Designer Kyle Bean's The Future of Books (c. Kyle Bean, 2009). http://www.kylebean.co.uk

The future of academic publishing is an important and complicated issue that concerns us all and I know that we’re all deeply interested in the ways that scholarly publishers are responding to the economic pressures they face. For most presses, digitality seems to be an attractive cost-saving measure.  The University of Michigan Press, for instance, announced last year that they would be switching their list primarily to digital formats (with a print on demand option) in future. Other presses seem to be experimenting with e-book text access in order to figure out business models that work: indeed, various presses, like the University of Chicago Press, are providing access to specific e-books on their list at no charge.

Victorian Studies scholars will be interested in Ohio University Press’s current promotion: readers can download four of the press’s Victorian Studies titles at no charge. The books available are Lisa Surridge’s Bleak Houses: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction, Peter Sinnema’s The Wake of Wellington: Englishness in 1852, Brent Shannon’s The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture, 1860- 1914, and Barry J. Faulk’s Music Hall and Modernity: The Late-Victorian Discovery of Popular Culture.

The press hopes “that as a result of reading the books in a downloadable format, readers will be inspired to buy the paper editions of the books, our real goal in providing these e-books to you is to increase your access to our books.” The press also asks readers to respond to this free e-book offer and promises that, “if this experiment in new platforms is successful and is used as a way to promote the ideas and arguments of our authors and to stimulate more debate and research on the topics they have investigated, we will strive to continue our commitment to this new reach into the scholarly dialogue.”

Readers, what do you think? Will access to a digital edition spur you to purchase a paper edition? Are you more likely to read and engage with the ideas of monographs if they are available online at no cost? And what would you think about having your book offered free of charge online by your publisher?

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9 thoughts on “Victorian Studies e-books and the Future of Scholarly Publishing

  1. I’m not sure that having the digital copy of a monograph would make me rush out and buy the paper copy, although I do like having the two as companions – one is easy to search, the other easy to read.

    It’s hard to pretend to be a disinterested reader. The titles that Ohio UP is offering for free are ones I’ve meant to read – I suppose I could download them to see what they’d spur me on to do next.

    I’d like to know what kind of incentives authors are being offered to let their work be published free of charge. Is this trend a response to Amazon’s free books for the Kindle?

  2. I, like Connie, have questions! How did Ohio UP choose those four titles to use in this experiment-in-the-name-of-access, for example? I’d really be interested in what the authors of those four books have to say about this. In what ways will this trend towards the digital force a re-negotiation of the ways in which scholarly capital is currently circulated and exchanged?

    I will say that I have, on a few occasions, bought a paper copy of a monograph after reading an e-copy (accessed through my university’s library) and realizing how useful that book was going to be for a particular project. The reason I wanted the paper copy, of course, was to write all over it and stick bits of paper into it. I know that the print-on-demand option for these e-books is the consolation offered to me by the publishing world at the moment, but I wonder how I’ll adapt as I become less and less able to feel the scratch of pencil across paper when absorbing and digesting an academic text.

    I’m going to try very hard not to read too much into the title of the book currently offered for free from the University of Chicago Press – “Nice Guys Finish Last.”

  3. As mine is one of the books offered in free e-book format by Ohio UP, I thought I would reply.

    No incentives were offered to me by the press to do this. The staff at Ohio UP told me that this is an experiment on their part but that free downloads have been shown to increase sales. This seems very counter-intuitive to me, but then I am neither a marketer nor a publisher.

    What I am is a scholar. Writing this book was never a money-making enterprise for me. I hoped merely that other researchers would benefit from my research and insights. The wider the book’s distribution, the more this will occur. So I had little to lose but much to gain by this experiment.

  4. Thanks for commenting Lisa! I find it very interesting to hear that free downloads have been shown to increase the sale of hard-copy books. I hope that the press will report back to you about their findings on this experiment of theirs.

    Your own logic — that you’re a scholar who wishes to make her research available to others — makes perfect sense, of course! I’m sure we all feel this way, which puts us at odds, somehow, with an academic publishing industry beholden to the market (even when not-for-profit and heavily subsidized). Is this a fundamental tension at the heart of scholarly publishing? As scholars, we wish to disseminate our research but we must do so through authorized channels that are dependent themselves on selling books (or subscriptions to journals).

    Some further reading — Jonathan Sterne has addressed open access and academic publishing at his great blog Superbon!:

    “Alternatives to Proprietary Journal Publishing”: http://superbon.net/?p=469

    Can scholars get a cut?:
    http://superbon.net/?p=701

  5. In my case Google Book Search has done a lot of free marketing for publishers, in that I tend to buy books that I can preview online. It’s fair to say that I have a lot of print books on my shelf now because of Google, Amazon, etc. providing these previews. The print version becomes my reading copy, and the digital version becomes my working copy for searching when I’m writing. 

    Here’s a publisher with a model similar to the ones mentioned in your post: http://www.openbookpublishers.com/ . I’ve got s chapter in a book on electronic texts that’s supposed to be coming out soon. Probably more people will be able to read it than if it was published in print only, in a run as small as 250, and institutionally priced — but the trade-off is that this is an imprint few people have heard of. It’s an experiment, I guess.

    As you probably know, Jen, one of the early experiments in the publishing model you describe is the two Blackwell companions, to Digital Humanities and to Digital Literary Studies: http://digitalhumanities.org/ There’s a lot of strangely old-fashioned scholarship in them, given their forward-looking titles, but the experiment really resonated with their target markets.  

  6. Like others above, I typically use digital copies and paper copies for different reasons: the digital text is great for searching for keywords but the paper is great for just about everything else. I don’t see releasing digital versions of scholarly books as necessarily hurting the market: in fact, I own a copy of your book, Lisa! I have perused many a book online before buying it. It is intriguing that publishers also seem to see the digital and paper world as two different markets and formats. I wonder whether this distinction will last?

  7. Here is another, more recent post, from Jonathan Sterne which is focused on open access journal publishing:

    http://superbon.net/?p=1272

    Does anyone have experience requesting the right to post your journal articles online on your personal or institutional site? Is the resistance that Sterne notes common in the field of Victorian Studies also?

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