Recently I discovered the work of one George A Duckett who has copied posts from all over the Stack Exchange network to produce books for sale on Amazon. One in particular caught my eye: Hermeneutics: Questions and Answers. The paperback edition sells for $15 (though it can be had cheaper used or via other sellers) and the Kindle price is $3. Kindle Unlimited subscribers may read it for free. As you might gather from the review, I think those prices are all too expensive.

Below is the full text of my review on Amazon.

A limited copy of material freely available elsewhere

I have some rather mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I am an author of several of the included questions and answers. On the other, I feel most people will be better off reading the answers directly on the Biblical Hermeneutics—Stack Exchange site.

All user-generated content on Stack Exchange is licensed under a Creative Commons licence (specifically CC BY-SA 3.0) that allows other people to reuse that content. Among other things, that means anybody can make a collection of questions and answers to publish in book form. The two restrictions are that you must give appropriate credit and you must distribute copies under the same licence as the original. Unfortunately, my contributions are credited as jon-ericson, which isn’t really what I prefer. I’m not at all sure why my display name isn’t used. It’s also annoying that prospective buyers can only see samples of the material in the preview. All of it (and much more) can be found on the Stack Exchange site.

On the topic of licences, the only indication of who owns the content is the notice on the top and bottom of each page of the print preview (“Copyrighted Material”) added by Amazon. It implies to most readers that they should not copy the text. But the truth is copying is fine as long as you follow the Creative Commons licence. I haven’t purchased the entire book, but it doesn’t look as if the licence is referenced. I have no idea if this fits with the letter of the law; it certainly violates the spirit.

That said, I think there’s a lot of potential value in creating a curated copy of Biblical Hermeneutics questions and answers. Looking at the table of contents, it’s clear this volume is organized by question tags alphabetically. If I were to publish a book like this, I’d certainly want to use the tags, which are commonly associated with books in the Bible or topics in hermeneutics. But I’d organize the book tags in the order they appear in modern Bibles and put other topics in a separate section. It very much seems as if this book was not so much curated as copied by an algorithm. That’s disappointing.

Also disappointing is the formatting. Many posts quote from other sources, but the Kindle version of the book does a poor job of showing where a quotation starts and ends. The preview of the print version is a little more functional, but centered and italic text is hard to read. Overall the typesetting (in both versions) seems mechanical. Since it was almost certainly produced by a script, that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The compiler of this version of the content chose to remove most of the meta information found on the Stack Exchange site. That’s a shame because every post was scored and annotated by the community. Lacking vote information flattens answers to be on the same footing. Not all answers are equally useful, so it’s strange to read one article that fully and convincingly answers the question followed by a tentative and underdeveloped answer. Typically the relative scoring would provide the necessary context.

More aggravating is the complete lack of comments. Certainly publishing all comments would be overkill. Many comments make sense only in the context of the site that hosts the posts. But the reader loses significant commentary that help clarify questions and answers. Again, this seems to be a consequence of automation. A human editor would find ways to include relevant commentary and omit meta comments. But when copying content without human intervention, that’s impractical.

Reading the preview, I noticed that some of the questions are outdated. Since the time this book was published, some material has been edited and answers have been added. Obviously, this is a problem with any book that fossilizes dynamic content taken from a website. But this book compounds the problem by being very cagey about its source. Even though there are links on every page to the Stack Exchange site, neither the introductory material nor the back page explain the process of obtaining the material or when it was copied. On the contrary, the back cover of the print edition states “If you have a question about Hermeneutics this is the book with the answers.” Wouldn’t it be more helpful to point to the site those answers come from where new questions are constantly being answered?

The real shame, however, is that George A Duckett has poisoned the well for future entrepreneurial publishers. A well-edited collection of questions and answers that included commentary and scoring from the community, that used beautiful typesetting, and that truly respected the authors of the content would be a true treasure. While it’s hard to extract from this edition, some of the answers included are exceptional examples of Biblical interpretation and scholarship. I can only recommend reading them in their original form and avoiding this cynical attempt to profit from other people’s work.

(Disclosure: I’m a Community Manager employed by Stack Exchange. My views presented here may not be the views of my employer. In fact, I am reviewing as a user of the network and not in any official capacity.)