Should I publish an e-book? Part I

Working on a section of my Battle as Theory chapter, I started outlining how I’ll discuss the influence of the Classics on the late 17C-early 18C English. I remembered a brand new book out by Christopher Allmand on Vegetius’ reception in the middle ages, thinking it’d be a good source for ideas on how contemporaries interpreted earlier texts. Being an amphibious analog-digital creature (Willimantic is known as Frog City, after all), I hopped onto my Amazon iPad app, pulled up the title to see that it lists at $99 hardcover (no paper) – with a press that I’m considering submitting my own book manuscript to. I swam over to the local academic libraries’ online catalogs to discover that neither owns it. I then emailed my interlibrary loan office, but they can’t locate any copies because the book is too new – it’ll probably take a few months before a library purchases, acquires, and catalogs it, including my own library. So the scholar’s dilemma (akin to the prisoner’s dilemma) arises: do I want to pay $100 for a book that may or may not be exactly what I want, or do I wait 6 months (possibly spending one-quarter of my library budget in the process), breaking my momentum and possibly forcing me to reconsider the intervening research when I do finally get my hands on it and discover an important point I hadn’t considered? Even more disconcertingly, do I want to calculate how much my book with prestigious press X on a similar topic might cost three years from now?

This mini-adventure happened mere hours after I had read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed on a major publisher starting a rental program for its journal content – $6 buys you 24 hours of no-print/no-save access to any one article. Which in turn reminded me not only of the budget cuts our library’s history journals are undergoing (and how much the digital database subscriptions cost for the right to rent the content for a year), but also of the brief anger I felt several years ago when a working-mom student told me she paid $25 online for a single journal article to be used for a five-page paper. (Or maybe it was disappointment that I couldn’t save her the $25? I wonder what the author of that article would think?) And these reflections then brought another, tangentially-related what-if scenario to mind. What if I didn’t feel the need to jokingly apologize for the cost of my (future) book – to my students, to my colleagues, to my family, to my friends? What if I didn’t have to ever again feel (admittedly only slightly) embarrassed when students who actually expressed an interest in my book said they can’t afford it, or when someone asked me to autograph their book and I realize with horror how much they shelled out for it? Or that someone’s colleagues chipped in as a group to buy my book for someone else who really wanted it? More selfishly, what if I didn’t have to grit my teeth and buy a $100 book for my research? Or ten books at $100 each? Or cheat a colleague out of a few bucks in royalties by looking for a used copy on Amazon (probably a review copy the reviewer got for free) because it was $50 cheaper? Maybe I could even stop having to say ‘no’ to those freelance book-buy-back guys that stop by my office several times a semester? These are all just minor personal emotional manifestations of my own experiences, particularly my book costing $180 (a bargain at 45 cents per page!) and writing articles for subscription-based online reference works that I can’t even get access to through my own library. These aren’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. But they cause more harm than just minor pangs of guilt, because they are a symptom of the much larger problem with the specialization of research and the shrinking market for such academic works. So what to do?

The convergence of these reflections got me reconsidering discussions about the pros and cons of digital vs. more traditional academic press publishing, the problems with the academic publishing industry, and the massive financial crisis that academic libraries are currently undergoing. What would an academic world be like where the newest history book (perhaps itself a contradiction in terms) was immediately available online, and what would I personally do to encourage that world? Google Books and its ilk (see a previous post) have revolutionized my research regarding primary sources, but current scholarship is still stuck in pulp and ink. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the advantages of physical books (post to come on my less-than-ideal experience buying my first Kindle book), but history publications are accelerating in price, and few of us are getting much richer, even those of us fortunate to have steady jobs.

With more and more academics finding themselves in the same situation as I did this morning, we find an increasing amount of discussion online about the merits of skipping the physical and embracing the digital, and of abandoning the gatekeepers and mining the walls ourselves. Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities blog has been among those at the forefront of online publishing (books, journals) in history, and he has a number of posts with links that you might want to read. Drawing upon such discussions, I’ll spend the next few posts spelling out what I see as the pros and cons, and ask for your feedback.
As a foretaste, I’ll break my discussion into separate posts on the main aspects of the academic publisher vs. self-publish route, as well as the print vs. digital divide. To wit: the utility of editorial assistance provided by a publisher, of a press’s peer review process, of cost, of accessibility, of revisibility, and of the design functions performed by a press.
I haven’t really made up my mind, so I’m hoping we can have some illuminating discussion.

But first a poll.

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5 responses to “Should I publish an e-book? Part I”

  1. Liz says :

    I haven’t bought any academic e-books (hey, I’m not an academic, I don’t have to do that!), but I’ve downloaded some free ones. The University of Chicago Press gives one away each month. This month’s might actually interest some of your readers, at least if they’re interested in 20th century military history. It’s a reprint of Instructions for American Servicemen in France during World War II – available at http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/freeEbook.html.

    I think it’s interesting that some of the problems you’re facing are related to the fact that brick and mortar bookstores are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Not that most of them were likely to stock a lot of obscure $100 academic title, but still, being able to go to a bookstore and page through the selections is certainly helpful.

  2. learnearnandreturn says :

    Thanks for raising so many interesting questions here. While I agree with Liz that part of the problem is the decline of bookshops, which sell trade publications, the reality is that academic books are almost never sold this way anyhow. We rely on reviews in journals – which sets up a secondary market of ex-review copies sold for whatever they will bring! – and publisher advertising. And the publishers depend on selling to libraries, above all, and charge exorbitant prices because, hey, it’s an institution, and institutions can pay (or could).

    And the whole process is slow – wait for peer review of manuscript, then wait for reviews, then wait for library cataloguing, etc. Which means that there’s no quick fire scholarly conversation – whereas that does seem to take place in the sciences, where papers rather than books are the norm, and are published in electronic journals quickly.

    I’d like to see electronic publishing become more important generally, and open access as a norm in universities. There’s a good discussion of it here – http://stumblingpast.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/open-access-why-im-passionate-about-it/

    My friend Sally Wilde published The History of Surgery for free, as an ebook, here – http://www.thehistoryofsurgery.com/
    As she explains on the site, her manuscript was favourably peer reviewed by 2 major publishers, including Cambridge UP, but in 2008, the GFC meant that they weren’t publishing anything. However it was only because Sally was about to retire, and didn’t need the brownie points for appointment or promotion, that she felt brave enough to take that step. It’s not treated as seriously, yet, as a hard copy, peer-reviewed book – and there’s no doubt, there needs to be some way to separate the wheat from the chaff, where EBooks are concerned.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the comments. I’ll mention a bunch of these ideas as well (if you don’t read such ideas for improvement on the internet, you’re likely to notice them for yourself as you go through the process of literature review, job search, publisher search…). But my next post will address the big (often unstated) issue head on: PRESTIGE!

  3. Wayne Lee says :

    Jamel,
    I really think you (we) early modernists should give up on Brill. That’s part of your problem. Other U.S. publishers are willing to take those books. And your current project would fit with my NYU series, which will be priced MUCH cheaper than anything Brill would do.

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