Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Publishing on the Internet

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 01, 2000

Posted to IFETS-DISCUSS on 2 March, 2000

Lawrence Lipsitz wrote, in part

But any good publisher is very much a partner with the author, constantly making suggestions and changes, working for months and sometimes years to perfect a manuscript and to bring it to its full fruition as a public work.

This process, also known as editing, is distinct from publishing, though of course it is a service many publishers provide. Editing, as any writer is aware, typically serves several purposes, some noble, some less so:

  • to correct grammatical, spelling, and other stylistic errors
  • to verify facts and statistics
  • to modify the wording or phrasing to meet the needs of the intended audience
  • to alter or remove content deemed objectionable
  • to modify a work to make it more marketable

Whether in today's environment we require publishers to perform these tasks is questionable. Word processors today perform many of the mundane tasks of copy editing. Academic works are usually evaluated for factual content through a process of peer, not publisher, review. Indeed much of a publisher's editing work seems directed toward making a work suitable for a marketplace. But one wonders whether this sort of work is needed or even desired.

And this is only for those relatively few submitted works that even pass muster in the first instance as being, perhaps, worthy of eventual publication, based on the considered judgment of the publisher's experienced editors and consultants.

The second major task performed by the publisher is one of culling - cutting those few worthy publications from the herd for printing and distribution. When books were composed of expensive paper and binding, when they required shipping, display and distribution, then there was a certain need to focus only on the best of the lot; because of the cost of production - and consequent cost of purchase, the market could only absord so many books, and as a result a selection process was inevitable.

Today no such need exists. There is no real reason why we could not publish every book online. That is not to say that online publication is without cost, but it is to say that the cost of online publication is minimal.

Not mentioned by Mr Lipsitz, though I dare say a significant portion of the cost of a book in the bookstore, is marketing. The major weakness of online publication is obscurity. It is easy to publish a book online, but considerably more difficult to persuade a million people to read it. Whether published offline or online, the success (financial and otherwise) of a book depends on positioning - either up front in the Coles bookstore or well positioned in the Yahoo or Amazon portals.

All of this care costs money -- indeed, far more than is spent in the mechanics of physical book production itself. None of this absolutely crucial up-front expense -- the expense that makes the whole process worthwhile -- disappears in electronic publishing -- unless, of course, once again, the so-called publisher simply takes a raw manuscript and rushes it, totally unchanged, on to the Internet, which is merely vanity publishing.

I am happy to agree that these three expenses are crucil expenses. Where I disagree is that these three essential functions need to be centralized and housed under a single roof. Indeed, a far more robust system of publishing books and all other other academic materials envisions a distributed and unbundled mechanism of production.

Each of the three major areas of production (editing, culling, and marketing) is likely to devolve to a subset of independent agents.

We already have an economy of independent editors. Such people are more likely to be hired directly by the people authoring the book or product than they are to be hired by a publisher.

The culling process is no longer strictly necessary, as all books received can be published. But the equivalent filtering mechanism will be provided by a network of independent reviewers and critics working for sales sites, such as Amazon, or portal sites such as Yahoo.

Finally, marketing is more likely to be conducted by independent marketing firms specializing in online publications. These firms will ensure that informational material is properly formatted - they will write the metadata, for example, to ensure the resource shows up in appropriate resource lists.

This is just a gloss of a much more complex process. One of the benefits of a list such as this, and especially of the recent discussion of learning objects, is that it represents a first set of steps toward the establishment of such a mechanism.

If we assume that the roles of editor, reviewer and marketer can be taken up by independent agents, then we can envision a publishing and distribution mechanism whereby the sum cost of a book is substantially lower than today's hefty price tag. Some of this cost reduction is obtained by efficientcy of production, but most of it is obtained by the erosion of the virtual monopoly major publishers have long held over information distribution.

As to the potential of creating millions of readers via vastly lower prices, all real publishers know that, yes, this works for certain areas, but it does not work for all. And it certainly does not work for many academic fields in which the universe of interest is relatively narrow by its very nature.

In the area of academic publications, high costs have been justified historically by the relatively small number of readers. An academic journal in abstruse mathematics, for example, may have a readership of only a couple of hundred people (remarkably similar to my web site).

In the case of such publications the editing, culling and marketing functions provided by the publisher are minimal. The scholarly process of peer review and acceptance replaces the first two; indeed, I would be surprised were Mr. Lipsitz to claim that a publisher, as opposed to distinguished academics, were in a position to perform these functions. As for marketing: in a small and well defined market such as abstruse mathematics no marketing is necessary; those who would read the publication would be well aware of its pending distribution.

With the emergence of online information exchanges it will become increasingly difficult to justify $900 subscriptions or $1500 textbooks, particularly when most of the work in writing and editing the publication is being done for free (or nominal honoraria) by respected academics.

Clearly, if you insist upon paying no more than $3.00 to $4.00 for a published volume, even one on the Internet, then you will find that there will be no books available at all in many fields -- or, to put it more precisely, there will be no high-quality works in those fields.

I think it is a fallacy to directly associate cost with quality. Many things of quality - such as Linux, Apache, the Bible, the New York Times, and summer sunsets - come with little or no cost attached. Many things without quality - such as Ishtar, Waterworld, Florida real estate - come with substantial cost.

The motivation - and reward - for academic publishing of high quality work is seldom financial; such considerations move publishers far mor than they move scientists and researchers. An author of a first rate article in a top notch journal typically receives six or so off-prints as his reward, but the real value obtained from his efforts is the esteem and respect of his colleagues, perhaps a tenured appointment if he needs it, and maybe some research grants or a Nobel Price - none of which is promised or provided by a publisher.

Indeed, it is likely that with the removal of current publishing contraints, with the flourishing of many voices where previously only a few could be heard, there will be a proliferation of high quality academic work, some of it emerging from the most unlikely sources, and all of it inexpensive or even free, and conseuqently widely distributed where before it was available only to a select few.

We have already been approached by lots of entrepreneurs who want to buy rights to manuscripts we have REJECTED as being unworthy of consideration. Yes, rejected works. These new firms wish to "publish" these rejected manuscripts online. I am sure these will be relatively cheap to purchase. Thus, for very little money, one can assemble a complete library of rejected manuscripts. Wonderful!

Indeed wonderful. In the prior era, one heard of rejected manusacripts only by rumour. We depended on the publishers' wit and wisdom to decide for us which works were worthy of having been written, and which were fit only for the refuse bin. We were left to wonder whether, in the course of such deliberations, another "Moby Dick" or "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" was left, as it were, on the cutting room floor, rejected not out of merit but solely for commerical or other publisher-specific concerns.

On a closing note: I would not pen this paean to online publishing were it not for my previous frustrations with publishers. From what I have seen, publishers view online technologies only as a means of marketing books: this is evidenced by online 'courses' they have built for the sole purpose of supporting printed texts. I see more often publishers express concern about copyright and other protections, and little to no interest in providing widely available and affordable educational opportunities.

In my work as a course designer, the most difficult problems have always been presented to us, not by the technology, or by reluctant students, but by truculent publishers insisting that not one word of the printed material appear online, lest it be illegally appropriated by a needy yet indigent student.

I will not mourn the fall of the publishing industry, and consider any wounds they receive at the hands of electronic publishers to have been self inflicted.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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