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Pressing Beyond E-Books

Pressing Beyond E-Books
June 16, 2011

Technology, encouraging mass production and homogeneity, could appear a natural enemy to those who still celebrate regional idiosyncrasies. And the online bookstore, ideal for marketing e-books to a global audience, might seem to portend short shrift for regionally themed books that are more suited to a smaller, more local market.

“There’s a healthy debate inside and outside the academy about whether region matters anymore in our globalized world,” says Mark Simpson-Vos, editorial director at the University of North Carolina Press. “Certainly you can point to the decline of area studies as one indicator of this change.”

But rather than shrinking from these new modes of communication, some university presses are looking to harness them to reach new audiences and preserve regionally oriented publishing.

The proliferation of GPS-enabled mobile devices and community-based social media applications and the rise of companies such as Groupon, LivingSocial, Yelp, and Urbanspoon have demonstrated that these new technologies can strengthen regional as well as global ties. And as university presses adapt to the changing publishing landscape, some are already looking beyond e-books to bonus features and location-based apps that lend themselves to a different kind of reading — and, in some cases, a different kind of reader.

The Minnesota Historical Society Press is among those leading the charge. The press recently published an area travel guide called Dad’s Eye View: 52 Family Vacations in the Twin Cities, in paperback. But instead of publishing an e-book that merely mimicked the print version for e-readers, the press commissioned an iPhone app.

With the Dad's Eye View app, readers can find a trip idea among the various outings described in the book by searching by season, venue, or price. They can rate the outings or share them with friends. While academic press books have historically been written and curated by experts, user-generated data — a hallmark of new-media publishing — could play a role in how this new type of work evolves, says Pamela McClanahan, director of the Minnesota press. To wit, the Minnesota press is planning to update Dad’s Eye View in the fall. “If it can be a crowdsourced second edition, how fantastic,” says McClanahan.

Like most deviations from traditional practice, the Minnesota press’s foray into the world of mobile is ultimately a survival strategy, if not an immediately necessary one. For it and other presses, the regional list is expected to remain a mainstay, globalization notwithstanding. At the same time, “our regional list customers were skewing older,” says McClanahan. “We were motivated both by some declining sales, especially in print for travel and tourism, but also through a strategic planning process where we identified the need to attract new audiences."

In the age of mobile computing, some customers would prefer to read while in the act of traveling and touring rather than curled up on the couch. This is especially true of younger readers, many of whom like to look up information about their surroundings on the go. And while Wikipedia might do in some cases, the university presses have the opportunity to lend their expertise to the medium, says Simpson-Vos, the North Carolina editorial director.

“With the explosion of mobile content, there’s a huge opportunity for university presses in light of the way we stand for quality information that cuts through the noise and offers authority, reliability, and richness,” he says.

Even non-tourism titles from the regional list can lend themselves to location-based apps, says McClanahan, since they are invariably tied to places that can be visited. Birders, hikers, and horticulturalists figure prominently in this market, she says. Those hobbyists have already started building communities around social and location-based media, and university presses often publish books about regional flora and fauna.

Some other presses, even if they are not developing apps, are exploring new ways to present content that jibe with the desires and devices of the contemporary consumer. “As I speak to prospective authors, particularly for my list of general-interest outdoors and nature guides, conversation these days turns almost immediately to the possibilities of the iPad and other reading devices,” says Simpson-Vos. “I have two ‘enhanced e-book’ guides in development as we speak, taking advantage of the opportunity to embed video, expanded galleries of still photos, outbound links, and other content with traditional book content.”

"Enhanced" e-books will work kind of like DVDs with bonus features. For example, a forthcoming second edition of Backpacking North Carolina, by Joe Miller, will include a video of the author giving a tutorial on how to properly prepare a backpack, among other extras, Simpson-Vos says. The other is a guide for North Carolina state parks.

Most university presses are still busy repackaging their print books as straightforward electronic editions; apps and other multimedia enhancements are not yet a priority. But a March report by the Association of American University Presses suggests that presses would be wise to adapt to the new publishing landscape in order to stay relevant.

“Monographs remain largely static objects, isolated from the interconnections of social computing, instead of being vibrant hubs for discussion and engagement,” it reads. “… University presses are enthusiastic to engage with and publish many of the worthwhile but experimental projects that inventive scholars are creating.”

But there are obstacles. The first and most obvious is money. The Minnesota Historical Society Press spent $30,000 to develop the Dad's Eye View app, but in hope of spurring maximum uptake the press decided to charge nothing for it. With many university presses under financial pressure, some might be anxious about investing heavily in new platforms that, while in vogue, are not yet known to be self-sustaining.

“Whether or not there’s a business associated with that right now is kind of a moving target,” says Kim Robinson, regional editor for the University of California Press.

Robinson recently appeared on a panel with McClanahan and Simpson-Vos, where she said that the California press realizes how nicely some of its outdoors and historical reference books might translate to mobile platforms, and combining content from multiple books could make for some particularly rich apps.

But financing is a challenge, she says. Rather than developing apps in-house, university presses may end up licensing content to third parties, who would build and sell the apps and give the presses a percentage. Even then, translating to the digital medium is not a simple cut-and-paste procedure, Robinson said at the panel. A lot of the book content is “not really in a format right now where we could do either [in-house development or licensing],” she said. “We’re going to need outside funding to actually massage it and turn it into something that we can do either of those things with.”

Still, Robinson and her colleagues said that nontraditional platforms stand to play some role in the future of the regional activities of many university presses — even if there are still wrinkles that need ironing out.

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