The University of Michigan Press has announced that they will be "redefining scholarly publications in the digital age"--by which they mean they will no longer print books. Rather they will shift their resources to "digital monographs." You to have give them props for the positive spin in the press release. "Freeing the press, in large part, from the constraints imposed by the print-based business model will permit us to more fully explore and exploit ever-expanding digital resources and opportunities," Phil Pochoda, director of U-M Press, quotes himself as saying. Pochada also refers to his team and himself as "visionaries."
There is much fussiness in the academic community about this move, but it is not like we did not see it coming. Scholarly publishing of monographs has been on its death bed for years, with press runs of many books dropping below 1000, then below 500, then into the low hundreds even as prices have soared and subventions have become almost respected.
But as the guys over at Digital Campus pointed out in a recent podcast, the vital element of scholarly publishing is the peer review, not the physical form of the end product. Though no one seems to be noticing, academic articles have already made the leap. I am willing to bet the average article in the Journal of American History gets far more digital readers via the commercial databases such as the History Cooperative and JSTOR than through actual subscribers who crack open a physical copy.
And the digital versions of the articles are far superior to the printed ones. First of all you can actually find relevant articles via search engines. Then you can do keyword searches to take you to a relevant passage. You can store the articles you are working on in your laptop and mark them up with various tools. Within five years most of all of our history journals will cease publication in the dead-tree format.
But even I have to admit that the book poses special challenges.
First of all, we have no good delivery format for digital books. The Kindle solves many of the readability problems of digital publications, but it also locks away your content into a closed proprietary system. You don't actually own your books on a Kindle, you just pay Amazon for permission to read them. The Sony Reader does not seem to be catching on, and there is no open source reader that I know of. (Update: Not so fast...)
Second, will anyone buy digital scholarly monographs? Grad students are too broke and their professors too deep in their print fetish to buy digital books. And books have a somewhat different revenue model than scholarly journals, depending more on individual and less on institutional purchases. Journal subscription costs are largely borne by institutions, but books still generate some of their revenue via sales to individuals.
Third, authors who have a choice will go to publishers who print physical books until the last one closes shop. After all, what kind of gift to grandma is a digital book? The answer here is print-on-demand (POD) services to turn digital books into hard copies. One can imagine a bookstore that has exactly one hard copy of each title on its shelves. When you make a selection you bring the book to the clerk who punches a few buttons and a machine in the back spits out a lovely bound copy. In fact you have to imagine such a store, because none currently exist, despite developments such as the Espresso Book Machine. There are quite a few online POD vendors, and I was pleased with my experiment with one of them, but I don't think they represent any significant fraction of the book market.
So the transition to digital is apt to be trickier for books than it has been for journals. As university presses pull back and are closed down in the current economic crises (is LSU press next?) the search for a new model of scholarly publishing grows more urgent.