Tag Archive for publishing

Feeback, Please!

Earlier this summer Desiree Rowe and Ben Myers, whose podcast The Critical Lede I cannot say enough good things about, invited me to contribute to a journal forum they’re editing on “The Performative Possibilities of New Media.”  Given my interest in the politics of scholarly communication, I immediately jumped at the chance to participate.

Composing the essay took a little longer than I’d expected, but I think I’ve got a respectable version of the piece now in hand.  It’s called “Performing Scholarly Communication,” and it reflects on the origins and possible futures of academic periodical publishing.

This is where you come in.  I’ve posted the draft essay to one of my project sites, The Differences & Repetitions Wiki (a.k.a., D&RW), in the hopes those of you reading this might be kind enough to offer some feedback.  You’ll find “Performing Scholarly Communication” on the site, along with other essays I’ve  worked on over the years.  Don’t hesitate to comment anonymously — I’m completely cool with that — and definitely take some time to poke around a bit.  Oh, and by the way, the piece is pretty short, so it won’t take you very long to read.Movie A Dog’s Purpose (2017)

If you’re already familiar with D&RW, it’s likely that things will look a little different to you.  That’s because over the summer I moved and totally rebuilt the site.  I used to host it on Wikidot, but the influx of advertising there became so much that I felt compelled to relocate.  D&RW now links directly off of my other blog, Difference & Repetitions, which I also moved this summer from Google Blogger to its own domain.  I guess you could say that “Performing Scholarly Communication” marks the (dant-dant-daah!) GRAND OPENING of the new D&RW.  Enjoy.

Thanks in advance, wise crowd, for reading and commenting on the piece.  I hope you find something in there that intrigues you.


Scholarly Journal Publishing

My latest essay, “Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing,” is now out in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7(1) (March 2010), pp. 3-25.  In my opinion, it’s probably the single most important journal essay I’ve published to date.  Here’s the abstract:

This essay explores the changing context of academic journal publishing and cultural studies’ envelopment within it. It does so by exploring five major trends affecting scholarly communication today: alienation, proliferation, consolidation, pricing, and digitization. More specifically, it investigates how recent changes in the political economy of academic journal publishing have impinged on cultural studies’ capacity to transmit the knowledge it produces, thereby dampening the field’s political potential. It also reflects on how cultural studies’ alienation from the conditions of its production has resulted in the field’s growing involvement with interests that are at odds with its political proclivities.

Keywords: Cultural Studies; Journal Publishing; Copyright; Open Access; Scholarly Communication

I’m fortunate to have already had the published essay reviewed by Ben Myers and Desiree Rowe, who podcast over at The Critical Lede. You can listen to their thoughtful commentary on “Acknowledged Goods” by clicking here — and be sure to check out their other podcasts while you’re at it!

Since I’m on the topic of the politics of academic knowledge, I’d be remiss not to mention Siva Vaidhyanathan’s amazing piece from the 2009 NEA Almanac of Higher Education, which recently came to my attention courtesy of Michael Zimmer.  It’s called “The Googlization of Universities.”  I found Siva’s s discussion of bibliometrics — the measurement of bibliographic citations and journal impact — to be particularly intriguing.  I wasn’t aware that Google’s PageRank system essentially took its cue from that particular corner of the mathematical universe.  The piece also got me thinking more about the idea of “algorithmic culture,” which I’ve blogged about here from time to time and that I hope to expand upon in an essay.

Please shoot me an email if you’d like a copy of “Acknowledged Goods.”  Of course, I’d be welcome any feedback you may have about the piece, either here or elsewhere.


The End of Publishing (Books Are Dead and Boring)

I heard about this video from the good folks over at BoingBoing and just knew I had to share it with all of you here at The Late Age of Print.  Now, I generally don’t make a habit of posting corporate promotional videos, but this one’s a gem.  Truly.

DK, a subsidiary of Penguin, originally created this ingenious short for a sales conference.  Spoiler alert: it plays upon and then completely reverses a host of misconceptions people have about so-called “digital natives.”  Be sure to watch the whole thing through, because there’s a good bit of misdirection going on in the first half.

I’m working on something BIG at the moment related to Late Age, and so I’m not going to blather on at length about the video.  Just enjoy it, and consider it a little something to tide you over.  Hopefully I’ll be able to roll out the big news in a week or so.

One other quick announcement: Columbia University Press, my publisher, is currently holding its annual spring sale. The Late Age of Print is 50% off the cover price, which is a steal.  Stock up and save!


The "End" of Oprah

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once mentioned an “eight year black hole” in his career, in which his publishing dwindled to almost nothing.  Lately I’ve been feeling as though this blog has been sucked into the same black hole, since I haven’t posted anything in over a month.  Sorry.  Teaching and a host of other responsibilities have kept me from my running commentary on the past, present, and future of book culture.  I’m back now, and hoping to sustain a pretty good push through the winter holidays.

Today I’m writing about Oprah. On Friday, November 19th, Winfrey announced that she’ll be pulling the plug on her daytime talk show in 2011, after 25 years on the air.  You can read more about the details of the announcement here, in the New York Times.

Honestly, I’m a little surprised that this struck people as news.  In 2006, I believe, Winfrey said that 2010-2011 would be the last season for Oprah. In any case, the real news — and what most likely prompted the public reminder of the talk show’s impending end — was Winfrey’s decision to launch a cable TV channel bearing her name.  As if “Oxygen” wasn’t enough!

The cable channel got me thinking about a point that I raise in the conclusion to The Late Age of Print. There I examine how Winfrey seems to have inverted the usual strategy of branding.  It used to be that products were branded as a means by which to differentiate them from other, similar products in the marketplace.  No so with Oprah, who’s spawned TV shows, magazines, films, websites — indeed, a sprawling array of media and non-media products.  As I observe in the conclusion, it’s not that Oprah products are branded; it’s more apt to say that the Oprah brand is “producted.”

The announcement of the cable TV channel’s launch made we wonder if I’d actually taken the analysis far enough.  I’m tempted now to say that the Oprah label isn’t merely a brand.  It performs far work than this.  If you’ll forgive a momentary lapse into geek-speak, it may well be that Oprah is a platform upon which to build things, including “hardware” (i.e., media infrastructure and institutions), “operating systems” (i.e., the milieu or “culture” of those institutions), and “software” (i.e., the content or programming to fill those institutions).

The announcement of the cable TV channel also made me wonder what else Winfrey may have in store for us once The Oprah Winfrey Show has wrapped.  For my purposes, I’m most interested in the fate of the Book Club, which has been hosted on the talk show since 1996.  I seriously doubt that Winfrey will abandon books come 2011, given how much notoriety her bibliophilia has brought her.  But perhaps, rather than simply recommending books, she’ll venture into publishing them herself.  Isn’t that the next logical step?  After all, people already routinely refer to the books she recommends as “Oprah books.”  Who’s paying the actual publishers any mind — other than, of course, other publishers?

For more than a decade Winfrey has been the darling of the book publishing industry.  In the coming age of the Oprah platform, what would it mean for the established publishers suddenly to become her…competitors?


The Magnitude of Nora Roberts

I love The New Yorker, but I cannot ever seem to keep up with it. Case in point: I’m just now getting around to the June 22, 2009 issue. Specifically I’ve been reading — and thoroughly enjoying — Lauren Collins’ profile of romance novelist Nora Roberts.

I don’t have anything to say about the content of Roberts’ books, as I’ve never read any of her romances, much less the detective novels she puts out under the nom de plume, J. D. Robb.  It’s not that I’m so snooty a reader that I wouldn’t bother with her books; I’ve just never had the occasion to do so.

Anyway, what struck me about the article was the magnitude of Roberts’ output.  Here are a few of the more stunning tidbits:

  • Roberts has written 182 novels since 1980;
  • lately she’s been publishing around 10 novels a year;
  • 27 of her books are sold every minute;
  • the amount of Nora Roberts books in print is equivalent to the volumetric capacity of Giants Stadium . . . times 4,000.

All I can say is, whoa.  Anyone who believes that print is dead hasn’t caught up lately with Ms. Roberts.


Remains of the Day

If you’ve read The Late Age of Print, then you’ll know that I’m not a technological reactionary.  In my arsenal of gadgets you’ll find a much-loved iPod Touch, a less-loved Kindle 1.0, a mobile phone that I regularly use, and more.  A friend of mine claims that I’m a gadget-head.  Usually I beg to differ, but having just inventoried my electronic wares, I’m beginning to think that he may be on to something.

Here’s the thing, though: I also love  books — and my that I mean, printed books.  While I’d hardly consider myself to be a book fetishist (i.e., I’m not a devotee of Nicholas A. Basbanes), I’m a bibliophile in about the same way that I’m a gadget-head, that is, by default.  Over the years I’ve accumulated a sizable library, mostly in my capacity as an academic; I love to read; and I annotate my books prodigiously, creating personalized indexes so that I can return easily to the passages I’ve underlined.  Maybe one day I’ll scan and post one of these indexes here, so that you can see just how intensely I read.

New Yorker June 8 & 15, 2009

Because I seem to be pulled in two different directions technologically speaking, I was immediately drawn to this week’s (June 8 & 15) cover of the New Yorker, pictured above.  Its setting is a post-apocalyptic New York City.  An alien has touched down and sits amid the ruins, surrounded by what appears to be e-waste.  Discarded CDs, mobile phones, and computer keyboards abound.  Also strewn amid the litter are devices that look suspiciously like Amazon Kindles.  Our genial-looking alien relaxes with a tattered but still mostly intact printed book.

The New Yorker cover is a brilliant commentary on the particular bibliographic moment in which we are currently living.  It seems as though electronic reading was the conversation at last week’s BookExpo America.  The prevalence of that conversation tells us just how short-sighted — and indeed profit-obsessed — the book industry is becoming.  The central problem with e-reading, beyond the temptation to overly-secure digital content, is that of endurance.  Too many e-reading devices and too many digital formats result in too much of one thing: technological obsolescence.

If you don’t believe me, check out Chapter 1 of The Late Age of Print, where I discuss an early e-book experiment called Agrippa (A Book of the Dead).  You can find the text of the Agrippa story online, but unless you’re a collector of legacy technologies you pretty much cannot read it in its original form.  It was encoded on a 3 1/2-inch floppy diskette (remember those?) that is incompatible with today’s hardware and operating systems.

The partisans of e-reading may well retort that printed books, like their electronic kin, also deteriorate.  Paper can become brittle and, well, there’s a reason why the word “bookworm” exists in the English language.  All true.  But here I’m persuaded both by my own experience and by Nicholson Baker’s wonderful book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001).  Baker shows us how even just a modicum of care can help print-on-paper books to endure for centuries.  The “slow fires” that the proponents of micro-media first advanced and that the denizens of e-books now expound are pretty much smoke and mirrors.

For e-reading to succeed, there will need to be something even more fundamental than built-in dictionaries, wireless content delivery, and other such bells and whistles.  What will be needed above all — and what the printed book so well embodies — is a stable platform.  Indeed, when was the last time one of your printed books was “upgraded” out of existence?


Good Morning, Amazon…

First it was the cola wars.  Now, it’s the e-book wars.

At this past weekend’s book industry trade show, BookExpo America, Google announced that it will begin selling digital book content in the near future.  According to this article in today’s New York Times, the search engine giant has the backing of major players in the publishing field.

The move should come as a wake-up call for Amazon.com, which, since the introduction of Kindle in late 2007, has dominated the retail e-book market. Many questions remain, however, about whether Google’s latest foray into the book world ultimately will pan out.

Why it Will Work
First, there’s Google, whose power, prevalence, and brand recognition shouldn’t be underestimated.  But the success of its latest e-book initiative will stem from more than just the company’s shear Google-ness.  It will result from its growing recognition of itself as not merely a search engine company but indeed as a platform for online businesses.  This is, incidentally, exactly what Amazon.com has been doing of late — refashioning itself, a la Google, from a retailer to a business incubator; and in this respect it’s playing catch-up to Google.

Second, there’s the Kindle factor.  Google’s plan is to release digital editions of books which, though secure (read: DRM), will not be native to any particular e-reading device.  This is good news for those of us who’ve been less impressed with Kindle than we we ought to be; this is especially so where images are concerned.  Plus, it’s great news for readers who, in a time of economic downturn, are discomfited by the prospect of shelling out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of accessing and reading digital content via Kindle.

Third, did I mention Google?  Besides the technology, one of the major problems that has beset e-books thus far has been distribution.  Amazon has successfully addressed the issue by providing readers with a reliable, centralized hub from which to download e-titles.  There aren’t many companies out there who could compete with Amazon along these lines, but Google is surely one of them.  It’s already become a nodal point for people to access e-book content via Book Search and Google Library.  Becoming a nodal point for distribution of e-content shouldn’t take a great deal more than a hop, skip, and a jump.

Why it Won’t Work
Book publishers are greedy and do not understand how to sell their products in and to a digital world.  As the New York Times today reported, Google intends to allow its partner publishers to set their own e-book prices.  If recent history tells us anything, it tells us that the publishers likely will charge something close to print-on-paper prices for content whose material support has already in essence been outsourced to consumers (e.g., in the form of computers, netbooks, and other mobile e-readers). This is unacceptable and will only hinder e-book adoption.

Relatedly, there’s the Amazon factor.  The company has insisted that, where possible, Kindle e-book titles should be kept low.  Most bestsellers cost around $9.99, and although there are many Kindle books that cost more, Amazon should be commended for pressuring publishers to keep their e-book prices down.  If Amazon can continue to do so, purchasing a Kindle with the prospect of having access to cheaper e-book content won’t seem as off-putting as having to buy e-titles from Google at or near ridiculous print-on-paper prices.

Finally, there’s the question of form.  Will Google’s e-book content largely reproduce what would otherwise be available on paper?  If so, then Google e-books won’t have as much uptake as they otherwise could — that is, if they broke with what Gary Hall calls a “papercentric” model of electronic content.  Indeed, if the publishers want to charge near-paper prices for the e-books they sell/distribute via Google, then readers will expect additional types of features to make up for what is, essentially, lost value.

Bottom Line
Only time will tell what will become of Google’s latest venuture into e-books.  I see a great many downsides that would really spell disaster for an anxious contingent of publishers who have convinced themselves, as they do about every eight years or so, that e-books will “save” their industry.  More optimistically, it is my hope that Google will spur Amazon.com to move more quickly on developing cheaper, better Kindles and related e-reading systems that are even more user-friendly.


Books, NOW!

Via Filed By and my good friend José Afonso Furtado’s Twitter Feed comes this fascinating Publishers Weekly story about Perseus Book Group and its BIG EXPERIMENT at BookExpo America 2009.  The crux of the matter is this: Perseus plans on publishing a 144-page book consisting of “sequels” to some of literature’s great opening lines — all within the span of 48 hours.

The title of the work — Book: The Sequel — clearly isn’t just about the content.  It’s as much if not more about the publishing industry and how it operates (or could operate), which is to say nothing of the existential crisis its main product — the book — finds itself in today.  What we have in Book: The Sequel is more than just print-on-demand, it’s essentially books, now!

I’m usually fairly circumspect of experiments like these.  Rarely are they particularly well thought through, and often they put far too much faith in simple, technological solutions or outcomes.  Not here.  Perseus proposes a remarkably holistic picture of what book publishing could be in the not-so-distant future — or later this week, if you want to get all “the future is now” about it.

First, the substance: crowdsourced content.  There already have been experiments in collaborative book writing, so in a sense what Perseus is doing is not altogether new.  Those who wish to contribute to the volume can log on to www.bookthesequel.com, where they can can pitch their own opening line sequels.  On the other hand, the Press’ experiment in crowdsourcing demonstrates one possible future function publishers may choose to take on.  That is, they may opt to become aggregators of decentralized information, as opposed to their simply remaining the gatekeepers of already centalized or unified information.  Perseus also plans on focus-grouping the cover designs using similar means, which is in keeping with my previous post on the marketing power of a site like Scribd.

Next, the product, which is multiple.  Perseus plans on releasing digital, audio, and online versions of Book: The Sequel, as well as a tangible, print-on-paper volume.  This is impressive.  Too often experiments in flash publishing result in only one of these — usually the e-edition and nothing more.  The looming test of the book industry’s mettle will be in how well it works — quickly and elegantly — across both analog and digital platforms.

Finally, the opportunities for post-publication interactivity.  Thus far publishing has done a fairly good job in recognizing the growing importance of author-audience interaction.  It has built ample infrastructure to support this.  But what the industry hasn’t caught on to well enough yet is the importance of decentralizing its social networks.  Online book marketing has been preoccupied with bringing audiences back again and again to the publishers’ or the authors’ websites.  This is understandable.  But we live in a time when conversations about culture happen all over the place, and increasingly on Facebook and Twitter.  It’s a testament to Perseus’ vision that it’s recognized how it need not try to control or consolidate the conversation about its book for that conversation to occur.

My only misgiving — and it is a significant one — about Book: The Sequel is that there appears to be no structure in place to compensate those who’ve donated their labor to create the book’s content.  This will have to change, even if it ultimately results in micro-payments to the authors (which, as Chris Anderson has shown, can add up in the long run).  Any book publishing business model that relies on crowdsourced content but that does not compensate the crowd for its initiative, wisdom, and goodwill surely will be unsustainable.

That said, Perseus plans on donating the profits of its grand experiment to the National Book Foundation. Who could have any truck with that?


Book Publishing's Reality TV

Will book publishers be able to maintain their cultural authority into the future?  Should they?

These seem to be the questions implicit in a recent article in the New York Times, “Site Lets Writers Sell Digital Copies.” The focus of the piece is a new file sharing site called Scribd.  In a nutshell, Scribd allows users to upload all sorts of document files to the web, whereupon anyone with internet access can read, download, embed, comment on, and share them.  The site also provides pricing and encryption options for writers who’d rather not give their work away for free.  Scribd scoops up 20% of the revenue.

Scribd is the latest in a wave of self-publishing platforms, including blogs, digital journal archives, wikis, and more.  Collectively, these types of sites allow writers to bypass publishing’s traditional gatekeepers and thus to reach the public more directly and with less — if any — editorial intervention.

It’s hardly news to say that these developments make book publishers and other cultural authorities quite anxious, given how easy it’s become for writers simply to bypass them.  It may be news, however, to say that publishers shouldn’t see Scribd and other self-publishing platforms as threats.  Instead, they’re opportunities.

Think about it this way: sites like Scribd are the reality TV of book publishing.

Love it or loathe it, you cannot deny the brilliance of a show like American Idol.  Essentially it amounts to a months-long focus group, where potential music buyers vote on who they’d most like to become a signed recording artist.  The presumption is that many who’ve voted will then go on to buy singles and albums by the people they’ve seen featured on the show.

American Idol demonstrates how amateur cultural production and a more traditional, hierarchical approach can be made to harmonize.  Why not use sites like Scribd toward similar ends?

Indeed, marketing has long been a major sore point for the book industry, filled with guesswork and erroneous conclusions about what will and won’t ultimately sell.  So why not take some of the guesswork out of book marketing?  Why not use Scribd or some other site to focus-group books (or parts thereof) up front before investing all the time and resources to publish them?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: why would people buy something that they might well be able to obtain for free, or at a comparatively reduced cost?  That’s where the publisher comes in.  Pubishers have long imagined their work to be about proferring cultural authority; in the model I’m proposing here, their work would be more about proferring cultural authenticity.  That is, their job would be to produce the definitive tangible object — an object whose content may nonetheless continue to evolve in the digital realm.

Think about it: the contestants’ live performances from American Idol are available for purchase online, but I’d venture to say that most people would consider the studio recordings of their songs to be the “real thing.”  This is how academic journal publishing has been working for some time now, by the way.  Journal publishers have recognized the ease with which academic authors can post pre-prints (e.g., .doc files) of their work online.  In response, the publishers are now insisting that PDF journal offprints that are posted online be referred to as final, definitive versions of scholarly articles.

People love things, and indeed they love to consume what they perceive to be “real” things.  When your authority starts waning, book publishers, what you need to start selling is exactly this type of authenticity.


Download The Late Age of Print

One of the defining attributes of the late age of print is the erosion of old publishing certainties.  Among them is the notion that the free circulation of book content leads inevitably to lost sales.  Another is the belief that strong, proprietary systems are the best way for publishers and authors to secure value in their intellectual properties.  Maybe it’s too soon to let go of these notions completely.  It’s fast becoming clear, however, that they cannot be taken for granted any longer.

There are two ways of responding to the erosion of old certainties like these.  One way is to dig in your heels, hoping to keep familiar ground from shifting under your feet.  The other is to allow the erosion to expose opportunities that may have been buried underfoot all along.  With the latter you risk coming up empty, but with the former you risk something worse — inertia.

I’m pleased to report that my publisher, Columbia University Press, isn’t one of those digging in its heels.  It’s taken the bold step of releasing The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control not only as a copyrighted, bound physical volume, but also as a Creative Commons-licensed electronic book.  You can download the e-edition by following the “download” link of the navigation bar, above, or by clicking here.  The file is a “zipped” .pdf of the complete contents of Late Age, minus one image, for which I was (ironically) unable to secure electronic publishing rights.

I thank Columbia University Press for releasing my book electronically under a Creative Commons license.  In doing so, it’s embraced the extraordinary spirit of openness that is beginning to flourish in the late age of print.  Mine is the first book the Press has decided to release in this way.  Here’s hoping that many more will follow.