2 New Digital Models Promise Academic Publishing for Profit

October 02, 2008

Scholarly publishers are well aware that more and more readers and libraries want to get hold of monographs in electronic form. The trick has been how to deliver content digitally without going out of business. Two new models—one with an open-access component, one without—should help publishers test out ways to adapt and, maybe, thrive.

Late last month, Bloomsbury Publishing announced that it was expanding into the scholarly realm with a new imprint, Bloomsbury Academic. Bloomsbury is J.K. Rowling's British publisher, and its pursuit of more cerebral fare could be read as a vote of confidence in academic publishing's prospects.

What makes Bloomsbury Academic really intriguing, though, is what the publisher calls its "radically new model." The imprint will make all its titles immediately available online, downloadable and free of charge, using Creative Commons licenses. It will also sell them as print-on-demand books.

"What I believe—and this is what we're putting to the test—is that as you're putting something online free of charge, you may lose a few sales, but you'll gain other sales because more people will know about it," said Frances Pinter, Bloomsbury Academic's publisher.

Ms. Pinter, the former publishing director of the Soros Foundation, approached Bloomsbury with the idea. Some research organizations have tried out similar hybrid models, she said, and found them sustainable, even profitable. She cited the example of HSRC Press, the publishing arm of the Human Sciences Research Council, in South Africa. "They have been doing this for a couple of years, and they have seen their sales increase by 240 percent," Ms. Pinter told The Chronicle.

Bloomsbury Academic hopes to have 50 books available by the end of 2009. It will focus at first on humanities and social-sciences books that have what Ms. Pinter called "broad geographical interest," including work in social policy and ethics.

Ms. Pinter pointed out that "we're not talking about massive risk per project." But she has an eye on the ideological stakes.

"I'm tired of the divide between open-access people who have nothing but disdain for publishers, and publishers who don't really know how to take a few risks and try some new models," she said. She would like Bloomsbury Academic to demonstrate that publishers can add editorial value to scholarship without having to choose between locking it down or giving it all away.

A Common Platform for Publishers

University presses, meanwhile, now have another cost-effective new model to try out. On September 25, the Association of American University Presses announced that it had struck a deal with Tizra Inc., an e-publishing service provider, to give member presses discounted access to Tizra's Publisher platform.

Tizra provides what is sometimes called "agile software" or "software as a service." The company's Web site describes Tizra Publisher as a "Web-based software service that lets content owners create branded commerce Web sites from existing content, with complete control over branding, merchandising, and sales terms"—a sort of glorified Movable Type for publishers. Content—university-press monographs, for instance—is hosted on Tizra's servers, but how it looks and how it is distributed are up to those providing the content.

Like blogging software, Tizra Publisher is designed to be easy to use and adaptable.

And it works with PDF files—a key selling point. Most publishers wind up with PDF versions of monographs as part of the print-production process. One head scratcher for presses has been how to repurpose those somewhat unwieldy files for online distribution. (The phrase "dreaded PDF format" exists for a reason.)

Tizra doesn't require an investment in high-priced technology or legions of IT helpers. Presses don't have to convert files to a more flexible XML format or invest scarce resources in custom-designed software. "There's a tremendous amount of efficiency in it for the publishers," said David Durand, Tizra's chief executive.

The critical thing for publishers now, Mr. Durand said, is "to get up and actually take some action, not think about the model. They have to experiment with models."

"People are waiting for the jump-start," he said, "and we're trying to get around the barrier that keeps people from jump-starting things."

So far, according to Tizra and the Association of American University Presses, university presses are responding to that invitation. Tizra is holding a series of fully subscribed Webinars this month to show publishers what "agile software" can do for them.

Meanwhile, MIT Press has already begun using Tizra as a platform for CISnet, a subscription-based e-book site that it calls "an electronic library" of more than 150 of the press's computer-science titles.

CISnet went live in late September. "Tizra just offered us a really easy way to collect another subject area and sell it on a subscription model." said Gita Manaktala, marketing director of MIT Press's books division.

There have been a few glitches with getting the site design and content display right, but Tizra has been "very responsive," she said. "They have some unique selling points in being small and having what they call an agile PDF format."

They'll need that agility. "I used to joke that I was going to wear a T-shirt to BEA [BookExpo America] and Frankfurt [the Frankfurt Book Fair] saying, 'Tell me about your digital-content solution,' because there are a lot of people trying to sign up publishers," Ms. Manaktala said.