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Book Futures: A Crowdsourced Thought Experiment
October 3, 2010 - 9:00pm

Last week, I was involved in a virtual summit on e-books to which I was probably invited to serve as a semi-notorious Curmudgeon-at-Large. Quite a few people know I would be more excited about e-books if I didn't share the concerns of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and if I didn't hear students say they don't want to read on screens and vastly prefer books they can hold in their hands and fret about how much money they are spending on printing.

Some e-book vendors allow library users to print out portions of books, a trend in e-book bundles being developed for the academic library market. That's better than nothing, but we're offloading yet another cost onto students, just as these days we increasingly expect them to print their own syllabi and save the department printing budget (and the professor's lead time). If you comfort yourself by saying "I'm saving trees," just - stop it, okay? The sound of the library printers whirring constantly in the first days of the semester is like that smell of fresh mimeograph ink when I was in grade school, a sensory mark of the season, only without the buzz. (One student showed me a syllabus document that ran to fifty pages. I am not making this up. The font was huge, the white spaces vast, the detail numbing.)

The next day, I headed off to a library conference where I heard more about e-book bundles. A lot of vendors are offering an all-you-can-eat banquet where libraries pay a flat fee and then, if library patrons click on the link to a book a certain number of times or look at a certain number of pages (the algorithms vary), the library automatically purchases it; in some cases those books have the same restrictions as printed books - one user at a time - and in others they simply sell you a virtual second copy if it's popular enough. The models are still emerging, but the tagline for this is "patron-driven collection development." I think perhaps it should be called "term-paper-driven collection development," and the clever academic author may want to write books larded with many phrases that lend themselves to undergraduate paper topics. Toss somephrases like "gun control," "eating disorders" and "genetic modification" into your examination of Bakhtinian glossolalia and the dialogic discourses of golden age Spanish drama and watch your sales soar.

Truth be told, we know that the well-tempered collection, built of books hand-picked by librarians and faculty members with a particular institution and curriculum in mind, contains a horrifyingly high number of books that will never leave the shelf, or if they make it into a backpack may go unread, save perhaps for a late-night ransacking for a usable quote or two. It's not surprising that librarians may want to move to a process that is less wasteful and yet provides (with little effort) a much larger number of books available for students to browse digitally. Of course it makes sense - except we are doing something very like what we did with journals: trim costs while supporting a system that isn't, in the long term, sustainable.

This leads me to a thought experiment, and I need your help. I would be grateful for responses from anyone interested in the future of the scholarly monograph - not in the future of writing and publishing scholarly monographs, but in the future of browsing and reading them.

Just to be sure we're on the same page, let me repeat that: not in the future of writing and publishing scholarly monographs, but in the future of browsing and reading them.

In short, I want to crowdsource some ideas about an ideal future state for the book that is not "commercial" in that it is not going to land on the New York Times bestseller list (99.9999% of books, including those upon which trade publishers pin big hopes and equally large advances) but also in the sense that its prime purpose is not to be purchased by a large enough number of readers to generate profits that will cover its traditional cost, but rathter just to say something worth saying.

As a precursor to launching the thought experiment, I should mention that the development cost - not the cost of printing or distribution or marketing or retail markup or shipping or any other post-publishing handling, but the labor involved in chosing among manuscripts and preparing a book for publication - is around ten thousand dollars, according to the publisher of Bloomsbury Academic (who proposes an intriguing business model to raise that ten thousand: let library cosortia invest up front to make it open access, then let the publisher monetize it in a variety of ways so it can make a profit to sustain itself). So bear that in mind: books published the way they are today are costly to develop, and many books of high quality cannot be published because they cannot be sufficiently subsidized by sales or other means.)

On to the experiment.

If you are someone who forages among books, pays close attention to parts of many of them and reads a certain number of them cover-to-cover, what do want from books?

  • Do you want to be able to read them on a variety of devices without a lot of hassle?
  • Do you want the option of having it in print?
  • Do you want to be able to cut and paste and remix portions of books as source material for a work of your own?
  • Do you want to be able to keep them?
  • Do you want to be able to give them away?
  • Would you like to be able to use them (whole or parts) in classes without worrying about high costs or whether the work will remain in print if you teach the course again?
  • Would you want to be able to invite students to add their own annotations and interpretations?
  • Do you want video with that, or links to interactive websites or hyperlinked sources or something more? (A Wii reenactment of the Peloponnesian War perhaps?)
  • Do you want a copy that won't change, or do you want one that updates itself?
  • Do you want it to be available to readers who don't have access to large libraries, either through interlibrary cooperation or through online open access?
  • Does it matter to you if it can be read in any country? (Book rights, like DVDs, are sold regionally; even though they sneak across borders in suitcase and Bookdepository orders, they are undocumented aliens in the book trade, and some smaller countries whose own publishing industry is at risk consider them invasive species.)

And on to the final questions:

Assuming you had achieved such professional security that you never had to produce another publication, would you have any need of scholarly books? (This is not a rhetorical question, a slam on the abstruseness of university press monographs, or a straw man; I'm genuinely curious whether scholars use other people's scholarship primarily as grist for the promotional mill or for other purposes. I hope the latter, but I don't want to make a false assumption.)

What would that need be? Sheer pleasure in the reading experience? Intellectual curiosity? A desire to keep up with developments in your discipline? As texts from which your students can learn? As a part of an ongoing conversation in which you want to participate, regardless of external pressures to produce anything as a result?

I've done too much of the talking myself. If you can spare the time, let me know what you think, especially those of you who are scholars in disciplines that have traditionally valued books. And I hope some of you will share this thought experiment through tweets or Tumblr, Delicious or StumbleUpon, Facebook or Friendfeed, old fashioned Listservs or blog post or pigeon post. After all, it takes a crowd to crowdsource.


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