Many historians try to make their work accessible to the public. But how accessible is too accessible, and at what cost? New course offered jointly by History Channel and U of Oklahoma has some on campus wondering.
A technological visionary created a little stir in the late ‘00s by declaring that the era of the paper-and-ink book as dominant cultural form was winding down rapidly as the ebook took its place. As I recall, the switch-off was supposed to be complete by the year 2015 -- though not by a particular date, making it impossible to mark your day planner accordingly.
Cultural dominance is hard to measure. And while we do have sales figures, even they leave room for interpretation. In the June issue of Information Research, the peer-reviewed journal’s founder T.D. Wilson takes a look at variations in the numbers across national borders and language differences in a paper called “The E-Book Phenomenon: A Disruptive Technology.” Wilson is a senior professor at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, University of Borås, and his paper is in part a report on research on the impact of e-publishing in Sweden.
He notes that the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing-industry research and policy organization, reported last year that ebook sales in the United States grew by 45 percent between 2011 and 2012 – although the total of 457 million ebooks that readers purchased in 2012 still lagged 100 million copies behind the number of hardbacks sold the same year. And while sales in Britain also surged by 89 percent over the same period, the rate of growth for non-Anglophone ebooks has been far more modest.
Often it’s simply a matter of the size of the potential audience. “Sweden is a country of only 9.5 million people,” Wilson writes, “so the local market is small compared with, say, the UK with 60 million, or the United States with 314 million.” And someone who knows Swedish is far more likely to be able to read English than vice versa. The consequences are particularly noticeable in the market for scholarly publications. Swedish research libraries “already spend more on e-resources than on print materials,” Wilson writes, “and university librarians expect the proportion to grow. The greater proportion of e-books in university libraries are in the English language, especially in science, technology and medicine, since this is the language of international scholarship in these fields.”
Whether or not status as a world language is a necessary condition for robust ebook sales, it is clearly not a sufficient one. Some 200 million people around the world use French as a primary or secondary language. But the pace of Francophone ebook publishing has been, pardon the expression, snail-like -- growing just 3 percent per year, with “66 percent of French people saying that they had never read an ebook and did not intend to do so,” according to a study Wilson cites. And Japanese readers, too, seem to have retained their loyalty to the printed word: “there are more bookshops in Japan (almost 15,000 in 2012) than there are in the entire U.S.A. (just over 12,000 in 2012).”
Meanwhile, a report issued not long after Wilson’s paper appeared shows that the steady forward march of the ebook in the U.S. has lately taken a turn sideways. The remarkable acceleration in sales between 2008 and 2012 hit a wall in 2013. Ebooks brought in as much that year ($3 billion) as the year before. A number of factors were involved, no doubt, from economic conditions to an inexhaustible demand for Fifty Shades of Grey sequels. But it’s also worth noting that even with their sales plateauing, ebooks did a little better than trade publishing as a whole, where revenues contracted by about $300 million.
And perhaps more importantly, Wilson points to a number of developments suggesting that the ebook format is on the way to becoming its own, full-fledged disruptive technology. Not in the way that, say, the mobile phone is disruptive (such that you cannot count on reading in the stacks of a library without hearing an undergraduate’s full-throated exchange of pleasantries with someone only ever addressed as “dude”) but rather in the sense identified by Clayton Christensen, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.
Disruption, in Christensen’s usage, refers, as his website explains it, to “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.” An example he gives in an article for Foreign Affairs is, not surprisingly, the personal computer, which was initially sold to hobbyists -- something far less powerful as a device, and far less profitable as a commodity, than “real” computers of the day.
The company producing a high-end, state-of-the-art technology becomes a victim of its own success at meeting the demands of clientele who can appreciate (and afford) its product. By contrast, the “disruptive” innovation is much less effective and appealing to such users. It leaves so much room for improvement that its quality can only get better over time, as those manufacturing and using it explore and refine its potentials – without the help of better-established companies, but also without their blinkers. By the time its potential is being realized, the disruptive technology has developed its own infrastructure for manufacture and maintenance, with a distinct customer base.
How closely the ebook may resemble the disruptive-technology model is something Wilson doesn’t assess in his paper. And in some ways, I think, it’s a bad fit. The author himself points out that when the first commercial e-readers went on the market in 1998, it was with the backing of major publishing companies (empires, really) such as Random House and Barnes & Noble. And it’s not even as if the ebook and codex formats were destined to reach different, much less mutually exclusive, audiences. The number of ebook readers who have abandoned print entirely is quite small – in the US, about five percent.
But Wilson does identify a number of developments that could prove disruptive, in Christensen’s sense. Self-published authors can and do reach large readerships through online retailers. The software needed to convert a manuscript into various ebook formats has become more readily available, and people dedicated to developing the skills could well bring out better-designed ebooks than well-established publishers do now. (Alas! for the bar is not high.)
Likewise, I wonder if the commercial barriers to ebook publishing in what Wilson calls “small-language countries” might not be surmounted in a single bound if the right author wrote the right book at a decisive moment. Unlike that Silicon Valley visionary who prophesied the irreversible decline of the printed book, I don’t see it as a matter of technology determining what counts as a major cultural medium. That’s up to writers, ultimately, and to readers as well.
So you almost have that book contract in your grasp. You’ve had your most trusted colleagues drop a favorable hint about your work in the ear of the acquisitions editor at the best press in your field. You carefully (and, of course, unobtrusively) stalked said editor at the spring meeting of your disciplinary society, and managed to “accidentally” meet at the drinks reception.
You wrote a follow-up e-mail — not too soon, not too late — with a general query describing your idea and how it fits into the broader publication program at Desirable University Press. And when you received back that warm response — O, happy day! — you observed a decent interval before sending off your polished proposal, on which, of course, you’ve been working ceaselessly for the last six months.
And now you’re refreshing your inbox every five minutes or so, waiting for that hoped-for green light.
Did you ever think — after all your work — that what you were producing was a luxury?
Probably not. All you really want is for the best publisher, whatever that means to you, to publish it; and for your ideas to receive notice in the reviews that matter in your field. Well, you’d probably like your promotion and tenure committee to be impressed, too. Royalties would be nice, but more than anything, you want impact.
Yet maybe you think it should be a luxury, after all the effort and sweat and heartache you’ve invested in it. As far as you’re concerned, it’s pure gold, and should be priced accordingly. You can be sure it will. According to one book provider for university libraries, the average cover price of an academic book now stands at around $90.00 — a few multiples more than the average price of a book.
It’s not just the price that makes scholarly books a luxury. Think about this line from a recent study of luxury goods: “In luxury, quality is assumed, price does not have to be explained rationally; it is the price of the intangibles (history, legend, prestige of the brand)."
That sounds a lot like the system of scholarly publishing we have come to know and love (and/or loathe). It’s exactly the history, legend, prestige of the brand — the welter of such elements as the name of a given press, the backlist of titles in its catalog, the reputation of the institution with which it is (to a greater or lesser degree) affiliated, the grand old stories we tell about the way a certain editor championed a book against a sea of troubles — that gives the whole enterprise a whiff of mystique and nobility. Scholarly publishing, like any other luxury good, is a reputation-driven business producing goods for a select few at high prices, which in turn transmit a signal about the value of the good — and the prestige of the producer.
But as any social psychologist can tell you, reputations are a bad shortcut to reality. On the contrary, they can be a fruitful source of bias — filled with meaning we make instead of content we assess.
If you think about it, it’s surprising that scholarly publishing is — and seemingly should be — a business in which brand reputation is not just operative, but essential. Stories abound of promotion and tenure committees advising candidates of the four or five publishers with which a book they present must be placed — at least if they have hopes of further advancement. But of course to say this is to mistake the brand for the content. After all, scholarly merit is supposed to be a function of, well, merit, not mere reputation. Isn’t it? Aren’t we supposed to read the books, and not merely the spine?
• • •
The old chestnut that academic publishing is in a state of crisis may or may not be true; that all depends on your definition of “crisis.” What is certainly true is that the nature of scholarly publishing has changed, in some ways so much that it would scarcely be recognizable to the founding generation of university press directors.
After all, it is only meaningful to distinguish “scholarly publishing” from all other sorts of publishing if it has not just a distinctive content but a distinctive purpose.
The content is indisputably meant to be scholarly work of great merit. Even within a single field disagreements may (and do) arise about exactly what merit is, but no one seriously disputes that the content provided by academic presses is, or ought to be, characterized by a kind of defensible and substantive merit.
That is to say, scholarly publishing — at least in the days American university presses were established — was seen as a way for scholars to communicate their ideas with each other in ways that would not depend, at least not critically, on the market. Exactly because the market would be a poor judge of scholarly merit, producing scholarly work was seen as an extension of institutional mission. Colleges and universities exist not merely to create, but to communicate knowledge; and the social privileges conferred because of that mission (notably, qualification to receive charitable gifts incentivized by the tax code) entail social responsibilities to support both the process and the production of research.
So here’s a thesis. If there truly is a crisis in scholarly publishing, it has arisen from this fundamental first cause: the end of the era in which institutions sponsoring presses saw the publishing of scholarship as something near to the heart of their core mission, and deserving to be supported on those terms. Result: What was never intended to be a system left to the vicissitudes of the market has become exactly that. Scholarly books have become high-priced, prestige-driven luxury goods not by accident, but by forgetfulness.
Symptoms of this shift abound. Presses unable to break even are closed, or severely curtailed, as universities refocus on “strategic priorities." Book prices rise at a rate far higher than inflation in order to cover publishers’ fixed costs as institutional subventions vanish. Authors are chosen not so much on the basis of prize-winning, promising early work but rather because they can command the services of a literary agent.
It doesn’t have to be this way. To solve the crisis we should speak frankly of its causes, and imagine alternatives to received structures. There are three points to keep in view as we invent and test alternatives.
• Open access doesn’t mean poor quality. The push for open access, an idea received with acute suspicion in some quarters, has come about in no small way as a direct consequence of the predictable failure of a market-based system for scholarly publishing to serve its audience.
As a species we are pretty hardwired to associate cost with value — one reason why luxury goods, for which no rational explanation can suffice, yet exist. That is the hardest challenge for open-access advocates (of which I am one) to overcome; how can something free be trusted? But there is no logical connection between the price (as distinguished from the production cost) of a scholarly work and its merit. Yes, assuring quality is a costly business. But there are other ways of paying those costs than depending on purchase-price revenue.
• Communicating ideas is (or should be) critical to the mission of all institutions. The relationship between publishing and the institutional mission needs to be reassessed. Real and lasting change in the broken system of scholarly communication cannot be accomplished by publishers, or libraries, alone. Ultimately it will take a critical mass of institutional leaders able to see how abandoning academic presses to the market was, in effect, abdicating a core scholarly responsibility. I am fortunate to work in an institution led by such people, with the result that the revenue on which we will do the expected work of assuring quality and publishing scholarship will be borne by institutional commitments instead of consumers.
• Disruptive innovation is messy. Changing the revenue model — shifting the source of the revenue from either end of the value chain (purchases by consumers at one end, or “author fees” at the other) to institutional commitments at the center — is made possible by new technologies for distribution (digital publishing). But will also mean the emergence of a new set of ideas for the kinds of institutions that do scholarly publishing.
For one thing, there may well be a larger number of publishers producing a smaller number of works on a focused set of topics. Most of the proposed solutions to the “crisis,” both those offered by publishers and those sponsored by foundations, have been essentially focused on preserving the current demographic profile of university presses. It is not self-evident that this is the only solution. Liberal arts colleges (to cite my own example) have a valuable and distinct contribution to make to the identification of what constitutes “scholarship” — but, with a few admirable exceptions, have been frozen out of the conversation by the sheer volume of production required by a market-dependent system. That can now change.
So, too, digital tools make possible not only different ways of producing work, but different ways of organizing the work of publishers. University presses, by and large, are organized as hierarchical firms — and with good reason; such organizations manage market pressures efficiently. But academic publishing could become much more like a commons, adapting to its own purposes Yochai Benkler’s ideas of commons-based peer production in which the uniting thread is a shared passion for the development and distribution of new ideas among colleagues and peers. Said in different terms, what if the future of academic publishing looked less like the Encyclopædia Britannica, and more like Wikipedia?
Good luck on the book contract. When you get it — and, of course, you will — remember why you got into your field in the first place. It probably wasn’t to produce luxuries, but to create ideas and communicate them to your peers — the same reason I wrote this piece. So when you have an idea for your next book, think about working with a publisher who shares those goals.
Mark Edington is director of the Amherst College Press.