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Some Bookish Thoughts from THATCamp Publishing
November 2, 2011 - 9:30pm

I just attended THATCamp Publishing, a lively day of making and doing in classic THATcamp unconference mode. If you’re unfamiliar with THATCamp, it’s a terrific series of humanities and technology unconferences. What’s an unconference, you ask? It’s a conference at which nobody reads papers, but rather the attendees propose sessions ahead of time, the group decides first thing in the morning which sound most interesting, and off we go to kick ideas around. People take notes during the event and upload them to the internet, and throughout the event participants post their impressions to Twitter so that even though you can’t go to all concurrent sessions, you are virtually dipping into them. It’s all about making and doing and sharing, not about presenting and listening.

I was a bit of an odd-woman out in that I was probably the only person at this unconference from a small undergraduate institution, but I got some great ideas for teaching. (I have already asked our IT folks to help me use the Anthologize plugin for Worpdress and have signed up for a Nowcomment account – both of which have intriguing possibilities for the classroom.) I also have much to think about when it comes to whatever contribution small institutions like mine might make to the future of libraries and publishing.

It will take me some time to process everything I encountered, but keep thinking about the different ways publishers and libraries approach curation and discovery that came up during an afternoon session on the essential elements of scholarly book publishing. These are activities that are absolutely central to what we both do, and they seem very similar - but we do them so differently.

University presses develop lists. A huge part of an editor’s job is finding authors with books that deserve an audience and can command one – and competing against other university presses for those authors. In order to hunt for authors, they attend scholarly conferences and try to pick up on buzz in the disciplines, looking for manuscripts that are of high quality and can sell enough copies to be justifiable. Libraries no longer are the major market they once were; the percentage of sales to libraries is smaller, so editors are now looking for books will sell to scholars and perhaps be assigned in classes.

Libraries develop collections. Librarians select books that they believe have value for their community, which is local and in some cases (like mine) quite small. (Research libraries have bigger collections and serve a broader community; to use an Internet analogy, research libraries provide the scholarly backbone that scholars at smaller library nodes draw on.) Libraries are discipline agnostic, having to balance the needs of many disciplines as subscriptions keep devouring more and more of budgets that aren’t growing. They pay attention to disciplinary buzz less than to what students report they need to complete assignments.

I assumed that editorial work was a massive time commitment for university press editors, but the people I talked to said manuscripts need to be very nearly ready for publication these days; most editors don’t have the time for developmental or line editing. Authors increasingly need to get that work done themselves, either through writing groups or by hiring their own editors. Authors may also have to pitch in to pay for indexing, an important feature of scholarly monographs. Publishers at our discussion were not convinced that copy editing was worth the cost; the more ready a book is to go to print, the better. Design was once a standard function, but increasingly designs are templates that can be applied to any number of books. In general, work done on books once acquired seems to play a much smaller role than identifying authors to publish and then helping an audience discover the published book. Which brings me to the next important function.

Publishers facilitate discovery at the other end of the process through marketing, publicity, and a variety of distribution strategies. They provide advanced copies to reviewers in key journals, look for opportunities to promote books through the media, and route books into sales channels, which involves everything from obtaining ISBNs to providing metadata to Books in Print, Amazon, and other outlets; they also need to provide books to those outlets in multiple ebook formats.

Discovery is also a key function of libraries, which also are up to their elbows in metadata and incompatible formats. They put a lot into discovery through cataloging and classification, with the current vogue for discovery layers adding a new . . . uh, layer to the work required. Cataloging has become a fairly arcane subfield that most librarians steer clear of (the rules are undergoing a major shift and my response is to put fingers in my ears and chant lalala loudly to myself) but discovery of what’s in our collection and what is possible in the wider world is still a part of who we are and what we do. In fact, a large part of the instructional role librarians have embraced is really about helping students with discovery.

Given that librarians and publishers have so much in common, it’s odd that we live in such different worlds. I think there are two reasons for this. Presses align their work with disciplines; libraries with institutions. So much about our perspective depends on these very different cardinal points that guide our thinking. Perhaps more fundamentally, presses create and sell things and libraries buy and help people use them. We’re more closely in touch with the undergraduates who spend time in our libraries and struggle to make sense of the ideas that they contain than we are with the faculty, who visit the library rarely and who prefer to access research by following their own well-trodden disciplinary paths, using library tools only as devices for locating or ordering copies of things they have discovered through other means. (An Ithaka survey made it perfectly clear that to most faculty the library’s primary purpose is to buy the stuff they need for their research. Everything else a library might do - including building collections and aiding discovery - pales in comparison.)

My nightmare is that libraries will limit collection building and discovery to designing what are essentially shopping platforms, offering users a vast banquet of options and paying for what our users put in their shopping basket, but never actually owning anything because consumer choice and customer satisfaction is what we’re all about. In this scenario, the bigger aggregators will, like Walmart, provide a false sense of abundance while reducing diversity of information channels. Smaller presses will be aggregated or die.And libraries .... we'll just pay the bills.

I would like to see libraries and university presses and the authors they publish and the readers they serve come together to design a world for scholarship that’s more about sharing and less about selling. First, we should not judge the value of scholars by the number and type of publications they produce. The cult of expertise has made us stupid: “I couldn’t possibly pass judgment on work that isn’t in my field; I’ll just count the publications and make sure the publishers are the right ones.” How did so many smart people buy into such a stupid procedure for demonstrating our worth? We’re producing ourselves to death. We should limit a tenure file to a personal statement and three to five representative works of scholarship and stop confusing quantity of publications with meaningful scholarship.

Second, we should not feel satisfied investing tremendous energy into writing books that are printed and distributed in quantities of a few hundred. That's an incredible waste of time and talent. I’m not surprised that the library market has dried up – I know how little I can spend on books as our must-have subscription prices surge. But I’m disappointed that both libraries and university presses are okay with that, that we don’t really care that if you want to get your hands on scholarly books, you’d better be prepared to buy them because they have become niche items for a small disciplinary community.

Maybe librarians and publishers need try steering into the future trading cardinal points. Scholarly book publishers could stand to think more about how people who are not specialists and can’t afford to buy every book they want to read might discover and learn from books that can be shared. And libraries may want to think less about satisfying their small community’s immediate needs and think more broadly about how to foster a culture that values ideas more than merely producing and consuming more and more stuff.

One of the joys of going to something like THATCamp is spending a day with creative people ready to question authority and make things by hand using available technology. We may not have come up with a new way of publishing books - we didn't even come close - but at least I left better informed and thinking there must be alternatives to the library as shopping platform.

Because otherwise it's just too depressing.




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