The University of Michigan Press is going all-digital, baby.  Does this make you more or less likely to seek out UMP as a publisher?  I get the economic argument–but what kind of history authors in particular is this move going to attract?  Given how status-conscious publishers are–and how relatively sought-after historians are after they’ve published a book already–I just don’t see too many second- or third-time authors agreeing to have their books published digitally.

Speaking as a reader–I spend enough time in front of glowing screens as it is.  I’ve consulted some on-line books close to my own research, but I can’t say that I’ve “read” them.  And, having a shelf of “books” printed out from the internets–that just sounds messy and unappealing.

0 thoughts on “Pixel-ated?

  1. I agree: I don’t enjoy online book reading at all. first off, I like to write in my books; and I also enjoy the feeling of progress as the left group of pages in an open book grows thicker, while the right side grows thinner. I’ve always preferred the material to the cyber.
    Also, I wonder if such a publication would count for tenure as readily as a “real” book? I suspect OPU would have a problem with it, though I don’t know for sure.


  2. I totally agree on this. Enough time on-line already. I avidly scour Google Books to print out snippets for research purposes, but sitting there “paging” through a series of screen views, no thanks. My big fat, fairly new U-issued Dell desktop mainframe is sometimes so slow I could *write* a page faster than it can click from one to another. I have access to various databases that are all but useless unless you like to watch a little virtual hourglass, or a little thing going round and round. A bas with this. If it doesn’t smell like a book, and stain like a book, it isn’t a book.


  3. I know I’m particularly resistant to change, but I’m opposed to this. Not just in terms of the prestige associated with publishing my book, but I can’t imagine assigning one of these books. I like to take notes directly in my books as preparation for a discussion, and the students have a hard enough time discussing when the text is right in front of them and I can point to specific passages. Would everyone have a laptop?


  4. What Squadrato said — all of it. That said, I don’t think a “shelf full of books printed out from the internet” is what this would be. The IHE article referred to it as print-on-demand, which makes me think that they have the files, and can print & ship with a standard cover.

    I think this would count as a real book for tenure most places (though I don’t know much about OPU), but perhaps will place Michigan in the same tier with scholarly commercial presses?

    My good friend & neighbor just got a contract with Michigan a couple of months ago. Let’s hope her book makes it under the wire.


  5. [An oldie but a goodie, original source unknown.]

    Announcing the new “Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge” device, otherwise known as the B.O.O.K.

    It’s a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It’s so easy to use even a child can operate it. Just lift its cover. Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere — even sitting in an armchair by the fire — yet it is powerful enough to hold ass much information as a CD-ROM disk.

    Here’s how it works: each B.O.O.K. is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper (recyclable), each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. These pages are locked together with a custom-fit device called a binder which keeps the sheets in their correct sequence. By using both sides of each sheet, manufacturers are able to cut costs in half.

    Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly into your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet. The B.O.O.K. may be taken up at any time and used by merely opening it. The “Browse” feature allows you to move instantly to any sheet, and move forward or backward as you wish. Most come with an “index” feature, which pinpoints the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval.

    An optional ” B.O.O.K.mark” accessory allows you to open the B.O.O.K. to the exact place you left it in a previous session — even if the BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus a single B.O.O.K.mark can be used in B.O.O.K.s by various manufacturers.

    Portable, durable and affordable, the BOOK is the entertainment wave of the future, and many new titles are expected soon, due to the surge in popularity of its programming tool, the “Portable Erasable-Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language” stylus [P.E.N.C.I.L.].


  6. Ha! Good one on “B.O.O.K.,” Profane.

    Notorious: sorry–you’re right. Print On Demand = all of the sophistication of UMI-produced dissertations! Yay. Realistically, though, I think it’s likely that people will probably just print their own copies of the books they want. The upside is that it would be a real boon to file cabinet manufacturers!

    Man, you all responded in record time to my cranky post! Must be a Monday for the rest of you all, too.


  7. This post also links up with another oft-repeated wisdom: that we oldsters [NB: Hey! I’m not even forty yet!] are clinging to the past, when the up-and-coming generation would rather read online content. Bullshit, I say. I once taught an entire semester using one “classic” book (multiple copies available on Amazon for $3 plus shipping) and a couple dozen articles, all available online. Guess which of the two formats my undergrads complained bitterly about? That’s right: the articles — because they had burned through entire laser printer cartridges to print them all out.

    Online content is just ducky for short-format (blogs, tweets, etc.), but for long form? Nunh-uh.


  8. By coincidence, JSTOR yesterday took me to a 1977 article in some major journal, I think maybe the Journal of Modern History. Imagine my surprise when I downloaded the PDF and found what looked like the typescript printface associated with a seminar paper. It was paginated, but under a sort of “1234p” type of sequence. And on closer look, the initial link named the journal, but also said “print on demand supplement” or something like that. It was a great read, too, for my research purposes but ended up seeming like a “junior varsity” type of acceptance in the big book. I wonder what all that was about, back in 1977, before I even heard of the Arpanet, much less virtual reality?


  9. All of the above, and this, too: If you can’t physically put it in a tenure and promotion packet, or hand it to a Dean as part of the showcase cabinet of faculty books, how is that going to stack up against the shiny covers from the other presses?


  10. Devil’s advocate here for a moment: what if the Michigan model makes things so inexpensive for purchasers that sales skyrocket? Then you’d have them being a top choice for good authors who want to see their books reach a really wide audience. Sort of the opposite of the Oxford/Cambridge UP phenomenon, where authors know these are excellent presses, but they shy away because the books are too expensive for anyone but libraries to buy.



  11. Notorious–sales might skyrocket if the price is right, but libraries can and will track how often those e-books are accessed. If, as the comments here suggest, people won’t really read them, then what’s the point of buying them in the first place? (Or indeed, of publishing them in the first place?)

    What I wonder is, why e-books are always portrayed as either/or choices, as in, the e-books will destroy books as we know them as material objects. I can see where publishing an e-edition of a book might make a lot of sense–just as publishers publish versions of the same book in hardcover and in paper to suit the needs of the reader. I’m not against e-books per se, I’m just against the Baa Ram U. library becoming a bank of humming PC terminals instead of a place to access and read books.

    And, I’ve had the same experience with students resisting the on-line articles and primary sources. Even 19-year olds get the value added by publishing in book form versus having to keep track of piles of Xerox paper printouts.

    I’ve been thinking about Squadratomagico’s and Undine’s questions about the relative prestige of e-books. I agree that there might well be problems with first-time authors publishing online. I think it helps a lot that UM Press is a well-known and respected university press, and that I’m sure that all e-books they publish will be peer-reviewed. But–so long as publishing a Real Life book is an option, I think a lot of historians will (however irrationally) see e-publishing as less prestigious. Although UMP e-books will be peer-reviewed, most stuff on the World Wide Timewasting Web is not, and I think the neighborhood you publish in will matter. Notorious is right again: shorter reading is fine on-line, like blogs and short magazine articles. But anything long form needs to be in my hands, in my lap, spread out on a towel while I sneak a tan, etc.


  12. don’t like it. I have used print-on-demand textbooks before and they never arrive on time, don’t attract new students to the course b/c of generic covers, and students cannot sell them back so they try to find ways not to buy them. Oh and the bookstores can’t return them so they under order and give both me and students grief for requesting they stock them . . . needless to say I’ve stopped doing it.


  13. Susurro–your experiences (and Notorious’s, and mine) with those books is interesting–it may be a mark of the peculiarity of history as a discipline, but I wonder if books that can be convincingly pitched as having a student audience may be able to escape the e-book only fate. (My book has been adopted several times in classes across the country–not something I think happens to most monographs, but I wonder how many paperback copies sold to students for a class you’d have to sell in order to break even?)

    I don’t of course understand the ins and outs of university press publishing–but I wonder why they still publish hardback books any more? Wouldn’t it save money to publish a paperback and an e-book edition simultaneously, instead of publishing a hardback and a paperback? (Is there anyone in publishing out there who can analyze this plan?)


  14. Most of me totally agrees with the negative feelings expressed by everyone else. But I’m curious: has anyone here read books on a Kindle? I’m team teaching with a colleague next year, and he’s intrigued by using all e-books and getting a Kindle. As I think I mentioned here in an earlier discussion, I’m interested in the ebook reader (as opposed to reading on my screen, which is terrible). It does give you a way to keep a copy, you can write in the book, and it takes up a lot less space. Maybe it’s because I just moved, but I have lots of books, and they take up lots of space. And honestly, there are a lot of books that I keep for a chapter, or a few pages, or “just in case”. I realize I could photocopy the chapters, but that takes up file space.

    I also travel, and when I travel I end up with lots of books. (For a three day trip last weekend, I traveled with 5 books, 3 for work and 2 for pleasure.) They weigh a lot.

    So: I like the ebook option, though I really love real books. I’m trying not to be a knee-jerk luddite.


  15. I can’t believe anyone would approach U. of Michigan press until they’ve exhausted publishers that publish real, not “virtual” books. The Michigan press has long under-performed (at least compared to the U of Michigan as a whole) and this just sounds like one more of a long series of bad management decisions which has left the press largely in obscurity. I live in Ann Arbor and was told reliably that, on one occasion, a member of the U. board of trustees stated that they had never heard of the U. press!


  16. I was just up there interviewing, and this actually seems in line with what is going on up on campus. Google is currently scanning their entire library. This is a school that is already migrating.



  17. An edited collection that I published in 1996 with Westview is now available only as print-on-demand – for $47.00 via Amazon. That is, when you go to the Perseus website (Westview’s owner now) and want to buy my book, you are directed to Amazon, where you can order the print on demand version. When the book was new and an actual book the paperback cost about $24. And this is a book that has sold over 1200 copies since it was printed, and still sells a few copies each year (over 60 copies in 2007, when it was used in a couple of classes – not by me!!). While I am glad that people can still buy my book, I don’t like the high price that is now charged, which must make it less likely to be assigned to classes.


  18. Let me get this straight. We are supposed to deride online history books. Prestige is what is most important in selecting a publisher. We should try to ignore the fact that Amazon has succeeded with the Kindle. The possibility that ebooks could become popular should scare us because that would mean online history books run the risk of pandering to the masses. And none of us want to commit career suicide by sacrificing our academic credentials and becoming a popular historian. The worst sin of all would be to make our book available for free on the Internet. Restricting access to our history books, either through digital gates or prohibitive costs, is the only way to retain our respectability. If we stopped manufacturing our own sense of significance, and decided to democratize knowledge and let the public decide what they considered important, it would spell disaster for our field. It is sure a good thing that public thinks that it is the publishers, rather than historians, who are status-conscious. Let’s hope the public never figures out that the point of our profession is to use their tax dollars to create books that we hope are read by little more than like-minded specialists. And let’s definitely come up examples from history of how badly technological innovation has hurt people. I am sure the American public can’t wait to hear how the digitization of books will destroy people’s careers just like the invention of cars devastated horse and buggy manufacturers.


  19. I agree with all of you BUT I also think it’s only a matter of time before 95 percent of academic books go digital. I don’t think capitalism will support a book-publishing system that is not profitable, and (corporate) university presses are unlikely to continue subsidizing, especially if a couple of prominent presses take the lead on this matter. Let’s get our next books out while we can still look forward to holding them in our hands as books.

    Report from the field: I have been working on a collection of articles with a group. (We are a collective of sorts.) One option is an e-version, print-on-demand with a fairly prominent press. A couple of us have been trying to steer the project toward a less prominent press that still prints books. For now, we have prevailed, but if that press doesn’t work out, the project might end up going digital. I have been surprised that this group hasn’t been more hostile to the digital option — and I don’t want to be a crank with my co-editors, but I have wanted to scream — I should have edited a collection with some of historiann’s readers!!


  20. PS- I appreciate the open-access spirit of PhDinHistory, but the post provides ideological justification for changes that are being motivated by profit-loss considerations. Re” “their” tax dollars — I suppose that refers to the hard-working citizens who don’t get summers off. That reminds me, I better do my taxes — as usual, I hope that a small portion will support the “status-conscious” university press of my home state.


  21. Rad–you know where your REAL friends are, right? Kathie, thanks for your RL data on what print-on-demand does for the price of books.

    Susan–I think e-books have their place, but this is what I’d like to see worked out: will a library be charged a flat price for each e-book, or will it be billed for each download (either to kindle or to a pc?) That seems to me to be the primary downside of the Kindle as I understand it–once you’ve read your digital book, you can’t pass it along to me like a real book. I worry about the implications this has for libraries and whether or not they’ll remain free libraries or just become another vendor for e-book sales.

    PhDinHistory: Where on earth do you see any of your ridiculous hyperbole in my post or in any of the comments here? I’m very sorry for you that you feel so alienated from your fellow historians–and I really don’t understand your interest in peeing in my pool. If you don’t like the conversations here–there’s something you can do about it. Stop reading! Stop reading now!


  22. I never said I did. And I don’t think I quoted any of you either. 😉

    Thanks for the sympathy. At least digital historians understand some of the things I say. Sorry if I misunderstood the spirit of your post. I thought you were interested in skepticism. And please don’t think I am torturing myself with your words. I actually want to learn from what digital critics have to say. In fact, I have even started gathering sources on that topic.


  23. I think you are right Historiann, a real cost cutter would be to do away with hardbound books. South End press does this, as far as I know, and their books on average cost $16-$20 a piece which means I can ask my students in survey courses to buy a whole stack of books without feeling bad later. I honestly cannot get them to buy hard bounds and when they tell me the price, I tell them they do not have to. A colleague at another uni once got a phone call from the bookstore refusing to stock a brand new book on her syllabus b/c it was hard bound and they said they couldn’t sell it. When she insisted, she discovered the bookstore was right.

    What would it look like if everyone switched to paper and e-book format? Would the market prices simply adjust? Would Uni Presses be able to break even? These are really interesting questions. Thanks for raising them.

    (as an aside, journals are also making the shift to the e-journal format is that different in significant ways to the shift to e-books? I don’t note a similar worry about the e-journal shift, even in my own reaction. All tho I have noticed it from some authors who don’t want to publish “online.”)


  24. My initial comment was an attempt at sarcasm. I guess that didn’t go over so well. Sorry about that. Most of what I said was simply a summary of comments I have heard historians make over the years. I think your technoskeptic attitude puts you in good company with most of the senior historians I have met, so please don’t feel threatened by my comments. I thought the bibliography of digital critics I tried to link to in my previous comment was a productive contribution. But it looks like you deleted that link, so maybe I was mistaken. I like your comment policy about being respectful. If I violated that policy, I apologize.


  25. Susurro–good point about e-journals versus e-books. I think e-journal articles don’t have the same stigma, because most of us access journal articles on line now instead of in hard copy. (Maybe I’m extrapolating my experience, but I haven’t been down to the moveable shelves in the library basement to get a journal article in a bound volume on a shelf for 4-5 years now.) But, at least among historians and I would assume most lit people, books are still read as material objects, and books are vitally important.


  26. yes. you’re right. I’ve actually forgotten about the journal collections at our uni partially b/c they are phasing them out. it’s gone the way of microfiche. and yet, for those journals that ended before the digital age, what does that mean for research? Our Women’s center currently houses one of the largest archives on campus of non-digital journals and they have no real check out system; the same goes for the ethnic studies journals (housed by ES) at a colleague’s institution . . .

    seems like this is a larger thought for me probably rapidly becoming O/T . . . I’m off to ponder.


  27. While I can appreciate that some people do not enjoy reading off monitors for long periods of time, many of us are not phased by this at all.

    Several groups of people are currently dedicating their careers towards finding better ways to provide digital content in formats that are easier to ingest and easier on the eyes.

    Many free programs allow you to “write” notes in the margins of digital books. No matter how close you live to the library or local bookstore, downloading or viewing a book online will always be faster and use less gas (or air-miles in the case of archival materials held on another continent).

    And like it or not, this is the current trend. You can embrace it and get in on the ground floor, ensuring your hard work is displayed prominently in the infinite archive, or resist and be forgotten when the last copy of your book turns to dust. Embrace.


  28. Adam–don’t get ahead of yourself. You sound like you’re engaging in more than a little e-book triumphalism. Remember these proclamations?

    “Now that microfilm and microfiche are here, we don’t need books any more!”

    “5-1/2 inch floppy discs are the medium to take us into the new century!”

    “Blogs are new media, making newspapers irrelevant!”

    What do you think your little e-book reader will look like 25 years from now? Will you be able to transfer all of those books you bought for a 2009 Kindle to your 2015 or 2024 or 2034 reader? We’ll see.

    By the way, my book is on Google books, so it looks like I’m in the “infinite archive” already. (And that archive is only “infinite” so long as the juice holds out, whereas books are readable so long as there is daylight.) There is no such thing as an irreplaceable technology, but books have an excellent track record compared to other ways of storing information (stone tablets, microfilm/fiche, 5-1/2 inch discs, 3-1/2 inch discs, etc.) They’ve stood the test of time in ways that other media and technologies haven’t. Thank goodness universities didn’t go all-microfiche back in the 1940s.


  29. Historiann,

    Aren’t microfilms and microfiche just ways of creating higher density repositories? Weren’t 5-1/2′ floppy disks an upgrade on that density? Are DVDs and the internet not an upgrade on that still?

    When an innovation is replaced by something new that doesn’t mean it failed. All inventions are standing on the shoulders of giants, as they say.

    Even traditional books have innovated. I’m sure as a historian you have come across books without tables of contents, indexes, appendices, footnotes. Or the dreaded 87 word chapter title. Thank goodness someone took it upon themselves to innovate beyond those.

    One day soon I imagine someone perhaps not yet born will be frustrated beyond consolation when they come across a word or term in a book they want more information on. No matter how hard they try they will not be able to find a link anywhere between the book covers that will explain it to them. “How utterly inefficient” they will say.


  30. Adam–I appreciate your viewpoint, but I would say that that child of tomorrow that you describe as “frustrated beyond consolation” might instead console herself by toddling over to a dictionary–hard copy or on-line, I don’t care–and learning a new word on her own steam, which might inspire curiosity about the history of language and ideas. I get the ease and pleasure of having it all at your fingertips when you want it, how you want it–but learning problem-solving skills by dealing with the “old media” might just be good for you. (Didn’t your parents ever tell you that the stuff that was really valuable in life didn’t come easily?)

    I’ve never met anyone in my lifetime who really loved their microfilm or microfiche, although most of us recognize that it did permit people away from archival or hard-copy sources access to information they otherwise wouldn’t have had. What a tragedy it would have been for American scholarship if our libraries had all been carried off in a fit of Microfilm Triumphalism!


  31. Don’t despair. Genealogists have long loved their microfilm. And know they have developed technology for converting microfilm into digital documents. I for one am grateful for the records that were saved by microfilm and will now be made available to millions via the Internet.


  32. Here’s a case to make for keeping “real” books.

    “Historian A” [me] walks into an open-stack university research library to do some, uh, research. All of the books ze found in the e-catalogue the night before are taken out, but in the folio shelves below where they should be is an arcane atlas related to the same topic. It goes straight to my carrel, opened to pp. 242-243, a sort of virtual Google Earth only from 1732. Then I’m off to find a book that the library decided to catalogue as social science (HC223.XYZ), even though anybody knows it’s really a piece of colonial southern history. It is soon wedged (open) in the tiny corner of the carrel surface not covered by the atlas. On the way back to carrel I notice that, after a long interruption, the Charles Warren Center resumed publishing _Perspectives in American History_. Curious, I look, and by total coincidence find an article by the scholar who torched HC223.XYZ in the William and Mary Quarterly, but then had second thoughts, did some more research, and instead adopted and extended its argument. Then I search out two more books footnoted in the last piece. All three lie open, precariously balanced on the top shelf of the carrel, from which I’ve evicted the charged books by somebody who hasn’t been there for three semesters. With all of this stuff lying in front of my eyes I can see patterns that I never would have even noticed if I had page-viewed the same exact things in sequential order on my laptop the night before. By the time the poor bricks-and-mortar library closes at ten that night, I’ve commandeered the table in the nearby study alcove, and have a half acre-foot of open book surface, mapping out my next hard-hitting article or at least submission.

    Before academic librarians signed on to the mantras of “remote storage,” “compact shelving,” “virtual library,” and the wildly-popular-with-the-bursar “you can’t solve information literacy problems with bricks and mortar,” or “you can’t throw physical infrastructure development dollars at ignorance,” you could actually do this sort of thing. I think both infobyte zealots and academic librarians often have very little notion about the differential anthropologies and ecologies by which different disciplines actually USE the stuff they hold.

    When they invent scholarly analogues to the famous Bloomberg terminals (only with twelve or fifteen simultaneous screens rather than the mere three you would need to corner the market on Brazillian wheat) they can talk to me about getting beyond paper books.


  33. I started skimming the comments at some point, but did any of you make mention of the economics of the situation?

    This is inevitable and is to be welcomed. The critical element in peer-reviewed scholarship is not the printed product, but the peer review. Which is (nearly) free, and fully transferable to the digital format.

    Journals have already made the leap–I will be the average article in the JAH gets far more digital readers via the commercial databases than subscribers who actually crack open the dusty old thing. Within five years most of all of our history journals will cease publication in the dead-tree format.

    Digital books are a harder sell, but the advantages are even greater. Digital books will be superior in searchability, illustration, connectivity with their sources (imagine a footnote taking you straight to the primary document at the Library of Congress), and environmental impact. The Kindle has beaten the readability problem of digital text, though it has problems of its own.


  34. Pingback: My publisher is going digital « Knitting Clio

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