Publishing books vs. the modern world II - The Ebook post

A few months ago I shared some musings, based on my initial experiences with blogging, about writing and publishing in an academic context
The main point was that the current academic system supports a publication model that ensures high profits for (academic) publishers, but that does not do much in terms of sharing knowledge, starting debates or helping academic writing to get feedback from the ‘real world’ - vital for research on international development, anthropology or any other social science. In the end, there is often an expensive hardcover book that is difficult to order and while many complain that such books are basically ending up on library shelves, they are ending up on library shelves without much notice other than by the library accountant who oversees an ever-dwindling budget for acquisitions.

A few days ago I read a long and insightful interview with Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath on Ebooks and self-publishing. They are outlining some of the key challenges publishers are facing and how self-publishing your own work as an Ebook is becoming more and more an alternative that also makes commercial sense. I am absolutely aware that most academics are neither best-selling authors nor that putting a work of fiction ‘out there’ is the same as publishing a book that is built upon empirical data, theoretical arguments and potential suggestions for policy, but I still found it very inspiring and relevant for the academic context. At the moment I do not see a viable middle-ground between the current publishing arrangements and a ‘let’s put my Ebook on Amazon for $4.99’ approach, but I look forward to seeing academic authors challenging their institutions as well as the publishing industry more.

Is it academia’s own fault?
Yes, to some extent. There is a very narrow focus on what are ‘acceptable publications’ and they can basically only be with a large university press or highly specialized niche publishers (in my area Berghahn books or Brill would be such examples-excellent publishers, but their products are expensive and difficult to get outside their core UK/EU market). The assumption still seems to be ‘nobody is going to be interested in your topic anyway and those 6 libraries can shell out up to 100 Euros and put a copy on a shelf’. Academic publishing then becomes some form of vanity publishing with the result that a lot of interesting material disappears in the catalogues of traditional publishers. A lot of shoulder-shrugging everywhere, but has it not be that way ever since your supervisor's first published book 37 years ago?
Given the vast expansion of PhD programs in the OECD world it is also a supply and demand issue as many monographs are looking for traditional publishers which leads to the problem of 'ISBN merchants' discussed in the next paragraph. I would like to see universities deal with these challenges in a more proactive way and I will be suggesting a few approaches in the final paragraph.

Is a publisher from Moldova coming to the rescue?
One way to circumvent this traditional publication system appears to be the growing number of publishers that sent out emails to every graduate student and promise to publish their book on demand – and even for FREE or for very little money! You are basically signing away a very important piece of intellectual property in exchange for an ISBN-number which is a very, very bad deal. In the end, your book will be listed on Amazon for approximately the same high price as other academic books. The problem is, there is absolutely no quality management, peer review process or editorial support and even if people would buy your book you would get absolutely nothing in return. Putting your thesis or paper on a blog is preferable to this option – at least you will get some feedback and exposure.

So what about Ebooks and self-publishing for academics?
The short answer is that I do not have a magic bullet answer. I found Eisler's and Konrath's conversation interesting and inspiring, because it opened up a window into a world that still seems to be closed to the conventions of academic publishing and academia in general. Campus bookshops want to sell expensive textbooks and many authors are happy to supply them to their students. But it contributes to a closed circle of producing, disseminating and consuming knowledge and even as online classes are gaining some momentum the whole idea of ‘going to Harvard on your laptop’ is limited by the fact that you are unlikely be able to do most of the readings especially if you are outside the OECD mainstream of Amazon, bookshops and parents willing to pay for books…Ebooks will definitely gain more momentum, but as Eisler and Konrath point out, as long as the publishers are in charge of it they will dictate the pricing and royalty models. Even if Ebooks would come with a healthy discount they are unlikely to be affordable to readers in many countries. And talking about royalties: Nobody really expects to get rich from selling academic (E)books, but giving how academic employment tends to be more casual, temporary and unpredictable these days, selling your own Ebook could be an interesting source to support your income. The additional couple of thousand dollars you could be making throughout the year (based on the model of selling your book for $4.99 minus 30% for Amazon on their website) could be a course you do not have to teach or a payment for insurance or retirement-in any way it could help junior academics quite a bit. 
Should universities support self-publishing?
So why do universities not start to offer support for publishing Ebooks for graduate students PLUS give them all their rights to their work? Rather than another seminar on ‘employability’ offer editorial assistance at discounted prices or ask design students to design a book cover as part of a course assignment. Think beyond the blurb on the backcover where it says ‘the author studied at XY university’ or the top 5-10% of students who get traditional publication deals with the usual suspect publishers. Especially for universities or departments who are engaging in 'capacity-building' with Southern partners this could be an alternative way to make knowledge more accessible. Think more ‘Huffington Post’ and less ‘niche publisher’, create discussions, offer exposure and help students to be visible and, God forbid, make a few extra bucks after a huge investment in their education and often uncertain job prospects!

The bottom line is that Eisler and Konrath are on to something and it needs to be discussed more openly in academia which currently seems to be focussing on open-access journals to challenge the models of academic journal publishing which is also very important, of course (e.g. 'There's no such thing as a free journal').
There are probably other examples and ideas out there of how academic publishing could be adapted to the ‘real world’ – or maybe you want to make a comment why the current system shouldn’t be changing?
In any case, I’d love to read from you!

Update 7 April 
Since publishing the original post I have come across two very interesting projects that deal with open-access publishing in anthropology. has a great post on open access books (and journals), however this is still about 'giving content away for free'.
Owen Wiltshire's blog and thesis project (Sharing Knowledge: How the Internet is Fueling Change in Anthropology) also deal with writing and publishing anthropology in the age of the Internet and one of his latest posts cites interesting examples of combining traditional publishing approaches alongside free access to publications, but still, I find it interesting that hardcover and paperback books are sold whereas the e-book is free to download. Anyway, there is a lot of interesting stuff going on and if I come across more examples I will add them here, too.

Update 7 April II
Interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Road From Dissertation to Book Has a New Pothole: the Internet

Libraries' digital open-access rules make some editors wary of buying graduate students' work, although others see a marketing boost

The press has become "much more reluctant to consider works based on dissertations than in the past," says its director, Charles Backus. In an e-mail, he described his concern that online dissertations might cut into sales: The press has come to assume that "most libraries and library vendors will not buy or recommend purchase of ensuing books that are based substantially on them," he wrote. Ms. Donohue, of Ashgate Publishing, says she and her colleagues have similar concerns. The publisher does not yet have a firm policy in place regarding digital dissertations but has been thinking hard about the potential risks in recent months.

The story is more complicated than that and the article is quite comprehensive, but given that Ashgate's monographs are particularly pricey and inaccessible, I stand by my main point that universities and university presses need to be more inventive in how they are using their growing repository of electronic work. 

Update 13 April
I just came a fascinating piece that is actually linking the publishing debate to the 'development' debate-something I had not really planned when I wrote this post. 'eReaders will transform the developing world – in and outside the classroom' is really interesting food for thought why publishing ebooks will become an important area in international development and education:
Worldreader is currently working with 500 teachers and students across three grade levels in Ghana to measure the impact of e-readers, and the effects have been pretty dramatic.  We’ve loaded e-readers with about 80 books each – a combination of local textbooks and storybooks we have digitized along with international books donated by Random House, including the entire Magic Tree House series.  That’s 40,000 books already delivered – nearly impossible to contemplate without the use of e-readers.
But beyond that, two-thirds of the children are downloading an average of one free book a week, along with numerous free samples, free trial subscriptions to magazines like Popular Mechanics, and more.  Along the way, we’re measuring the children’s reading levels, and are conducting mid-term evaluations right now.  We can tell you that based on the number of books downloaded and read so far, we expect to see some remarkable progress in a short amount of time.
As commentators on the post point out, there are still quite a few questions and challenges ahead, but it is important to keep digital publsihing in mind when it comes to engaging with readers in developing countries-not just in schools.

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