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.