(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:
- Currently, academic tenure and promotion is explicitly premised on the existence of a “book”
- 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
- The book remains the format required for reviews in both professional and more popular journals
- 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.