Monday, March 23, 2009

University of Michigan Press Goes Digital

by J J Cohen

The University of Michigan Press, which publishes 50-60 monographs each year (many with relevance to medievalists: a list, an ITM mention of a book from this list), is shifting to primarily digital publishing. From Inside HigherEd:

Michigan officials say that their move reflects a belief that it's time to stop trying to make the old economics of scholarly publishing work. "I have been increasingly convinced that the business model based on printed monograph was not merely failing but broken," said Phil Pachoda, director of the Michigan press. "Why try to fight your way through this? Why try to remain in territory you know is doomed? Scholarly presses will be primarily digital in a decade. Why not seize the opportunity to do it now?"

While Pachoda acknowledged that Michigan risks offending a few authors and readers not ready for the switch, he said there is a huge upside to making the move now.

Because digital publishing is so much less expensive -- with savings both in printing and distribution -- the press expects to be able to publish more books, and to distribute them electronically to a much broader audience. Michigan officials said that they don't plan to cut the budget of the press -- but to devote resources to peer review and other costs of publishing that won't change with the new model. Significantly, they said, the press would no longer have to reject books deemed worthy from a scholarly perspective, but viewed as unable to sell.

"We will certainly be able to publish books that would not have survived economic tests," said Pachoda. "And we'll be able to give all of our books much broader distribution."

I'd like to believe this move isn't just a cost-cutter ... and that such an embrace of digital publishing might herald the demise of the $90 book.


Eileen Joy said...

Why not combine print-on-demand with e-books? That way, readers who want a printed book get it, at a lower cost, and those who don't mind reading e-texts get that, also supposedly at a lower cost. The e-books would be formatted *as if* for print, so there would be no duplication of production efforts. Just a thought.

I would also like to say here that saying, as Michigan does, that moving to electronic publishing means that more titles will be available might be a little misleading, at least at first. The main savings, as they say, are in printing and distribution, but you still have to charge *something* for whatever it is you are *selling*, so demand will still constitute, to a certain extent, te *supply*. In other words, profits will still matter, and what, exactly, will be the factors that a publisher like Michigan might believe will drive demand desires? So, to say that they can now start publishing scholarly books that don't have to pass a certain "economic test" is, in my mind, a little disingenuous: books, in whatever platform, still need to be *purchased* and therefore also *desired* to be purchased. Supply and demand equations still apply, but sure, maybe more books can be published than normally would be under print-format constraints, and with the hope of broader distribution as well. But then, what's to stop all of us from going completely "creative commons" with scholarly publishing? Will we still pay homage, as it were, to certain publishers, as it were, regardless of format? Because once an academic press like Michigan goes 100% electronic, it certainly has to recognize that it not only broadens its means of distribution but also its [future] competition as well, unless "we academics" continue to believe that only certain presses--university-associated but also commercial--can ever give our work the imprimatur that will earn us professional regard, tenure, etc. In which case, how has electronic publishing and the demise of the $90 book really helped to broaden the horizons of our field? Can't we go further than this? And if so, how?

Karl Steel said...

In other words, profits will still matter,
But I imagine the margins won't be as brutal, presuming that large savings can be realized by shifting the entire cost of printing and distribution onto the consumer. The hope is that these realized savings will lead the University to relax demands that UP generate profits. If that hope fails, we're basically back to where we were, except that we consumers won't have to pay $90 for monographs. That's a small benefit, but it's hardly earth-moving.