While looking around for scholarship on witchcraft trials just the other day (not in connection with current events, though with American politics you never know) I stumbled across Crime: A Batch From The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, an ebook in a new series from MIT Press  that launched in May.
It reprints Edward Bever’s "Witchcraft Prosecutions and the Decline of Magic” from 2009, plus nine other articles on crime across the past few centuries. As far as I can tell, Batches is the first of its kind, at least in ebook format: a series of thematic anthologies drawn from the back files of scholarly journals that MIT publishes. Two other titles have appeared so far, Spies: A Batch from the Journal of Cold War Studies and The United States and China: A Batch from International Security. They’re all in an attractive and sensibly designed format, at the modest price of $6.99. (If an ebook series along the same lines as Batches does exist, I'll undoubtedly hear about it, and in that case will update this column with the pertinent information.)
Describing so ethereal an artifact as “attractive” may sound strange, but plenty of titles coming across my ereader have been real eyesores. (Both unnavigable and un-proofread, they've seemed overpriced even when free.) The MIT volumes have functional tables of contents, available both at the start of the file and via drop-down menu. Not only are there links between the text and endnotes but they work in both directions.
That is something you ought to be able to take for granted, but can't. No major investment of resources is required — just a little attention to detail when preparing the text. It’s time for readers to become a lot more aggressive about demanding adequate production values from the ebooks they bring out.
That's not to say that publishing volumes of papers selected from a specific journal is a new idea, even in digital format. For example, there is Classics from IJGIS: Twenty years of the International Journal of Geographical Information Science and Systems and ISO Science Legacy: Reprinted from "Space Science Reviews" Journal, V.
Apart from being specialized and quite expensive -- even by hardback standards, let alone for an ebook — they differ from the Batches collections by being stand-alone works, rather than part of a series. The title of SO Science Legacy: Reprinted from "Space Science Reviews" Journal, V would seem to imply that volumes I-IV are available to download by anyone with lots and lots of money, though in fact there’s just the one.)
And of course material from JSTOR and other repositories can be stored and read on a handheld device. Such material is almost always in PDF, however, which has limited flexibility compared to text in an ereader-specific format (e.g., mobi or epub). The latter allow the user to adjust the size of the type, and in my experience the option to highlight articles in PDF is luck of the draw, while that is less of a problem in the other formats.
A small but expanding array of scholarly periodicals now appear in ebook editions, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences flagship Daedalus and the American Economic Association’s quarterly Journal of Economic Perspectives. Likewise with a number of law reviews, including many of the most prominent ones. Diverse as these journals are, they all routinely publish material of potential interest to non-specialist readers. Selling individual issues online gets the journal in front of a wide public without the hazards of newsstand distribution.
The new series from MIT is a synthesis of all the developments just listed — and, in some regards, an improvement on them. While reading around in the debut volumes, I was impressed both by the range of issues covered in each volume and by how well the selections complemented one another. For that, too, cannot be taken for granted. Collections of scholarly papers are often forced together rather than edited, much less integrated into a cohesive volume. Reading one is like attending a shotgun polygamous marriage among strangers, albeit not so memorable.
Jill Rodgers, marketing manager for MIT Press, made time to respond to my questions about the series by email. Her answers went some way toward explaining why the collections hang together better than compilations often do.
For one thing, the press monitors how its journals are being used. "We have access to traditional reports like article downloads and citations,” Rodgers told me. "Using Google Analytics and Altmetric.com, we also get a lot of information about what sites are bringing traffic to our website, who’s talking about our articles on blogs and in media outlets, how many people are bookmarking articles in Mendeley, who’s sharing abstracts via Twitter, etc.”
The possibility of using all that data to brainstorm ideas for ereader collections came up during a retreat late last year. The gestation time for the series was just six months.
"To create a Batch,” she said, "we first identify an article or topic that is getting a lot of play. We move to our archives and do some searching to see if we have enough content ... then reach out to the journal editor to see if he/she agrees the topic is skillfully covered by the journal and is willing to curate a final [table of contents].” Ideally the collection will include 6 to 10 papers; the titles now available contain 10 each.
While the marketing department’s data generated the topics, the collections' salience comes from the work of the journal editors who, "besides weighing the hundreds or thousands of articles available, will also compose an introduction” that explains "the impact of the articles within the field and their importance to the journal.”
The collection then goes into the digital production pipeline. “The first round of three Batches took 3-4 months from proposal to loading on Amazon,” Rodgers noted, "but I think that time period will shorten now that we’ve got the hang of it.”
Three more collections are nearly ready to go -- although they aren’t yet listed by online vendors, nor has any other information about them appeared. In other words, you read it here first. They are Gender and Sexuality: A Batch from TDR. (i.e., The Drama Review), Broadening the Domain of Grammar: A Batch from Linguistic Inquiry, and Responding to Terrorism: A Batch from International Security.
Rodgers indicated that the press has "another half dozen or so 'half-baked batches' that are in various stages.” She and her colleagues are now "also talking about taking requests for new Batches from readers.”
Other university presses are bound to follow MIT’s lead. For one thing, there is the appeal of being able to make use of material already accumulated by the publisher in its stable of journals. A proposal that involves getting content out of the digital warehouse and into revenue-generating circulation seems likely to enjoy the benefit of the doubt. But presses following the model of the new series really should mimic its standards as well.
And if they don’t…. well, let’s take up that topic later, in another column.