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What's Right With Publishing
June 14, 2012 - 8:53pm

When it comes to publishing, Charles Dickens was half right. It’s the worst of times, and it always has been.

Ten years ago, when preparing for a panel on the future of book publishing, I jotted down some quotes from Publishers Weekly that still sound fresh, a decade and a technology revolution later. “Too few children are raised in houses with books,” one worried publishing professional declared. “The emphasis on bestsellers,” another wrote, “has lately been carried too far” and harmed the chances for other books to find an audience.

I should point out these Publishers Weekly articles were published in 1927 and 1929. The publishing sky has had almost more practice falling than night.

Very rarely do you hear “things are going pretty well,” unless it’s in the context of “because we have totally given up on stupid, greedy legacy publishing and our new approach will make you a self-publishing millionaire!” or as part of an annual report to the stockholders of Elsevier, Springer, or Taylor & Francis.

Congressional testimony from publishers around initiatives like the Federal Research Public Access Act tends to produce a weirdly mixed forecast. Big publishing conglomerates (along with leadership of scholarly societies that run big publishing conglomerates) will say on the one hand everything is copacetic. Anyone who needs access to research has no problem getting it today, thanks to their hard work and investment, but then they warn that if funders insist on authors agreeing to make the publications arising from public funding public – which means copies of an article here and there from some issues of their journals would be eventually available to non-subscribers - the whole system could fail.

If making some articles freely available within a year could bring these giant publishers to their knees, then maybe that rosy picture they painted isn’t so healthy after all. Or maybe they really don’t care what they say before Congress because it’s just democracy theatre. The real decisions get made behind the scenes and with big money (which is why Lawrence Lessig decided copyright can’t be fixed until we do something about how we legislate and adjusted his advocacy to get a bit closer to the root of the problem).

But to a large extent, it really is the best of times for publishing. We have a lot of potential to connect more people with more ideas more efficiently and quickly than ever before. We have more people reading and writing than ever before, though (like publishing) literacy skies are also in a permanent downward trajectory according to generations of chickens little.

There are challenges, particularly as patterns of distribution are disrupted and new ones emerge. New possibilities carry costs and many are inevitably going to be failures. Integrating new options into the way people discover, use, and contribute to the record of scholarship can be exhausting, and someone who hears about a new novel may have trouble getting it because it’s not available through their library, their favorite bookstore can’t carry it, it’s in the wrong ebook format, or it’s only available to people living in a different geographic region, which seems insane since their Facebook friends who are raving about it have no trouble expressing themselves from a different continent. There are more choices, but they come with new and perplexing limits, and the whole thing is changing so fast it’s wearing.

Perhaps even more tiring is the fact that every choice you make as an author, a publisher, or a reader is criticized. People are as ferocious about their personal publishing choices as they are about how they raise their children. Whatever you’re doing, if it’s different, you’re doing it wrong. Each person wants their choice to be recognized as the right one, which necessitates trashing those who choose other options.  

So I thought as a corrective I would toss out a few things related to publishing that make me feel hopeful and happy, particularly as just this morning I sent out some not so happy tweets, including "Grrr. Just grrr." Time to balance out the grumpiness.

  • Sales of new hardcover books are up, and reports from the most recent annual book trade event, BEA, are that independent booksellers are doing pretty well on the whole. Much better than in 1931, when there were only around 500 bookstores and most US counties had zero.
  • There are a lot of things I don’t like about Amazon, but they proved to libraries that catalogs can be sexy and fun. Without Amazon proving that people actually like searching for books, I doubt Worldcat.org would ever have been made free to all.
  • The 1.5 million members of LibraryThing who have added over 87 million tags to books they keep track of there. GoodReads is even bigger. That’s a lot of people obsessing over books and reading. Cataloging is a contact sport. Awesome.
  • It’s a lot cheaper for anyone to publish a book for whatever reason they want. For some, that’s terrible news. I think it’s proof that people value their own stories and that people want to engage in imaginative and creative acts. Nothing wrong with that.
  • Scholars have some great ways to get the word out about their scholarship and connect with other scholars, and not just with the usual suspects like blogs or Twitter, but through new and simple publishing options like Pressbooks and Anthologize.
  • Wikipedia gives us opportunities to share knowledge and doesn’t gather and sell our personal data to do so – and actually has old-fashioned ideas about why access to unbiased information is valuable.  Okay, it has issues – but it’s still an inspiring act of faith in humanity, which has mostly risen to the occasion.
  • The Zooniverse. If that doesn’t make you feel good, I don’t know what will.
  • One major scholarly society in words and deeds that access to research is a good thing and not a threat to peer review or quality or the value proposition of the society’s reputation.
  • Nature is making its citation information going back to 1869 available as linked open data. Nifty!
  • JSTOR has been exploring ways to make their content available to more people. The intriguing thing to me is that people without affiliations to subscribing institutions tried to read JSTOR articles over 150 million times. It's a shame they were frustrated, but they were interested. When academic scholarship has been made available to the public, the public doesn't yawn. A lot of people choose to read obscure and difficult articles. Millions of them. It’s a cheering confirmation that what scholars and scientists do is actually of interest to people beyond their immediate and highly-specialized circle.

What good news did I forget?

 

 

 

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