Thursday, March 30, 2006
On the Importance of the Collective in Electronic Publishing
One of the concerns that often gets raised early in discussions of electronic scholarly publishing is that of business model—how will the venture be financed, and how will its products be, to use a word I hate, monetized? What follows should not at all suggest that I don’t find such questions important. Clearly, they’re crucial; unless an electronic press is in some measure self-sustaining, it simply won’t last long. Foundations might be happy to see such a venture get started, but nobody wants to bankroll it indefinitely.
I also don’t want to fall prey to what has been called the “paper = costly, electronic = free” fallacy. Obviously, many of the elements of traditional academic press publishing that cost—whether in terms of time, or of money, or both—will still exist in an all-electronic press. Texts still must be edited and transformed from manuscript to published format, for starters. Plus, there are other costs associated with the electronic—computers and their programming, to take only the most obvious examples—that don’t exist in quite the same measure in print ventures.
But what I do want to argue for, building off of John Holbo’s recent post, is the importance of collective, cooperative contributions of academic labor to any electronic scholarly publishing venture. For a new system like that we’re hoping to build in ElectraPress to succeed, we need a certain amount of buy-in from those who stand to benefit from the system, a commitment to get the work done, and to make the form succeed.
I’ve been thinking about this need for collectivity through a comparison with the model of open-source software. Open source has succeeded, in large part, due to the commitments that hundreds of programmers have made, not just to their individual projects but to the system as a whole. Most of these programmers work regular, paid gigs, working on corporate projects, all the while reserving some measure of their time and devotion for non-profit, collective projects. That time and devotion are given freely because of a sense of the common benefits that all will reap from the project’s success.
So with academics. We are paid, by and large, and whether we like it or not, for delivering certain kinds of knowledge-work to paying clients. We teach, we advise, we lecture, and so forth, and all of this is primarily done within the constraints of someone else’s needs and desires. But the job also involves, or allows, to varying degrees, reserving some measure of our time and devotion for projects that are just ours, projects whose greatest benefits are to our own pleasure and to the collective advancement of the field as a whole.
If we’re already operating to that extent within an open-source model, what’s to stop us from taking a further plunge, opening publishing cooperatives, and thereby transforming academic publishing from its current (if often inadvertent) non-profit status to an even lower-cost, collectively underwritten financial model?
I can imagine two possible points of resistance within traditional humanities scholars toward such a plan, points that originate in individualism and technophobia.
Individualism, first: it’s been pointed out many times that scholars in the humanities have strikingly low rates of collaborative authorship. Politically speaking, this is strange. Even as many of us espouse communitarian (or even Marxist) ideological positions, and even as we work to break down long-held bits of thinking like the “great man” theory of history, or of literary production, we nonetheless cling to the notion that our ideas are our own, that scholarly work is the product of a singular brain. Of course, when we stop to think about it, we’re willing to admit that it’s not true—that, of course, is what the acknowledgments and footnotes of our books are for—but venturing into actual collaborations remains scary. Moreover, many of us seem to have the same kinds of nervousness about group projects that our students have: What if others don’t pull their weight? Will we get stuck with all of the work, but have to share the credit?
I want to answer that latter concern by suggesting, as John has, that a collective publishing system might operate less like those kinds of group assignments than like food co-ops: in order to be a member of the co-op—and membership should be required in order to publish through it—everyone needs to put in a certain number of hours stocking the shelves and working the cash register. As to the first mode of this individualist anxiety, though, I’m not sure what to say, except that no scholar is an island, that we’re all always working collectively, even when we think we’re most alone. Hand off your manuscript to a traditional press, and somebody’s got to edit it, and typeset it, and print it; why shouldn’t that somebody be you?
Here’s where the technophobia comes in, or perhaps it’s just a desire to have someone else do the production work masquerading as a kind of technophobia, because many of the responses to that last question seem to revolve around either not knowing how to do this kind of publishing work or not wanting to take on the burden of figuring it out. But I strongly suspect that there will come a day in the not too distant future when we look back on those of us who have handed our manuscripts over to presses for editing, typesetting, printing, and dissemination in much the same way that I currently look back on those emeriti who had their secretaries—or better still, their wives—type their manuscripts for them. For better or for worse, word processing has become part of the job; with the advent of the web and various easily learned authoring tools, editing and publishing are becoming part of the job as well.
I’m strongly of the opinion that, if academic publishing is going to survive into the next decades, we need to stop thinking about how it’s going to be saved, and instead start thinking about how we are going to save it. And a business model that relies heavily on the collective—particularly, on labor that is shared for everyone’s benefit—seems to me absolutely crucial to such a plan.
I talked about this somewhat in the paper I delivered at CCCC this year, but the paranoid model of scholarship in the humanities, generally speaking, is quite remarkable. Why don’t we have a pre-print culture? The scientists, after all, have much more to lose in terms of credit and rapid advancement.
In my post I was going to make exactly the same point about the tipping point between having secretaries and everyone doing their own word-processing. But then I got tired and stopped. Now, thanks to kathleen’s collaborative efforts, I’m am spared the effort of shoehorning the analogy into my post somewhere.
I do think it’s also important that the learning new skills part really only needs to be taken up by a small number of people. Not everyone needs to learn about kerning and webmastering and what-not. Most people who contribute labor will be contributing exactly the same old sort of labor - i.e. reviewing and editing and commenting on. What will be different for them will only be the co-op exchange value of their work. Only a small percentage of academic humanists should devote themselves to really learning a substantial new set of publishing skills.
I’d agree that there are different levels of learning that different academics need to commit themselves to, John, but I’d argue that just as word-processing has become a baseline skill, using the equivalent of a generic blogging engine (not necessarily customizing, but inputting text into and getting posts out of) is going to be a publishing skill that everyone will need to have. Webmastering, no, but basic transformation of text from manuscript to screen, yes.
Oh, and Jonathan—I’d love to see your paper. I’ll keep an eye out for its own pre-print appearance!
I don’t know how many other people feel this way, but up to this point in my career I have been hesitant to engage in collaboration because I am very attentive to style — by which I mean not just sentence structure or diction, but also particular ways of developing arguments that strike me as being aesthetically pleasing. (Note that I am not claiming any skill, only an interest.)
At the moment I am in the early stages of a collaborative project with a philosopher colleague (I am in English), and already I can see that if we go through with it I’m not going to be able to write the way I usually write or think the way I usually think. And I can’t go through and rewrite his sentences until they sound like sentences I would have written.
Perhaps these are not bad things, but they are difficult things. And, though English professors rarely show signs of having learned any stylistic lessons from the poets and novelists they study, I wonder if similar ideas—some transference of literary models of writing into the sphere of criticism—might make others in my field equally reluctant to collaborate.
I think the culture of literary studies encourages us to think of critical work as personal expression, as some form of deep communion with the Great Works by Great Writers. In that sort of enteprise collaboration doesn’t make sense. Only some personal insufficiency would justify-require collaborative supplementation.
For years I collaborated with the late David Hays, who was my grad school mentor. We only co-signed four papers, but that in itself is not an adequate index of our collaboration. Hays was a social scientist by training, and our intellectual collaboration was on a theory of cognition and language that Hays had started and which I adopted during graduate school. That is to say, we collaborated on something that was a theory about the world. We weren’t trying to interpret texts.
It was an enormously satisfying experience and relationship.
Mainstay Press may be a type of model for, or example of, what is being discussed here, perhaps in some ways down to the last dotted i and crossed t. (We’ve even thought about starting a small-scale collective weblog, perhaps in much the way the Valve operates, though with a different focus and emphasis, and it would seem, style. To this point, though, we lack the time for it, unfortunately.)
We three co-founders of Mainstay have literary criticism forthcoming and we publish some analytic social and political nonfiction, but primarily we are bringing out works of imaginative literature—novels, novellas, stories, plays, poetry...work that functions in the classical sense to both delight and enlighten—or as the case may be, to unsettle and dissent—and in either event to pointedly contribute to progressive social change. In these collective efforts, we are taking on, incorporating additional authors into the press.
It was of surprisingly limited help to us that among the three co-founders—in addition to all being authors with works to bring out—we have previous backgrounds in book publishing, newspaper publishing, feature length filmmaking and so on. We’ve basically had to learn to design and format, etc, our books (and website) anew. And we all pitch in to that to varying degrees.
We produce print-on-demand (POD) paperback books, not ebooks, but we could supplement or supplant with ebooks easily, for a few extra (precious) dollars in the former case (and also with hardbacks for more dollars), if such a demand or need ever arose.
(We are contracted with the large POD printer Lightning Source, and they distribute our books to online retailers via the behemoth wholesaler Ingram--being owned by them.)
We are now (were not initially) funded in part by The Puffin Foundation, but via a one-time—or periodic, at best—grant, of the sort mentioned by Kathleen.
Our books have drawn high praise from intellectuals in the academy and intellectuals and other workers in the activist community, and by a wide variety of people in our early months, from zine writers, to students, to prisoners, and others in general.
We published our first novel in late December 2005. Our second book of fiction in January 2006, our third in February, and we will publish 3 additional books in April (2 fiction, 1 nonfiction), one in each of the first three weeks, and then release a book per month throughout 2006 and into early 2007 at least.
So it can be done, and is being done by a number of collaborative type presses.
We do feel the labor pinch though, and financial concerns are always there. We are considering how we might work with interns or various other non-author associates/partners (unpaid unfortunately). Most colleges and universities have undergraduate and/or graduate courses and programs that give credit to students for publishing-related work in the community, and we are currently exploring this possibility.
Except in one very promising instance, collaboration on individual texts, to the extent that it has happened, has happened in very modest amounts thus far, nothing preplanned, or extensively preconceived (much like the birth and “rise” of the press). Even the one ongoing instance of substantial (and in this case multimedia) collaboration with an individual text was originally very serendipitous.
There is one instance of potential collaboration on a book that has been discussed and may well be pursued in which one author’s style will be radically altered while being wholly untouched. A little puzzle. The answer is that the author has two quite divergent, even largely blocked apart, strains of style (and to a large extent content—For what, Ben Shahn would argue, is style but content?) in his work. The suggestion has been made and received with some enthusiasm to go this route in one book, cut all of one strain out and wholly expand the other strain—which would thus produce something utterly unlike what the author has produced heretofore and yet wholly, and in a certain totally untouched sense, his own. And thus utterly collaborative, yet essentially individual, as it would be credited (unless the book were massively edited and arranged by the other, in which case credit would still be differentiated between author and editor). Much more could be said about various sorts of collaboration and collectivity in literary realms, especially as contrasted and compared to scientific and social science realms, as well as in regard to other fields in the humanities.
We started the press because we had to, to find a ready outlet for much, though not all, of our work in book form. We have recognized all along the importance of founding and building such an institution, however modest, as Mainstay Press, but lacking the major resources necessary to found a highly visible operation, we first sought to have our work published by established presses, progressive and otherwise. Only after meeting an interesting variety of resistance and rejection and simple regretted incapacity did we turn to our own startup. So in this way we were more or less forced more or less grudgingly but also excitedly into what we already valued, it seems fair to say (and in fact in a number of ways had previously acted on, that is, self publishing, largely independently producing our own works). A not atypical course of events, I think. In our case too such a venture doesn’t lack for work, or for satisfaction and rewards, not least of the sort that I think Bill refers to.
Most everything seems to be going online, to be going to be available online, and I hope it does and is, but it’s also often necessary, and otherwise meaningful too, to have a considerable amount of such work available in various ways—whether it be scholarly or activist, etc—in paper form, book form in particular, and this is what our Mainstay Press currently offers.
A glimpse of where Mainstay is at now:
Open source has succeeded, in large part, due to the commitments that hundreds of programmers have made, not just to their individual projects but to the system as a whole. Most of these programmers work regular, paid gigs, working on corporate projects, all the while reserving some measure of their time and devotion for non-profit, collective projects. That time and devotion are given freely because of a sense of the common benefits that all will reap from the project’s success.
I fear that this is a misconception of what drives open-source software development.
Surely, there are projects that are driven by the collectivist impulse. Richard Stallman is in some ways the father of open-source software, which he definitely sees as a means of furthering social justice. The problem is, most other software developers consider him some combination of insane and a raging asshole. They also consider him an amazingly competent software engineer, so when he says “I’ll let you use the software I wrote if you go along with my weird political theories”, they do so. But when it comes to getting other people to work on his collectively motivated software, he’s had less luck. His group has been trying to write a “free” Unix for nearly 20 years now, and still isn’t done. Effort slowed to a crawl once Linux came along, which is less ideologically pure but you don’t have to pay for it and you get the source code, which turns out to be what people actually cared about.
People work on less ideologically motivated open source software for a few other reasons, few of which have anything to do with “a sense of the common benefits that all will reap from the project’s success.” Contributing to open-source software is a good way to publicly demonstrate your programming chops, making it easier to get a good job. It’s also a way to get peers to recognize your greatness, or at least to give some measure of respect. It’s also valuable to those selling computer hardware or consulting services, and these people can frequently be convinced to contribute money to pay the programmers. Finally, improving open-source software while on the job is usually advantageous to employers, because it increases productivity. Allowing the employee to distribute his improvements doesn’t detract from the core business, and keeps the (hard-to-replace) engineers happy, so it gets allowed.
I think that electronic academic publishing is a good idea, and looking to open source software for inspiration is also a good idea, but it’s important to realize that open source software development is mostly successful to the extent that it’s able to harness non-collectivist impulses.
"That time and devotion are given freely because of a sense of the common benefits that all will reap from the project’s success.”
“I think that electronic academic publishing is a good idea, and looking to open source software for inspiration is also a good idea, but it’s important to realize that open source software development is mostly successful to the extent that it’s able to harness non-collectivist impulses.”
Whether or not what is said here of the development of open source software is accurate, I don’t know. Whatever the reality is, it may well be highly relevent to the startup of what the Valve is discussing.
But in my view, such a statement would not apply accurately to Mainstay Press. To say that Mainstay Press is “mostly successful to the extent that it’s able to harness non-collectivist impulses” (and thereby elevating the importance of “non-collectivist impulses” over “collectivist impulses") is a notion that in fundamental ways is false—especially if “collectivist” is taken to mean “progressive” in general. Mainstay Press would not exist in the first place without such impulses, severely undermining its ability to be successful. We’re not Gotham City Press; we’re Mainstay Press—in large part due to such impulses and corresponding actions.
Also, often acting on such impulses helps to generate incalculable meaning to various participants in the project that smooth a lot of gears and help ease much difficulty and otherwise prove indispensible and incomparably rewarding in the face of all sorts of challenges. In these ways, our progressive impulses, which partly include the collectivist, are paramount, and have crucial and primary effects on not only the nature and quality of our “product,” but also our processes, our efficiency, the overall function and effectiveness of the press.
That said, there’s no one blueprint. Much will depend on the actual people who are or become most involved in the startup and functioning of the operation.
You are not being expansive enough in your vision about a Scholarly Commons when thinking about how to pay for it. Please bear with me.
Scholarly output from academics lays along a continuum which stretches from the cutting edge found in scholarly articles that contain the latest thinking and the latest research (and even beyond that edge these days to to pre-print services like Bepress and SSRN) and even beyond that to blogs and mailing lists where new ideas are floated or bandied about.
Coming back from the edge, some of this academic work is used in teaching by the scholar in graduate level seminars or others when they provide supplements to their students in graduate and even undergraduate courses. Currently, these are either linked via the web or fair-use photocopied at cost (say 5-10 cents/page) for the students at the local Kinkos.
Over time, the established doctrine gets instantiated into textbooks where it has been culled into essential elements, organized into chapters to fit a standard syllabus and marketed to a larger audience for adoption into a curriculum. The culling (which includes the editorial work), printing and marketing result mainly in a book that costs 15-20 cents/page ($100 text book with 500 pages). Some small part of that finds its way back to the author(s).
This is the tail of the market that you want to use to wag the dog of the scholarly commons. Let me explain.
I have heard for years that scholarship informs teaching and that this is how universities and faculty reconcile tenure. Faculty are paid to teach, but they are also paid to do research and though it is teaching that pays the bills, research informs and improves the teaching. Instead of treating these two as almost separate activities, the electronic press suggested could make the connection explicit as all of this being scholarly effort that simply lies on the continuum mentioned above.
Here’s the pitch.
Pay faculty to write textbooks and course packs (supplements) that are sold to students electronically for $10. Forgo DRM and instead use a form of social pressure where the student receives an electronic product with his or her name in the footer of every page. (I have seem non-DRMed ebooks like this). Faculty who adopt these materials send the students to the electronic press to purchase their textbooks and course materials just like they would send students to a bookstore.
To bridge the transition from print to ebooks, let the student decide if they would also like to purchase a paper version of the materials via a print-on-demand service like http://www.lulu.com or http://www.lighteningsource.com. Lulu’s costs for printing are on their website. The 500 page textbook mentioned above would cost 2 cents per page + $4.30 for soft cover binding and $3 for shipping in 5-10 days = $17.30. Even with the $10 charge for the electronic version, you have a textbook that costs $27.30 which is rather less than the paper-only version of $100. If this is transparently explained, you can use this as a marketing angle to increase compliance. There will doubtless be cheaters/freeriders - students (and faculty) who will download a single ebook and make copies for their classes and friends. The “social DRM” of putting the original user’s name on the book will mitigate that to a point, but the key is not to get caught up in having to get 100% compliance with the program - that’s DRM “think” and fatal to the goals of the project.
The $10 from each student is used to run the operations of the electronic press and to pay authors up front to write books, chapters and course packs that are put into the database. Some of the money could also be used to pay folks to review materials - an editorial board - that raises the bar for materials intended for teaching so that quality control is maintained. The up-front payment to the authors requires that they release copyright (or a sufficient Creative Commons set of rights) for the purposes of the enterprise. This also means that there is no royalty stream paid to the authors. Instead adoption of their materials becomes the royalty of prestige for having your materials used in thousands of classrooms. Authors get some money (perhaps as much as the average textbook author gets), everyone else gets textbooks and students pay much less for their course materials. Not everyone need be paid - contributions of articles, essays, monographs, etc. would be welcomed and encouraged. Faculty want their ideas to be spread, this system provides that opportunity.
Since everything is in a database, everything is re-purpose-able or re-mix-able for anyone else to use as they want. An instructor teaching a new course wants to use materials from a variety of books or scholarly papers in the system - but not the entirety of any of them. Using software, the instructor “assembles” the book or course pack using only the materials they want - in the sequence they want and “publishes” it back to the system to be sold to students for $10. This is a kind of customized textbook, print-on-demand, vanity press mashup.
The system keeps track of these mashups so that the authors of the materials that went into them get “partial” credit - think of this as a more granular whuffie or reputonics system. Whuffie points means rankings and rankings = prestige. This attracts more faculty who want to participate in this new reputation system. The print versions of the books and course packs can be sent to the authors so that they can put one in the glass ego case, put one on reserve in the dead-tree library and put one on their shelf so that they can show off to their colleagues. It has all the prestige credit that a published “book” has.
The “assembled” books and course packs would be also be a share-able artifact of the system. Let’s say someone assembles a great set of materials for teaching about Shakespeare’s early works for a 3 week seminar course. Someone else could use that as part of a longer course or could simply adopt it as it is for their own seminar. Virtualize, remix and share our syllabi. I have more to say on this, but will hold off as this is already way too long.
The established and entrenched authors of existing popular textbooks will not be happy and will criticize the system. They are a very small minority of all scholars, instructors and teachers in our education system. Some of them may even be willing to “sell” their book into the system for a reasonable one-time, upfront payment. If there is enough $10 activity going on, the enterprise can pick up these aging and retiring faculty-authors (who may want a larger chunk of money right away for retirement rather than a long drawn-out annuity of royalties).
In summary, the billion dollar higher education textbook market can be cannibalized - not completely supplanted or eliminated - to fund the larger scholarly commons press on a sustainable basis.
Are we thinking big enough yet?
Executive Director, Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction/CALI
John, I do appreciate the expansiveness of your thought, and the Institute for the Future of the Book has another project (next\text) in which they’re thinking about the future of the textbook, but what I’m primarily talking about here is precisely the kind of writing that scholars are doing for their peers, and *not* for their students. Textbook publishing remains a profitable industry—in fact, most of the academic publishers that have withdrawn their support for publishing new monographs in the humanities are publishing TONS of edited volumes and other course-oriented books in the same fields. I agree that such books are often much too restrictive for fluid faculty use, and I’m on the editorial board of a commercially-published database anthology that uses the kind of remix/POD notions that you’re describing. But the thing I’m after saving here is, again, the single-author manuscript, one particular product of scholarly endeavor in the humanities that is too often having difficulty finding an outlet these days.
And Jake—thanks for your corrective to my somewhat rosy views of the workings of open-source. I still think your portrait has direct applicability, however, even if the work that programmers do on open-source projects is more aimed at personal advancement than collective problem-solving; as John Holbo has noted, one of the key ways of landing a better academic job/getting better speaking gigs/etc. is writing and publishing a really successful book. Perhaps such self-interest can be harnessed to the collective in ways that are productive and positive. Thanks for getting me to think about that end of motivation here…
I’m glad you found my comments at least mildly useful, and I hope that this effort succeeds.
What Open Source software has accomplished in the past few years is truly remarkable, but most attempts to replicate that success in other areas have failed, for reasons that are not yet widely or fully understood. Even Open Source’s successes are spotty; there’s still no good open source calendar program, very few amazingly easy to use or well-documented open source programs, and not much open source embedded software.
I think it’s a matter of making it worthwhile to distribute work for free that was getting done anyway, and dealing with the parts that are expensive and/or a pain by not doing them.
Perhaps something as simple as citing reviewers (and not in the part where you thank your spouse for not divorcing you) and putting paper reviews on one’s CV, adding “reviewer” search to SSRN, and doing without formatting because, after all, who can afford to pay editors?