What roles are e-books now playing, and what roles will they play, in scholarly disciplines for which books are a primary, often the apex, scholarly form? This is the first of two posts about e-book publishing and university presses. I’ll lay out here some of the basics, and next week I’ll be joined by Lisa Bayer, Director of the University of Georgia Press and John Sherer, Spangler Family Director of the University of North Carolina Press, for a closer look at how these issues and more are playing out at their presses, and what they see for the future of university press e-books.
Book disciplines are facing a lot of the same questions about digital publishing that journal-based disciplines have been trying to answer for two decades. How can we deliver this scholarship in digital form cleanly, efficiently, and sustainably? How will libraries acquire it? How will readers access and then use it? How will authors understand their relationship to the publisher of it?
This is not to say that e-books are new; they’re not. But the simultaneous pressures, themselves not new, of increasing scholarly output, pinched library budgets and the intensive resources needed to produce scholarly monographs are pushing university presses to think about new ways that digital books can alleviate these and other pressures, including the important goal of increasing access to scholarship.
There are three basic things to know about scholarly e-books. The first is that university presses function in two value markets: scholarly and financial. University presses have a mission to serve the development of knowledge. It is a resource intensive mission. And that mission is usually difficult to square with economic markets, because so few scholarly books make back their costs. If scholarship is protein, the market often prefers sugar. But as a society, we need protein, and we need to support its production. This reality is at the heart of the debate about Stanford University Press, and it is at the heart of projects such as the UNC Press Sustainable History Monograph Pilot, led by John Sherer.
The second is that platforms to distribute and access e-books have been developing in interesting ways. The big aggregators, JSTOR, Project MUSE, and Oxford Scholarship Online, have been joined by university presses exploring direct sale to libraries of their own lists. JSTOR, begun in 1995 as the Journal Storage Project, was the brainchild of William Bowen’s insight that the increase in scholarly journal output needed to be stored digitally simply because libraries were running out of space. The implications of providing journals digitally have been profound, and reach well beyond providing more journals for less bricks and mortar space in research libraries. Among the most positive outcomes is that access can be expanded as internet access expands. Among the most challenging are that digital production requires constant technological updating, requiring additional expertise, time and costs for publishers. The connection that scholars might have once felt for the societies that publish a lot of scholarly content has been reduced, as both individuals and libraries acquire their content through aggregators. These issues are the same for books– and maybe more so.
Books at JSTOR launched in 2012, and now includes over 75,000 scholarly e-books. Plenty of presses offer their e-publications via multiple outlets. Yale University Press, for example, lists 11 access points for its e-books (including single title sales through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.). A few presses are also striking out on their own to provide direct content access. Earlier this year the University of Michigan Press E-Book collection launched, and the press Director Charles Watkinson describes it, even in early days, as a “qualified success.” As he pointed out, it’s not only a matter of offering access to an individual press’s titles, but getting into the workflow, which means getting discovery to those titles through the big services, ProQuest, EBSCO, and OCLC.
The third is that the question of how digital text can serve longform scholarship — for the scholar producing scholarship, and for the reader consuming it, remains unanswered. I can report from the ground that e-books are both the bane and the salvation of my graduate seminars. Students still report that they prefer print, when they can afford to buy books or when they can get a copy from our library at William & Mary or through interlibrary loan. But in the absence of print, digital is essential.
This has long been a question for scholarly publishers and librarians. Will scholars and students adapt to digital text? Can our eyes–and brains — absorb complex arguments without the tactile reinforcement of interacting with the page (turning it, dog-earing it, marking it)? My anecdotal observation is that more students are appearing in class with tablets, contrary to my expectations that laptops plus smartphones were going to limit tablet use if only because of cost. They are using those tablets to access e-books from the library, and to save book chapter PDFs. The friction variable is considerable, as some platforms make it harder to locate or to navigate within different sections of a book. And don’t get me started on what it is like to try and read the source notes on any of these platforms (short version: gruesome).
Externally developed technologies are making an important impact, too. The utility of PDF apps plus tablet pencils that allow markup makes a huge difference in e-text usage. That makes sense, as I have seen the journal and book editors at the Omohundro Institute shift to using large size iPads and pencils for editing work. And I now ask all students to send papers to me as PDFs so I can “write” in the margins and across the text and email back a flattened copy. This system affords most of the virtues of paper. Whether most is enough, and whether this is a systemic trend is another matter as libraries contend with limits on e-access and the costs of purchasing e-books. Books at JSTOR initiated a look at “Reimagining the Monograph” to ask what readers (are readers “users” now?) most want. Some of what the study uncovered is the important compatibility and complementarity of traditional paper books and e-books or digital projects. These are additive forms, not replacement technologies.
But this just scratches the surface, given that “books,” and especially e-books, are a shifting form. Presses are beginning to support the changing form of books in response to Digital Humanities research outputs. Michigan’s Fulcrum and Stanford’s digital project publishing are offering scholars a way to represent complex digital research and interpretation. And, at the Omohundro Institute we are working on the second iteration of the OI Reader, our platform for multi-media scholarship. These are also expensive developments, meaning that the pressures on mission-driven university presses continue — or perhaps the opportunities for university presses to lead continue to expand.