Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Changing publication models

With the growth of good desktop document processing software and the universality of good, free Unicode fonts, it is now entirely feasible for an individual to produce excellent camera-ready copy of an academic book for themselves, with modest effort over a modest period of time.

With services like Lulu and Createspace, the transition from a PDF on your computer to a hard-bound, published book sold online and through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc., is also very easy and cheap.  I mean, less than about $100, total cost.  I did a book with Lulu a couple of years ago (my father's memoirs), and I paid $60 to cover distribution through Amazon and all other big bookshops and online services.  Everything else was free.  The book is large, 650 pages, and costs about $50 for hardback, with free shipping in the USA (e.g., Amazon, B&N).    I also made the PDF downloadable directly from Lulu at $12.

What does all this mean?

What it means is that publishers are no longer necessary for performing the traditional roles of book production and distribution.   Authors can now do this satisfactorily for themselves at marginal cost, high quality, and with international distribution.

What remains?  What I call "Gatekeeping" services.  With today's deluge of free online resources, what we all really do need is someone to take responsibility for guaranteeing high intellectual quality.  Trustworthiness.

Traditionally, this was also a role performed by some publishers, especially the university presses.  A book on Buddhism from Cambridge University Press *should* be of a different calibre from a book on Buddhism from, say, Harlequin or Mills & Boon.   The good academic publishers acted as gatekeepers, offering an implicit guarantee of intellectual quality.

But if you look more closely at this arrangement, the university presses rely heavily on the free services of university staff for refereeing, book acquisition, series curation, and sometimes even content-editing and copy-editing.  In-house copy-editing was usual, however, and often of a high standard.

Another service that a big university press provides is prestige.  A young scholar with a book published by Princeton is likely to do better at getting a job than another with a book published with a publisher of less prestige.  This is because appointment committees are willing to take the implied quality-guarantee of Princeton UP.  But again, Princeton only publishes books because unpaid academic referees at universities give the thumbs-up.  The process is circular.

What does all this mean?

If books can be produced and distributed by academics themselves, and refereed and edited by them too, what is left for publishers?  Not much, I think, unless they dramatically change their business and service models.  

What we see going on today, I believe, are the last convulsions of a dying industry.  Yes, they're making a lot of money, but only because of the inertia and uncertainty of academics.  What used to be called FUD ("fear, uncertainty and doubt").  The upcoming younger generation of scholars with different preconceptions will probably not be so smitten by the prestige of old publishing houses, and will be more adept at self-publishing.

What remains is the need for gatekeeping, for the guaranteeing of quality.  If publishers really took that seriously, and divorced their editorial selections and quality judgements from their need to remain profitable, then they might salvage for themselves a genuine role in the future.  I cannot see a way in which genuine academic quality can be guaranteed by an institution that simultaneously has to satisfy criteria of profitability.  As long as their are two goals - quality and profit - there will inevitably arise cases of conflict and compromise.  In short, gatekeeping is the job of (publicly-funded) university staff, not a (commercial) publisher.

The alternative to this is that university staff take back into their own hands all the processes of the production and distribution of knowledge.  In fact, this is the change that the major funding bodies are pressing upon us, with the widespread requirement that publicly-funded academic research be published Open Access.  It is also the original idea of the university press.

Here's a hypothetical model for a future academic book series. 

  • Author on a research grant or university salary writes a book. 
  • The book is typeset using LibreOffice or TeX.  The university department provides some secretarial support to help, or some money from the research grant pays for smart word-processing by an agency.
  • The book is sent to an external commercial copy-editing company to tidy up the details.  A smart, accurate PDF results. 
    This is paid for by the university department, or out of the research grant (this is already common).
  • The PDF is submitted to a panel of academics somewhere who curate a book series, judging the intellectual quality of the submissions.  The book is accepted as an important intellectual contribution..
  • The PDF is uploaded to or Createspace, where it is turned into a print-on-demand hardback book for sale internationally through Amazon etc., and in bookshops. 
    Lulu are the printers and distributors. 
    The ISBN is provided by the university department, so they are the publishers, not Lulu.  
  • The book is advertised through a prestige university website that promotes the book as an intellectual contribution, contextualizes it as a university-curated product, and made available for sale through a simple click link to PayPal, Amazon, etc.  The university's series name is printed in the book, and splashed all over the website.
Ooops: high quality production, high quality intellectual content, university curation, international sales, but no "traditional" publisher!

Please blow holes in what I've said. There must be an elephant in the room that I'm not seeing.

(reproduced from my post to the INDOLOGY discussion list, 15 May 2013)