The Open Yale Courses program, which broadcasts select Yale lectures online, will offer popular courses through a more traditional medium starting this spring: a book.
Each book in the proposed series, a collaboration between Yale University Press and OYC, will expand upon the topic of one OYC lecture. The directors of OYC and the Yale Press chose seven professors to launch the program: Shelly Kagan, Dale Martin, Paul Fry, Steven Smith, Christine Hayes, Stephen Stearns and Ian Shapiro. Their books are intended to gage the popularity of the paperback books, which will sell for around $18 each, and set the stage for a possible expansion: if the project succeeds, all of the OYC courses will eventually be published as books. The rights may also be licensed to foreign publishers.
Still, even those involved with the project said it remains to be seen whether or not members of the public will buy a book when the very nature of Open Yale Courses means that free video and audio podcasts on YouTube and iTunes, as well as online transcripts, will be provided for every lecture. But John Donatich, director of Yale University Press, said he thinks many people will jump at the opportunity to own a physical book.
“At first glance, you might look at it skeptically and ask why would anybody pay for something that you can get for free,” he said. “But on second glance you realize that it’s actually not the same thing at all.”
Founding Project Director and Principal Investigator for Open Yale Courses Diana Kleiner said she believes the books will offer a different experience than the free transcripts of the lectures because their content will have been expanded and edited over the course of the writing and publishing processes. Though she said the books will stay faithful to the original courses, she added that they may contain additional images and bibliographies to supplement the content of the lectures’ transcripts.
The series will be available in paperback and e-book versions and is set to be released in two stages: three books in the spring of 2012 and four in the fall.
Donatich said Yale University Press knew going into the project that a book could sell even if its content was available free online: The Press published The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler — a book that advocates for the freedom of information — online, but found that many people preferred to pay for the book anyway.
“So many people online in the blogs and commentaries and emails worked out that it was cheaper and much more pleasant to buy the book,” Donatich said.
All seven professors writing the first wave of OYC books said they think the project has the potential to become a valuable resource.
Political science professor Shapiro, who teaches “The Moral Foundation of Politics,” published a book based on his course in 2003 that will be reissued next fall. He pointed out the value of the books in the international market, adding that the original version of his book was more successful abroad than in the United States.
“When [my book] gets translated into Chinese or Polish or Spanish or Portuguese, then it gets used in somebody’s course as an example of American political theory,” he said.
Kleiner said that the online courses have been an “enormous success” outside the U.S. Around the world, individuals who enjoyed the lectures have taken to translating the transcripts into their native languages, she said, adding that a polished translation will still be very beneficial to those interested in the lectures’ content.
“One of the languages that we’re most focused on, of course, is Chinese because there’s a huge demand for these courses in China,” she added.
All of the professors who are participating in the pilot project said they believe the books will be new resources, not redundant publications.
Kagan, a philosophy professor whose course, “Death,” is part of OYC, pointed out that lecture transcripts sometimes contain mistakes or outdated examples that would be caught in the process of producing a book.
He added that he ended up cutting out material from his lecture transcripts when writing his book because he is aiming the book at a general audience, whereas the lectures were written for an audience of college students.
Appealing to a general audience was the primary challenge for biology professor Stearns, who teaches Principles of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior.
“My initial major challenge was trying to figure out who the audience was because that wasn’t completely clear to me,” he said. “It is not people who have necessarily been watching me on Open Yale Courses around the world.”
Religious studies professor Martin, who teaches “Introduction to the New Testament,” said he found it impossible to simply rework his original transcripts into “decent prose,” so he started over.
The project’s financial success aside, political science professor Smith, who teaches “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” said there is “nothing like a book.”
“I always like the books,” he said. “I’d like to be able to see them in print … it’s what I live for.”
OYC currently offers 35 lecture courses in 20 departments.