In the Digital Era, Print Still Gets Plenty of Love From Scholars

New Orleans — Nothing gladdens a publisher’s heart more than hearing readers say they still like to buy books—and printed books at that. At the Association of American University Presses’ annual meeting, which wrapped up here this week, a panel of scholars talked about how much of their work was still print-based even as chatter at the conference focused on e-books, metadata, and new ideas about how to make it easier to publish monographs digitally.

The panel included associate and assistant professors as well as graduate students in the humanities and social sciences. They work with PDFs and e-books but made it clear they are still attached to the hold-it-in-your-hand, mark-it-up-with-a-pencil reading experience.

“I am a person who needs to write in books,” said Baird Campbell, a graduate student in Latin American studies at Rice University. Ditto with articles: “I do prefer to have a physical copy to write on.” His fellow panelists agreed that, for them and their students, printing out a hard copy of a PDF is often more appealing than trying to work with a digital copy.

Christopher Schaberg, an associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, said he appreciates well-done print books more now than before the rise of e-books. Mr. Schaberg is not averse to e-publishing; he is a co-editor of the Object Lessons book and essay series, which appears in both print and digital formats. But he pointed out that e-texts aren’t necessarily more efficient for teaching purposes; he recalled a class in which everybody had an iPad but it took much time to get all the students on the same page, so to speak.

Michele White, an associate professor of communications at Tulane University, talked about the travails of working with some digital books to which academic libraries buy (or rent) access—“things that acted like a bad book and then expired,” she said.

None of the panelists rejected e-books entirely. “I prefer to have a hard copy so I can write on it, but I’m trying to adapt,” said Sarah Fouts, a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American studies at Tulane.

Asked about the cost of open access—especially the so-called author-pays model, which puts the burden on the scholar to find a publishing subsidy—some panelists said they worried it would be too much for researchers in their fields.

They sounded less worried about whether publishing an open-access book would hurt their careers. Social media have already opened things up, Mr. Schaberg pointed out. “Twitter has had a leveling effect on the economy of prestige and reputation,” he said.

Ana Croegaert, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of New Orleans, pointed out that a bad book can appear in any format, under any imprimatur. “If it comes from a good press and it’s crap, it’s crap,” she said. “Sorry.”

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