The following post is the fourth in a series from Leslie Lees, VP of Content Development from ebrary. Academic E-books – The Shifting Landscape discusses changes that are occurring with ebooks and implications for libraries and their users. –Mike
I met recently with Milad Doueihi, author of Digital Cultures. We discussed the irony that his book, which is about the futility of attempts by publishers to artificially recreate the restrictions from printed books in the new digital world, had not yet been made available for individual sales due to an embargo.
That scholarly publishers are, in fact, very aware of this irony, and of the challenges posed by this new digital culture, is made clear in the AAUP-sponsored report, Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses. The report is an attempt to find ways out of the impasse in which publishers find themselves, wherein the shift from the scarcity of access in the print world which dictated the way that books were written, published, and sold, to a situation of hyper-abundance that seriously challenges their traditional business models.
Books are extremely susceptible to the challenges posed by hyper-abundance as they are purchased not only by institutions but also by individuals. The case of Harper Collins illustrates this dilemma particularly well. The publisher’s attempt to find a business model that allows content to be sold, rather than withheld from sale to libraries, is to be applauded. And, as suggested in Eric Hellman’s analysis in his blog Go to Hellmann, there should be much for libraries to like in the development of a largely usage based model for licensing books to public libraries, even if the proposed model requires some significant tweaking. What the Harper Collins situation illustrates, more than the disputes over a particular business model, are the deeper philosophical differences between trade publishers and public libraries; differences that were largely obscured in the print world by the slower circulation of books. Some fundamental questions will have to be addressed before the needs of publishers and libraries in the trade space can be rebalanced.
However, it is important to note that the same underlying differences do not define the relationship between scholarly publishers and academic libraries. Writers and readers, publishers and libraries are integrated into a scholarly communication system that shapes their mutual experiences. The challenges faced by scholarly publishers arise not from the fundamental differences, but from the remarkable similarities in the problems faced by the participants in the scholarly ecosystem. As libraries have been forced by economic circumstance and user demand to move away from the collection based model that underpinned the value of their service to the academic community, the demand for monographs has become more uncertain and the risks associated with publishing many specialized titles have become too high. And just as the long-held value of physical library collections as the only easily accessible guarantee of quality research is dissolving in the age of changing user expectations and abundant digital content; so too the selections by publishers, made of necessity because of the risks and costs inherent in the business of scholarly publishing, are losing their role as the sole marque of academic quality.
While libraries and publishers are both struggling to adapt to change that springs from a new digital culture, it is important to emphasize that publishers confront new challenges on two fronts. Just as the uncertain, maybe declining, demand, for monographs threatens their ability to support new scholarship, scholars are beginning to establish new networks and modalities for communicating with their peers. And many of these scholars have begun to question the very value of the publishers for the effective circulation of their work. Of course, the risk for scholars in this ‘brave new world’ is that they will throw out the baby with the bathwater. New networks most certainly offer countless benefits for academic interchange but they could also threaten some of the most valued qualities of the scholarly enterprise itself; concentration, analysis, and deep expertise.
It is encouraging to see the University Presses thinking with such clarity and precision about how their fundamental value and competencies might be deployed differently in the digital age, They have had the courage to reimagine their role in the academic ecosystem and to engage more deeply with libraries and scholars whose daily choices could pose threats to their very existence.
The supportive fabric of the scholarly environment, which might appear to be in danger of being ripped apart by the stresses of the new digital culture, is instead becoming the locus of some very creative thinking by scholarly publishers about the their fundamental mission to preserve the values that scholars hold dear. And the emphasis of Academic Presses on collaboration in arriving at solutions illustrates itself what one might sincerely hope will remain the enduring value of scholarly culture in the digital world and beyond.