Monday, 21 June 2010

Publishing in Future: Not an Oxymoron

On my way back over Atlantic airspace I am digesting lessons learned at this year's AAUP Meeting, and mapping out how I shall be using them in the coming weeks. Apart from connecting in person with some great contacts made online via Twitter (more of this later) my highlight of the meeting was, without doubt, the first half of the final plenary session: Digital Humanities is Not an Oxymoron - a provocative presentation from Alexander C. Halavais, Associate Professor of Interactive Communications at Quinnipiac University.

Halavais was an excellent choice of speaker for this audience. He is from the Academy (which most AAUP member presses exist to serve) and yet unafraid to challenge either the institution or the processes of scholarly publishing - or of scholarship itself. There can be few individuals brave enough to confess - in front of an audience of 500+ publishers - to having systematically destroyed thousands of books in his ownership (to scan them for personal use). Coming - as I do - from a professional life in the independent publishing sector I have always been somewhat mystified by a deep reverence for scholarship over profit (or at least break-even). It has always seemed to me that independent-mindedness is only truly independent if it is fiscally self-supporting. Therefore Halavais' ability to speak radically within the vernacular of his audience was illuminating to me. He used an iron fist wrapped within the most eloquent and witty of velvet gloves - and I'd recommend that anyone with an interest in the way text is used in the digitally connected academic world read the draft of his presentation available online. Unfortunately the sublimely subversive accompanying slide show is not there - but it would undoubtedly fall flat without the live narrative, which was a sequence of riffs improvised around the themes laid out in the written draft.

Halavais was full of pithy observations, one of the most striking of which was "publishing isn't about what you make - it is about what you do" (like all the best epigrams, a construction of elegant simplicity in its perception and accuracy). It is a phrase that all publishers would do well keep in mind through the turbulent times ahead of us.

It was clear from the discussions going on in and outside of sessions that for all of the angst that surrounds the future of printed books (and most particularly in this forum, printed scholarly books), many medium-sized American university press publishers are significantly ahead of their UK independent counterparts in embracing e-book formats. Three aspects of this situation struck me forcibly. Firstly, e-book distribution, particularly to libraries, brings with it actual usage statistics. And what those statistics reveal about (the lack of) usage of monographs in particular is - if not surprising - shocking. The fact that monograph publishing exists to support tenure and the structure of academic employment is an inconvenient truth that can no longer be glossed by either the Academy its associated University Presses. At some point the Academy is either going to have to stop expecting University Presses to fulfil this need, or find a more honest and transparent way of funding it. After all, publication by the for-profit sector (Wiley, T&F, Continuum, Rowman & Littlefield to name but a few) is as valid to academics for resume purposes as publication by a not-for-profit. And moreover if the likes of Wiley et al are willing to publish - it suggests that the book is meaningful enough for at least a few copies to be read within a year of publication.

Secondly, although e-books are firmly established in the academic publishing environment in the US - there seemed to be little discussion of the opportunities that this creates. The e-book is a new format largely bolted into an old business model. There was little talk of what can be learned from consumer data - and the opportunities for publishers that are created by the shortening of the supply chain to permit two-way publisher-consumer information flow.

The third (and related) striking aspect of these University Presses' relationships with e-books was that, by and large, there seemed to be an acceptance of the e-book as merely an electronic reproduction of the printed text. I heard virtually no discussion of enhanced e-books - or the unleashing of numerous possibilities for innovation that accompanies shifting text from the printed to the digital environment. And therefore no mention of the potential for creative new blended revenue streams that could be facilitated by the liberation of ideas from ink. I understand that there was a session "Designing in the E-book Era which did address some of these issues (to a packed crowd) - but I had chosen another of the concurrent sessions (thinking that this was a design and production session rather than a business strategy session). I am certainly hoping that next year's meeting in Baltimore might consider taking a look at new business models in more depth.

To revert to the discussion of and on Twitter - this meeting was undoubtedly enhanced (for those of us who tweet) by the #AAUP10 tweetstream- which provided subtext and counterpoint to the formal presentations, not to mention a great deal of good natured teasing of this year's programme organiser, the urbane, charming and seemingly ubiquitous Greg Britton, Publisher at the Getty Foundation. (Indeed the AAUP owes a great debt to Britton and his program committee colleagues for picking up from last year's deeply gloomy recession-hit Philadelphia Annual Meeting and making a huge success this year.) I've been an intermittent Tweeter over the past few months - but the experience of #AAUP10 - and of meeting up face to face with tweeps such as @KatMeyer of #followreader and O'Reilly's Tools of Change, @brianoleary of Magellan Consulting and @susanmpls - all of whom I first connected with via Twitter - has reminded me of the extraordinary global connecting power of online discussion and networking. Certainly the AAUP's use of Twitter from Salt Lake City this weekend was more edifying than that of Utah's Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, who controversially used the medium to tweet his decision to give the go-ahead to an execution by firing squad (the first execution to take place in the state for many years). One could find few more startling snapshots of the sheer diversity of preset-day American culture.

A final takeaway from this year's meeting comes from Richard Brown of Georgetown University Press (with whom I have the privilege of working in my day job). Richard made a characteristically poised and thoughtful speech when accepting this year's AAUP presidency. "We are organisations in transition," he said. "And that's not going to stop. From now on perpetual transition will become as natural as the air we breathe." Publishing is an activity that has evolved at a leisurely pace since the invention of movable type and Brown's words summarise the challenge and the opportunities we all face whether we work in the scholarly sector, or elsewhere in the publishing industry.

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