Books Aren't Everything

June 30, 2009

Publishing -- especially university press publishing -- is a tough business. Recently, many presses have come under greater financial pressure or the threat of being closed completely. Much of this is due to the downturn in the economy, which strains state budgets and makes so-called ancillary operations like scholarly publishing expendable.

Some in university presses view this as a time to rally around the book as the focal point of scholarship and academic publishing. Part of the argument revolves around university presses as purveyors of hard ideas — ideas that push culture forward. Intellectual rigor, the hallmark of any good university or college, is also the driving force in university press publishing. This rigor is best reflected in full-length discussion of particular subjects.

Whatever the merits of books, this argument neglects to address fully the current financial and technological challenges. Disruptive technologies -- the Internet and digital information networks -- have made the printed book less important. Information gatherers have found an abundance of material on their desktops. More important, the psychology of getting information is driven by quick searching and the generation of instantaneous results. Trying to change users’ actions under continual technology improvements is futile.

Expanding university press publishing into the areas that are driving the current educational and research enterprises -- science, engineering, technology, etc. -- is definitely an option that must be explored. In fact, these disciplines were on the forefront of ushering in new forms of communication highlighted by arXiv, an e-print service in the fields of physics, mathematics, non-linear science, computer science, quantitative biology and statistics. University presses, except for the few Überpresses whose reputation transcends their parent universities, must also be concerned with aligning their interests with the strengths of their home institutions. By doing so, they become a vital tool in branding and marketing. Forays into tertiary fields are not strategic or sensible.

While moving into STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) publishing and producing cutting-edge textbooks – another idea of those who favor a continued emphasis on books -- would improve presses’ financial performances and provide them greater credibility, ready capital is not available to presses. Parent institutions or foundations would have to pump millions into the scholarly publishing business to jump start these programs. Commercial publishers have much deeper pockets and can offer richer services to their authors.

I had a recent conversation with a prominent engineering dean. He wanted to know why I was visiting, since his faculty was intent on getting published in Elsevier journals. I wasn’t the least bit surprised, but did mention perhaps some of his faculty might write “little books” on very narrow subjects. Basically, these books would be an extension of an existing journal article or an adaptation of class notes with the purpose of covering a topic, but keeping in line with the way faculty communicate in those fields. He thought the idea might work, but reminded me that his faculty was immersed in teaching and research, so that finding spare time for an endeavor that had negligible tenure impact would be hard.

University presses must move away from focusing on books or any one method of distribution. While I was at Purdue University Press we published a book entitled 100 Years of Change in the Distribution of Common Indiana Weeds (the title came with a free CD for easy searching). Weeds found their way across the state along highways and railroads — distribution networks. Likewise current scholarly information is a product of the channels available, including libraries, digital repositories, wikis, blogs, and social networks. The absolute growth in digital resources impacts the creation of information as well as the completed work. A scholarly monograph might be the end product, but we must realize that the pathway itself has hard information that scholars want to access, too.

University presses must become part of the new information infrastructure of the university. Presses must partner with departments, centers, and scholars to publish groundbreaking materials. University presses need to be good listeners. The university press editorial board, if made up of a diverse cross-section of faculty members, is a way to initiate this process. At board meetings, interactions have led to the discovery of programs that are being run independently at various schools that could be made much more vital through cooperative efforts.

I do not doubt that the book will continue to exist as a part of the scholarly enterprise. When television disrupted radio, radio survived. When the Internet disrupted television, television survived. When digital networks disrupted libraries, libraries have survived. All of the survivors have had to adjust to the new reality. Digital device are disrupting the traditional book. University presses have to show how vital they can be to their parent universities’ strategic direction. Traditional books cannot drive the answer any longer.


Thomas Bacher is director of the University of Akron Press.

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