December 10th, 2010

I Love My Life It Is So Serendipitous

I'm hanging out here at the house with my daughter, doing a little vacuuming, stuff like that. R. took T. to run some errands. Occasionally, A. wants my help getting something down from a shelf, or an assist on a little pretend play (give monkey a bottle, help monkey play on the dollhouse tricycle, etc.), but mostly we're doing very, very little. She requested in to the big tub, but I'd just put serious Balmex on her for rash and didn't want to undiaper her just yet. In she went, with the water on trickle: more fun than a water table.

While all this is going on, I have Bloomberg on the downstairs TV and I'm wearing the headphones, one earpiece on, one off, so I don't lose track of what's going on with A. Reid Hoffman is being interviewed, which is very mildly interesting, but he keeps repeating something that just does not sound right to me: academics write books for an audience of 50-60. _I_ read a couple dozen monographs a year, and I'm just a dilettante trying to keep the boredom at bay.

When I had the chance to do a little googling, I found some stuff from the second half of the 1990s about print runs of monographs, and just what precisely constituted a monograph. The print runs were a lot smaller than I had realized: 600, with the assumption that half would be bought by academic libraries and half by individuals. These would be books with no undergraduate audience. There was also an interesting article about whether academic books published by university presses differ from academic books published by commercial presses in terms of circulation in academic libraries. Given how I've felt about several recent commercial press published "academic" books, I'm a little scandalized at the idea that university presses should just let the commercial folk have the field. Not that anyone is seriously proposing that. I don't think. Yikes.

Anyway. One of the articles was at this online journal, which really felt like striking gold when I went to check out what the current postings were:

[ETA: Volume 13 Issue 2 Fall 2010 issue, in case you read this at some time in the far flung future and it isn't completely obvious.]

Yum. Yum. Yum.

Let the Wild Geekitude Begin! Er. Ahem.

this isn't going to go over well

I've been reading the Journal of Electronic Publishing, and I haven't laughed this much since, oh, the last time I was reading stuff over at Cafe Press that you can find by searching on keywords like asperger's.

I'm _pretty_ sure Katharine Wittenberg wrote this seriously, but I swear it reads like the people at Onion decided to take on academic:

"This R&D group will look and behave more like a research lab than a production operation. They will be directed to work with authors to develop new kinds of publications in a select number of fields that complement the areas of strength within a press’s host university. This group will play a critical role in helping the university press devise new models of scholarly publishing that will strengthen the press’s identity as a center of innovation."

I LOVE University Presses. Seriously. I'm happy to pay way more for a University Press book than an otherwise substitutable Big 6 book, because I believe the University Press offerings represent a better risk. But in absolutely no universe that I can imagine do university presses have an "identity as a center of innovation". It is to laugh.

Really, really hard.

Also, Wittenberg's theory about how R&D works in the corporate world is a complete and utter crock of shit. And given that she used to run the electronic publishing effort at Columbia U, and her departure and the program shutting down coincided, I have to suspect some really thorough-going incompetence. (They've since outsourced a bunch of stuff to, I kid you not, _Perseus_. I guess if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right? Geez.) Honestly? This article makes typical ebook coverage look _brilliantly insightful_.

Lest someone come along and say, hey, aren't you being a little harsh on Ms. Wittenberg, here's what you can read over at Columbia University Press:

"The Press announced a plan to close its warehouse facility in Irvington, NY in the summer of 2009 and outsource its fulfillment operations to Perseus Distribution, a division of Perseus Book Group. This restructuring is part of an overall effort to improve print economics while facilitating electronic delivery.

The collaboration with Perseus will strengthen the print program of the Press and allow it to accelerate growth of digital offerings—not previously available through its operations—for its eleven distribution partners, particularly for short run digital printing, print on demand, and a suite of delivery services for electronic books in multiple formats. Columbia University Press will continue to concentrate on growing its core publishing operations including its recently launched Columbia Business School Publishing imprint, making them available in multiple formats."

I've been around when a division was supposed to produce something, and the day came and went and they didn't deliver, so the company had to go outside and buy it instead. And this looks a whole lot like that happened to Columbia University Press in the wake of EPIC and Wittenberg.

I can't _wait_ to read the next set of brilliant ideas about how to save university publishing. I would say I'm serious about this, but honestly, I've had to do a lot of deep breathing just to read the particularly hilarious bits out loud to R.

ETA: I think that EPIC got shut down during the general collapse of the economy in 2008, but Columbia University Press couldn't get around the knotty problem of needing to provide digital publication services. They probably fired up a laptop, and googled around and found this:

Must have felt like every one of their prayers had been answered. Hope it works out for them; seems more likely to do so than anything involving their former director of epic.

All this humor is giving me a slight headache

That is an incredibly, shockingly long blog post. Truly wrong. Here are a couple highlights:

"UP2.0 will be immediately confronted by the co-existence of the two not quite compatible sensibilities sketched above: one that attaches to the printed book (and the many mature intellectual, scholarly, professional and personal circuits in which books circulate); and the other that is cathected to the digital book, itself the emerging epicenter of a vast but immature set of technological, scholarly, professional, and personal digital networks (attachments that make up in passion and scope for what they lack in history and development). In the short run, at least, I believe that presses will have to harness and ride the print/digital pair in tandem, favoring the digital colt as the mount for the future, but keeping the aging but steady print workhorse nourished on demand."

I still think The Onion had something to do with this. Ride a couple horses in tandem? How does that even make sense? And how can a "sensibility" be "cathected" to a "book", digital or otherwise? Aren't you usually cathected _with_? Conceivably by, I suppose. I don't think I trust this writer.

Continuing to the next paragraph:

"UP2.0 will feature the availability and applicability of digitally enabled interactive networks and networking at every phase of the publication process. Digital books will incorporate a wide range of digital features and resources, including, at a basic UP 1.0 non-interactive level, supplementation of text by imaginative digital audio and visual materials; linkages to relevant disciplinary books and other didactic materials issued by UP2.0 itself; and instant access to all of the sources, citations, notes, and bibliography mentioned in the text."

Look, you're going from paper to digital to save money, and the paper process _does not have artwork_ typically, because it's too expensive to design and you can't usually hand that project off to the author, and you don't professionally proofread the book (because it's too expensive) and you try to discourage _pictures_ in the book -- not just because of reproduction costs, but because of _rights_ costs -- and getting the index and notes right is one the biggest headaches of academic publishing. How do you think you're going to have the resources to hyperlink the little numbers in the text to the notes in the back, much less have the sources in the back link off somewhere else to access something that you also have to get the rights to? A link which will break every time the source decide to redesign its archives.

It's bad enough when a software company hires idiots like this with Brilliant Ideas that no one really cares about, certainly not enough to justify the price tag. We've watched Blio do a slow-motion collapse attempting to implement these kinds of ideas first as a hardware reader, then as a software reader, and they're _still_ hung up on content issues. But to have a subsidized university press engage in this kind of timewasting day dreaming?

It _was_ really funny, but now I feel a little hungover and cranky. I think I'll go play Farm Town for a while, and be extremely thankful I avoided academia as a career path.

this _has_ to be The Onion;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0013.209

I have to say the worst thing about electronic publishing (at least in a journal about same) is that people go on and on and on.

This guy is imagining the world of 2020, a world of climate change and peak everything. How will that affect University Presses? Yes, that's the first question I would ask, too. (<-- Sarcasm.)

Here are some highlights:

"So, let me posit two dystopian economic/scholarly publishing futures, and explore what they might mean for university presses.

In both scenarios, on the positive side, by 2020, I expect to live in digital ubiquity, where digital “devices” are as quaint as a vacuum-tube stereo, since we each have a digital presence that simply surrounds us. My personal engagement with the digital world is by now facilitated by the systems’ knowledge of the activities, interests, concerns, and enthusiasms of the other seven thousand people just like me, who are each also “one in a million.” We will have almost forgotten that once upon a time we had to ask a question with “key words.” Walls and kiosks and foldable screens and NetSpecs will provide access to whatever degree of content bandwidth we desire, for whatever purposes we choose."

Someone has read _Neuromancer_ and its ilk several thousand too many times.

This is funny: "For university presses, in both scenarios, I expect to see routine “smart crowdsourcing” of peer review". Okay, that might not be funny. I like Amazon's reviews, and I have a pretty good sense of how to interpret them. I know there are some real issues with peer review as it works today. But I have a bad feeling about "smart crowdsourcing peer review".

"In both scenarios, tenure and review remain necessary elements of scholarly validation, and the desire for high-quality, high-touch, high-authority products, produced by publishers and facilitating authority for that validation, remain high." Words fail. Tenure not going anywhere, even if the world goes to shit. Ya gotta love that kind of bedrock certainty. Most of the rest of this dystopian scenario makes absolutely no sense, however, this will give you some flavor:

"Publishing innovation, in this scenario, will be nearly all reactive, a sort of whack-a-mole tamping-down of the next unexpected problem. By 2020, when it is crystal clear that repair of the physical world is nearly impossible (and/or when geoengineering schemes have caused massive “unintended consequences”), the economic contraction will be staggering. Beyond that, there be tygers."

The rest of it made so little sense that I sort of gave up. Good luck if you give it a shot.

There's actually some reason to suspect this author has real competence at electronic publishing, and just has a real fanciful bent to his personality, particularly when brainstorming about the future. It's always nice to find someone who can find the funny in the truly appalling.