An Advocate for Electronic Publishing

Alex Holzman, director of Temple University Press, advocates electronic publishing in this excerpt from his speech at the 2009 Association of American University Presses Annual Meeting

There is no question that the current distribution system for book-length academic scholarship is broken.  We live in a print world that this year saw returns spike as never before.  I watched in both horror and genuine fascination as our March returns at Temple hit close to ninety percent.  And our overall returns for the year will be close to one-third.  Think about that.  Even with reduced print runs we continue to live in a world where the books go out, then get returned, then go out, then get returned.  Great for FedEx and UPS and Yellow Freight, not so much for us or the environment.  When we do sell a book for a course, it often is sold back to the bookstore that sold it, then resold at a price that helps the student save a little money and helps the bookstore bottom line, but cuts out both author and publisher who created the product in the first place.  So it has been in my thirty-plus years in publishing and so, many have said, it must always be.

Not any more.  Suddenly this year e-books have become increasingly attractive, in the first instance to us and, I’m finding, to librarians.  Several of our members—Cambridge, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Stanford via Highwire, to name a few—are investigating new ways to offer e-books from multiple presses to librarians.  Commercial entities like Ingram and Baker & Taylor are also gearing up.  And so I am inclined to say don’t even bother to try to fix the old system—let’s invent a new one!

(Full disclosure—NYU, Rutgers, Penn, and Temple have just received a Mellon grant to investigate how best to establish a university press e-book platform and do so quickly.)

Why a new system and why now?  Because I can see an e-world—always backed up by print on demand, by the way—where we save most PP&B costs, where there are no returns and no used books, and where the varieties of ways to sell, rent, or rent-to-buy are subject only to what the market tells us it wants.  I am thinking not only of libraries, where this should and will take place first, but also all the course adoptions that now form the bread and butter of our backlists.  Being an optimist, I also see such a system eventually being used to pick and choose on chapter as well as book level—a plus for faculty—and being easy enough to use that illegal use of such materials on Blackboard will no longer be worth the effort or provide a sufficient cost-saving.

Are there things to work out?  Yes, and a lot of them and it won’t be easy.  First the models for libraries to purchase, the implementation of a manageable approval process, the achievement of critical masses of university press materials on just a few—but not just one—site, the servicing and archiving of files.  Extend the system to students and there are questions concerning how students pay, where they pay, what they get exactly.  That is, a downloadable file?  Web access for a semester?  Something else?

Yes, there are vast details to work out but for the first time I believe the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.  Imagine for a moment a new system where libraries have a more workable means for buying monographs, students can save some money buying textbooks, and university presses are freed from returns and used books.  Three citizenries of the university all benefit from the change in system and we university presses fulfill our roles not only as university citizens but as those who are charged specifically with disseminating the best scholarship to the widest possible audience for the lowest possible price.  Not free and not open access because I don’t necessarily agree that free to end user is always the most desirable model, though I’m certainly open to it when it is.

This win-win-win vision is at this point utopian and I am aware of the pitfalls of utopian thinking.  But really—has anybody got a better idea?

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