Rice UP Back in Business – But With a Difference

The Wall Street Journal today reports that Rice University is relaunching its university press, on hiatus for the past ten years – as a completely online venture.

Although the new press will solicit and edit manuscripts the old-fashioned way, it won’t produce traditional books. The publishing house will instead post works online at a new Web site, where people can read a full copy of the book free. They can also order a regular, bound copy from an on-demand printer, at a cost far less than picking up the book in a store.

The press will piggyback on Connexions, an existing portal for educational materials described at Creative Commons in a 2002 feature as

an online library of networked content that will allow instructors to pick and choose best-of-breed instructional materials. Experts around the world will develop and contribute modules of information specific to their own expertise. These modules — which may take the form of individual chapters, or even smaller sections of chapters — will act as a giant, constantly evolving library of information that can be tweaked to any given instructor’s satisfaction.

The WSJ seems a little puzzled about the business model behind giving free access to scholarly e-books, and how “open source” could apply to book publishing, but it makes a lot of sense to me. Certainly, allowing full-text access to books published by the National Academies Press has not had an adverse impact on sales of their books – and the idea of letting a POD publisher handle print orders makes more sense than guessing at a print run and crossing your fingers. The editorial costs will remain a large ticket item, but Rice appears willing to absorb it.

The Book Standard has an interesting wrinkle not mentioned in the WSJ story – according to their version, Connexions also envisions being able to produce textbooks with an under-$25 price tag.

Today, Rice also announced an on-demand publishing agreement between Connexions and QOOP Inc., a POD publisher. Through the deal, QOOP will produce textbooks for under $25, and Connexions will get into the open-source textbook-publishing arena.

“Our decisions to revive Rice’s press as a digital enterprise is based on both economics and on new ways of thinking about scholarly publishing,” said Charles Henry, Rice’s vice provost and university librarian.

While the university has not released financial details, including a start-up figure or specifics for how royalties will be handled, Henry said, “Annual operating expenses will be at least ten times less than what we’d expect to pay if we were using a traditional publishing model.”

Interesting stuff – and a new model to watch as scholars, librarians, and university presses find new ways to operate together.

Author: 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.

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