A Change is Gonna Come

One university press shifts to digital, and more will eventually. Scott McLemee wonders if there's more to it than "YouTube with footnotes"...

March 25, 2009

Earlier this week the University of Michigan Press announced it is shifting its center of gravity from print to digital publishing, at least for monographs -- a change that will be reflected in its catalog within two years.

It is the shape of things to come. Or rather (given what I’ve heard at the annual meetings of the Association of American University Presses over the past few years) the shape of what everyone has known is coming for some time now, without quite relishing the prospect.

The shift to digital involves a realignment within institutional infrastructure, along lines that have become increasingly common. The press is transforming “from a financially self-sustaining university unit to a department that reports to the dean of libraries as is the case with several other university presses, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University,” as a statement at the UMP blog puts it.

In boilerplate university bureaucrat-speak, that sort of reshuffling is “an exciting opportunity to maximize our resources,” or something. (Per the UPM blog: “A closer alliance of these two efforts will offer the university and its scholars a rich, functional and efficient publishing environment.”)

But at AAUP in Montreal last summer, Sue Havlish, the famously plainspoken marketing director for Vanderbilt University Press, hinted at trouble in paradise. “Some librarians think that putting a text in a repository is ‘publishing’ it,” she told me. “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.... We’re afraid that people are going to forget that there’s a difference between publishing something and just printing it.”

There’s more to worry about than that, to judge by certain responses to this latest development. Some people commenting on IHE’s report of the news from Michigan are under the impression that UPM will be replacing bound monographs with ... Web pages.

They don’t see the distinction between e-publishing and setting up a Web site. (All Web sites are digital publications, but not all digital publications are Web sites.) The very concept of the digital book seems lost on them. Such books are available in libraries and from booksellers -- though not necessarily anywhere else, and by no means always for free.

That seems obvious -- except to people for whom it is anything but. We’re at a very odd moment, in which long-established patterns of textual production and transmission are collapsing and new ones taking shape, even as the terms for understanding the innovations themselves are rapidly going out of date. A portion of the public will read about Michigan’s initiative and decide it means turning monograph publication into YouTube with footnotes, more or less.

Some will bewail this, of course, in the familiar neo-Luddite tones. A belief that digital publishing spells the impending extinction of paper-and-ink books is scary, like most superstition, and just as hard to dispel by rational argument. Suffice it to note that television did not destroy film. (For a thoughtful response to one recent exercise in brow-furrowing, see the comments by Matthew Battles, a former rare books librarian at Harvard University, at The Atlantic Monthly site.)

But that is not to say there is no cause for concern at all. I suspect there are people in positions of authority who regard “YouTube with footnotes” as a pretty good model. When the University of Michigan Press blog promises the creation of “a rich, functional and efficient publishing environment,”it seems approrpiate to feel a pang of dread -- not just for the future of a great academic press, but for scholarship itself. Substitute “publishing environment” with “dining experience” and you have the language of the fast food industry.

The scholarly imprints that do not merely survive this period of downturn and restructuring but come out the other side as leaders will do more than expedite the transmission of text from one researcher’s laptop to another’s Kindle. They will add value. (Sue Havlish’s remarks about needing to preserve the distinction between publishing a work and simply printing it are very much to the point here.)

But part of the value they add will come, not so paradoxically, from what they don’t publish -- and also perhaps from how they slow down the whole process. They will issue a digital book when it is ready, not just when it is possible. They will address the crisis of scholarly overproduction by insisting, more than ever, on their role as gatekeeper.

You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Besides, somebody has to keep in mind the difference between the monograph and the McNugget.


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