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(Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Philip Pochoda and Joseph Esposito. Pochoda is the Director of the University of Michigan Press, to which Esposito has served as a consultant.)

If Thomas Paine were writing today, he would have a hard time finding a publisher for “Common Sense.”

Books and articles are the length they are because of the economics of their distribution. An article — a short-form work — can usefully be bound together with other articles and sold on a subscription basis to institutions and individuals. The economics work because of the subscription model:  the high cost of acquiring a new customer is spread over the numerous articles not only in one issue but in all issues of the journal. Selling articles one at a time (in the absence of a behind-the-scenes subscription service that picks up the bulk of the overhead) isn’t feasible.

A book — a long-form text — is tailored to distribution channels that involve shipping units through wholesalers to libraries and bookstores.  To support this method of distribution, books must be a certain minimum price or else the cost of moving the books around outstrips the revenue from each copy.  This is why a “short” book cannot be truly short:  it still has to bear a relatively high price and look like it’s worth it — for instance, in the physical world, a book needs to be thick enough so that, shelved spine-out in a bricks-and-mortar store, its title is visible to consumers.

Between the short-form article and the long-form book, the medium-form of a text like “Common Sense” cannot find a place. Nor can the long scholarly article or the short book find a hospitable publication slot in the current sclerotic scholarly ecosystem.

The art of the vibrant pamphleteer has been lost.

We’ve long been giving thought to how digital media could change the publishing environment so that Paine would have a chance to find a readership and foment a revolution.

The advantages of digital media are obvious (the disadvantages, less so). Among the advantages is the elimination of the constraints on length. The medium-form work can thrive in the cloud, downloadable to myriad devices or viewable through a browser. This opens up entirely new territory for all publishers, some of whom are already publishing individual short stories.

For scholarly publishers, the opportunity is particularly intriguing, as the economics of long-form scholarly monographs are under stress and the constraints put on authors of short articles militates against imaginative daring. We anticipate the evolution of an entirely new form of scholarly material:  peer-reviewed medium-form works that combine the focus of the essay with the imaginative latitude of a book.

We call this, “Publishing through the wormhole.”

The metaphor derives from both relativity theory and bad science fiction. It refers to a singular space-time juncture that permits quick transfer to an alternative universe. We step through the wormhole to escape the bounded confines of the existing publishing model, thereby making possible a qualitative transformation of publishing, scholarly practice, and academic reward. Eventually, stepping through the wormhole provides a new path for even legacy publishing to pursue going forward.

One of the main points of the argument for wormhole publishing is that many of the opportunities currently available for scholarly publishing are stymied by the considerable inertia that shackles the legacy, print-based model.

All too often, those espousing new or radical publishing models dismiss strong and embedded allegiances to the traditional model, effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We need to examine those allegiances, and what advantages, benefits, values, or preferences reinforce the ties to the legacy publishing system for so many stakeholders.

Let’s take the case of authors. We have no doubt that the overwhelming percentage of authors in the humanities, and most in the social sciences, are deeply wedded to a printed book version of their publication (but much less so to journal articles). That commitment to a printed book comes from many considerations:

  1. Currently, academic tenure and promotion is explicitly premised on the existence of a “book”
  2. The printed book has traditionally been the marker and culmination of a research effort that can be a decade or more in the making; the printed book is thus a tangible object that represents an  intellectual and scholarly achievement — it can be displayed, gifted, and circulated to deans, tenure and promotion committees, family and friends
  3. The book remains the format required for reviews in both professional and more popular journals
  4. The book is something of a fetish object — at the extreme, there are faculty members who still insist, or attempt to insist, on sewn rather than glued bindings, offset rather than digital printing, etc.

But the strongest tie of presses to print is probably financial. University administrations provide subsidies to presses that average around 20% of revenues overall, but this average is misleading, as some of the largest presses operate at a profit, as do a few of the small presses. The subsidy for medium and small presses ranges from about 15% of revenues for medium-size presses to 45% of revenue for the smaller presses. And as universities face increasing financial stresses, these subsidies don’t seem elastic even as the revenues from print channels continue their inevitable decline. So until digital revenues show signs of contributing in a significant way, presses are forced to cling to every dollar of print revenue, even though they may be convinced that it is a doomed cul-de-sac.

Wormhole publishing exploits the fact that there are no vested interests operating in the realm of publishing the long essay (or the short book), since no one has been publishing in that area. So whatever publishing policies are adopted, there is no one who can claim betrayal — at worst, it’s a significant addition to the range of publishing opportunities; at best, it’s a way to streamline and diversify the routes to academic hiring, tenure, and promotion and to ultimately produce a viable publishing model that leverages all the emerging digital resources and opportunities.

Thus wormhole publishing sits between traditional publishing, anchored in the printed book, and the fully digital world of Web 2.0, with its emphasis on user-generated or crowdsourced content. Wormhole publishing is fully digital yet authoritative.

Someone at the back of the room asks, “What is the business model?”  We see wormhole publishing working in one or two ways.  First, the model can be lifted from the author-pays open access service pioneered by BioMed Central and now substantially copied by SAGEOpen and the new repository services of the AIP and Wiley Blackwell. Since all the works would be peer-reviewed, the sum an author or an institution would have to pay for these services would not be negligible, but one hopes still within the range of many researchers, especially those with grant support.

But the game gets more interesting when one begins to think of the new opportunities in micropayments available to the born-digital publisher.

PayPal was a transformative service — it let merchants sell things for $5, $4, or $1. This isn’t possible in print. We envision a line of digital pamphlets and significant scholarly contributions of 30-100 pages, priced at, say, $2.95 (perhaps  somewhat higher, depending on length and complexity) and made available both directly from a publisher’s Web site but also through such established venues as the iBookstore and Amazon.

A scholarly publisher will still have to estimate how many units can be sold, what the gross margin is for each sale, and how much overhead must be covered (contribution), but purely digital publishing provides flexibility that is unimaginable with an organization wrestling with inventory management, shipping costs, and a high level of working capital.

With no legacy books or authors to worry about, the wormhole also provides the opportunity for a university or group of universities to experiment with:

  • a variety of open-access publishing models
  • alternative peer review procedures
  • moderated public commentary on works in progress
  • new digital production methods

Not all of such inititives will prove feasible, and even those that do will undoubtedly be overtaken by fresher ideas and emerging digital resources. (In the interest of full disclosure, the University of Michigan Press, and the newly formed MPublishing group at the UM library of which it is a part, are already thinking hard about such an array of options. And would welcome collaborators.)

Over time, other services are likely to evolve. Print on demand may be demanded, and is easily set up. The more likely development, however, is that once a large body of work in a particular discipline is assembled (100 pamphlets in anthropology, for example), a model copied from Netflix will arrive, in which someone subscribes to a regular flow of new pamphlets for a modest monthly amount.  (Paraphrasing Walter Pater, all business models aspire to the condition that is a subscription.)

We believe wormhole publishing can be successful in its own right, but will also serve as an advance guard to transform the legacy operations that derived from print. The wormhole program, precisely because it is born-digital, will include a complete XML workflow, digital interfaces for authors and editors, digital sales and marketing, digital everything. Over time, this newly evolved infrastructure will make its way into a scholarly publisher’s traditional book and journal programs, which will gain the economies and speed of digital publishing even as they retain their “containers” (the book, the journal) and the system of editorial selection of peer review. It is thus a two-stage revolution, and we think Thomas Paine would be proud of it.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


17 Thoughts on "Publishing Through the Wormhole: A New Format for the Born-digital Publisher"

I must protest your shoddy physics. A wormhole is not a juncture leading to an alternate universe, it’s a tunnel between one region of space-time and another region in the SAME universe.

Although perhaps it’s a good analogy. If wormholes really exist, it would be pretty much impossible for anything to get through without being ripped into subatomic shreds.

We write to protest the deprecating treatment of our deeply informed wormhole presentation. It is true that though the Schwarzchild and Einstein-Rosen models of the wormhole posit the existence of at least two alternate external universes, those theories, unfortunately demonstrate that particles – or, by extrapolation if you will, intergalactic space vehicles — from the inner or black hole or the intermediate white hole region can’t escape to either of them because the inherent instability of the collapsing wormhole makes escape impossible. No doubt, however, Hellman is unaware of Kip Thorne’s later work that demonstrates that a variant of such a wormhole (the Morris-Thorne wormhole) is traversable to these alternative universes. Visser and others have developed even more elegant models along these lines) – and of course those are the models on which we developed our powerful metaphor.

(The paper, “Variation of the Gravitational Constant and the Evolution of the Sun,” co-authored by Phil Pochoda and Martin Schwarzchild (the son of the above referenced Karl Schwarzchild) published in the Journal of Astrophysics, 1964 vol.139, p. 587, has nothing at all to do with this discussion, but its citation here allows us to name-drop, and claim false authority, shamelessly.)

But the case for wormholes and travel to alternate universes is clinched , of course, not by the relativity physicists, but by the best of science fiction. Not the limited view of the many Star Trek episodes, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, assorted Philip Pullman stories, and much other SF stuff that unimaginatively limits wormhole shortcuts to intra-universe destinations whenever necessary for a failing plot, but such stellar works as John Cramer’s Einstein’s Bridge which utilizes the more enlightened inter-universe wormhole travel. And the clincher is the completely reliable TV series Fringe that portrays a main character, Dr. Walter Bishop, utilizing an inter-universe wormhole to cure an alternative universe version of his dead son.

Phil Pochoda and Joe Esposito

I like your idea but not sure if your examples hold up:

“Currently, academic tenure and promotion is explicitly premised on the existence of a “book”” That’s not true in a lot of science or social science cases. Publications are important but journals and, in newer disciplines like HCI and CS, conference proceedings are the hot items. Books are old and outdated before they are printed.

The peer-review journal article in a high-ranking journal is still the gold standard for tenure and promotion. I also didn’t understand the lack of balance in this presentation.

I am surprised that Messrs. Esposito and Pochoda are unaware of the history of the short book in university press publishing. There are examples of this genre spread throughout the lists of university presses almost from the beginning, but the intellectual rationale for it was provided in an article titled “The Short Book” in the very first issue of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing by my predecessors as social science editor at Princeton University Press, William J. McClung, who later went on to implement it in a series at the University of California Press called Quantum Books. A more recent, and hugely successful, example is the series of books that Princeton University Press inaugurated with Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit,” which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It has been followed by other titles like G.A. Cohen’s “Why Not Socialism?” These are not only very short books, but also pocket-sized. And they have sold usually for under $10.00. Another example, this from Pantheon in 2007, is Richard Posner’s “The Little Book of Plagiarism,” which is literally both a short book and small in trim size. So, the initial premise of this posting is simply wrong: I’m sure PUP would welcome including Paine’s book in its series and would do very well with it.

One of the ineffable certainties, the bedrock of confidence, of publishing anything, anywhere about the university press world is the inevitability that Sandy Thatcher, wielding the historical record like an avenging hammer, will weigh in and set you straight. Well here he is, right on schedule …. and, alas, missing the point (missing all the points). For example, Quantum Books. The most important thing now to say about that once impressive series is that, well, it has been defunct for a decade. The second thing, is that three of the four books that remain in print exceed 100 pages, and the fourth barely misses at 95. Yale’s Fastback Series, roughly of the same vintage — paperbacks meant to be both topical and often short, is equally, and regrettably , long gone. (The University of Chicago Press now distributes, but does not publish, the impressive Prickly Paradigm series of books, some of which run as low as 80 pages.)

Last year, many estimates place the total number of university press books published at approximately 12,000 (and I don’t know how many thousands of articles were published in university press journals). I’d be interested in Thatcher’s estimate of how many of those tens of thousands of scholarly publications fall within the 30-100 page length that Joe and I highlighted. 1 % sounds high to me. If that isn’t a clear and overwhelming demonstration of the Procustean, binary, coerciveness of traditional scholarly publishing formats, then — On Bullshit or no On Bullshit — argument is futile.

Your point is well taken, Phil, but the way you and Joe set up this argument was to use statements containing words like “cannot” that simply require a few counterexamples to refute, logically. If you had qualified your argument by saying “for the most part,” you would have protected yourself against such objections as mine. Blame me, if you will, for being trained in philosophy, but I take such matters as empirical falsifiability seriously. The fact remains that even though the number of such publications is small, there is nothing in the current system that prevents their publication. It may increase the challenges, but that’s another issue.

Another prominent example of this type of publishing is Chicago’s Prickly Paradigm pamphlet-style book series. But to Sandy Thatcher I might also say that I don’t think this post was so much intimating or claiming that no academic press has ever successfully published small or short books; rather, they are envisioning how this might be accomplished via digital-only platforms and also how these works might count toward establishing professional credentials and also how they might aid an increase in the overall production of scholarly books while also keeping certain costs down. So, yes, short books have been published and some academic presses have even devoted series to them, but they are still being published in conventional ways that, even with the lower price-tag per each individual book, still prohibit the number of books that can actually be published in any given year [there are all sorts of hidden costs behind editing, printing, and marketing conventional books that go through conventional “print runs”], and I think one of the most important things we have to do now in academic publishing is to both diversify the *types* of publications that are available and that “count” toward professional valuation and to also increase the outlets for and numbers of these publications, thereby making more publishing platforms available to *more* writers, editors, and publishers, so that ultimately, maybe we can begin to really have something that we talk about all the time but that never really happens: democratization of publishing modes and even of scholarly work itself [but without the overload of information and “noise”/crowding, perhaps, that has come in the wake of publishing on the inter-webs that is, for the most part, unmonitored and un-reviewed].

Agreed, Eileen, but I would say that in the current print environment it is even a lot more difficult to publish very long monographs than it is to publish short books. When is the last time you saw any publisher bring out a three-volume monograph? Many publishers will not touch a book that is over 400 printed pages. In fact, i believe Chicago once had a rule to this effect in its own acquisitions, or at least that was the word on the street. So, besides liberating publishing from constraints on the very short book, digital publishing can also open up new possibilities for publishing real treatises, which I find to be at least as exciting an opportunity as for the short book.

One interesting current example is One Story ( a “non-profit literary magazine that features one great short story mailed to subscribers every three weeks.”

The “binding” is staples and the “cover” is slightly heavier colored paper, but it’s professionally edited and printed and attracts (and pays) excellent authors. They not only make their deadlines, but they’re not losing money.

It’s great to see someone finally say it loud and clear: “Books and articles are the length they are because of the economics of their distribution.” There are myriad issues that flow from that simple and mainly ignored fact (which is rarely mentioned: people blithely [and understandably] assume that books, magazines and newspapers are just the natural order of things).

So you consider one small but important aspect of the issue here. If the length of published documents is determined primarily by concerns of commerce, can the digital transformation of publishing liberate authors and publishers from ignoring text neither short nor of traditional book length?

At that point I assumed you would segue into the numerous promising efforts already underway. Once you escape from scholarly, a publication of, say 10,000 words, can be either a LONG article or a SHORT book. Different publishers are coming at the challenge from either angle. In my files I’ve got:

1. Amazon Kindle Shorts (digital only)
2. Seth Godin’s Domino Project (print and digital)
3. Lulu will case bind books as short as 32 pages; and for 8.5″ x 11″, at 80 pages.
4. The Espresso Book Machine will perfect bind a single copy of a 40-page book in 4 minutes.
5. HP’s BookPrep handles scanning of out-of-print titles to be merged into new publications.
6. The Atavist publishes “original nonfiction and narrative journalism for digital devices like the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and Nook. Our stories are longer than typical magazine articles but shorter than books, written by experienced reporters and authors and designed digitally from the start.”

And many more.

With the controversy that has surrounded the story, Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way” has reportedly already sold more than 50,00 digital copies at $2.99. At an official 75 pages, it’s the first tile from a new publisher, Byliner.

It would be a cinch to add a peer review procedure to any of the above and voila, it’s a done deal.

Unless the scholarly publishing community would prefer to discuss it instead 🙂

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