The book is dead! Long live the book!

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.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

5 thoughts on “The book is dead! Long live the book!

  1. Thanks for the characteristically smart post, Chris. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about today: In the accounts of the Michigan announcement, Phil Pochoda, the Director, sounded very relieved to be outside of the “find a way to pay for yourself by selling things” economy and into the library one, where universities spend money for resources and services they need to provide scholars and students. With such support, U Michigan Press should be free to publish interesting scholarship, rather than have to find interesting scholarship that might also sell enough copies (e- or print) to help a bottom line. So that’s good, right? Well here’s what I wonder about. What happens at a time (for instance… now), when funding or endowments are cut? Duke is cutting the support for most things 10%; UNC is planning to cut out PhD’s in Spanish and the Program in Cultural Studies. Something like 70 programs overall. I’ve heard equally scary things at U Washington and in the UC system. So, if scholarly publishing is supposed to be supported on the same basis as library budgets for monographs and added journals in the humanities or social sciences (ahem), how much of an improvement is this? Doesn’t this make scholarly publishing another thing that can be cut back by people who don’t use it, to meet the bottom line?

  2. well of course it does… but now also seems like the worst time to go in the opposite direction, e.g. seeking investment to grow the business, whether in print books or in new ideas. It’s two different models, but they both need money to run.

    I guess part of what is confusing is that there really aren’t that many signals in the university (from the administration) as to what counts as valuable scholarship today… it certainly seems to me that has nothing to do with whether scholarly monographs are printed or not, and much more to do with whether anyone other than 5 other academics pay attention to your work. The administration doesn’t care if your work fundamentally changes the field, causing those other 5 academics to upend their research and go in a new direction… but they never did anyways. But if your book gets mentioned in the New York Times, then they seem to care… as do a lot of other people. So I guess what I would ask is: does becoming an arm of the library somehow mean you no longer have to try to get the books you publish into the New York Times? If that’s the case, then there isn’t much defending you against the administrations hatchets. But if you can show that you have done that by choosing good scholarship and marketing it well, it seems to me that it doesn’t matter (to the administration) whether you are a library or a commercial press? no?

  3. In my experience, one part of Chris’s first sentence is probably more urbane myth than reality, and that is the question of the cost and time savings involved in producing a book for electronic rather than paper dispersal (and the related benefits of shifting to an all-electronic process). Although printing a typical academic book does take time (4-6 weeks, usually) and cost some money to print, the majority of the time and costs involved are dedicated to finding high-quality manuscripts, having them peer reviewed, working with authors on revisions, not to mention copyediting and producing error-free page proofs. In other words, producing electronic versions may relieve some financial strain from the average university press, but not as much as one might think.

    Once one pays for electronic prep, webhosting, etc. I wonder whether the Michigan model will be as liberating as it might appear on the surface. I’m not convinced that they will be able to produce that many more e-books if they aim to maintain the same level of copyediting and (e-)book design. One place where the model may have a larger pay off is in the production of books with many illustrations. But then these sometimes come with significant electronic costs.

    Chris’s question about how success will be determined at the university level if not by sales or gaining public attention is closely tied to the question of how long a press like Michigan will be able to publish without worrying about the market for individual titles. My own guess is that before long we will begin to see universities deploy the same tired metrics used for judging professors–most notably citation indexes. If presses find themselves trying to sign only books that are likely to widely cited in order to justify their publishing program then I think they end up chasing the exact same works with “larger markets” that they sought when sales rather than citations were a primary metric of success.

    Sorry if this sounds gloomy…

  4. It is interesting to compare smaller University Presses – I think the benefits cost wise would be much greater there. Many smaller presses probably never sold enough books to releive the burden of the infrastructure. Take for example the “ANU e-press”: which has been running since 2003. They offer free PDFs and print on demand. A lot of the pre-digital back catalogue is also available. The data is hosted by the IT Division at the university. 1,252,735 e-titles were downloaded in 2007 (according to their About page). I think that would be measured as an improvement.

  5. @Peter. I agree, thanks for pointing out that slip: usually I make the same argument, that the real expense of producing these books is not the technology (print vs. ‘e’) but the labor involved, both paid and unpaid. In this I would include not only book design, editing and peer review, but marketing, promotion and the transactions costs that come with having a whole bunch of whiny authors who want the press to do more for them 🙂

    That being said, I think there are different ways to think about the economics here. One is to do a cost-per-book analysis and ask how much labor and technical costs go into each book. From this perspective the technology costs probably look pretty low. The other is to consider the long history of sunk costs in constantly updating old software and machinery, sometimes because it needs to be updated (worn out typefaces… as if… more likely toner or dye-sub or something these days), and sometimes because it does not (new software with newer promises and bigger, longer contracts). Our experience at the AAA, for instance, was that massive software and contract costs ate up almost all of the budget, and then 4 years later, another massive contract with someone who was supposed to fix the problem did the same, and for what? Fancy promises of new software that will only result in even bigger contracts in 4-5 years time.

    So I think this is really a question of how you run your numbers and how you do your accounting… there is always room to make the case for one or the other way (e vs. p) as more or less expensive. That, however, never answers the question of whether one should take new risks and seek new ways to make money off of your, as they say in the business schools, core competencies–in this case, judgment of quality, high-value editing and peer-review, and superb marketing. Those are the core competencies, right?

    as for metrics, I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, I would really love it if all books were judged individually on their unique merits by qualified scholars. Alas, the problem is much harder. If I can’t have that, I would much rather see an open, transparent, and relatively standardized array of richer metrics (far richer than citation counts) which we can all aim at achieving (or gaming, if you’re craven). If I knew that the number of times my book was taught in a class, or mentioned in a blog, or excerpted (as opposed to merely cited) could be fairly (if not accurately) measured, then I’d have some sense of competition. As it stands, we have nothing like that… and yet we have the technology. It’s probably a pipe dream, but I don’t see another alternative…

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