For the final event of the week we were privileged to host a selection of publishers, in conversation with Dr Blaug, on the topic of academic publishing. This was a rare opportunity that brought together readers, writers, and, their publishers to share their experiences, concerns and hopes as publishing struggles to find a comfortable space in the digital age.
For academics, there is a sense that in the process of publishing they are going through the motions of an inefficient and to some extent demoralising – albeit necessary – process. Writing, reviewing and distributing their work has been problematic at every stage. Taking Dr Blaug’s recent book as an example, we discussed how writers and their work can become alienated from their audiences. With high retail prices and sales aimed mostly at institutions, the value of a book and its research process was left wanting.
Frances Pinter from Bloomsbury Academic was clear she believed her role was to provide services to the academic community.Bloomsburyand, we learnt, Palgrave Macmillan were undergoing significant changes in their business models. This, it was discussed, was a necessary change in keeping with the techno-communicative advances of our society. It was here that we found a consensus at the table that there was a need for publishers to come to terms with the crisis of publishing. That without serious consideration for the role of digital media publishing would be unable to support itself.
However, it was also at this stage that the question of crisis brought out new concerns. Publishing academic books has reached a crisis point whereby it is not possible to publish at affordable prices therefore its distribution is limited and its impact can become lost. But what is in crisis here, the service to academia publishing offers, or the business model academic publishing utilises?
We could say that without a sustainable business model there would be no academic publishing. From this position it would seem appropriate for publishing companies to reconsider their approach and distribution. They will need to digitalise their content and allow other means of access. We heard how in the empirical sciences this had been successful. In the social sciences the future was more uncertain.
One problem suggested was that publishing companies, as the esteemed institutions they are, had failed to adjust to cultural changes and were left, like music record labels, struggling to catch up with the pace of change. The music industry seems to have found a way to maintain its role, and the feeling around the table was that publishing would do the same. Development of publishing practices, that maintain their roles as mediators, has its own inherent contradictions that pose problems such as the distinction between services and control.
If publishing groups are to maintain their businesses then they must maintain their control of the distribution of academic work. By this they risk limiting their capacity to make academic work open and accessible, a situation in reverse of the trends in the Information Age. This balance between business and service has not found a solution that suits everybody and the future of academic publishing remains uncertain. How, for example, do publishers maintain a service position while battling to prevent access to academic works that may be obtained on online sites (often pirated) for free? With the doors of information burst open, what role is left for publishers of the printed word?
Tariq Goddard suggested that Zero Books had found their own way out of these problems and antagonisms by reconsidering the writer and the audience. Printing challenging but short works, they aim to reach a wider audience by moving away from traditional categories of readership. Instead, they prefer to inform a debate in a public sphere beyond the academic world. For debate and critical thinking, we heard, are valuable and should be made available. If Zero is to continue their success it may well be because they have abandoned their association with the academic world and instead concentrate on what it is that we value about academia.
The problem of control and open access was not solved by the discussion today. Perhaps it never will be. Clearly there is a problem of balance between production, distribution and economic sustainability for publishing. The tension between publishers, writers and readers remains. But also from the comments made, from speakers and audience, there is both panic and quiet optimism. Academic publishing groups will want to control the world of distribution but this will remain in contest with those who force it to move in new directions. Writers will continue to write and, together with readers, will welcome the wider access that the internet provides, especially in light of falling income figures from book sales. What remains is how the three groups: writers, publishers, and, readers will interact together in the future. Who will side with whom and how will the problem of economic-necessity be reconciled?