The Revolution Starts Now… Or Does It: Digital vs. Print “either/or” or “both/all”?

Steve Earle wrote: “The revolution starts now / when you rise above your fear / And tear the walls around you down / The revolution starts here.”

Thankfully, time has finally brought us companies (big and small) that are re-thinking traditional content distribution business models. They’ve done this based on shifting technologies, shifting culture, sinking economies, new demands, and have begun creating new approaches. There are many out there, I wanted to mention a few examples.

The first is a company out of the U.K. called Knowledge Unlatched. They are a not-for-profit organization that is seeking to somewhat redefine the relationship among publishers, libraries and readers—by making scholarly books/monographs available for free via an open access approach.

This started from a recognition that the market for monographs has shrunk dramatically. Combine this with libraries having deep budget cuts, and the result is an old model of scholarly publishing forcing knowledge to be kept from readers and researchers, particularly in the developing world.

Here’s how it works: Knowledge Unlatched is creating a global consortium of libraries that “coordinate the shared, upfront payment of the fixed costs of publishing scholarly books to publishers.” After a publisher nominates a title (or titles) to be in the program, libraries choose which titles they want. If a library chooses a title to become open access, they become eligible for discounts, on both print and digital versions.

When a minimum number of libraries choose a title, the publisher receives a fee in return for making that title available online for free. This fee includes enough of a small operating margin to keep the program sustainable. Publishers are free to continue to sell these titles just as they did before.

The theory is that publishers won’t have to do an expensive case-bound version, lowering their costs for print-on-demand and enabling them to experiment more with lower prices. For authors, the theory is that they still receive royalties from the copies that are sold and the free copies act as advertising. Libraries get greater flexibility in what they can offer. And readers get access to content otherwise unavailable to them.

Will this work? I don’t know. But I love the idea. Aside from getting more content into readers’ hands, I love the attempt to tear down the walls, and pull together all of the components of this ecosystem to change the dynamic and create a win-win for everyone.

Speaking of ecosystems, Joseph Esposito describes what he calls a “new publishing ecosystem,” with Tim O’Reilly serving as philosophical ringleader.

He points out that the “ecosystem” for ebooks is controlled by large companies, mainly Amazon. But what has begun to develop is what I have called the “anti-Amazon.” Esposito says that members of this competing ecosystem include O’Reilly Media, Pearson, B&N and Microsoft.

The important difference is that this is not designed to be “controlled by a single authority but to permit, even to evangelize for, as broad a participation as possible.” Not exactly open access, but certainly more open than something controlled by Amazon. And maybe this is what anti-Amazon open access looks like.

Examples? O’Reilly’s idea of subscription-based ebook computer books became a service called Safari, a joint venture involving Pearson and two other companies. Pearson put a joint venture of the largest textbook publishers for the sale of ebooks called CourseSmart into the Safari platform. Another connection among the companies listed above was Pearson’s investment in B&N’s Nook. O’Reilly’s Tools of Change annual conference is still seen by some as a key place for publishers to learn about digital strategy.

We’ll see how this anti-Amazon continues to coalesce. I think it’s good that there’s a possibility of this exerting a real force. However, I’m always paranoid about the new bosses looking just like the old bosses. (Maybe that’s just what happens when the FBI has a file on you by the time you’re 18 due to political activities they don’t like.)

The next example is McGraw-Hill acquiring a stake in Area9. Obviously, for years now higher ed publishers have been purchasing or investing in anything that screamed “we don’t just do print.” Some of these investments have made sense and some have had desperation written all over them.

I think that this is a really interesting move by M-H. The “Smartbook” that M-H has shown has very interesting capabilities: an online digital textbook, with student activity tracked. Students assessments are made along with corresponding adjustments. What might be the Smartbook’s most interesting aspect is the voice instruction offered to help students through important or difficult sections. In other words, this also offers personalization for the student.

As I mentioned, every higher ed publisher is trying to achieve new and better ways of using technology to differentiate themselves and improve learning for students. I can’t swear that this is the absolute best approach out there, but it seems to me to stretch the boundaries in new and interesting ways.

So the revolution starts now, right?

At first blush an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jennifer Howard (“For Many Students, Print Is Still King”) appears to put the brakes on the revolution. But I think a further reading reveals both a current and future path for higher ed.

Howard points to recent surveys stating that students’ real concern is what they are paying for textbooks. And that “most aren’t calling for a digital revolution.” And she quotes the director of sales at W.W. Norton that, “the vast majority of students still prefer print.” She also speaks with an associate rrofessor who says that students “feel some sort of comfort in being able to hold the thing [a printed book] in their hands.” See? It’s not just old people that feel that way about printed books.

But further reading shows that publishers are creating a hybrid model—supplying both print and digital content. Norton is primarily publishing print, but has also created an online hub for Sociology.

Jerome Grant, chief learning officer at Pearson, and my old boss (sorry, Jerome, I protected you for as long as I could) points out that “print is simply one of the outputs.” He expects print to stick around, but give way to digitally distributed content as the primary way for students to read content.

At Wiley, less than half their higher ed revenue comes from “pure print products.” But when talking about print and digital, Tim Stookesberry describes it as a “both-and-all conversation.”

So has the revolution started? Damn straight! Is print going to stick around? Damn straight! It’s important to remember that “revolution” doesn’t mean throwing a switch forcing everything and everyone to change completely and instantaneously. Even dramatic revolutions contain a process.

But isn’t it fun?

As Earle says in the same song: “So what you doin’ standin’ around? / Just follow your heart / The revolution starts now.”

Michael Weinstein is a member of the Publishing Executive Hall of Fame and has 35 years experience in production, manufacturing, content management and change management.

He is currently Production Director for Teachers College Press. Previously, he was Vice President, Global Content and Media Production for Cengage Learning. Prior to that he was Vice President of Production and Manufacturing for Oxford University Press, Pearson/Prentice Hall, Worth Publishers and HarperCollins.

In those capacities, he has been a leader in managing process and content for delivery in as many ways possible.
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  • Jane Searle

    Michael, interesting as always, especially for the many avenues you explore.

    I must correct something, however. Norton is definitely not "primarily…print." As the article points out, the only thing we are not yet offering as ebooks are the literary anthologies. Everything else we publish is offered in ebook format, and for the College list, we offer in-depth and rich emedia packages to go along with the parent print title. And most of this emedia content is free.

    I don’t mean to take umbrage, but to say Norton is primarily print and to point out only one of our many emedia packages is to make us sound antiquated and well behind the curve. It is true that the vast majority of our parent titles are still bought as print, which I love (!), but we do not have our heads in the sand.

    Yours in comradery,

  • Patty Stephan

    Hi Michael! Interesting article. I have to say I am surprised by a recent experience of my own. In polling my own 20-year-old son and his college friends, they all preferred print books to anything else. I think this generation spends so much time online pursuing other pleasures that there is some level of comfort in simply holding and reading a book. I was really surprised. My offer to purchase eBooks for him was immediately shot down!

  • Sanford Thatcher

    Knowledge unlatched is an interesting extension of a hybrid open access/print model in scholarly published that was pioneered by the National Academies Press in the 1990s for the sciences and then adapted by some other presses (like the one I headed at Penn State) for the humanities. These efforts attempted to be sustainable by using the sales of POD editions to cover publishing costs and met with mixed success. Knowledge Unlatched’s innovation is to spread the burden of supporting this hybrid model more widely by having libraries buy into it by covering fixed costs, allowing the publishers to cover variable costs through sales of POD editions. It will be interesting to see how many libraries step up to the plate to support OA monograph publishing as they have OA journal publishing.