The Inside Higher Education link that Peter Brantley recently sent to a list, regarding the open-access Museum Anthropology Review, reminded me of some distinctions I like to make, when given the opportunity, about the culture of journals vs. the cultures of books. It pertains to the drivers of the different products, and the people who populate the two different cultures, within scholarly publishing.
Time past long past, in the mid-90s, I held the lucky position of being the first electronic publisher at a major university press, holding the unlucky responsibility of bridging the divide between the digitizing journals division, and the not-yet-digital books division.
While not as extreme as Snow’s “two cultures” of sciences and humanities, the distinctions between the two cultures of books and journals became clear, as I learned the two enterprises. (Sometime later I’ll address the distinctions between library culture vs. publisher culture, and between technologist culture vs. library vs. publisher culture).
What I learned, in short, and necessarily bluntly:
Journals are about throughput. Books are about craftsmanship.
This is not to demean either publishing variant — they both serve key scholarly needs. But in much of the discussions on these topics, too often “open access” is thought to mean the same thing for every kind of document. Non-publishers in particular often presume that the same rules apply to encyclopedias as apply to monographs, as apply to journal articles. But in publishing, at least, it’s not the case.
Every book is unique. At that time they were each treated uniquely: in editorial treatment, in type and cover design, in marketing plan, in discount schedule, in presumed audience. Each book was a child, nurtured in its embryonic and infant stages, eventually dressed up really nicely as a toddler, and sent out into the world once grown-up.
The acquiring editor had a vested parental interest in ensuring that this special, wonderful thing would get the life it deserved. He or she pressured the Marketing department for appropriate promotion. She or he pressured Production to make sure it was designed appropriately for the content. It was a unique, special, rich, complex, discipline-affecting work of staggering value, at least within a tiny slice of academia. The editors were proud to have acquired it. They wanted to reach the people who would be moved by it. As a consequence, each book was a polished gem.
Journals, however, were all about throughput, driven by the schedule of subscription: every quarter, or every month, the articles were bullied out of editors, who bullied their writers and their reviewers for material. And the articles came through the pipe.
Each article needed to be fit into the specific journal’s style, look, and feel, and turned into something that could be distributed to subscribers and libraries. There are no “acquiring editors” on most small-market, scholarly journals. Each article is one of ten, or twenty, in the issue. It’s not an act of craft — it’s an act of meta-craft. Each article is a small part of what will, overall, improve or sustain the value of the journal.
These two cultures may explain why, at least to my mind, journals were among the first to “go digital.” It made eminent sense: it’s easier to “digitize” the throughput process than the nurturance process.
Journals were already template-based (essentially, CSS-ready). Journals publishers were already greatly focused on automating processes. Economies of scale could make journals production and throughput much more efficient. It also meant that the throughput process could be undertaken by libraries, using smart software (as seen by how many libraries are becoming “journals publishers”).
But I’m not so sure that template-based automated publishing makes sense for book-length scholarly monographs, and other book-length works. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that e-book standards have been so slow to catch on, in the book publishing industry.
We book publishers each think that we know what is right for “our kind of publication” — each of which is unique, special, and unmatched. We want what is right, in terms of marketing, and promotion, and audience, and significance, for that special child.
Is that so wrong? I don’t think so — in fact, I think it’s a powerful strength we don’t want to lose, as we march toward digital universality.
But it’s also a powerful constraint.
Libraries, who are also about throughput (and organization) of products, are an ideal partner for journals production. I’m not so sanguine about libraries being ideal partners for production of the “special.” They didn’t evolve that way, nor are they optimally staffed for the sort of specific promotion, marketing, and outreach required for each unique book-length publication.
How publishers make things “open access” depends on technical infrastructure, and publication content types, and available skill sets and online savvy. But it also depends on the nature of the product.
That every book-length monograph deserves special treatment is open for debate; that some of them do, is beyond discussion. How our academic culture makes that happen — how the funding, the staffing, the nurturance is enacted — may depend on how we understand the processes and purposes of publishing.