29 July 2010

Re-inventing Publishing for the Digital Age

As a former publisher (no, really) I am fascinated by, and sympathetic to, efforts to come up with new models for profitable publishing in the age of digital abundance. Clearly, part of that must include making digital text available for free (because if you don't do it, someone else will); the question is, what's the best way of doing that?

Against that background, I was intrigued to come across something calling itself OpenBook Publishers:

Open Book is an independent publisher run by academics for academics and for the readers of academic work. We are a Social Enterprise (CIC) company that publishes high quality, peer-reviewed monographs in the humanities and social sciences and ensures the widest possible distribution of its publications.

Open Book makes the whole publishing process in academia fairer, swifter and more affordable by utilizing three important technological advances: the digital medium, the Internet and print-on-demand.

Open Book:

* Provides free online access to read digital versions of all publications.

* Retails high quality paperback editions at around £12, and hardback editions at around £25.

* Enables printable digital versions of both the entire book and individual book chapters to be downloaded online.

* Allows authors to maintain copyright on their own works.

* Makes publication decisions on academic merit alone through a rigorous peer review and editorial process.

* Requires no publication payment by the author.

* Speeds up the refereeing and printing processes.

That sounds pretty promising, so I thought I'd explore a title that seemed rather appropriate in the context: Privilege and Property. Essays on the History of Copyright:

What can and can’t be copied is a matter of law, but also of aesthetics, culture, and economics. The act of copying, and the creation and transaction of rights relating to it, evokes fundamental notions of communication and censorship, of authorship and ownership – of privilege and property.

Sounds just up my street. Interestingly, it uses print on demand for its analogue copies:

Open Book Publishers uses print on demand technology, so your books(s) will be printed rapidly once we have received your order.

That seems absolutely right to me - no huge cost upfront, no bulky stock to store, and lower cover prices as a result. But I'd prefer to take a look at the free digital version, if I may; so where's that "printable digital versions of both the entire book and individual book chapters to be downloaded online"?

Well, it's there as a PDF - but it costs £4.95 - not quite what I was expecting. It's true that you can read the title on Google Books, but it's a painful experience.

But wait, it says here:

Privilege and Property. Essays on the History of Copyright edited by Ronan Deazley, Martin Kretschmer and Lionel Bently is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Which means that once I - or anyone - has bought a copy of the PDF, it can be freely shared, subject to those conditions. Which means that it *will* be available online, sooner or later (assuming it's worth reading, and hence sharing), and that all the search engines will find it. So why slow down that process of discoverability by forcing someone to buy one copy? Is it really worth losing all that free marketing and visibility in the intervening days or weeks for the sake of £4.95?

This is a perfect example of well-meaning venture that hasn't quite thought through what publishing means today, and is still penny wise but pound foolish about those digital downloads....

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Crosbie Fitch said...

The CC Non-commercial license is as brain dead as copyright. It is incoherent and really just a sop for self-publishers to kid themselves it's in their interest to prevent anyone else 'making money' through copying/use of their work (which I'd argue was economically impossible - if I make a copy of Macbeth I don't extract any more labour from Shakespeare).

Anyway, if you'd come across OpenBookPublishers on my blog http://www.digitalproductions.co.uk/index.php?id=250 you'd see that I provide a copy of the book "Privilege and Property. Essays on the History of Copyright" for £0.00.

The funny thing is, if they had used a Share-Alike license I would be licensed and incentivised to sell my copy, and thus re-introduce decision cost to the potential reader looking for a copy. Given a choice between £4.95 and £4.50, there is more temptation to stick with the £4.95 (investing goodwill and custom). However, between £4.95 and £0.00 there's not really any room for hesitation, especially as no credit card is necessary for the £0.00.

I think OpenBookPublishers and the authors that use them have to shift their paradigm a little further.

One has to completely dissolve the silly monopoly. Printers compete with each other to sell good copies for what price the market bears. Authors compete with each other to write good books on copyright for what price the market bears. Some people are in the market for a copy, some are in the market for well researched writing on the history of copyright. Some for both.

What the authors appear to be missing is a way for those who want them to write to pay them to do so.

Glyn Moody said...

@Crosbie: thanks for those points (and the link...).

In fact, I read your post, but didn't take in the title or publishing - just your penultimate line...

Crosbie Fitch said...

The history of copyright is pretty tedious and dismal so far. Unfortunately, its final, rather exciting and uplifting chapters haven't yet been written. So, I try to add a little humour here and there - taking the liberty to draw upon our shared culture without permission from a potentially constrictive Python or two.

Thanks for tweeting a link to it. :)