Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Death of Scholarly Publishing?

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.


Laura Mitchell said...

I think an obituary for print books is premature, though the market is likely to continue to contract.
While I personally embrace the flexibility offered by various digital forms, I also think there will be a place for print in the foreseeable future, in part because
of the limits of Kindle and other readers. I expanded on this argument on-line just last week at the Making History Podcast blog.

arhutch said...

Where the market for a product (in this case scholarly monographs) is so very small, production has to be as efficient as possible in order to break even on costs. Especially where each individual title appeals to what may be a few dozen customers, it is terribly difficult to justify the costs that printing, binding, distribution, warehousing present.

That said, I think print-on-demand is a viable compromise and we will see more and more of it as the technology improves. (The buyer doesn't even have to know)

Larry Cebula said...

Laura: I'll check out the podcast. I also used to think the reports of a crisis in scholarly publishing were exaggerated, but when I look at the rapid contraction of the newspaper industry and the current budget crisis in almost every state university system, things look dire.

Arhutch: Yes, POD is theoretically viable. So where is it? I think we have been promised the imminent arrival of widespread POD for a decade or more. It is the flying car of publishing futurism.

JURN said...

Larry, POD is perfectly viable now and has been for some years. Just upload a PDF and hook up with http://lulu.com/ to offer your readers a printed and bound book version of your file, if they really need it on their shelves or in their archives.

Larry Cebula said...

Jurn, you are quite right that Lulu works and works well, for what it is. If you follow the link "my experiment with one of them" in the post you will see that I was pretty happy when I used Lulu to get a printed copy of an out-of-print Google book.

But it is still a pretty arcane process, via the internet, for public domain books, your own book, or for books that have self-published online. Correct me if I am wrong but I don't think many peer-reviewed history books are available this way.

The POD that I want, and that I have been reading about for more than a decade, is where I can go into a bookstore and tell the clerk "I MUST HAVE e a copy of Larry Cebula's Plateau Indians and Search for Spriritual Power, 1700-1850! I can't live another hour without reading this compelling narrative!!!!!" And then the clerk says "A lot of people feel that way, I'll have it for you in a few minutes." The clerk pushes some buttons and a copy of the book is printed with a machine in the back room, while I order a latte.

And I take the book, get in my flying car, and wing my way home.

JURN said...

I agree about the high street vapourware (but, these days: "bookshops, wot they?"), and blogged at length on the topic back in 2006...


Larry Cebula said...

Hey JURN looks to be a very interesting project! I need to blog about it--is there anything I should know beyond what is at the site and project blog?