I’ve been reading a couple of things lately that could restore, if you were in need of such a thing, your faith in print, and in the vitality of scholarship and publishing in the digital age. The publishing industry is in crisis—well, nearly everything these days seems to be in crisis—but you would hardly realize that from reading these two publications.
The first, Europe Between Oceans, by the renowned archaeologist Barry Cunliffe, is a masterful work, combining history, archaeology, geography, anthropology, and a smorgasbord of other disciplines in explaining the transformation of human culture and society in Europe from prehistoric to the dawn of the modern, encompassing a ten thousand year period from 9,000 B.C. to 1,000 A.D. Cunliffe writes with erudition and clarity, never oversimplifying, but without the befuddling writing designed more to impressed than to illuminate that is so common in academic circles. The publisher, Yale University Press, is clearly at the top of its game here: the layout is splendid, with plenty of pleasing white space, yet full of helpful maps, photos, and charts. Europe Between Oceans covers much familiar ground, but drawing from the latest research in a multitude of disciplines it provides strikingly new insights.
The second is Lapham’s Quarterly, a literary journal edited and published by former Harper’s editor Lewis H. Lapham. I wasn’t enough in the cognoscenti, I’m sorry to say, to get on board for the first issue, nevertheless I’d learned of the journal’s existence by the second issue, had subscribed by the third, and purchased a gift subscription for my parents by the fourth. Published quarterly, each issue covers a theme—thus far War, Money, Nature, Learning, Eros, and the current issue, Crimes and Punishments. Lapham mixes and mashes genres and primary sources in his investigation of each theme, from ancient to modern, employing excerpts of stories, essays, poetry, art, charts, and photography. Imagine Herodotus and Lazarillo de Tormes slapping high-fives to Franz Kafka and Raymond Chandler because they made it into the latest issue. Reading Lapham’s is like being an observer to the musings of an accomplished collector gripped by bibliomancy during an extended weekend visit to his abode.
Both of these works, at the apex of modern publishing, might cause one to wonder how they could possibly be improved upon in electronic form. Surely they prove the point that e-books could never fully replace print. And yet, and yet…
Jumping just a bit into the future, let’s grab our podkinfliptop, with its color touch screen and multimedia capabilities, and run. Placing the cursor next to an unfamiliar term in Cunliffe’s book, like Bosphorus, brings up its definition. Clicking on the place-name of Tyre deploys Google Earth. Maps of migrations or empires, instead of static, depict the spread and flow over time. Instead of a single picture depicting the ancient city of Miletos, or a bronze warrior god from the 12th century, a gallery of photos is embedded in the e-text. Links lead to further scholarship or modules about topics of particular interest to the reader. Cunliffe’s tome is a big book, nearly too hefty to curl up in bed with comfortably for a nice reading session, but in its e-format it poses no problem on the podkinfliptop, which you read while touring the Aegean region with your family. At the ruins of the Byzantine fortress in Anadolu Kavagi, you take a striking photo and instantly upload the photo to the book’s gallery.
With Lapham’s, the electronic version might explore the theme over the course of a few months with a daily or weekly segment, loaded automatically onto the device, instead of a quarterly publication. Links abound between and among volumes; users add links to other content in order to further illuminate the theme, sharing the links with other users. The podkinfliptop version includes old newsreels, film segments, Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” or Johnny Cash at Folsom, a poem read by its author.
All of these capabilities exist today, in one form or another. A central question is, of course, who pays for all of this? I’m not optimistic that many publishers can, with a positive ROI, create both a beautifully laid out print version and a link- and multimedia-rich electronic version, but nor is it yet clear that many electronic-only publications are financially viable. As I point out in my recent article, larger publishers like Cengage or Pearson certainly have the resources to create resource-rich electronic publications for higher education, and a number of non-profit initiatives, like Connexions or Yale Books Unbound, are underway. But while readers may not balk at forking over $35 for the beautiful hardcover Europe Between the Oceans, customers seem to expect a lower price for electronic versions. Perhaps instead of selling 20,000 copies at $30.00 each of the hardcover, and dealing with returns, YUP could sell 250,000 copies at $10.00 of the e-version. Lapham’s could get a larger number of subscribers at a lower price, or offer it free under a government grant, or corporate or foundation sponsorship. The “publisher” provides the platform and content, encouraging the community to contribute additional links and resources, building on the “book.” I have to remain optimistic that this type of publishing can survive and prosper in the digital age. The University of Michigan Press seems to be betting on it.