Sunday, January 21, 2007

Are publishers "pervy for paper" and other twisted thoughts about Google's "UnBound," January 18, 2007 at the New York Public Library

The suggestion that it may be OK for us to be "pervy for paper," remaining unduly wedded to the destruction of trees in an age of almost infinite electronic storage capacity and instantaneous internet availability, came from Cory Doctorow, one of the stellar collection of speakers at the "UnBound" conference last Thursday. Initiated and sponsored by Google, and subtitled "Advancing Book Publishing in a Digital World" this day-long event drew a crowd of almost 300 book people to the NYPL's Celeste Barton auditorium. Whatever the commercial or legal motivations of Google in wooing New York's publishing community, the experience itself was unique and valuable. Few in the publishing community have the deep pockets necessary for such an in-demand cast of speakers as Doctorow, Seth Godin (marketeer and author of best-selling business books), Chris Anderson (Editor of Wired), and Tim O'Reilly (visionary Founder of O'Reilly Media), and there are fewer still events where publishers from trade giants like Random House and Pearson would mingle on an equal footing with scholarly publishers large and, like me, very small.

The message that we have moved beyond the "death of the book" debate to a more nuanced understanding of the complementary role of paper and electronic media was echoed by a number of speakers. "The world we are building is one of print and online where one stimulates the other," said David Worlock, an early pioneer in electronic publishing and now Chairman of Electronic Publishing Services (EPS). While reference works and specialized data sources had found electronic delivery a natural environment, the physical book had proved itself as the logical format in which to read 100,000 words of narrative. Cory Doctorow spoke of the "deep emotional attachment to the codex" readers felt, reminding the listeners that "long form narrative has completely different rhythms" from recipe collections or self-help manuals. E-books were, in the main, "useless expressions in trying to bridge format and delivery" (Worlock again) and the primary way in which the devices which had already been bought by early adopters would probably be used were for listening to audio books (a market already growing explosively in the age of the MP3 player).

So what about publishers, the other presumed victims of "death of the book" evangelists? A trembling crowd cringed as Seth Godin warned that this was the time of judgment. By our actions in the next few years, publishers as planetary bodies could either move toward the center of the solar system or become, like Pluto, "downgraded." Angela D'Agostino, Vice-President of Bowker, presented a well selected group of statistical slides that reinforced this message in less emotional ways: the four-fold growth in ISBN registrations logged by Bowker in the last 10 years (62,039 in 1995 to 225,000 in 2005) was driven by a huge expansion in the number of publishers, from around 6,000 in 1995 to 11,000 in 2005. Of these, Ms. D'Agostino noted, 90% were self-publishers taking advantage of services like iUniverse and that used Print-on-Demand and wholesaler-power to bypass the traditional houses.

One consequence of the new channels which online publishing services offered was that the "latent demand for diversity" could be expressed, according to Chris Anderson, Wired's Editor-in-Chief and exponent of the "long tail" hypothesis. He backed up the powerful visuals of his 80:20 distribution curve with some figures: of 41,139 distinct ISBNs registered in 2004 by Neilsen Bookscan for new hardcover publications/release, 26,330 had sold fewer than 99 copies (i.e., 63% of the total sample). 94% of the total sold less than 5,000 copies, with the "average book" selling 500 copies a year. In other words, a market previously distorted by physical distribution bottlenecks and now revealed through "the infinite shelfspace of the internet" was falling into the near universal "long tail" pattern, observed in nature and society.

Whether it is true or not, it was clear that most of the trade publishers in the room guessed that most of their books constituted that top 20% accounting for 80% of the sales. Leave the "long tail" for self-publishers and the academic specialists! As the author panel (featuring J. A. Konrath (Lt. Jack Daniels mysteries), Stephen J. Dubner (half of Freakonomics), and Josh Kilmer-Purcell (top-selling memoirist and drag queen) showed, even the most telegenic and hard-working authors were obsessed by having a "proper" publisher and valued the branding and service that brought. In short, just like academic publishers, most trade authors are in the business for personal prestige and the power of the brand as a certification of quality remains undimmed for both authors and their readers.

In the only comments that suggested even implicit criticism of Google, a couple of speakers reflected on the dangers which amalgamations (even "mash-ups") of content posed to publishing brands. Rather than entrusting digitization to Google Book Search, "we should be creating our own repositories . . . so we have faces," said Tim O'Reilly, referring to C.S. Lewis's moral tale. As Carolyn Pittis, VP of Global Marketing Strategy and Operations at Harper Collins, repeated as she demonstrated the company's impressively complex digital workflow, "monetization of digital content requires content control."

None of this would be cheap. Christoph Chesher of Taylor & Francis, revealing some of the practical experience that STM publishers now have of digital book manufacture and sales, reminded the room that e-books were still almost as costly to produce as the paper product. Saving on printing, paper, and binding costs still removes only 10% from the retail price of a print book, while eliminating physical warehousing and shipping saves another 10%. A major additional cost remained the need to spread bets on the sustainability of different digital book formats; Open E-Book, Adobe Reader, MOBI et al. Tax in Europe on digital books vs. 0% VAT in the UK on print threw other spanners in the works. Sales remained relatively disappointing, although the success of short-term rental experiments (renting 1 day of access for 10% of the full price) showed how students preferred to use academic books online.

"JSTOR and Atypon Agreement to develop Custom Content Delivery Platform." So what does this mean for the ancient world?

The announcement on Friday, January 19, 2007 that JSTOR is planning to migrate its wonderful archive of scholarly content to the Atypon platform is probably good news for the scholarly world in general, and humanities and social sciences in particular. Although I haven't heard many complaints at all, on any topic, from JSTOR users, the ones I have heard have been about technical glitches in the operating system. The Atypon Premium service has been so well-trialed by large publishers like Blackwell (Synergy) and University of California Press (Caliber) that most of the kinks in the display of "regular" books and journals must have been ironed out by now.

Even though Atypon will probably remain in the background, the agreement must be good for their reputation and name recognition among librarians especially. JSTOR's pioneering work on electronic archiving shows that they recognize the importance of sustainability, and the mere fact of their selection of the Atypon platform is a clear recognition that their commercial partner will probably be around for a while.

While the immediate benefits to my employer, ASCSA, are not clear, there is some exciting potential here. Firstly, the current and recent issues of our quarterly journal, Hesperia, (i.e., those outside the JSTOR 3 year moving wall), are hosted on Atypon Link which last year was migrated to the same software platform as Atypon Premium. If both the journal's recent issues and its archive sit on the same base, surely there must be room for integration of some sort between the two. Seamless searching, and a common username and password for individual subscribers, have long been one of our hopes. The engineering that Atypon needed to do to link Anthrosource current issues with their JSTOR forbears sounded as if it was beyond our limited financial grasp. Perhaps the new agreement moves these dreams a little bit closer.

Secondly, perhaps a more flexible publishing platform will help JSTOR meet one of the next exciting challenges for its future; the display of "non-regular" written materials--like handwritten archives, databases, or unusually shaped books. A number of the early publications by the American School of Classical Studies, for example, were in large formats. Printed in Germany until the outbreak of World War II, several of the first reports on the School's excavations at Corinth (started in 1896) were elephant folios in which, peculiarly, text was printed to scale with the large architectural drawings that justified such extra expenditure (resulting, for example, in a hard to display, 36 pt, preface to Bert Hodge Hill's publication of the Fountain of Peirene). Since launching the volumes published in the Athenian Agora series in December 2006, JSTOR's next challenge on behalf of ASCSA is to digitize and display the Corinth series. While I do not know for certain if the Atypon system will make their job any easier, as JSTOR's staff wrestle with how to display these giant books to the standards of integrity they are famous for, I hope that it does.

As I have written elsewhere, the scholarly opportunities that the appearance of the two great series, Agora and Corinth, side by side on the same platform will offer looks sure to provide one of the most powerful proofs of why JSTOR is such a wonderful thing. As the ACLS's recently finalized report on the prospect of a "cyberinfrastructure" for the humanities (mirroring the NSF concept of one for the sciences) makes clear, one of the major barriers facing the development of electronic publishing in subjects like archaeology is the unwillingness of humanities scholars to share their data or otherwise collaborate. The problem of scholars who excavated or "were assigned"bodies of archaeological material to publish earlier in the century, but never produced is one that will be familiar to archaeologists in many countries. However, the lack of communication between sites that have published huge amounts (like Olympia and Delos, or Eleusis and Samothrace) is equally frustrating.

There are often good reasons for such a lack of communication. For example, Olympia has traditionally been excavated mainly by German archaeologists, and Delos by the French. Language and national pride gets in the way. However, even when two projects are run by the same institution, staffed by archaeologists who share a common language and culture, and came from the same graduate schools, academic tribes and "ways of doing things" develop. In the past it often seems to have been a matter of course that "Corinthians" (scholars working on Corinth) and "Athenians" never talked to each other, and spent some effort in devising different ways of doing things and even different names for pottery types.

It is the opportunities to explore across such territorial barriers that makes the potential appearance of the Athenian Agora and Corinth volumes on a common platform so dedicated to cross-searching tremendously exciting. Sure, the JSTOR search will always be fairly fuzzy. And, in the end, we will always be looking at fairly flat page images and fairly dirty OCR. But JSTOR is so well-used, so easy, and so well-liked that it will not be long before serendipitous discoveries of unexpected connections across paper volumes that were previously shelved in different locations in the physical library should surely provoke a renewed interest in contact between the two ancient cities.

After all, even if they have been studied in relative isolation, Corinth and the Agora were intimately linked in antiquity. As we know from the development of pottery styles, the craftspeople of ancient Athens and Corinth kept very careful eyes on what the latest trends in the other great city were. When JSTOR offers Corinth and Agora volumes side by side, facilitated by the mighty Atypon software platform, the scholar crafting their next article or student writing their overdue term paper can follow the Eleusinian highway, skim around the mountains, and check out the "competition" too. And all that done without the two day walk through hot and lawless country!