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Maize Books: Michigan Publishing Sows a New Imprint
May 13, 2013 - 8:24pm

I was intrigued when I read about a new venture from the always-venturesome Michigan Publishing, the innovative library-press publishing partnership at the University of Michigan, so I fired off some questions which were promptly and helpfully answered by Aaron McCullough (AM) and Meredith Kahn (MK) 

Maize Books is intended to be "lean and responsive," open to shorter form texts than the usual book-length monograph and with a faster turn-around. Why is this initiative needed? What niche does it fill?
AM: It probably makes the most sense to say this approach fills a few needs/niches. Many scholarly publishing processes are fairly slow for good reasons, and Michigan Publishing will continue those practices where the reasons are good. In other words, Maize Books will complement the processes we already have in place. Many scholarly books are time-sensitive, for example, and would benefit from expedited processes. I’m thinking especially of festschriften and edited conference volumes, which are tied to an occasion. The traditional publishing schedule can be less than ideal for the shelf-life of these books, and -- as a consequence -- publishers have lately been less inclined to take such projects on. Often, however, these books contain valuable scholarship that needs to be propagated. A similar point could be made for work on technological culture, which is acutely interesting to the academy currently but which also runs the risk of going overripe before it ever “comes to market.”
MK: In addition to the need to get time-sensitive content out into the world faster, we’re also hoping to use Maize Books to publish shorter texts, which reflects a larger trend happening in both academic and trade publishing—namely connecting readers with high-quality, short-form works. Publishing operations at the University of Chicago, Princeton, Stanford, and the University of North Carolina have recently announced short-form publishing ventures. In the non-academic world, the New York Times Byliner series, Kindle Singles, and Penguin Shorts are also great examples of this kind of activity.
Titles will be acquired by the editors at the university press. Is this primarily to expand their options, to offer authors alternatives they've asked for, or some of both?
AM: Actually, titles will be acquired by editors at Michigan Publishing (the overall library publishing operation that includes the University of Michigan Press as one of its imprints). I want to stress the point that Maize Books is its own imprint within the Michigan Publishing operation. As it happens, almost all of the editors acquiring for Maize are also acquiring for U-M Press. To answer your question more directly, I’d say both of the things you suggest often end up being one thing. The acquisitions editors at the press often would like to publish books that do not fit tidily within production and marketing rubrics (or workflows) the traditional publishing model is designed to support. Likewise, authors are often seeking to publish high quality scholarship with University of Michigan brand affiliation but -- often due to their established stature in the academy -- are not interested in the traditional peer-review process (including juried review and faculty executive board approval). 
Will all Maize titles be open access in some format, or is that simply an option for those who want it?
AM: Yes, all Maize titles will be OA according to a kind of “freemium” model. More specifically, the books will be freely available online via one’s web browser along the lines of the University of Michigan Press’s Digital Culture Books Imprint  Users will have the option to read online and/or purchase a copy. The open-access dimension of this is deeply important to us as a publishing operation housed within a Library.
MK: The emphasis on open access has long been part of what we do here at Michigan Publishing, and it’s central to our mission. Nearly all of the journals we publish are open access, as are nearly all of the innovative digital projects we’ve worked on, like the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic digital encyclopedia and Pancreapedia, a repository for exocrine pancreas research. We have partnered with the Open Humanities Press to distribute high-quality humanities scholarship for free online, and we have begun making backlist titles from the University of Michigan Press (so far over 800 of them) available via HathiTrust. Open access will continue to be an important part of how we distinguish ourselves as a publishing operation now and in the future.
What kinds of experimental peer review do you envision? Do you have particular platforms in mind or are you simply signaling openness to nontraditional approaches?
AM: We are most readily equipped to provide post-publication review through an implementation of MediaCommons Press and the online editions of books we host for open reading online. Our preferred approach in such cases would be to publish the book along with the review infrastructure, and then republish with author revisions after a set period of time (provided substantial review has taken place). 
MK: You can see how this process works by taking a look at how the open peer review for one of the U-M Press’s forthcoming books Writing History in the Digital Age was conducted. The editors have detailed that process here.
While the MediaCommons process is what we have the most experience with, we do remain open to other approaches or platforms, as well as to the fact that some titles might not need peer review at all. Each Maize Books title will have a clear explanation of the peer review process that was used for that volume. We plan to be transparent about this to enable both readers and authors to see how these processes can work in practice.
Are there situations where an editor might oppose publishing a book through this imprint? (I guess I'm wondering whether this line might compete with building lists the traditional way - or is it primarily for books the press wouldn't otherwise take on.)
AM: At Michigan Publishing, we are emphasizing scholarly contribution and the widest possible propagation of that contribution above marketing calculation. Maize Books is also part of a strategy of creating imprint vehicles that allow us and the author to tailor the book to the imprint. We believe an open model of the sort Maize Books employs will recapture costs through short run and POD sales, taking advantage of emerging efficiencies in production/fulfillment like “bridge programs” to minimize warehousing and write downs on the one hand without forsaking them altogether: consumers need consumable formats like print and specialized ebook formats, and as a publisher, we’ll be there to provide them. Occasionally, we will have big books, and we’ll be poised to take advantage of them. 
Short run digital printing is still cheaper than POD on a per unit basis but is only efficient if the print run is very close to the ultimate number of sales. Rather than perform elaborate calculations for every book (a labor intensive process that is unreliable and costly in its own right), we will work with a few basic print run targets or thresholds (numbers smaller than common to more traditional models), let POD kick in when those thresholds are crossed, and order further short runs where sufficient demand is indicated. This could compete with producing lists in the traditional way, especially if it is successful in driving down costs and expanding the reach of high quality scholarship. “Could” is not “will,” of course, and my point is really that Maize Books is an experiment. One that would be more difficult and more risky to impose categorically on our operation at this time. I can imagine a future where the efficiencies currently being tested in Maize Books had become the standard practice of our more traditional imprint. In that future, Maize would need to be exploring newer, riskier models for ever more successful alignment with our mission.
As to whether the editorial / acquisitions work that goes into publishing a book in this way diverges significantly from publishing in a more traditional way, I’d say no. We are interested in publishing books in areas of University strength. This is consistent with our U-M Press editorial policy, and at an institution like the University of Michigan that is a capacious remit, but it is in our interest to organize our publishing efforts in rational ways that our academic audience find legible.  That means we need to have several strategies.
Jack Dougherty, co-editor of Writing History in the Digital Age (forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press) asks at your blog, why *wouldn't* an author want to publish with Maize? I have the same question - what's not to like? It sounds great!
MK: As we noted in our response to Jack’s excellent questions, while it’s easy to imagine that every author should want to take advantage of something like Maize Books, the fact remains that not every book is a good candidate for a print-on-demand process. Highly illustrated volumes, non-standard formats, volumes with specific design constraints, and very large print runs aren’t always served well by print-on-demand solutions. And not every author is interested in open access or alternative forms of peer review. Some authors and books will want or need to go the “traditional” route to publication. Like many publishers, we produce a range of different kinds of books (academic, trade, regional interest, textbooks, etc.), so we already recognize that there isn’t just one way to get work out there.
Thanks so much for indulging my curiosity - and for launching yet another great experiment in publishing. Hats off to you for believing in books and in open access. I look forward to reading Maize books and will likely be adding print and digital versions to my library's collection. 



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