The Perfect Storm Gathers Strength

It’s not really news that electronic publishing is wrecking havoc on the traditional publishing industry. In fact, it’s such old news, that I feel a little funny even writing a post about epublishing. But this past weekend, it became clear to me just how doomed academic publishers are.

What happened to finally convince me that it’s time for university presses and other publishers of the conventional academic monograph to give up completely on the analog book as a source of revenue (or more likely a source of losses these days)? Recently, I wrote about the publication of Hacking the Academy (edited by my colleagues Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt). In that post, I mused about wishing for an epub version of the book so I could read it on my iPad and presto!, Mark Sample made one and posted it up for me and anyone else who wanted it.

How could it be so simple, I wondered?

Anyone who knows me knows that of all the key staffers at CHNM, my tech skills probably rate at the bottom of the heap. I can write some wicked html (does anyone still do that?) and know just enough php and MySQL to be dangerous. And I can make PhotoShop do everything I want it to (which isn’t all that much). Other than that, I’m pretty sad when it comes to real tech skills. For instance, I can’t remember the last time I actually saw the command line on my laptop screen.

So I approached the whole question of how to create an ebook with some real trepidation. It must be difficult, at least for people like me with not much in the way of serious tech skills. Or so I thought.

Instead, it turned out to be shockingly easy to create an epub that looked very good when ported over to my iPad. It was so easy, that it became clear to me just how liitle I need a press to publish my work. Of course, I’m not the only one who has come to this revelation–in fact, I’m coming to it pretty late in the game. But the very fact that I could go from knowing nothing to publishing a nice looking ebook in about three hours shows just how low the bar has gotten when it comes to publishing one’s work in a format now widely accepted in the marketplace.

How did I do it? I downloaded the free program Sigil and started copying and pasting text into it. Because Sigil uses a WYSIWYG editor, it couldn’t be much easier to use. My test case was ten entries from this blog, which I simply copied into the editing window and in minutes I had created a book from my posts. The book had chapters, a table of contents, and page numbers, all at the click of a mouse. Adding an image to the cover turned out to be more difficult than I thought–remember, limited tech skills–but I’ve seen how it’s done and am confident that with another hour or so on my hands, I can do it. The final product needs some cleaning up and I’ll probably end up changing the fonts, but if I weren’t picky about the look and feel, I could publish it online right now.

If I can create a book in under three hours from text I’d already written, imagine what this means for the scholarly endeavor. We all know how it used to work. A scholar completes the research and writing of a book, sends proposals around to appropriate presses, one of them issues a preliminary contract and sends the book out to readers, the readers report in, the editorial board decides whether or not to publish the book, if the answer is yes, the book goes into production (and maybe still editing) and about a year or even two years after the scholar mailed out his or her proposals to publishers, a book appears at last. Journal editors receive free copies which they dutifully farm out to reviewers, who take their sweet time writing their reviews, which then appear sometime (we hope) within a year of the date of publication of the book.

Now imagine an alternate universe where the scholar completes the research and writing of a book, identifies two to four experts in the field, sends them the manuscript for review, gets feedback, makes any suggested changes he/she feels are warranted, maybe hires a grad student in the English department to read the whole thing for typos and syntax problems, then ports the text over into a ebook creator like Sigil, fusses with the formatting for a few weeks, and publishes the book on his/her website, and via various platforms such as iBooks, Amazon, Barnes&Noble, etc. Journal editors are notified of the publication of the new ebook and then send links to reviewers, requesting formal reviews. But the author also receives reviews over the transom on his/her website and so the process of peer review begins much more quickly.

Oh, and any profit from the sale of the work goes to the author, not the press. In the case of my first book, I’m guessing that might have added up to $500, i.e., $1 per book sold, but that’s still $500. And as a recent article in the Washington Post pointed out, some authors who follow my second model, cutting out the presses, are making a very good living writing and self-publishing.

But what about the peer review process you are wondering? In an interview I did back in 2008 with our Provost, Peter Stearns, a man who knows a thing or two about peer review, Stearns argued that peer review does not have to take place prior to publication to qualify as peer review. I agree with Stearns on this issue, because, it seems to me, what matters is the quality of the work and the quality of the peer review, not the order that these two things happen.

But no matter. The forces of disintermediation are already more powerful than the inertial forces holding the remnants of the scholarly printing industry together. And, like Shiva, they will blast the world asunder sooner rather than later. Now that I know how to publish an ebook, I no longer fear that perfect storm.


9 thoughts on “The Perfect Storm Gathers Strength

  1. Mark Sample

    Thanks for the shout-out on the epub version of Hacking the Academy. I used a combination of Open Office and Calibre, but had I known about Sigil, it would have done the job and then some. I can’t wait to play around with it for a small side project I’m working on.

    As for the big picture, I think you’re correct about the future of scholarly publishing. The technology and means of collaboration, distribution, and consumption are already there; only attitudes need to change now. And they will.

  2. Jeremy Antley

    Thank-you for writing this post. I’m still a graduate student and a big believer in opening my potential work up to larger audiences and embracing the new methods now made available. When I talk to other students and some professors (I study History) there seems to be little acknowledgement of the incredible shifting sands I see occurring in how academics produce and disseminate knowledge. Seeing established professionals take the attitude you espouse here is very refreshing.

  3. Mills Post author

    Jeremy: Thanks for this comment. More than a decade ago, when I was still seeking a tenure track job, I had the opportunity to do something digital in the then new world of what we were still calling the World Wide Web. I asked a friend and mentor, Stan Katz, what he thought I ought to do–a digital project, or a more conventional project. His response to me that day has guided my career since. Stan told me that he had tried to build his career based on what he thought he ought to do rather than on what others thought he ought to do. Things worked out for Stan (he was the long time president of the ACLS and is now at Princeton) and they have worked out for me.

    I decided way back in the late 1990s that I was going to hitch my wagon to the future rather than the past, a decision that was not without significant professional risk. And it’s worth noting that I was in the generation who still had to do both — conventional history and digital history — in order to advance in my career. Thus, I published a number of articles in key journals in my field, and a book from my dissertation. I’m proud of that work and still am very glad I did it. But I also have done a lot of work in the realm of digital history that I am equally proud of.

    This is all by way of saying that I think Stan’s advice to me in the late 1990s is still good advice today. But you should also remember that free advice is never worth more than what you pay for it.

  4. John Randolph

    While the ‘smoking hot off the presses we’re puttin’ it on wax now!” model you describe has many advantages, I am often troubled by the disrespect that often creeps in (in such proposals) for traditional publishing’s skills. Here the tell is the following sentence:

    “maybe hires a grad student in the English department to read the whole thing for typos and syntax problems”

    I realize that increasingly publishing houses do bad editing, because of financial pressures and a general demoralization. That said, a book that’s meant to be read needs good editing, which isn’t something you farm out to available cheap labor, but something you trust to professionals who are paid for their skills.

    I realize the whole Internet ethos is, you start with dross and gradually spin it into gold through umpteen variations and crowd sourcing. I also realize that (although it’s not really said here fully) Internet publications aren’t really meant to be read, at least not in the way people used to read. But I think that should be blazoned out, as well.

    Thus: 1) an internet publishing culture that acknowledges its choices and limitations; 2) one that can simultaneously recognize what might be being lost along the way.

  5. Mills Post author

    Hi John:

    Thanks for the response on this. It’s true that peer review first has many advantages over peer review after, but I still think we are inordinately wedded to the process we know and are used to. And it’s not as though other domains of scholarship don’t use peer review processes different from ours in the humanities and social sciences.

    For instance, in the sciences “research notes” are published constantly by scholars as their work unfolds in the lab, in the field, or wherever. These notes can be quite long, or very brief, and are subject not only to peer review, but to rigorous testing by other scholars of the results, observations, or conclusions. Being able to publish these notes online has increased the velocity of scientific research by several orders of magnitude.

    Because the lag time between the completion of a work of history and its final appearance in print is so inordinately long, and then the further lag between the appearance of a book and the publication of the reviews in print is even longer, the work can be woefully out of date, or the scholar may have moved on entirely to a new and different project, by the time the final peer review is complete.

    Will there be plenty (too much) dreck online in an epub format if we follow the “smokin’ hot off the presses, we’re puttin’ it on wax now” model? Sure. But the last time I checked the shelves in our library, there was plenty of dreck there as well. I guess I’d rather have my dreck sooner than later.


  6. John Randolph

    Obviously, as regards peer review, there’s a lot to say, but as you pointed out rightly earlier, most of it has already been said: arguments over whether all this is inevitable, more ethical, consistent with other disciplines (and whether disciplines like botany and history should have the same publishing processes), etc. have already been talked out and I certainly don’t have much to add to that. I also like, in a general way, the idea of insta-publishing for certain things, agreeing with you on some of its advantages. I’m also convinced that we would have to send John Connor back in time to stop it, and we don’t have that technology yet.

    So: let the presses smoke!

    That said, what I was trying to get at was not the general question of whether peer review or academic publishing houses must remain the only venue for publication; rather, I was simply trying to argue that there are very real trade offs and choices occurring, that often get disguised by the enthusiastic and ‘win-win’ language surrounding the move to new publishing paradigms. And while I hate to be the sour one criticizing optimism, let me point out that it’s a lot easier to destroy than to create; that once we have agreed that software makes professional editing obsolete and DIY layout is as good as the real thing, it’ll be hard to get the professions that actually do those things back. There are a lot of jobs and traditions of knowledge at stake here, and I think it can sometimes be easy to be a little cavalier about that. I’m in favor of hedging our bets a little by being more respectful about the differences between the two kinds of publishing, and recognizing that it doesn’t have to be (de facto) win-lose.

    As to the whole dreck question, it seems a bit unfair to compare library dreck to internet dreck, since libraries have been slowly accumulating dreck for thousands of years, while the internet has only been around for a couple of decades.

    I also wonder (and here’s a research question I’d be glad if someone has the answer to): has the web suspended the law of first impressions (here I have in mind primarily humanities scholarship)? By and large, people have tended to judge a work based on its initial or at least early incarnations. Will we move to a world in which — say — a scholar can expect to have his or her work read again and again until he or she gets it right? I’m not sure the sciences analogy holds in this case. If I claim to have discovered nuclear fusion 30 times, failing the first 29, I can be pretty sure of getting attention on number 30, as the finding is primarily of fact. But if I’m shooting to mount a new interpretation of (say) the French revolution, and I hem and haw through the first 29 takes, can I expect my final draft to matter?

    Has anyone done research on this?

  7. John Randolph

    Sorry to come back to this, but here’s an article that captures some of what I mean:

    I guess for every very successful DIY author — or every person who has a tenured job to do DIY — we have to think a little about the loss of jobs of people who used to do things, maybe even better than we can do them, for money, but now don’t. Although the old publishing world is often demonized as the aristocratic world of gate keepers, one could argue that the digital economy is producing an equally if not more gilded age of haves and have nots — in part by getting us to agree to cheaper substitutes for professional labor.

  8. Mills Post author

    Interesting article. Thanks for suggesting it. Alexandra Petri wrote something in a similar vein in her blog on the site this week. You also make an interesting point about what the DIY economy may mean for the academic economy. I’m a believer that the disintermediation the digital economy is causing is having a big impact on higher education, so why should the academic labor market be any different? I wonder, for instance, who is teaching all the online courses that pop up seemingly like weeds after a rain? Are these also being outsourced? I think it’s too early to tell what this all means in higher education, in part because it’s just not clear yet how willing students will be to continue purchasing what we are selling them in the ways we currently offer it. A decade from now, we may look back to see that not much has changed, or that really significant changes have occurred. I think it’s just too soon to tell.

  9. Pingback: ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Comments are closed.