Sunday, September 23, 2007

Second lease of life for scholarly book publishing

Last week I was present at the presentation Academic Publishing in the Digital Age by John Thompson at the conference Publishing in the Digital Age, organised by the Faculty of Arts of Leiden University. John is a professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge. He wrote amongst others Books in the Digital Age in 2005 and is currently working on the changing structure of the book publishing industry and the making of bestsellers.

In his presentation he focussed on the impact of the digital revolution on academic publishing. He distinguishes three streams in academic publishing:
a. Scholarly publishing mainly by university presses such as Blackwell and Sage;
b. College text book publishing for higher education;
c. Scientific journal publishing by for example Elsevier Science.
In his presentation he was mainly concerned with scholarly publishing and was wondering whether we are witnessing the kind of fundamental transformation in the scholarly book publishing industry as we have seen in other sectors of the creative industries. Digitisation is having an impact on:
a. operating systems;
b. management and manipulation of content, basically the workflow;
c. sales and marketing;
d. content delivery.
Digitisation has been a quiet, but profound revolution in book publishing and especially scholarly book publishing. The workflow became less labour intensive; marketing of scholarly book found more channels and content could be delivered electronically, ready for fast distribution.

The basic question for scholarly publishing has been: are books going to be replaced? Following the technological view, books will eventually be replaced by e-Books (file and/or e-reader) as the technology is there and it will happen regardless the market and the price. But this technological view does not seem to be valid in scholarly publishing (at least not for the time being).

John moved beyond this technological speculation by developing an analysis of the impact of the digital revolution on publishing. He developed a contextual approach to the impact which is based on an institutional account of the evolution of publishing fields and a systematic analysis of the relations between technologies, markets and forms of content. This shows that some forms of content lend themselves more readily to online dissemination than others and that, while claims about the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated, it is nevertheless the case that the digital revolution is profoundly transforming the book publishing industry today. It is not so much a revolution in the product as well as in the process.

After 15 years of studying scholarly publishing, John concludes:
1. There is no obvious solution to scholarly book publishing. The digital revolution is no magical bullet;
2. Attempts to put scholarly books online are mainly economically driven. But so far the revenues have been only a trickle and not a regular stream. End-users do not want to have content served this way;
3. If there is a market for electronic delivery, this will be the academic libraries and not the market of individuals; besides the economic model is uncertain;
4. The added value of scholarly books online lies in their incorporation into a corpus, searchability and focus.

The conclusion is that the digital revolution is giving the printed book a new lease of life.
From my own experience in book publishing I would say that the digital revolution in scholarly book publishing has come in the work flow process by digitising, using make-up languages like SGML, Latex and XML as database technologies to create a corpus.

Blog Posting Number: 875

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