The New University Press

The future of the book, and of the publishing industry, has far less to do with what you produce, and far more to do with enabling an ongoing conversation. This isn’t news to any of you, you live it. But it’s easy, in the midst of a project, to get seduced by the myth that all you do is take ideas and make them into physical objects. The work of scholarly publishing begins and ends in conversation, and always has.

Digitizing my personal library

Where does this leave books? I love books. In fact, I may love books too much. Each time I’ve moved, books made up 90% of the weight of the move; far more than that in my moves to and from Japan. I’m still paying off credit card bills for books I bought years ago and haven’t yet had time to read.

When I first started to rip my library, it didn’t come easily. Unlike ripping CDs, for most of my library going digital means literally ripping: destroying books in the process of scanning them. Even describing this process feels a bit–and this isn’t hyperbole–blasphemous. This is probably different for a publisher–after all, many of you end up destroying books as a matter of your trade–but for me, it is still not an easy thing to do.

First I cut the boards off, and then slice the bindings. I have tried a table saw, but a cheap stack cutter works better. Then I feed them into my little page-fed scanner, OCR them (imperfectly) in Acrobat, and back them up to a small networked attached storage device. This is a slow process: I only manage a few hundred books a year, at best. I’ve only just started experimenting with non-destructive scanning. My hope is that the industry and technology will catch up enough that I don’t have to keep this up.

So why am I doing it? There are lots of reasons. One is simply a matter of space. I live in a Manhattan apartment and have a one-year-old. I suggested to my partner that we keep the room we use as a library and let him sleep in the closet, but this didn’t go over well. More importantly, my home and my school office are now a sizable commute away from each other. It was hard enough to decide which books should go where when I lived only a few minutes from the university, but now it’s even more important that I can get at my library at either location. More to the point, I work with research groups on two coasts of the US, and spend a decent amount of time on the road or in the field. I need to be able to access not just journals, but books when I am travelling.

The second reason is that although I still do read books, starting on one end and ending at the other, I just as frequently “gut” them, reading the bits that I find most useful, often out of order, often in conjunction with other bits from other books. These days, when looking for something, I am less likely to page through a book than I am to do a keyword search. Even for the books that are not yet scanned, if Google Books has scanned them I can search them for a phrase half-remembered, find the page, and then pull it down from my shelves. My primary use of books these days is not to engage with them individually, but to see how they engage with the other books in my library and in my head.

My hope is that one day I can do even more with this. That I can move beyond keyword searching to do some level of concept mapping and networking authors’ ideas and citations. Maybe even imposing new structures–geographic, chronological, or social–that were not originally present. That day isn’t here yet, but having the books in a fungible form is a necessary prerequisite.

It’s worth noting here the things that I cannot do, because it’s important. I can no longer share my books with students and colleagues. Or rather I can, but if I do I tread on uncomfortably unstable legal ground. No one would object to my lending a book to a friend, but lending them the PDF of a book I’ve purchased is another question. As a result, my private library is essentially even more private than when I started. Which brings us to the field of digital humanities.

Digital Humanities

It’s clear that humanists work with texts. All academics work with texts, of course; scholarship is based in production and exchange of texts–otherwise it is not scholarship. But humanists also work with the idea of working with texts, and for that reason they have what may be a privileged perspective on the transition of scholarship in a networked world. And particularly important in this transition is a movement toward transliteracy, and an acceptance of the idea that scholarly expression happens on different platforms in different ways at different times and that ideas form pathways through these platforms.

The book–in its traditional ink on dead-trees format–remains one of these platforms. And I expect that in twenty years, I will still be able to walk into my local bookshop and plonk down a hundred dollars for a beautifully printed and bound book. After all, Western Union missed the boat on telephony and the internet, and still didn’t send its last telegram until 2006. Media have staying power. It’s true that I see Kindles and other electronic readers more frequently than bound books on flights these days, but there remain certain books that I will want to keep in bound form, for myself and for my son.

And even as the book is changing form, that change is not radical. Most of the ebooks we are talking about are really not that different than what we’ve been doing for two hundred years. And for those of us who write books, it’s a non-step. After all, we provide you with an e-manuscript, in the vast majority of cases. The step to electronic books is actually a pretty small one, though it is important in what it enables.

For the digital humanities, it has opened up new scales of analysis. The model of one person and one book is no longer the only way. Texts are no longer found only in books, and understanding them can be done in ways besides deep reading. None of this removes the possibility of studying books, or of studying them by reading them carefully and deeply. But having the material in electronic format allows for new perspectives, both by examining work at micro scales–the study of stylistics, for example–and at macro scales–the networking of books in a wider literature.

I’m most interested, however, in the ways in which making books electronic provides the opportunity to link them to other kinds of conversations that exist in the online world. Before talking a bit about what kinds of conversations I mean, I should pause for a moment to talk about whether we are all becoming a bit too shallow.

Your Brain Without Books

Nicholas Carr is in the news a lot lately promoting his new book, The Shallows. I had dinner with John Seeley Brown last week and he admitted he really couldn’t get further than the first few pages in the book. It’s easy to toss that off as situational irony, but I also have done no more than skim his new book, because once I noted some of the conclusions he was drawing from his evidence, I honestly found it not worth my time to engage it more deeply. I could learn more by investing my attention elsewhere.

He suggests that in order to write the book, he stopped following Facebook and Twitter. He relates what anyone who writes has known for many years: if you want to write, it’s good to shape your informational environment appropriately. In fact, I would suggest if you want to remain undistracted, a traditional library is perhaps the worst place to be. I’ve wasted hours at libraries and bookstores–wasted them enjoyably, but wasted them nonetheless.

This is not an argument against books; again, I am a book lover. But it is important, I think, to notice that books are a particular kind of conversation–and a peculiar one at that. If I were to tell you that I planned to talk to you today for three hours–and be assured, as a professor, I am perfectly capable of sustaining a three hour talk–most of you would walk out the door. One of the nice things about a book is precisely that you don’t have to read it deeply, that it is open to other uses, and that you can gut it intellectually just as easily as I am gutting my books physically.


This will be my first visit to the AAUP conference, and I don’t tend to spend a lot of time with those in the publishing industry. I guess I hold out some romantic hope that I will see some ink-stained hands, but I’m not counting on it. Some university presses may actually retain printing & binding facilities in-house, but I am also sure that is pretty unusual. At the other end, bookstores are now printing on demand, which raises the question of what a “press” does. It is far too easy to get tied up in the idea of product, when the only reason presses continue to exist is because of what they do really well: process.

Dan Cohen has a great blog post in which he discusses the social contract surrounding the book, one in which authors work with publishers to put together a work that is thoroughly researched, well structured, and presented well in terms of language and visual design. The readers, in turn, enter into the contract by being willing to attend to the work seriously, think about it, and incorporate it into their own work. He goes on to suggest that some of the elements of this contract, and particularly the fact that it allows for only one genre of scholarly communication, are flawed, but that the idea of a social contract between author and reader is not. It’s a matter of evolving that contract.

Part of that evolution is to recognize that the process of the book is as important as the product, and that a book finds its success in that process, and in the conversation that happens around that process. I don’t buy that many books these days, but I can tell you some that I know that I will. I know I’m going to buy Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence and Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Googlization of Everything. Both of these books were presented to the world before they were entirely baked, and are being reviewed openly by peers ahead of publication. Of course, we have always shared manuscripts and email has made this easier. But by making the process even more transparent, there is an opportunity for this to extend beyond the constraints of personal social networks. I’ll say more about that in a moment, because it is important. The other book I’m going to be buying is Hacking the Academy. The initial draft of this was written in seven days by a distributed group of over 200 authors who tagged their posts with a common hashtag. This is now being edited together to be presented as a cohesive work.

Part of the reason that I’m going to be buying these books is that I am already connected to them, before they have ever been printed. I’ve read the work in blog posts and in tweets, in conversations both in real life and online. To be crass about it, it is about the best possible marketing for a book you can imagine. It’s cheap, honest, and effective.

And the connections will extend beyond the physical manifestation of the books. Books are great for a lot of reasons: you can read them in the bath, you can cite them and know they will not change their mind, they work during power outages. But they also tend to freeze conversation in time and be difficult to update. Of course, it’s an author’s responsibility to make their text timeless, but timeless texts are not always good for scholarship. We may be reading Plato’s words a couple of millennia after he drank himself to death, but if he were around, he’d likely be the first to tell us we’re doing it wrong.

The ability to open up and recontextualize–even when that does not immediately happen–is vital. It futureproofs a text, and makes it more likely to be taken up by later authors and in later conversations. This means asking at each step in the process, Can this be more open? Can we invite more people to this conversation?

These are precisely the kinds of questions that are being asked in other places where scholarly communication happens. At conferences, folks are sharing work before, during, and after. I’m working with the Digital Media and Learning Hub at UCHRI to try to create a collaboratory that provides a virtual space for researchers to talk more openly with their peers about work currently underway. It’s unfortunate that the publishing process is often is seen as somehow an appendage to these conversations rather than being a partner from the outset. I can understand why this might be the case for mass-printed trade fiction, for example, where the audience might be more clearly disjoint from the authors, but it certainly does not make any sense in the academy, where presses cannot afford to remain on the margins.

The unbinding and reconnecting of texts across media ultimately has little to do with texts and everything to do with people. The creation of a book is a social process. When people begin to talk about the ways in which the internet has changed publishing they think of the web as largely a publishing platform, which is fair enough. But the real changes are in how people connect, how they maintain relationships, how they work together, and how they coalesce into publics.

The process of the book is intimately tied to these networks. When I write a book, I certainly don’t do it to make money–I’m in the wrong business for that. I do it in part to get attention for some ideas that I think are important. But I do it most of all as a kind of dating profile, an indication of the kinds of things I’m interested in, with the hope that I can meet other scholars who share my interests. In other words, the social network isn’t just the most important input into the book process, it is the most important outcome.

Game Plan

What does this mean from a practical perspective? It means drawing on what you already do well. You already have to make decisions about what is important in a field, who has ideas worth sharing, and coordinating the review process. You already, across the board, are able to organize and schedule review and production processes. You already are creating some conversation around your books by creating a web presence and connecting with various publics. In other words, you’re already doing a lot of the things you need to, it just seems to be unevenly distributed.

The first thing you need to be doing more of is monitoring the environment, sharing with your colleagues things that work and things that don’t. I have no doubt that most of you are already following some of the things that are happening with the projects I mentioned earlier. It’s important that as you create your own projects, you are keeping your colleagues aware of these, and recording both successes and failures. This conference is a great start, but a once a year update isn’t good enough. Make sure those in your personal networks know what you are doing, and you know what they are doing. Make sure that scholars in your field are part of that network as well.

Second, connect at a much deeper level with those in the fields you work with. Some of you have acquisitions editors who are very good at networking in the old sense, and getting to know the leaders in a field. You need to go beyond this and look for and foster the new leaders. That means tracking those early in their careers–particularly those who are leading the charge in new forms of scholarly communication. Scholarly associations play an important role here, and I suspect they will continue to do so. But it isn’t enough to follow their lead. If you want to show your value, you need to show that you can innovate, and that you aren’t just adding your name and imprimatur to innovations supported by scholarly associations, universities, and funding agencies.

In the end, you need to look seriously at your value proposition. What can you bring to the table? What can you add to networked scholarly discussion? I know that there are a lot of bright folks in publishing, and that you have a great deal of experience and intellectual capital to bring forward. I also know that some of you are content to coast on your names for as long as possible, hoping to wait until the wind has shifted before hoisting your own sails.

Don’t Watch Your Polls

I’ve talked a little bit of what I think university presses should be doing to move scholarly communication forward. I cannot say that I represent the average scholar in my field or in any field. Everything I have seen suggests to me that while we may indeed drink lattes and drive Volvos, academics tend to be conservative in many ways. We are conservative in part because we work in institutions that update medieval traditions with twentieth-century bureaucracy. I’ve yet to hear a tenure committee say “We like the two books you published with Oxford University Press, but that blog post really wowed us.”

On the other hand, change doesn’t come from the center. Many of you are concerned about the future of scholarly publishing, and you should be. But don’t look to academics to lead the way alone, and don’t assume that you can rely on a second-mover advantage. There are still successful music labels and newspaper publishers, but they didn’t get there by waiting out the storm. Success over the next five years is pinned to a willingness to take risks, open up texts, and create new spaces for conversation.

Finally, can we get over the “books are (not) dead” trope? It’s boring. Scholarly communication is thriving today more than ever in history. We are in the midst of a new Renaissance, and university presses find themselves at the center of that revolution. Please don’t waste your good fortune or the opportunities around you.

[In case it isn’t obvious, the above is the text of a talk I planned to give to the Association of American University Presses meeting. I ended up presenting something that only vaguely resembled this, but you get the idea. ]

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  1. jhowarddc
    Posted 6/17/2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Hi Alex: Lots to think about here. I will look forward to hearing you present these ideas at #aaup10–and what reax you get. One thing I’m really curious about is the idea that we could or should try to “futureproof ” books. I’m wondering how possible–or even desirable –that is. Maybe you’ll elaborate on that in your talk.



  2. Jeffrey
    Posted 10/25/2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    One product for scanning books in a nondestructive method is the Plustek OpticBook 3600,

  3. Andrée
    Posted 7/13/2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I would reccomend using the ScanSnap SV600 that scans books and then I would sell or give the scanned books to someone else so they can enjoy them.

8 Trackbacks

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