Scholarly Presses Confront an Increasingly Digital Present

June 20, 2010

Hyperabundance and the future of the long-form argument, how and what libraries buy, and e-books, e-books, e-books: Those topics were front and center at the annual conference of the Association of American University Presses, held here from Thursday through Sunday.

With 525 people registered—far larger than the association's meeting in Philadelphia last year, when the recession and tight budgets kept numbers in the mid-400s—it was a large and fairly upbeat group. The meeting's official theme was "Toward a Sustainable Future," but it might just as well have been called "The Increasingly Digital Present and How to Cope With It."

The program was praised by many attendees in part because it focused on digital how-to: how to make and market e-books, and how to work with libraries that want everything in electronic form. It's far too early to say that most or even many university presses have made the transition from a print-based world to an electronic one. But most have now recognized that they have to figure out what that transition will look like for their particular presses if they want to keep publishing.

The publishers who traveled here made it clear that they came to get hands-on tips and to find out what other presses are doing. The Chronicle heard variations on "Nobody knows what they're doing" over and over again during the meeting. Usually it was said in a "what can you do but experiment?" vein. More than 80 press personnel showed up for a pre-meeting workshop on e-book-publishing strategies organized by Alan Harvey, deputy director and editor in chief of Stanford University Press.

Tim Barton, president of Oxford University Press, shared some of the digital lessons his press has learned at a plenary session on "Sustainability and the Future of Scholarly Communication." He advised his fellow publishers to understand technology but not to try to make their presses into technology companies. "Too much or too little technology is dangerous," he said. "Getting technology right is really difficult, and mistakes are expensive."

A Push to Try New Things

A cadre of digitally-minded scholars and librarians who have explored nontraditional publishing was on hand to urge presses to try new things. "If somebody can tell you what the models are that work, they're lying to you. Nobody knows," Alexander M.C. Halavais, an associate professor of interactive communications at Quinnipiac University, told the audience at a plenary session on "Digital Humanities Is Not an Oxymoron." "But doing the same thing you're doing now is not a good long-term strategy."

Recognizing that, the association last year asked several senior press directors to form a committee to take a look at economic models for scholarly publishing. The panel, led by Lynne Withey, director of the University of California Press, presented a rough draft of its report at the conference. Book publishing "is only beginning the transition from print to digital formats," the draft report states, "and that transition is likely to be messier than what we have experienced with journals."

But the report also goes into a fair bit of detail about digital projects and products that university presses have already been testing out: combining digital and print-on-demand models, and providing publishing services as well as publishing books. It also sounds a note of alarm about "a new crisis in scholarly publishing, and perhaps a new crisis in the scholarly-communications ecosystem itself." The draft observes that university presses don't have the wherewithal to publish much of the "worthwhile but experimental projects" that innovative scholars are producing.

The report also took note of the growing interest in the idea of e-book consortia that would bring different presses' scholarly titles together and sell them to libraries.

"Librarians want to buy e-books, and they want to buy them now," said Alex Holzman, director of Temple University Press. Mr. Holzman spoke at a panel designed to give an update on one consortium being organized by the presses at New York University, Rutgers University, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania with some money from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

More than 50 presses have expressed interest in the scheme, which the organizers hope to have up and running by the end of next year—but the project may well face some stiff competition. According to the draft report of the committee on economic models, Project MUSE plans to add university-press e-books to its offerings, and JSTOR has been talking to presses about adding e-books to its portfolio as well. The report said that project could go live as early as January 2011. Those competing projects could test the generally collaborative spirit in which university-press publishers have approached the trials of going digital.

Beyond the practical questions, there was a philosophical slant to the conference, too. The publishers wondered and worried about the future of the long-form argument—e.g., the scholarly monograph. How will it survive in an era of quick Internet searches and piecemeal reading? Nicholas G. Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, wasn't in Salt Lake City, but his argument that the Internet is killing off "deep reading" came up several times.

At a freewheeling session on "information hyperabundance," the audience wrestled with how society ought to deal with the flood of data coming at us. Michael J. Jensen, director of strategic Web communications for National Academies Press, talked about how publishers and the rest of us are up against "a whole industry of distraction engines" that wants us to surf the Web, play video games, and generally do anything but read a book.

How can scholarly publishers, in the business of publishing long arguments, compete? Half-jokingly Mr. Jensen said, "So we're going to start, right here, the slow-information movement."