Several years ago I conceived of an online catalog for academic books, university press books in particular. I thought this was an original idea, but, man, I could not have been more wrong. I soon learned that among many other proposed projects, an online bookstore had been explored by the American Association of University Presses (AAUP) — but that project foundered on some of the technical limitations of the time. For example, the Web was not yet fully established (try to imagine back that far in time) and the creation and dissemination of metadata was terribly complicated. Now, of course, we have the Web and ONIX and lots of content-management systems.
We now have the way, and the only thing necessary is the will.
Let’s look for the will, as an online service for academic books would be a good thing for scholarship and scholarly publishers.
Here is some background. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I was able to research what it would take to build such a service. You can find the report on that project here at Project Muse. I later discovered that a very similar project had been put together in France, and it has proven to be successful. When I wrote that report, though, e-books were just on the horizon; the report anticipated the emergence of e-books, but focused mostly on print. It did not anticipate the implications of the proprietary standards of the e-book vendors — though it should have — and it certainly did not anticipate the advent of tablet computing and the rise of mobile apps. The underlying concept still holds, however, and that was to architect the system to allow for new features and services in the future. For example, five years ago few people would have made a priority of building commenting systems into an online bookstore, but now, in the age of Facebook and Google Plus, the social dimension of publishing and reading has become more prominent. The technical challenge is to build a platform that can accommodate new features as the need for them arises.
Other things have changed as well since the project was first conceived. For example, at that time the model for online bookselling was Amazon, and rightly so. Amazon is a pure virtual service. Perhaps that will change and we will see Amazon bricks-and-mortar shops opening up someday. (Now that Amazon is beginning to collect sales tax, the need to avoid physical nexus may have disappeared. One speculation is that Amazon began to collect sales tax precisely because it has planned to open physical stores.) But it is hard to ignore the surprising success that Barnes & Noble has had in marrying its bricks-and-mortar operation to its online activity; a consequence of this is that B&N now has a 25% market share for e-books. This could not have happened without the physical stores, where the Nook e-reading device is aggressively merchandised.
Taking a cue from B&N, a new online bookstore should look for “anchors” in the physical world. Here I offer the idea of the Metadatarium, a project I outlined tongue in cheek on the Kitchen a while back. The Metadatarium would be a physical community space, serving, among other things, as a showroom for books. The Metadatarium would evolve as the new online service’s place to hold readings and lectures, to showcase books, and to provide local customer service for the virtual operation.
We may wish to think as well about linking an online bookstore to libraries. While there are now many services selling e-books to libraries, library OPACs are potentially a place from which patrons could purchase their own copies of some titles, perhaps titles that fall outside a library’s collection policy. There are about 120,000 libraries in the US, which, taken together, could be a major marketing opportunity for books, print and digital. This would be a service to readers, a revenue-generator for publishers, and a source of income for libraries, which would extract a fee for every book sold through their OPACs, just as a university gets a fee for books sold in university bookstores.
What it will take to create this is for an organization or a consortium to step up to the task. The benefit would be a new piece of infrastructure for scholarly communications and potentially new revenue streams to support academic publishers and libraries alike.
This new service should not be confused with the various ebook aggregations that are now being marketed to libraries. The new service is D2C — direct to consumer; it is not a service for libraries, though whether or not library sales and sales to individuals could intersect in some manner is an open question. The service might sell books through libraries but it would not sell books to libraries, unless its basic mandate was altered.
As for why such a service is needed, I ask all publishers to look at their sales to Amazon over the years and to study the trend line. At what point does one account represent too large a share of the business? And what are the implications of having such a large share with a company for whom academic publications are an afterthought?