An Exercise in Strategery: Innovation & Academic Publishing, Part 3

So this is going to be an exercise in speculative strategic planning, of trying to guess what people want, at what times, under what conditions, and how we, as publishers, can satisfy these demands.

Now, this might be a bit rough—I wouldn’t recommend starting any businesses off of this or anything—and is very much me thinking out loud, more trying to think through a few issues and obstacles rather than create something I could pitch to investors or the provost.

I’m also going to take the point of view of someone primarily trying to find a viable way of publishing minigraphs in both print and electronic formats. While there are other interesting, and perhaps viable, formats for distributing academic content—ereader and tablet/mobile device applications, for instance—minigraphs have a pedigree and a sort of familiarity to our core audience that more novel media might not. If even trying to publish short books on a significant scale, rather than mostly long books on a slightly smaller scale, is a radical idea, one likely to encounter resistance and without an established place in the academy, then who knows what trying to find acceptance for these more radical formats might involve. This is a bit of a “if this works, we can try something a bit more adventurous next” exercise, a potentially workable first solution to a very real problem.

It’s also possible that, by making the mildly adventurous minigraph mainstream, we could move on to other formats next—let minigraphs be the first steps, then take on app development and enhanced content. Gain a reputation for doing crazy and inventive stuff well, and, the hope is, people won’t blink when you keep doing it (and doing it well).

So the first question is this: how are we going to pay for all this? One of the more obvious ways of doing this is to spin off as an imprint from an existing press, with the minigraph program being a side item in the press’s budget. This would, of course, be good for the new imprint, especially if the parent press has a reputation they can piggyback off of, or an existing backlist that can be trimmed and repackaged as minigraphs. It also means that the hard work of establishing sales and distribution channels, of networking with potential authors, and of locating copyeditors and designers has already been done. Essentially, a minigraph is just like most other academic books, with the same standards and pattern language; it’s just shorter and gets done faster.

The downsides to working with an established press is that, as I think I may have mentioned, university presses aren’t exactly flush with cash to start New and Potentially Risky Ventures (and if hard times come again once more, the N&PRV is probably the first thing getting cut); they have agendas and traditions, which may not be necessarily conducive to innovation; they have a need to protect their core brand and mission at all costs, a mission that might be compromised if their readership views them as cranking out short and fluffy minigraphs rather than tried and true Serious Monographs, never mind the quality of the shorter works; and established presses have established production schedules that might not be flexible enough to accommodate the “we need this published NOW!” pace of minigraph publishing. While I don’t think university presses are going to try to meet a twelve week turnaround like Palgrave Pivot does, a twenty week schedule might be possible—but only if minigraphs are a priority for the press, with other projects scheduled around these more time-sensitive ones. Getting a book from approved typescript to published paper or electronic book is a complicated process, one with many pitfalls and bottlenecks, not all of which can be foreseen or planned for—and authors generally get a bit cranky if you delay the publication of their book because somebody else’s was given priority with the one copyeditor who could work on either. Universities, and university presses, also tend to be a bit seasonal, officially taking off in the summer (though people can work on projects for you then), and professors shutting down near end-of-term, though official functions, like book approval meetings, can take place then. If a university press has a policy of having each book being peer reviewed twice and approved by a committee, then good luck finding reviewers in December or April (finals and grading), or getting committee approval from May to September…or longer than that, if the committee meets, say, two or three times a year.

If we’re to take advantage of the advantages of minigraphs, especially their quick publication time, then we’re going to need either a very nimble bureaucracy and approval process, or tailor the acquisition of minigraphs to the university’s calendar and way of doing things. Anyone who’s ever dealt with university bureaucracy knows there’s no such thing as a nimble one (though some can be pleasantly effective), and only being able to acquire books at certain times of year is really going to cut back on an acquisitions editor’s ability to create a list of good minigraph titles. A minigraph imprint would have to be freed of many of the traditional ways of doing things at a university press—but, given that these traditional ways of doing things are designed to safeguard the quality of what the press puts out, as well as the reputation of the university that sponsors the press, it seems unlikely (and perhaps even unwise, from the university’s point of view) that this would happen.

So, if we’re going to work with a traditional university press, yet still retain the flexibility (and speed) we’ll need to take advantage of the potential of the minigraph, we’re going to need a lot of accommodations from our host institution to play fast and loose with the rules, and a bit of distance from our parent press so that our deviation from the usual standards doesn’t reflect badly on them. I guess it could work, but there’s a very good chance it could backfire horribly, especially given that the strict controls of peer review and editorial review boards are the biggest strength of university presses. People trust us because everything that we print has been certified by several panels of experts; if it comes to light that some of our books aren’t getting our usual imprimatur, they’re going to (quite reasonably!) think we’ve started paying more attention to our bottom line than quality. Do you want your all-important reputation taking that kind of press-threatening hit? I thought not.

So if you’re going to work outside the existing system, perhaps it’d be best to work outside of an existing press—but still supported by a university or academic consortium. The Oberlin Group has proposed just this, in order to start an “innovative” (their term) new open-access press. And, truth be told, starting from scratch does have its advantages. The big one, of course, is that you can shape your bureaucracy and infrastructure to accommodate a fast, nimble, and flexible operation. If you need to have a year-round production schedule, you can. If you can’t have editorial committee meetings and still get publications produced on a short time scale, you can use other quality assurance controls. You can start off finding contractors and freelancers who understand the terms and conditions of what you’re doing right from the start, rather than finding people good at something else, then trying to shoehorn them into your new project. For doing something truly crazy and innovative, it might be your best option…if you can make it work.

That’s a really big “if.”

There’s a lot of setup and groundwork that goes into making a university press function, especially on the production and distribution ends. There’s also quite a bit of work that goes into getting a university, much less a consortium, to agree to setting up a new press, especially given the current climate. Budgets are tight, universities are under fire from state legislators and funding agencies, and, while reports of the demise of publishing may be greatly exaggerated, they’re also greatly believed.

Personally, while I think the aims of the Lever Initiative are laudable, I do wonder if putting a press under the administration of a library, much less a library consortium (speaking from experience, there is one thing worse than an individual university’s bureaucracy…), is necessarily the best idea, especially for the press. Libraries and university presses often have different aims and means, and I’m somewhat skeptical about attempts to subordinate the needs of content distributors to those of content consumers (which, from a press perspective, is what libraries are). Of course, it’s important for presses to listen to what libraries want—they are our biggest customers, after all—but their desire for cutting the cost of content and opening restrictions on sharing, sometimes at the expense of sustainability, isn’t something that would be in the best interest of a press.

Even in those cases where the interests of libraries and presses align—embracing new technologies that allow for living documents to be created or individual chapter downloads, for instance, or using enhanced metadata for content management and discoverability—it’s not always clear that our terminal users (academics) are necessarily aware, or even interested, in these new whizbang flashy tools. Get two groups of people who are interested in forcing the Next Big Cool Thing on an audience that really isn’t interested, and you’re likely to end up with a string of duds. It’s almost best to wait until the exact moment your audience is ready to embrace the Current Big Cool Thing, but have the groundwork in place already.

But, at the end of the day, I think there’s a way we could make this work, provided we all just get along…and manage to secure funding. That’s going to be the tricky part. The old days where Provost Moneybags subsidized the press and its wide and varied list are long gone. If you’re going to be starting any new venture these days, you’d better have a plan to not force the university to pick up the tab—as a quick glance through the Chronicle makes clear, they’re having trouble enough without you knocking on their door. There may be some funding available if you’re able to align your press’s interests with your sponsors (and, let’s be honest, there are quite a few collateral benefits to being able to take advantage of your institution’s most prestigious faculty and make the university think you’re doing them a favor), and some—hopefully most—will come in from sales, but, increasingly, the move is towards some form of open access, especially when coupled with electronic distribution, to reduce or even eliminate costs, especially for end users.

There is so much that could be said about the potential for open access in HSS disciplines, and so much that has been said—even so much that I’ve said—that I’m going to trust that my saying “this is too complicated to fully explore here” will be taken as me thinking that this is too complicated to fully explore here, rather than as avoiding the issue. Suffice it to say for the moment that I’m increasingly skeptical of those who believe that OA is going to save HSS publishing. Articles and books stay relevant for much longer than they do in STEM fields, which is a problem for embargo periods; money, especially grant money, is much harder to come by, meaning that “author pays” models aren’t going to work, since authors can’t pay; scientific articles are much shorter (about 5-10 manuscript pages, or 4,500 words) than most HSS publications, and can be bundled together as journals (or even journal bundles!) for sales and marketing purposes; the culture of HSS disciplines expects and encourages a certain price point far below what STEM disciplines do, and discourages some practices (such as page fees) that find rough analogues in OA (author pays OA).

And that’s just the beginning.

OA was developed primarily for a STEM audience, and in a STEM context; simply shoehorning HSS practices and expectations into an existing paradigm isn’t going to work. We might be able to create a HSS-friendly version of OA some time down the road, especially if there is an HSS-specific or general cultural shift, but, as things stand, existing OA paradigms seem impractical for the needs of HSS publishing.

I also don’t think epublishing is going to be the golden money-saving bullet either. Yes, it eliminates paper and printing costs. More to the point, it also eliminates warehousing and storage costs. What it don’t eliminate are the other 70 things publishers do, and it does create significant new Special Little Headaches of its own. Contrary to popular public belief, there’s more to publishing than sending your typescript as-is to the printer, and more to an ebook than converting that same typescript to PDF.

What ebooks and new media can do, if we can only figure out how to make it work, is open access to new distribution channels and formats. In STE (but, for various reasons, not M) disciplines, electronic versions of journals have overtaken print, and even HSS journals are following suit. Many university presses are already experimenting with individual chapter sales and access through Project MUSE and the like. What’s more, electronic formats are more “discoverable” than print ones; if you’re looking for The Perfect Book for your project, you’re a lot more likely to find it if you can search the text or use the precisely tuned and user-input aided metadata of an electronic book than if you’re bound to the usual ways of finding print books—many of which work for electronic ones as well. If marketing books is essentially making sure the people who need to know about them know what they need to know about them—mostly, that they need to buy and use them—then then enhanced discoverability of electronic books is a godsend.

Furthermore, while many (perhaps most?) HSS academics seem willing to accept electronic journals, electronic books (to say nothing of newer and less traditional media) seem to be a tougher sell. Perhaps the minigraph, being more than an article or book chapter but shorter than a monograph, would be just the thing to bridge that perceptual gap. Who knows, they might even be the gateway drug we need to normalize full-length electronic monographs!

If we can leverage the greater sales potential of minigraphs, especially when aided by electronic distribution and marketing, we might just be able to make a case for funding our new press or imprint. It’ll take cunning, intelligence, a commitment to quality, a willingness to fit our mission to the needs of our institution, making ourselves known to those in power, and not a little bit of luck—but that’s what we require from our authors, is it not?

We can make this work.

Next time: how we make it work


2 thoughts on “An Exercise in Strategery: Innovation & Academic Publishing, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Meet the Minigraph: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 2 | Intentio Lectoris

  2. Pingback: Innovation & University Publishing | Intentio Lectoris

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