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.


5 Responses to “on text taking precedence”

  1. Laurie NYC Says:

    Content is certainly the most important element in any book, but because of that fact, we cannot overlook the importance of communicating that content to the reader. Good design aids communication; it is not just about “aesthetics.” Poor typography is hard to read, and makes the reader expend precious “brain” energy on deciphering the content, rather than on the content itself.

  2. Text only publications are going the way of the dino-bot. There is so much more we can do with XML representations of content.

    My current project is connecting bibliographic references with spatial or geographic context. The first ‘bibliospatial’ system as far as I know (http://harvestchoice.org/). By simply sucking out the geospatial references in the text we can produce maps and associated data which are directly relavent to the content of the article.

  3. khlawrence Says:


    I have no argument with what you’re saying. What I was getting at is that I consider design as a vehicle for content. Still, I like to have our books look and feel good, and that’s beyond design as a vehicle. Readers look beyond text with bad breaks or crashing quotes. Most of us even overlook errors of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I feel mildly annoyed and self-righteous when I see them, but I move right along, because I know they are unavoidable with the pressured workflow at a publisher.

    What I was pointing out was the difference between book as text and book as package. Until I became responsible for the look and feel of our books (always collaborating with others, of course), I paid very little conscience attention to lamination, paper weight, and color. Now I do, and perhaps as a result I have less time and energy to devote to adopting innovations. Perhaps less motivation too–because people will always buy books. They’re a lovely and convenient package.

  4. khlawrence Says:


    I love the idea of sucking out relevant content. I love the idea of text being relevant. Text-taking-precedence means text-as-information, usable information. I love the idea of information being flexible, searchable, applicable. The information publishers (e.g., Cengage/Gale) are way, way ahead of university presses in terms of producing text as information in database formats and online formats, text-suck-outable formats. It’s really kind of funny, and this is why you probably think of university presses as quaint (not your word, I know): we are considered prestigious for publishing scholarship that helps professors attain tenure and that we all say deserves to be out there to be read by even a few hundred readers, yet we’re slow to adopt changes that will propel that text to a larger audience.

    I’d like to hear more about your project. It looks like you’re working with the University of Minnesota library system. What’s that like, working with the librarians?

  5. jubal Says:

    Fortunately I’ve been spared from working directly with the librarians on the project. I’ve been working with the system administrators who make the tools for librarians to enter and maintain content. UNM seems very forward thinking about the whole process, very willing to invest in new tools and techniques. I can only assume and hope that other Universities are as progressive.

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