Shana Kimball, who is now with the New York Public Library, recently tweeted that she yearns for a Web-scale university press. She is not alone. Shana employed the hashtag #want, which is capacious, as it could include such things as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the discovery of original footage of the Beatles performing in Hamburg. But in the tiny world of scholarly communications, where we ask for little and get less, a Web-scale publishing service would be a very good thing indeed. For journals we have PLoS, our one significant exemplar, but for scholarly books we have nothing.
It is not insignificant that Shana’s comment came to me via Twitter (as do most things), which is not, strictly speaking, a Web application. To operate at Web scale now means to embrace other platforms as well, whether they be mobile apps or clever exploitations of SMS, as is Twitter, or anything else–and here it is useful to remember that print is no longer an alternative to digital media but simply one other expression of it. Academic publishers have many of the pieces in place (books on the Kindle, social media marketing plans, the sale of PDFs from their Web sites), but what’s missing is the glue to hold it all together and the ability to operate on a planetary scale.
Let’s poke around a bit and try to imagine what a Web-scale operation would look like.
For Exhibit A we turn to the New York Times, which does indeed operate at Web scale. Although the Times continues to publish in print, it now has an array of apps and has worked assiduously to optimize discovery. Take a look at a typical article.
That particular article was not chosen at random but because the Times had the good sense to quote me in it. After it appeared I naturally went to the menu of services that appear next to every article, a menu that includes Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and more. I tweeted the link, an act of self-promotion and also a promotion of the Times itself. So here we see a rule for the Web-scale enterprise: put your users to work for you. A Web-scale university press is going to want to have some version of the Times’s menu of social media services.
But social media in itself is not enough. Here is the link to a very good article with an odd title, “The Zen of Web Discovery”.
This article, by John Hubbard, is highly recommended. It was not chosen at random. An article on Web discovery, one would think, would be better enabled for discovery on the Web. The Webmaster at this site (hosted by the library at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee) knows his or her way around social media–the menu of options for sharing is almost as extensive as the Times’s–but the article itself is a PDF. This can get in the way of full-text search and it makes a user work harder to get access to the text. With a slap of the forehead we realize that an essential step for a Web-scale publisher is to get its texts on the Web in the first place–that is, everything should be in HTML. Few books are published this way; where books are in electronic form, they usually appear as PDFs or in a form that only enables them to be viewed within the environment of a major retailer (e.g., Amazon, Apple).
On the assumption that librarians would know a thing or two about how to find things on the Web, I looked around for a standard reference and came across this.
The title is Communicating Professionally, Third Edition: A How-to-do-it Manual for Librarians. The fact that this book is now in its third edition tells us something about its success, but curiously there does not appear to be an electronic edition, not even for Kindle. The publisher is the ALA, which is operating here in the mode of Web 0.5: the Web is used for transactions, but the content itself is intended to be read in print. This is not publishing at Web scale, but the use of the Web with a print mindset. The Web-scale university press will have to look for other models.
Many academic publishers are now placing their books into digital aggregations (see, for example, the service from Project Muse)–a genuine move to embrace the Web–but this seems to me to be only a half-step–a welcome half-step, but a half-step nonetheless. These aggregations are not open to the public Web but are targeted to institutional purchasers and users, which is entirely logical but not what is meant by Web scale with its implications of the public or consumer Internet.
In order to enhance discovery, publishers are now tagging these books on the chapter level. And here we have to ask: Is the chapter level sufficient? The chapter level is good if you are selling individual chapters in coursepacks, but for online discovery what’s needed is to get to the individual paragraph, the essential unit of thought in all writing. It would not be feasible for a publisher manually to tag a book at the granularity of the paragraph, but one aspect of Web-scale companies is that they often get a large group of users to pool their efforts, aka crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing brings us back to the Times and its menu of social media options. Let’s imagine the full text of a university press book rendered in HTML and viewable by anyone with a Web browser (a note on business models in a moment). The platform automatically breaks the linear text into paragraphs; each paragraph has its own URL, is its own Web page. Alongside each paragraph is a menu similar to that of the Times, but presumably with the addition of other social media services that have been developed with the scholarly community in mind. This would allow readers to use their own Twitter and Facebook accounts (and whatever service they choose) to tag the text at the paragraph level and share those tags with their personal networks. This would be something of an interim solution to the Web annotation problem: using existing commercial services as tools for annotating content and then sharing those annotations.
Now we are operating at Web scale: the full text of a book on the Web, wrapped in social media, and made more valuable by the interactions of its readers.
But what is the business model? If the text of the book is openly available on the Internet, how will the publisher make money? That’s a fair question, for which I do not have a totally satisfactory answer. A partial answer would include some monetization strategies and the support of sponsoring institutions. By partial monetization I mean such things as charging fees for print on demand and downloads (but not for viewing the HTML version online), which could then be read on mobile devices and laptops, where the text could be annotated for the scholar’s personal library.
The support of sponsoring institutions is nothing new in the university press world. While some presses are profitable (some impressively so), many are subsidized by their parent institutions. Many presses also subsidize some of their programs internally. For example, a line of regional titles may be published at a profit, which helps to offset losses on the core monograph program. Nor should we be surprised that many scholarly books cannot make their own way in the marketplace. University presses were originally established to publish books that commercial publishers would not take on; if those books could be published with a healthy return on capital, the commercial sector would be all over them. But so much of academic life resides outside the workings of the marketplace, and rightly so. Marketplace solutions are great when they work, but often inadequate. A scholarly publisher has to know when to turn to the marketplace and when to turn away from it.
Although this idea of a Web-scale press has an open access dimension, it is not OA for the usual reasons we hear about in the journals world–that is, because there is a great deal of demand for texts, but no budget to pay for them. University press books have the opposite problem in that the demand for many monographs is simply insufficient to underwrite the publishing process. Many university press titles sit for years on library shelves without circulating. For some titles the value of the work is not only in market demand but in filling holes in the scholarly record and in the training and certification of scholars. Perhaps there are other and better ways to train and certify scholars, but at this time for some fields the publication of a book is the best solution we have.
Publishing at Web scale, though, may modify the demand for scholarly monographs. While I do not believe that a business model based on using free content to sell paid content is by itself a sustainable strategy (and have written about this before), the free content and the affordances of digital text potentially open up new possibilities for discovery. Are some books not circulating in libraries for the simple reason that they do not enable full-text search and thus scholars do not know what is inside of them? Friends in the industry believe that this is so. I am skeptical, but the fact is that we have to test this to find out. So let the experiment begin.
So the Web-scale business strategy looks like this: publish as open access texts (in HTML) to maximize accessibility and discovery; tag books down to the paragraph level through crowdsourcing; create a wrapper of social media options at the paragraph level (and the chapter and full book levels as well); charge for special versions of the text (e.g., POD, ePub); and supplement the revenue stream with institutional support, support that will rise or fall depending on how successful the new discovery vehicles prove to be.
This is a strategy for one segment and only one segment of university press publishing, the specialized monograph, which may have traditional sales in the range of 300-600 copies. If you assume an average price received of $50 per copy, the publisher stands to earn around $15,000 to $30,000 in revenue before expenses, which may not be enough to cover the allocable overhead. Thus experimenting with an OA offering is not putting much money at risk. But without ongoing institutional support, it is difficult to see how this kind of publishing can continue.