Two publishers have approached us wanting to do a hardcopy version of http://philip.greenspun.com/internet-application-workbook/ (the textbook for 6.171 at MIT). Both have lost interest when we said that we wanted to keep the text online. To a traditional publisher the Web is a place for stuff that isn’t quite good enough to sell. If the manuscript ever does become good enough to sell it should be made inaccessible to anyone who isn’t able to scratch up the $40. An amusing side note is that one of the publishers who felt that it was critical to make every last dime possible from the sale of our book was Microsoft Press, whose working capital is $40 billion.
This dovetails slightly with http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org/, a quixotic effort to fight every academic journal publisher and all professional societies. (In my own little field, for example, ACM and IEEE do their best to deny access to computer science research results to anyone who is not working at a university, a member of their orgs, or willing to pay $$$. I.e., if you’re a kid in Africa wanting to learn something about computer science you’re not going to do it by looking at these folks’ journals on the Web.)
Economic growth comes from scientific and technical innovation. Scientific and technical innovation depends to a large extent on innovators having access to each others’ published results. It is thus a shame that the only way that an author can get money or tenure is by turning over his or her work to an organization whose primary goal is artificially restricting access to that work.