Are Books Next? About Time!

Jennifer Howard of The Chronicle reports on two heartening developments for academic publishing. One is that a company is providing easy-to-use software for managing digital content for university presses. It has been hard for UPs, which are in most cases very small enterprises with extremely tight budgets, to have the time and resources to develop electronic platforms. Tizra just signed a deal with the Association of American University Presses to host content for participating presses. (And while I’m talking about the AAUP – have you signed up for Books for Understanding? What a great collection development tool!)

Even more exciting, Bloomsbury has launched an academic imprint that will make all of its books available online immediately through a CC license, with print supplied through POD, more expensive per unit than traditional printing, but better suited to titles with small print runs and a small but persistent backlist. They hope to have as many as 50 titles in the humanities and social sciences by the end of 2009. This is a terrific experiment.

“What I believe—and this is what we’re putting to the test—is that as you’re putting something online free of charge, you may lose a few sales, but you’ll gain other sales because more people will know about it,” said Frances Pinter, Bloomsbury Academic’s publisher.

Ms. Pinter, the former publishing director of the Soros Foundation, approached Bloomsbury with the idea. Some research organizations have tried out similar hybrid models, she said, and found them sustainable, even profitable. She cited the example of HSRC Press, the publishing arm of the Human Sciences Research Council, in South Africa. “They have been doing this for a couple of years, and they have seen their sales increase by 240 percent,” Ms. Pinter told The Chronicle. . . .

“I’m tired of the divide between open-access people who have nothing but disdain for publishers, and publishers who don’t really know how to take a few risks and try some new models,” she said. She would like Bloomsbury Academic to demonstrate that publishers can add editorial value to scholarship without having to choose between locking it down or giving it all away.

The National Academies Press has long since proven that online full-text access to books can help sales. OA evangelists in the trade market like Cory Doctorow are convinced it works, even when downloads are free, and it certainly has for him. It’s great to see a publisher bring out books in the humanities and social sciences that are truly OA – because if it works, it could ease some of the anxiety that academic publishers justifiably feel. Too many of them are having to publish large lists of popular titles to subsidize academic books, and it’s stretching them dangerously thin. My feeling is that UPs have a higher purpose not being filled by trade publishers, and asking UPs to be trade publishers as well is a huge mistake when there are plenty of small regional publishers and larger trade houses for that popular material. How ironic that a trade publisher is now picking up the academic role that UPs are struggling to fill.

An advantage that book publishers have over journal publishers is that there still is value added in the printed book. Long form texts are still pleasanter to read on paper, and printing out a 300-page book is a different proposition than a 12-page article. Those truly interested in reading an entire book may well pay the price for the pleasures of print. Bloomsbury is making a wise move, and I’m hoping this development, as well as Tizra’s platform that will nudge AAUP members into the digital age, will bring academic books to a wider audience and strengthen an essential piece of the book trade.

Now: a question for you – are you involved in a library / university press collaboration? How do you feel about the Tizra development? Any thoughts on what Bloomsbury is doing? We’d love to hear news from the trenches.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

4 thoughts on “Are Books Next? About Time!

  1. I think the POD option for online books is excellent. So many times when a student finds an e-book in our collection, they want to know if they can borrow the print copy from another library! Besides, in a sense, we’ve already set up a POD operation: it’s called e-reserves. Students love e-reserves because they can call them up on the library’s computers and print them off “for free” (it’s still their tuition dollars at work!), instead of paying large amounts of money for course packs. I don’t think this is how it was intended to be when e-reserves was first developed, but that’s what it’s become.

  2. I’d like to draw your attention to another project, quite similar to Bloomsbury Academic, called Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN). The project was launched in september and is partly funded by the European Commission under the eContentplus program (see http://www.oapen.com). OAPEN brings together 7 University Presses from 6 European countries, and aims to develop and implement an Open Access (OA) publication model for peer reviewed academic books in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS).
    One of the results will be an online library for OA books in HSS, which will offer access to quite a large number of titles by the end of the project (the target is at least 1500 by 2011). The OAPEN consortium welcomes other publishers in the Humanities and Social Sciences to join OAPENs network, make use of OA publication models and to expand the available OA content.
    It seems the idea of ‘open books’ is spreading quite rapidly, changing our perceptions on book publishing!

  3. UC Press has five book series available in an open access electronic plus short run and/or POD. The open access editions are displayed on eScholarship through our collaboration with the California Digital Library. See http://repositories.cdlib.org/ucpress/

    We are hoping to expand this program to enable greater access and use to the scholarship that we publish.

    We also have nearly 500 titles available in HTML format at http://www.escholarship.org/editions/

    I do anticipate that within 5-10 years, improved digital reading tools will mean cannibalization of print sales by electronic. Nevertheless, these experiments put us into position to understand better how people are accessing and using our electronic editions. This will be essential information when business models shift as a result of these new forms of content distribution.

  4. Laura, thanks for commenting. This seems like a terrific direction to go in – if only to gain that knowledge of reader behavior in a different environment.

    Thanks, too, to Eelco for the link to the European project. There’s more going on than I realized. Getting the world out is not that easy – whether under old publishing models or new.

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