A New Series: On Books, “The Book,” Writing, Etc.

So I’ve decided to start using my “category” function and start doing “series” on various things. The topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately is publishing — the state of the book, the way publishing works, debates about open access and the public status of scholarship, etc. I’ve also been collecting some odds and ends to scan and comment upon. And so, if this is interesting to you, great, and if not, feel free to skip.

I begin with a news item forwarded to my departmental listserv (a listserv, by the way, which I am not supposed to publically acknowledge exists — oops!) by Tobias:

Rice University Starts An All-Digital Press

Here’s a quote:

Henry estimated that the start-up costs and annual operating expenses will be one-tenth of those associated with traditional publishing, which can include unsold inventory of physical books and a lengthy editorial process.

Yes, thes software will be open source, but notably the published material will not be open access. At least, that’s not how they’re talking. They’re talking about cost savings and likely they plan to charge their readers and libraries. The thing about cost savings and the internet is that the cost is usually passed on to someone else. Sure, professors can upload their own text to the press. But that’s basically saying the professors should perform for free typesetting labor that used to cost money. It cost money because someone was compensated for the work.

Or on-demand printing. Who’s going to do the printing? If it’s me, the reader, the press just offloaded another cost. And I’m not going to sit and read a whole article (yes, I really do print it out off JSTOR if I’m going to read it seriously), much less a whole book, on my computer screen or on my iPod for that matter.

I am in full favor of entirely digital publishing, but publishers and institutions are going to have to recognize that there are real costs associated with publishing that have to do with the work involved, and not with the arrangement of physical stuff (and let’s not forget that bits have a certain materiality as well). Rice’s initiative reads to me like more like the cold calculation of a dot com capitalist than an attempt to overcome the limits of paper publishing in the service of disseminating knowledge.

3 replies on “A New Series: On Books, “The Book,” Writing, Etc.”

  1. I spend all day reading on my computer monitor. When I’m not at my monitor, I often read on my Palm. This semester, I assigned Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and the Freakonomics book. When it came time for the orientation, I realized I didn’t actually own the books as “books” … I’d bought them and downloaded them as digital files for my Palm.

    I have no idea what this means. I did go buy hard copies of the two books, so I’d have something to wave at the students.

  2. Given the quotes the reporter selected for the article, she might as well have offered to write a press release for Rice: very competent speaking out of both sides of the mouth — “information should be free!” rhetoric + good old fasioned capitalist biz speak — “cutting production costs” (which always means labor costs).

    I’m with you on printing stuff out to read it seriously. When I have to work through a contract or a decision, I have to go at it with a pen and be able to spread the damned thing on my desk.

    Employers are increasingly preferring to deliver union contracts electronically rather than agreeing to print and distribute them (as was the case in many, many old- and not-so-old school contracts). But there is a real educational and organizing importance to each working having in her possession a small, well-indexed copy of the contract (issues of computer access and literacy aside!) which employers recognize and are working against, citing, as always, cost savings or efficiency as their cover.

  3. Wow, that’s devious on their part, since it an electronic contract greatly decreases the chances that union members will read the whole thing. . . .

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