on text taking precedence
March 6, 2008
There’s nothing quite like being read to motivate writing. Thanks to the Chronicle for blogging my blog. Of course I now wish I’d said something about what motivated me to discuss “free.” Whether online publishing costs less than print publishing is an ongoing topic of discussion pretty much everywhere these things are discussed, but I specifically had in mind Cathy Davidson’s HASTAC blog in which she reminds the “new technology utopianists” about the high cost of producing scholarship in terms of housing and staffing people to work on that scholarship.
Michael Jensen’s post to Publishing Frontier (http://pubfrontier.com/2008/02/29/open-access-re-journals-vs-books/) was also on my mind. In a thoughtful piece about the differences between the cultures of journal and book publishing, Jensen offers some reasons for the relatively easy move to online formats for journals. He spells out some norms in scholarly publishing that are based on the value we put on nearly all of our books. The careful approach we take to every monograph (from thoughtful acquisition and extensive review to careful copyediting and creative design) doesn’t translate in full or easily to the work of publishing online.
Publishing born-digital books is not only technically beyond many of us but also, simply, foreign. Publishing PDFs of published books keeps the book design intact, but the feel of the book gets lost. To a lot of university press people a book online just doesn’t feel like a book. Its content seems more commoditized, its lifespan shorter.
My husband, a freelance copyeditor for university presses, used to work at a Macmillan imprint that publishes college textbooks, and he often talks about how quickly things changed once the senior management starting talking about “product,” not books. He wasn’t long for that place.
Moving to a text-takes-precedence model, where design gives way to an XML style sheet and printing is offered only on demand and serves just to hold the book together, means we have to focus on content and use and search, not aesthetics. It’s not exactly like thinking about books as “product ,” but it’s not too far off. Personally, I’m OK with it. I would be equally proud of my work if our books were published only online. Until I became responsible for design and production and not just editorial, I really did think of design and printing as a vehicle to get the text out there, and maybe that some of that view will always stick with me.