Monday, October 22, 2007

Bringing Publishing into the Computer Age

A couple of years ago in an undergraduate seminar class about the Enlightenment, my professor told the class most academic books published by historians are lucky to earn their author $100. I was a little surprised by this. Why spend the hundreds of hours to produce something that will bring you no monetary gain? A labour of love (tenure seeking), no doubt.

Then I wondered, if you are not going to earn any money for it, why not give it away?

That's exactly what some people have done. Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig's book,Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web is the perfect example of this. The book appears on the Center for History and New Media website, which is an ongoing project of Dan Cohen's at George Mason University. If you enjoy the book and are interested in purchasing it, the site tells you places where you can do this, however, if you're a cheapskate, there it is for free.

So why don't more professors give away their work? Perhaps it's because they fear the internet's impermanence, have been taught not to trust it, or routinely teach their students not to trust it. Perhaps they have always wanted to see their name on a hardcover. Or, maybe they have a secret hope that their book will fly off the shelves and they'll be the lucky ones who make money off their efforts.

Then I wondered again; if the author isn't making any money off of the book they wrote, why on earth did I just pay $43 for it?

Either someone is making money on this book (though I can hear the publishing industry crying out that it's not them), or there is far too much overhead involved in producing these academic works. So I have a suggestion, inspired by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig's book - which is an excellent example of online book-formatting, and by JSTOR, the online, password protected academic journal repository. If Universities can and do buy access to huge repositories to add to their collections, why does the publishing industry not produce and protect new academic works in the same way?

It seems so simple. The author researches and writes. The publisher edits and formats and uploads an unchanging version of the work to a repository. The university buys rights with instructions to password-protect the content from outsiders - just as JSTOR and other repositories such as Early English Books Online are protected. Academic integrity is maintained because the publishing house applies its logo just as it would to a hardcopy version of a book and promises not to alter the content.

RSS feeds could be set up to search the internet for randomly selected sentences from the work; any time the sentence was found on an unauthorized website, the publisher could quickly check the site to see if copyright had been infringed upon. And for those private citizens who are interested, e-copies of the book could be sold online much as MP3 files are sold.

Libraries already have budgets for purchases, and by the sounds of things, libraries and a few professors around the world are the only ones likely to buy your book anyway. So in stead of a research library spending $50 on one book, they could spend $50 000 to have access to all works published by a certain publishing house. Library content would swell without taking up space; the future generation of increasingly computer savy researchers will be happy they don't have to trudge into campus to go to the library to get a book for their research; the publishing industry doesn't disappear; with less overhead, there might be more money to pass on to the author. And, there might be a few more trees.


Abi Louise said...

Really enjoyed reading this post (and the rest of your blog)! I'm currently studying in my final year at the University of Hertfordshire and am undertaking a module called "Digital History" taught by Tim Hitchcock so reading this has been really insightful. I think an interesting point is how books seem to have a greater authority compared to history that has been made publicly accessible on websites.

Adam Crymble said...

Hi Abi,

Good to hear from you. The authority question is, I think, a matter of opinion. There are scores of historians out there who wouldn't consider something printed on paper more valuable than something on a website. It's something I'm sure will take time to change as people tend to have ideas ingrained in their minds that they keep with them throughout their whole careers.

You might consider asking Tim Hitchcock how the Old Bailey Online is perceived in terms of the authority it holds within the academic world. You can't buy that in book form, but it certainly has led to an explosion of research that would not have occured had it not been made available online.