Multigrain Discussion: Tony Horava's thoughts on the "Tools of Change" digital publishing conference

Last week we posted the article “At Last, They See: E-Books ‘Democratize’ Publishing” by  NPR’s by Lynn Neary as our Article of the Week.  The article focused on major themes from the recent Tools of Change digital publishing conference and raised a number of very interesting questions. So when we received this typically thoughtful response from Tony Horava,  we were excited and immediately wanted to share it. And as always, we (and Tony) would love to know what you think, so feel free to chime in.

At Last, They See: E-Books ‘Democratize’ Publishing : Tools of Change digital publishing conference, held in New York in mid-February.

Tony Horava, AUL Collections, University of Ottawa, thorava@uottawa.ca

I didn’t have the privilege of attending this conference, but it appears to have been an exciting discussion of innovation and entrepreneurship – blue sky thinking in the face of major transformations affecting the creation, distribution, and business models of the e-book industry.

As described in the cited article, “Dominique Raccah, CEO and publisher of Sourcebooks, is experimenting with the “agile publishing” model — which allows authors and readers to interact as the book is still being written.”    This experimentation is to be applauded, as we need a lot more imagination for exploring the possibilities of the future of the book.  Certainly, many publishers wish they could be more agile in their business strategies, but are held back by economic constraints, workflow technology challenges, rights issues, and the multiplicity of formats and delivery protocols. Certainly, many libraries wish they could be more agile as well. Libraries are beset with multiple challenges in purchasing ebooks – timely availability; pricing models; DRM issues; lack of integration with library systems and workflow tools; and restrictive licensing levels are challenges that come to mind.

While the ejournal, long past puberty, has developed into a stable young adult, the ebook is more like a cocky fifth grader with his baseball cap turned backwards and wearing oversized shoes – he has a big smile for everyone, but his family is concerned and wonders where he is heading.  He is lacking the maturity of his older brother. Will he eventually find his way?  He could be a changeling who will morph into another intellectual creature by the time he grows up, and many in the family wouldn’t be too surprised. But he has lots of energy and is admired for it.

Ebooks are dynamic entities: ‘Authors have the ability to change anything about the book at any time.’ according to Mark Coker, founder of SmashWords. The question inevitably arises, Would most researchers want readers to interact with them in the incubation and writing phase of their work? Would this ever replace peer-review as the basis for ensuring quality? I think not. And how would the notion of authorship be transformed as a result?

While libraries and publishers try to establish dialogue on many fronts, there is still a major disconnect between the access and revenue models that each community is comfortable with (witness the Penguin withdrawal from OverDrive, and Random House’s recent decision to jack up prices for the unlimited use model).  Things are better on the academic front than for public libraries, but the challenges in developing a viable relationship between publishers, vendors, and libraries for ebooks remain palpable.  There is an ongoing tension in attempting to tailor licensing models to suit specific institutional or business requirements while at the same time aiming for scalability and efficiency.  Therefore agility or nimbleness is a goal we collectively strive for, but it’s a long way off.

Empowering the author was another theme that emerged from the conference. “Mark Coker is the founder of Smashwords, an e-book publishing and distribution platform that he introduced for the first time at this same conference four years ago. ” We make it really easy for any writer anywhere in the world to instantly publish any book,” Coker says. In its first year, Smashwords published 400 books, but that quickly increased to more than 100,000.”

Democratizing publishing is driven by the desire to use digital tools to break down the barriers between creators and readers, to forge a dynamic environment based on a constant feedback loop, self-marketing, and offering the potential for greater royalties.  The freedom of the author in the popular marketplace has no parallel in academia.   This challenge of dissemination bedevils libraries as well – witness the surge of PDA models, e-preferred approval plans, pay-per-view, and print-on-demand. The community has awakened to the fact that millions of dollars have been poured into book collections that are often unused to a large degree. And the value proposition stares us in the face – why buy these books over others? Who has authority to decide, and how should the librarian-patron relationship be transformed accordingly?  Where is the delicate balance between democracy and accountability with regard to collection management and support of the research endeavour?  Empowering the author depends on what you want to achieve. It could mean a complete lack of mediation (ie peer-review, editing, marketing, layout, etc) or it can mean an enhanced long-form argument that effectively incorporates rich media while drawing upon the value offered by publishers or vendors – or it could mean a hybrid approach.  What will be important for scholarship will likely be very different than for non-academic authors, namely visibility and credibility among a peer group of researchers, and building upon the knowledge of the past.

The modes of publishing envisaged at this conference might very well suit the individual writing up his crime novel, or thoughts on Japanese-style gardening, or bird watching in Africa, but it is unlikely to promise immediate benefits for the researcher or scholar – this inevitably means working within the scholarly communications ecosystem, warts and all. It remains more effective and validating than any other channel for contributing to the wider scholarly dialogue.  Can publishers, vendors, and libraries develop more agility and flexibility in disseminating the fruits of scholarly research to the university community? Therein lies the challenge that the conference in question inevitably raises – at a time when financial pressures demand even more innovation, timely solutions, and collaboration.

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