Beating Our Audience to the Punch: Emeriti and Publishing

The conundrum: we academic publishers want to use ebooks and/or print-on-demand for our titles that would otherwise be removed from print and remaindered, but the technology isn’t yet ready and our audience sees these as signs of the Apocalypse.

Really, how do you get a 78-year-old emeritus professor who misses his typewriter to embrace ebooks?

Our audience—academics, grad students, and libraries, for the most part—has its standards.  Durability and archival quality is a must, since this book is going to sit on someone’s shelves and pass through many hands for the next fifty years or so.  However, it has to be usable by whomever might want it in that time—and print remains backwards compatible for a lot longer than most operating systems do.  Oh, and it’d be really nice if it didn’t take up limited shelf space or other resources, like the time it takes for a librarian to teach people how to use the technology.  Also, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you keep the price under $35?  Grad student stipends can only be stretched so far, and the budget barely covers the cheap ramen as it is.

Of course, we publishers have our needs as well, which, not coincidentally, are very similar to those of our audience.  If the cost of the book from production through pulping can be kept down, so much the better—we might even be able to cut the retail price and increase our sales volume in the end!  If we don’t have to store a hundred extra copies of someone’s monograph that will never sell—or even have to print them in the first place—so much the better.  Oh, and we’d really like to avoid having to make five different versions of the exact same book; not only does each new version cost extra to make, but it’s an absolute pain to keep track of five different sets of royalties and rights, each with its own rules, regulations, and sets of subclauses.

Right now, none of the three publication options we have available—”bulk” printing, ebooks, or print-on-demand—fit all the needs of our customers, much less our own.  Traditional printing gives you a sharp, durable book, using a technology that, while admittedly revised and updated, goes back to ancient Egypt.  Take a couple courses in Greek or Latin, another in paleography, and you can read books written during the Roman Empire.  They’re also, unsurprisingly, rather “bookish” and familiar, and a well-made hardback volume can simply feel authoritative—which, when you’re slogging through a commentary on Kant, is a surprisingly reassuring fact.*  Of course, those books do take up a nice bit of space, have to be printed in batches of n+100 (where n=however many copies you’ll actually sell at full price), and have a nasty tendency to get wet, eaten by critters, or catch fire.

In theory, print-on-demand should solve many of the problems of traditional printing, while retaining most of its advantages.  At the end of the day, you still get a book—which, really, is all you want, right?  Unfortunately, most POD books feel, well, cheap—the printing isn’t as sharp, the paper feels thin and fragile, the binding’s just a bit shoddy, the layout might be skewed so that the text slants a few degrees from horizontal or the margins are a bit larger on one side of the page than the other; it’s not something you’d consider worth the $69.95 you paid for it.

Now, one could write this off as paying too much attention to trivial intangibles—after all, it’s the ideas in the text people are interested in!—but academic monographs return profit only in the form of a not-so-trivial intangible: reputation.  We know that we’ll never sell all the copies of any monograph we publish; the number of people interested in owning a copy of one of our books, rather than checking it out from a library for a semester or year for whatever project they need it for, is very small.  Once we’ve sold to the libraries and the 50 or so specialists in the field, that book’s done; we’ll be extremely lucky to break even.  However, if we did things correctly, people in that field will have noticed the book, noticed the quality of its scholarship and production, and, we hope, noticed its press—and will submit their manuscripts to us.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get manuscripts we can use to either build our reputation further, or, in the case of textbooks or works with trade potential, money to keep the press afloat.  We can’t afford to have books we build our reputation on seem shoddy—otherwise, we’ll get a reputation for printing shoddy books.**  If it’s your life’s work being published, you want Thomson-Shore of Dexter, Michigan putting it on 60-pound Natures Book Natural.

Oh, and there’s that whole “fire” thing again.  Don’t want to forget about that.

Ebooks, of course, take up no room, don’t catch fire (well, okay, the ereader might, but . . .), have all sorts of potential advantages just waiting to be realized, never go out of print, have to be converted to three different formats (each of which is completely different from all the others and has its own pain-in-the-ass quirks to deal with), are governed under different arcane sets of rules for rights and permissions, have all sorts of nasty layout issues, require dealing with ereader companies not known for being exactly fair or transparent to publishers, cause extra pains to university librarians who have to teach students and profs how to effectively use and access them, and encourage superficial reading/are good for only light reading, not Real Books/are proof Western civilization is doomed.

Most of those are actually legitimate points.

Now, is it the case that the problems associated with POD and ebooks can’t be resolved?  I Sure Hope Not.  There’s a great deal of potential in both, and, if the technology ever catches up with our needs, we’re ready to embrace it.  The problem for us is that these options just haven’t matured yet; we’re not trying to replace $9 mass-market paperbacks, but $70 library-quality tomes.  It’d be nice to no longer have to worry about our stock going out of print forever or how much of a loss we’re going to take on a very scholarly work whose quality and marketability are not at all correlated.  Until the state of the art allows for quality equal to the hardbound book that’s kept our press afloat through thick and thin, though, we can only prepare for and anticipate, but not fully embrace, the coming changes. We’ll have to have an argument for the new way of doing things strong enough to win over even the most emeritus professor.

We can’t make that argument yet—but, hopefully, the day we can isn’t far off.

*When ordinary English has surrendered to Kantspeak, space and time have become the pure forms of all intuitions, and you’re on the verge of terminal worldview collapse, it’s nice to know what the thing you’ve got in your hands is.
**Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that libraries have certain standards of production they require (or very strongly prefer) the books they buy to live up to.  When your biggest customers are academic libraries, this isn’t an insignificant fact.
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