Print or Byte?

Won't digital publishing destroy the old-fashioned book? Scott McLemee reads up on "the hidden revolution"....

April 8, 2009

It's clear that the recession is accelerating the shift to digital publishing. “With the economy shaping up as it seems to be,” one astute observer of trends in the university press world told me last summer, “we’re going to see a 15 year leap in publishing in the next two years.” And that was well before trillions of dollars started vanishing into the ether.

But the very notion of digital publishing tends to provoke resistance -- much of it rather underinformed. As noted in this column recently, some people evidently equate it with creating a Web site. This is worrying, insofar as people making choices about the allocation of resources may share in this confusion.

When "the decider" is hopelessly befuddled, things tend to go badly. (No need to name any names here. I’m just sayin'.)

Only compounding the problem is the tendency to regard digital and print books as completely different (indeed, counterposed) categories of publishing. Which then fosters a belief that the expansion of digital book publishing will yield a world in which you won’t be able to find the old-fashioned kind, with spines and pages and covers.

This scenario inspires some of us to go on buying binges. After all, we’re just stockpiling provisions for the post-print apocalypse.

While loathe to abandon anything so helpful for rationalizing a pleasurable indulgence, I’m afraid the April issue of Against the Grain will make it much harder to credit the whole idea.

An article by Sandy Thatcher -- director of the Penn State University Press and past president of the Association of American University Presses -- makes clear that digital publishing already has a basic role in what his colleagues call “the life cycle of the book.”

An informal survey of otherwise very clued-in people suggests that Against the Grain (a newsletter appearing five times a year) is not well-known. Its pages offer a running colloquy for far-sighted discussion among librarians, publishers, and others in the more scholarly reaches of the book trade. Thatcher’s article, entitled “The Hidden Digital Revolution in Scholarly Publishing: POD, SRDP, the ‘Long Tail,’ and Open Access,” is not yet available online. I hope that situation will change soon, because it deserves a wider readership beyond subscribers to the print edition of the newsletter.

Thatcher’s argument, in brief, is that the peculiar challenges faced by university presses have given them an incentive to use digital resources in ways that put them somewhat ahead of their peers in the world of trade or mass-market publishing. Given the small market for most scholarly titles, academic publishers were in a unique position to benefit from short-run digital publishing (SRDP) and print-on-demand (POD) technologies.

“The bane of the entire publishing industry for centuries,” writes Thatcher, has “been the need -- rooted in the simple economic fact that unit costs decrease rapidly with the increase in the size of print runs when offset printing technology is used -- to make guesses up front about the lifetime sales potential of each book. And naturally, in their excitement about the new books they had acquired, editors were forever optimistic about their prospects in the marketplace and urged initial printings to be correspondingly generous.”

The quest for economies of scale led to big inventories of unsold books, “sometimes running, in commercial publishing, as high as 50 percent and even in scholarly publishing up to 30 percent.” Over the past three decades, tax rulings and bookkeeping exigencies made it harder to write off that inventory.

“What the new digital printing technology made possible was less guesswork,” Thatcher continues. “Scholarly publishers were particularly at risk because the market for their books was small to begin with, and many feared that when potential lifetime sales dropped below 500 copies, they would simply not be able to publish the books at all as offset technology was uneconomical to use at such a low level of print run (chiefly because of the make-ready costs that go into preparing a printing press to produce even the first copy).”

But the unit cost for digital printing is flat, no matter how many copies are produced -- and you don’t have unsold inventory piling up. With a monograph prepared in digital format, it is possible to issue it, as the demand dictates, through short-run or on-demand publishing. This means that scholarly publishers have “the opportunity to ‘test the waters’ without a substantial investment up front -- and without filling their warehouses with copies that may never sell at all.

"This is good not only for the environment (as far fewer books ever have to be pulped) and for cash flow (since less capital is tied up in inventory at any given point during the life cycle of a book) but for experimentation also: a publisher can try out a book for course adoption, for instance, with a printing of just 100, say, or it can take the chance that a book may have some potential to break into the general trade market without overcommitting and ending up with lots of boxes of unsold books in the warehouse.”

All of which amounts to a “hidden revolution,” in Thatcher’s phrase -- and one that could well deepen. At present, a book can be issued in hardback via offset printing, then reprinted a year or two later in a short-run paperback edition, and finally made available in perpetuity for readers who order single copies of it on-demand. Publication of a work in digital format does not preempt its existence as a paper-and-ink artifact, but rather enables it.

“The sole area of resistance to this revolution so far,” he writes, “has been the publication of illustrated books that demand the highest quality in reproduction, such as art history monographs. Digital printing technology has greatly improved in its capabilities over the past decade, and that progress leaves one hopeful that this final obstacle will be overcome in the not too distant future. Already digital printing is already poised to provide four-color charts, graphs, maps, etc., which will be a great advance for publishing in the social sciences where editors always feel as though they are disappointing authors who can produce wondrous figures on their computers in multiple colors but then have to be told that their books can have these figures reproduced only in shades of gray. Art history remains the problem child of scholarly publishing because its requirements for high-quality reproductions of artworks currently exceed the capacity of digital printing technology while it also faces special difficulties in securing permissions for digital uses that prevent its transition to e-book publishing. In time, we may hope, solutions will be found to both of these challenges.”

In the interim, let me just reiterate a point that is likely to prove itself ever more plausible over time: Some books you can read, with all the attention you will ever muster for the task, with a quick skim or a plodding sense of duty. Other books shape your life, or shake it -- and you will always want a copy of those around, in editions as solid and mass-y as the effect they've had on your consciousness. (And there are a dozen gradations in between those extremes.) The growing importance of digital publishing will not mean a sacrifice of one mode of attention for the other. It simply means that some of the less ravishing moments in your readerly experience may involve a handheld screen.

Actually some of the more profound moments might end up happening that way, too. I haven't had that experience yet, but can't rule it out.


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