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When the Book Is Too Big, Are Online Supplements a Good Idea?

Photo courtesy of marlèned

In book publishing, each project begins with a financial projection that takes into account everything that affects costs and revenues: the number of words and illustrations in the manuscript, author royalties, subventions from financing bodies, printing costs, estimated sales, and so on. The trick is to juggle all these data until the math adds up to at least the minimum acceptable profit.

If it doesn’t, the editor must tinker, adjusting anything that can be adjusted while still meeting the publisher’s standards. Maybe the color insert can go. The print run might be reduced.

One cost-cutting measure that can make sense is to put ancillary materials online, directing readers of the printed book to the URL. University Presses have been doing this for quite some time with happy results. But like many obvious solutions that appear simple at first glance, this one raises a number of questions that any editor or writer must consider before making a commitment.

Is the information essential to the book’s viability?

Executive Editor John Tryneski at the University of Chicago Press sensibly asks, “Essential to whom? In academic publishing there will always be a subset of readers for whom the materials are a very important part of the scholarship.” As an example he points to UCP’s forthcoming Leo Strauss on Moses Mendelssohn, translated and edited by Martin D. Yaffe, which will feature online 100 pages of Leo Strauss’s translations of Moses Mendelssohn’s works from Hebrew into German. Depending on a reader’s language skills and field of study, the translations will range from mandatory to useless, but in academe if work has value for some, it’s reason enough to publish.

Who will host the materials online, the author or the publisher?

Mr. Tryneski and his colleague, Electronic Marketing Manager Dean Blobaum, agree that from the publisher’s point of view it’s best for the publisher to host the pages, since they are better able to ensure long-term stability. Mr. Tryneski notes, however, that authors routinely prefer to host their own work for reasons of control, but then either fail to carry through or fail to maintain the site for more than a short while.

Will the content be edited and designed to the publisher’s standards? If so, who pays?

Design and presentation reflect on the publisher. “What if the author’s own site amounts to a crass billboard?” asks Mr. Blobaum. “If you have a URL in a book for additional material, you don’t want to hit users up the side of their virtual head with a promotional site.” But if the material is extensive enough that it caused budget issues in the first place, editing and designing it will be not be cheap. Even when the publisher expects to pay, the additional time and money have to come out of one department’s budget or another’s, and related workflow issues must be resolved.

What level of sophistication in the presentation is a goal?

Not all writers have the technical skills to manipulate electronic data gracefully, and materials that were prepared for print publication aren’t automatically Web-ready. Mr. Blobaum points out, for example, that writers usually want their content to be searchable. “Search is so universal that users think it must be easy,” he says, “but some types of content make specific and special demands on search technology.”

Who will update it when necessary?

Writers may prefer to host materials themselves to make corrections and updates easier. If the publisher hosts the material, changes will undoubtedly take a little longer. Some publishers may resist the idea of making changes at all. Both parties—and ideally the contract—should be clear on this issue.

What happens when technologies change?

Mr. Blobaum points to an example where an author paid for the programming of materials hosted by the publisher, but IT staff have since then rewritten the site twice because the original programming language was no longer supported by their Web server.

In an age where every reader is a publisher, and posting online can be done while waiting at the bus stop, it’s easy to assume that professional publishers can slam together an e-book or Web site in their sleep. It’s good to remember that scholarly texts and appendixes can have complexities that require time and technical skill to publish, whether in print or online.

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