Wednesday 11 September 2013

Ebook, Pbooks, and free books

Chaired by Anthony Cond, MD of Liverpool University Press

Huw Alexander, Digital Sales Manager at SAGE, took inspiration for his entertaining talk from his collection of science fiction books. Writers of fiction, he assured us, are often effective imagineers of the future: Ursula Le Guin imagined email (which she called "the ansible") in her novel the Dispossessed. Jorge Luis Borges's short story the Library of Babel, written in 1944, envisaged a universal library containing an infinite number of books, not only every book that exists, but that could ever exist. Google's library scanning project is, according to Alexander, taking us in the same direction.

Unlike many, Alexander was optimistic that the present period of flux might settle down into an age of reason. He invoked Douglas Adams's insistence that old media don't always die but survive in a new complementary role: stone masons aren't the dominant form of communication any more, but who wants a TV screen at the head of your grave?

For publishers to reach this point, though, they needed to escape the "terrorism of short-termism", and spend more on research and development rather than temporary solutions. The future he predicted was one of access rather than ownership, subscription models based on usage and not hobbled by intrusive digital rights management technologies.

Alexander was followed by Hazel Newton, Head of Digital Publishing of Palgrave Macmillan. Newton explained the thinking behind Palgrave Pivot, a new mid-length format positioned between the journal article and the monograph. Research outputs such as monographs and journal articles, Newton noted, are constrained by physical limits that no longer apply in a world where paper is no longer the dominant form. Pivot would aim to publish "articles at their natural length" (which, on the basis of the titles they've published so far, appears to be around 130 pages).

Before embarking on the project, Palgrave Macmillan researched academic attitudes to the idea of mid-form publications, and found that the attitude was generally positive, with the only concern commonly expressed being fears as to what academic colleagues might think of such an unconventional form. (Newton noted, however, that this positivity didn't always entirely translate into practice, mentioning the necessary conservatism of early career academics, whose primary concern was, understandably, whether publication via Pivot would count towards the Research Assessment Exercise - it currently doesn't.)

One key feature of Pivot, Newton told us, was publishing titles within twelve weeks of acceptance, to ensure that up-to-the-minute research reached an audience as quickly as it needed to. To achieve this, Palgrave had to dismantle its existing publishing workflow, but the project has been successful so far, even managing to publish one title within five weeks.

The final speaker for this session was Caron Milloy, Head of Projects at Jisc Collections, who discussed the on-going OAPEN-UK project, interviews with a range of humanities and social science publishers on the subject of Open Access publishing. (For this session, she drew specifically on her interviews with staff from a subset of commercial and university presses.)

Milloy's fascinating research revealed very differing attitudes towards open access among editorial and marketing departments. Editorial departments, she found, were very conscious of the issues surrounding OA, and how these issues affected publishers - for instance, whether cost-recovery for open access titles was required across a list or for an individual title would be vital to publishing decisions. Editorial departments were also very aware of the value that they added, and expressed concerns that one of those key areas in which value was added - selecting titles to publish - might be lost to those providing the money for publication.

Editors were also keen to express how careful they were to ensure that staff were well-informed about open access. Marketing departments, by contrast, were more bewildered by how their roles were affected, worrying what might happen if a title became open access late in the publishing process, after the sales team might already have sold copies of it. Some - though not a majority - wondered why they should bother marketing a title they'd already been paid for.

Milloy ended with some lessons drawn from her research. Publishers need different ways to evaluate the success of an open access publication, rather than their usual measure: revenues. They should set their project teams up as soon as possible, making sure to question every process, and to educate staff. They should start thinking about new standards right now, map timescales for their models, but most of all they should image in what success might actually be like, and take time to participate in experiments.

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