Tag Archives: book publishing

Curiouser and Curiouser: Guiding Students through the Information Wonderland

This week I taught a research instruction session for a learning community that pairs an introductory English Composition course with a Speech course. I love teaching this class because I get to work with colleagues in our English and Humanities Departments with whom I’ve long collaborated; we have a good rapport in the classroom and the students always seem to get a lot out of the class. Because the library session runs for twice as long as usual — we use the class periods for both classes — we always have lots of time for students to practice doing research. Because the students are usually more engaged in learning communities and there are 3 instructors in the classroom, we also typically get into discussions about topics in information literacy that we often don’t have room for in the other sessions I teach.

This time around we found something very interesting. The students were researching the Brooklyn Theater Fire, an infamous late 19th-century disaster that happened just steps from our college’s campus. We’d been using the library catalog to look for books on Brooklyn and New York City history, talking about the kinds of keywords that work best for broad or narrow topics, the usual. Recently I’ve noticed that during the internet research part of my instruction sessions students sometimes find books on commercial sites like Amazon, so I’ve started to suggest that students note down the author and title of books they find on those sites and search for them in the library catalog. I recommended that to this class, too, and a student called me over to help him do the search in our library’s catalog for a book he found on Barnes & Noble.

The student was trying to search by ISBN in the keyword search field, but that wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that our library (and our university system) doesn’t own the book. And, actually, we’ll never own the book, because the book he was looking for was a book of Brooklyn historical information pulled directly from Wikipedia. It took a few minutes of poking around on the B&N website to figure that out, and then we all (as a class) found a long list of books “published” by the company LLC Books:

llcbooks

(Hey, at least they’re relatively inexpensive, right?)

This phenomenon is not new, nor is it restricted to Wikipedia content — I remember hearing a few years ago about a similar “publisher” printing up and selling dissertations without their authors’ knowledge. And it’s pretty easy for us to discard these kinds of books from our own searches online. The listing the student found actually cites Source: Wikipedia as the author, but even those that don’t are highly suspicious: they’re on a huge variety of topics with very similar covers each with an image of a flower on it which is not at all relevant to the book’s content. Red flags everywhere, right?

But first year undergraduates are not librarians, and the student I worked with was, I think, legitimately confused by this book, especially seeing it in a set of search results that included traditionally published, “real” books. We ended up having a great conversation with the entire class about who owns the content on Wikipedia (and an introduction to open access and Creative Commons-licensed content), how print-on-demand publishing technology is changing information production, and why it’s important to evaluate information in all formats, not just online.

It was a great class; I left happy that we’d been able to cover such complex topics and hopeful that the students will continue to think critically about information the way they did in the class. However, I worry about other students, the ones in all of the classes that don’t have an extra-long library session, in which we don’t have time to get to print-on-demand Wikipedia scam books as well as everything else we need to cover. While not about library sources, I think this is important content that’s well worth discussing in our classes. But it’s tricky to accommodate all of the nuances of the information landscape in our instruction, especially when it’s both/and: real books both in print and electronic (both in the library and on the internet), and fake books, and… How do you incorporate new (and evolving) information literacy issues into your instruction?

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.