Monday, June 18, 2007

Digital Publishing

This is an interesting article about academic publishing and its continuing transition to dogital publishing.

Changes and Challenges in Publishing World Dominate Talk at University-Press Association's Meeting
Chronicle of Higher Education
Monday, June 18, 2007


A surprise request for proposals from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a forthcoming report on university publishing in the digital age, and conjecture about who will be the next director of the University of Chicago Press: Those were lively subjects of discussion at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, which concluded here on Sunday. Some 575 university-press representatives turned out for the conference, according to Peter J. Givler, the association's executive director.

Paula Barker Duffy, who retires as the director of the University of Chicago Press on July 1, was not among those present. But the identity of her successor was the subject of eager speculation, with an announcement expected as soon as next week. SUNY Press was also reported to be in the final stages of its search for a new director, along with the University Press of New England, Mr. Givler said.

A Tantalizing Pitch

The late-arriving offer from the Mellon Foundation concerns support for collaborative, monograph-centered projects in underserved areas of the humanities.

On Thursday afternoon, the conference's first day, press directors and higher-level editors gathered to hash out the specifics of the offer, which was extended in May in a letter to the directors of all U.S.-based university presses. In the letter, Harriet Zuckerman, senior vice president of the foundation, laid out "a new initiative aimed at encouraging the publication of excellent scholarly monographs (typically first books by younger scholars in the humanities) which are important but fail to attract sufficient numbers of buyers to make publication feasible."

Ms. Zuckerman's letter invites university presses to submit "collaborative proposals" for monograph projects that would "create new opportunities for publication in underserved and emerging areas of humanistic scholarship." And it expresses the foundation's desire to "expand and encourage cooperation among university presses so that the risks (and rewards) of publishing monographs in designated fields and subfields can be shared."

"We have been told that informal cooperation already exists to some extent with respect to publication in certain underserved fields," Ms. Zuckerman wrote. "It would make sense, we think, to build upon such cooperative arrangements by assisting presses in sharing such costly tasks as soliciting and reviewing manuscripts, editorial development, marketing, and special expenditures contingent upon the nature of the work (e.g., those requiring illustrations)."

Initial proposals are due by Wednesday and final versions by August 1. The foundation expects to select five to seven proposals and to provide them with an unspecified amount of financial support for three years.

With that vague but tempting offer on the table, press directors and editors buttonholed one another throughout the weekend to swap ideas about what might catch Mellon's eye. Almost everyone appeared eager to take advantage of the chance to dip into the foundation's deep pockets. But they expressed frustration at how little time they were given to come up with ideas, uncertainty about what Mellon really wanted, and skepticism about the foundation's broader intentions.

Ken Wissoker, editorial director of Duke University Press, wondered whether Mellon might be attempting a social-engineering experiment, with university-press culture as its subject. Leading a discussion on the subject, Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, summed up some publishers' concerns that the offer didn't really suit the culture of university presses and that it might reduce them to "mud-wrestling for monographs."

But he and Mr. Givler pointed to some "very attractive" features of the proposal as well, such as its focus on monographs and its appeal to smaller and midsized presses. Mellon has a reputation for going after big game, but "this is not just a proposal aimed at the top tier of presses," Mr. Givler said. It reflects "a new will at the foundation to support the work of smaller presses." If presses don't answer the call, he cautioned, "that's going to have future implications."

Throughout the weekend, press directors and editors kept up a steady stream of conversations about possible collaborations. Mr. Armato, for instance, and Alan G. Thomas, editorial director for humanities and sciences at the University of Chicago Press, raised the idea of a partnership in the history of photography. That's "an area where we compete vigorously for books but encounter a lot of barriers," including the high cost of permissions, Mr. Armato said. Several other presses expressed interest in that area as well.

Early modern studies, Latin American studies, and the history of science also came up several times as supposedly "underserved" areas that might offer good collaborative possibilities -- though publishers disagreed about what really counts as underserved.

Rice University Press, newly reborn as a digital-only enterprise (The Chronicle, July 14, 2006), and Stanford University Press had already agreed to try some joint ventures drawing on Rice's digital platform and Stanford's more traditional strengths. They've now decided to pitch some of those projects to Mellon as well, according to Alan Harvey, Stanford's associate director and editor in chief.

Digital Dilemmas

Mr. Givler, Mr. Armato, and others praised the Mellon proposal's focus on monograph projects without an obvious digital component. But throughout the conference, panelists and speakers continued to wrestle with many versions of the now-standard questions: What does it mean to publish books in a digital age? What about journals, open access, fair use, libraries? What business models and partnerships really stand a chance of working?

In a plenary talk about his experience helping get the new Rice operation off the ground, Charles Henry, vice provost and university librarian at Rice and president of the Council on Library and Information Resources, said that the humanities' insistence on the book as "the coin of the realm" had been one of the biggest stumbling blocks. "A lot of people whom I counted as friends and colleagues have been upset, hostile, even angry," he told the audience. "There's been tremendous resistance, in my experience, to publishing digitally."

"I still don't understand the head-in-the-sand view that the book is the absolute definitive artifact," said Mr. Harvey, whose press will be working with Rice on some joint ventures regardless of what happens with Mellon.

"We're sharing information for the academic community, and we happen to do it in book form," Mr. Harvey said. "Let's work with that content rather than trying to shoehorn everyone into producing that content through books." But he made it clear that Stanford is "still a book publisher, and we're going to carry on publishing books."

Penelope J. Kaiserlian, who is finishing up her stint as the association's president, gave a lunchtime talk on Friday in which she pointed to "a year of relative tranquillity and modest prosperity for most of our members." Ms. Kaiserlian is director of the University of Virginia Press. She underscored the significance of several major reports touching on the scholarly publishing world that came out over the past year, including the Modern Language Association's look at tenure and promotion and the "tyranny of the monograph" in that process (The Chronicle, December 7, 2006), the American Council of Learned Societies report on cyberinfrastructure in the humanities (The Chronicle, July 27, 2006), and a Mellon-supported report on the state of art-history publishing (The Chronicle, August 4, 2006).

Another Provocative Report Awaited

In an interview, Ms. Kaiserlian's successor, Sanford G. Thatcher, director of Penn State University Press, pointed to another report, set for publication next month, that he expects will make waves among university-press personnel.

That report, "Putting the University Back Into the University Press," was supported by two nonprofit groups -- JSTOR and Ithaka, and was put together by Laura Brown, a former president of Oxford University Press USA.

JSTOR maintains a digital archive of scholarly articles that universities and other subscribers can tap for a fee. Ithaka promotes the use of information technology in higher education.

Aimed at administrators and librarians as well as at press directors, Ms. Brown's report -- which is being called the Ithaka report -- should be out in early July. Draft portions have been circulating already. Among other things, the report is said to investigate whether a JSTOR model might work for monographs. And it has already raised interest, and eyebrows, among press editors.

"The impression the Ithaka report gives is that you have to be large-scale to succeed," Mr. Thatcher said. But it also invites presses to "rethink how they're going to make this jump into the digital age" and to think harder about how they fit into their university's research activities.

Taken with the Mellon call for proposals, Mr. Thatcher said, "the Ithaka report is a wake-up call."

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