Subjects!

  4. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    A textbook that's an all-time great and is freely available online: "Structure and interpretation of computer programs." And yes, I bought the dead-tree version anyway, as I imagine many people do.