University of Michigan has just announced that it’s press is going “all digital.” New monographs will be available online (with a print-on-demand option) instead of going through the expensive, time-consuming process of producing a print-only version of their books. U Mich is not the first press to do this. Rice University Press was the first (in 2006-7) when it resurrected itself as an “all digital” press. Nor will it be the last, Duke just launched it’s e-Duke press which allows subscriber libraries access to pdf versions of recent books. As you might expect, I object to the phrase “all-digital”–primarily because all of these are better understood as monetization experiments. There is nothing “all-digital” about any of these projects. Printed, hard-bound books with ISBNs are still eminently purchasable and consumable… but now so are electronic versions which can be sold as e-books, as quasi-journals to which libraries subscribe, and as one-off monographs potentially made freely available. They are projects designed to experiment with the revenue stream which until a few years ago was assumed to come only from the sale of copyright restricted paper volumes available in no other form and marketed as such. The U Mich announcement, as well as the e-Duke announcement represent the first steps it experimenting with alternate systems of revenue capture that are trying to come to grips with the fact that the Internet allows for 1) massively larger audiences, but only if 2) you can figure out how to market and promote your product. The books are not necessarily open access, but at this point, it’s too early to expect a radical shift; and probably a good sign that presses are willing to experiment at all, given the financial situation.
The concerns it raises are the same as always: will books in this new regime get the same editorial and peer-review attention they got in the old one. I suspect the answer is yes, because that’s what university presses do best, but part of the challenge is for these presses to convince academic audiences that this is true; that just because a new monograph is available for free online, and for a reduce price as a print-on-demand book, this does not reflect anything about its quality, does not mean it has been remaindered, and does not mean that the author paid to have it published. The difficulty of making scholars realize this should not be underestimated–as I continually discover, the majority of them are living not just in the 20th century, but in the 19th… sigh. Kudos to U Mich for joining us in the contemporary moment.