Digital Daze

University presses gathered in Montreal last week to discuss the future. Scott McLemee comes back with a report.

July 2, 2008

The late Jean Baudrillard – postmodern theorist and, in his day, major brand-name cash cow in the world of academic publishing – used to speculate about how technological objects were enacting their revenge upon us. But something else seemed to be happening at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, in Montreal late last week.

The audience would wait patiently as someone at the podium typed on a laptop, cuing a video clip appropriate to some theme. And then – nothing. YouTube seemed to be boycotting the proceedings. During another session, the speaker ran through important arguments as supporting evidence was projected, via PowerPoint slides, on a giant screen. But so were periodic bursts of static ... ripples from the cyber-ether ... digital burps. (Which, like the corporal sort, punctuate a lecture in ways that don't improves your concentration.)

It felt less like revenge than aloof indifference to puny human wishes. And don’t think that the humans aren’t noticing. In the course of numerous interviews and off-the-record chats, I got an earful about how people at university presses really feel about their new-media overlords.

Over the past few years, a certain boilerplate rhetoric has emerged about the need for university presses boldly to face the challenges of the information technology -- the better to seize the exciting new opportunities thus created, yadda yadda yadda. But beneath all the digital platitudes, one detects a growing frustration. The tone of discontent is usually pretty muted. Few people want to be known as Luddites. But after a while, they just don’t want to hear about any more “exciting new opportunities” – least of all given the state of one’s budget. The menu of existing options is more than sufficient, thanks very much.

And while the Ithaka Report stirred up a fair bit of discussion when it appeared almost a year ago, an informal survey of AAUP attendees suggests that its affect on the academic-publishing agenda has been very unevenly distributed.

The report urged scholarly publishers and university libraries to work together to resolve the contradictions in the established system for producing and distributing monographs. Why issue a specialized work with a potential audience of hundreds, at most, in an extremely expensive hardback that takes a big bite out of the library’s budget? Would it not make sense to create a new digital publishing platform (basically, JSTOR on steroids) permitting wider circulation of a monograph at much lower cost?

As a conversation-starter in Montreal, I would to ask people how the Ithaka Report had influenced decision-making at their presses over the past year.

Some answered along the following lines: "The Ithaka Report is an incredibly important document that we all discussed when it appeared. [Pause] What was it about, again?”

A few responded that yes, they were now publishing e-books. Some mentioned that they knew that academic titles were now selling in Kindle-ready format.

As for the Ithakan vision of some vast new architecture that would revolutionize the publishing and dissemination of scholarly material ... well, it just did not loom on their horizon. You couldn't blame them. They had more urgent concerns. There is enough to do just getting the books ready for each season’s catalog while trying to squeeze a dollar out of 83 cents.

On the other hand, a portion of the AAUP membership is trying to follow the Ithaka recommendation to cultivate a closer relationship with the librarians on their campuses.

“We started meeting with them a couple of months ago,” said James McCoy, the marketing and sales director for the University of Iowa Press. “Librarians have a sense of how the products we publish are going to be used. In general they tend to be much more in touch than we are with emerging trends in information technology. We’ve become aware of things like the Charleston Conference and have learned a lot by reading Against the Grain.”

McCoy was not the first person in Montreal to cite the annual conference on books and serials acquisition, held in Charleston, S.C, each November. (An informal gathering of librarians and other bookpeople, it is not sponsored an organization.) I had never heard the Charleston Conference mentioned at a previous AAUP meetings, but this time it was mentioned during panels as well as in less formal discussions. The Charlestonian journal Against the Grain describes itself as “your key to the latest news about libraries, publishers, book jobbers, and subscription agents.” It, too, was referred to by numerous people in Montreal as a must-read for anyone in academic publishing who wants a glimpse of how their colleagues across campus are discussing the new information tools.

Mark Saunders, director of marketing for the University of Virginia Press, told me that he and his colleagues had been having monthly meetings with UVa’s librarians for “about a talk about sharing hardware and software and to increase awareness of complimentary programs we have underway.” The press and the library also now share an IT person. “This is all happening from the bottom up," he said, "rather than as some kind of high-level initiative.” It was not so much a matter of being inspired by the Ithaka Report itself as “continuing and deepening what we’ve already been doing.”

James Peltz, an acquisitions editor for the State University of New York Press, says that members of the press are meeting with librarians from the SUNY system. He said there was a “five-year plan” to create the SUNY Center for Scholarly Communication.

Not quite clear whether this was an ironic allusion to Soviet economic models or a literal prospect, I later got in touch with Gary Dunham, the executive director for SUNY Press. He passed along a memorandum on the "series of far-reaching organizational changes," beginning this year, that "will incrementally transform the book publisher" into "a digital and print-on-demand publishing research portal tailored to the specific needs of the vast SUNY system and also geared toward disseminating research in targeted fields of research elsewhere." It will do so through "a shared digital platform." This is not just in the spirit of the Ithaka Report, but sounds pretty close to the letter.

Some panels in Montreal addressed ways to promote paper-and-ink books via digital means. A panel on “New Media for Scholarly Publishers” focused on one medium in particular as having important potential: online video. Participants emphasized the decreasing cost of digital movie cameras and editing equipment, the growing distribution of the skills required for using them, and the rapidly expanding segment of the public that regularly watches video on the internet.

This was persuasive in spite of the gremlins. The audience did at least get to see a Princeton University Press clip of Henry Frankfurt discussing the peculiar susceptibilities to bullshit of the highly educated. Panelists and members of the audience suggested that a press could build a “studio” from scratch for under ten thousand dollars. A ready pool of camera operators and video editors is there to be tapped by any university with a radio-television-film program. (And even, I suspect, by schools without one. By now there are probably Amish teenagers who want to direct.)

Two sessions were devoted to “Selling to Libraries,” of which I managed to attend one. An interesting point made in passing was that while university librarians are meticulous about strengthening their collections on the basis of reviews printed in scholarly journals, online reviews such as those at H-NET are having a strong influence on the market.

And if the price of video production is going down, the expense of publishing and mailing each season’s catalogs is headed in the opposite direction. Nor is it clear that such catalogs are especially useful to those in charge of building collections. While reviewers and retailers think in terms of publishing seasons, librarians don’t. (Instead, they find subject listings much more useful.)

Either way, it sounds like a matter of time before printed catalogs begin being phased out in favor of something e-formatted. In fact, the last couple of catalogs from the University of Georgia Press have arrived by email in just such fashion. Such a change can be easily justified (or rationalized, if you prefer) by reference to “green” concerns or economic realities, or both.

Returning home from Montreal to my cubicle, I gazed at the stacks of Fall ‘08 catalogs and wondered if it might be a good idea to box them up for sale to collectors on e-Bay a few years from now.

By the morning of the final day of the conference, it seemed as if there were a disconnection between the question I had been asking everyone (what do you think of the Itkaka Report?) and the discussions during the scheduled panels. At the sessions I attended, the report was never mentioned.

The important exception came a bit later, during lunch, when incoming AAUP president Alex Holzman, director of Temple University Press, cited the Ithaka Report in his first speech to the association. But this was in passing, and his talk did not sound particularly gung-ho about the exciting new opportunities of the digital age.

Rather, he noted the “air of worry over the coming financial year” and stressed the need to defend the particular and irreplaceable role that university presses played in scholarly life. (Holzman also announced that the coming year would see an extensive reappraisal and reform of the association’s committee structure. More on this as it develops.)

Only upon running into Sue Havlish, the marketing director for Vanderbilt University Press, could I start to put the pieces of the conference together. This was the second time I have had the benefit of an audience with Sue at an AAUP conference. The experience is to be recommended. Much that was subtly evaded by others, she nailed down in sentence.

What did she think of the Ithaka Report? Havlish didn’t just answer that question; she helped connect what, to an outsider, looked only like unrelated dots.

The report’s proposal of a comprehensive new publishing platform “is the 800 pound gorilla in the room,” she said. “Nobody wants to look at the gorilla because we’re all scared of it. Some librarians think that putting a text in a repository is ‘publishing’ it. There’s a fear of our role as publishers being subsumed by the libraries.But I still want – and I think most people still want – a book that been edited, that’s been shaped into something and marketed to me by a publisher that I’ve heard of already.”

Havlish discussed how university presses take a manuscript and transform it into a finished product. She started to use the term “value added” before catching herself. She refused to use management-speak. The issues could be better expressed in ordinary language.

“We’re afraid that people are going to forget that there’s a difference between publishing something and just printing it,” she told me. “You need somebody to separate the wheat from the chaff, because it’s the wheat you want.”

And then she put her own critique in context: “Of course everything I’m saying may be go with being able to remember a time when gas was at 98 cents a gallon.”

Quite so, given the ripple effects of fuel prices on production and distribution costs for non-digital books. (Now there’s a hideous expression.) Many changes in the relationship between technology and publishing are going to be decided, not through visionary planning, but by bottom lines.

“With the economy shaping up as it seems to be,” Havlish said, “we’re going to see a 15 year leap in publishing in the next two years.” This was not- - as it once might have seemed -- a profession of optimism.


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