dcbooks Tests the Digital Waters

The New Imprint of the University of Michigan Press

As digital technologies transform traditional business, publishers of all walks are being swept up in the shift. It is against this backdrop that current debates over the future of scholarly publishing are set. In the words of Phil Pochoda, Director of the University of Michigan Press, "We are on the verge of a paradigm shift in publishing.... Although difficult to forecast concretely, it's important that presses play a significant role in this transformation, otherwise we'll be left out of building our own future." This thinking is the impetus behind the University of Michigan's latest online project—digitalculturebooks.

The new imprint, affectionately known as dcbooks, employs a partnership between the University's press and library in pursuit of a more advanced online publishing model. Developing this relationship between the University of Michigan Press and the Scholarly Publishing Office (SPO) at the University of Michigan Library has been a great advantage for the Press. The partnership allows for the pooling of resources and sharing of technical expertise that is vital to an online project. Maria Bonn, Director of the SPO, explained that, "[The SPO and the University of Michigan Press] have had a long history of friendly but generally non-productive overtures toward each other, looking for collaboration opportunities that really made sense.... This time the idea took." Pochoda wrote the initial proposal and discussions played out over the course of the next year to determine the form and content of the imprint.

The division of labor is traditional yet collaborative. The Press plays the primary role in acquisitions, while the SPO office manages the online portal. However, as Pochoda says, the "idea is that neither [the Press or the SPO] are treated as a service agency. Both are fully informed and involved in all phases of the publication process. The relationship is fully transparent." This ongoing consultation means, for example, that the Press discusses the online functionality of projects with the SPO, while the SPO consults on titles selected for publication. There is some tension between the two cultures, as Pochoda describes, "[The Press] has to be a revenue producer and the Library less so. They get much of their revenue upstream, and we get it downstream." In light of this difference, one of the goals is to develop a "revised business model with which both sides can be comfortable."

The imprint debuted online with The Best of Technology Writing: 2006, edited by Brendan I. Koerner. Comprised of twenty-four articles, the series lends itself well to the online model. On a single web page the articles are listed with hyperlinks that take the user to another HTML page where they can be read for free. In this fashion one could read the entire book without ever having to open a wallet. A link at the top of the screen allows the user to add it to their "bookbag" if they would like to purchase it in print. Currently, the book is not offered in PDF format, although the HTML allows printing and cut-and-paste. Operating under a Creative Commons non-commercial, non-derivative license, both the press and the authors agree that there must be a free version of each title available to readers.

In some ways the dcbooks model is similar

to other endeavors in online publishing, such as those at the National Academies Press. The NAP offers many of their books for purchase in hardcopy, as a PDF (including single chapters), or to be read online for free. In a study published by the NAP in 2003, they note that, "A cursory analysis of the sales figures...suggests that online print orders have grown steadily since free browsing became available. However, it was not clear whether the increase could be attributed to free browsing or the increased presence of consumers on the web." Good news for online publishing, with the caveat that more research is needed.

Part of the purpose of dcbooks will be to collect qualitative and quantitative data from users, to better understand "how reading habits and preferences vary across communities and genres." The data will be helpful in better understanding the online reader—who they are and how they would like to see online models develop. It will also be beneficial in investigating the economics of Open Access publishing. All of this data will contribute to the discussion over the future of scholarly communication, and the question of how presses are to remain both financially viable and true to their purpose of disseminating quality scholarship far and wide.

As the entire project is relatively new, there are a lot of people waiting to see whether the model being tested is a viable one. Bonn described the feedback she's received thus far as "limited but positive. Authors are intrigued, libraries and publishers are interested, and administrators are tracking to see if we develop a successful publishing model." It seems it will be a success if the free, online component helps to generate buzz and interest in the print versions, which will drive up revenue. This would allow for the model to be both financially stable and lead to increased access. Pochoda says, "There is no question in my mind that sooner rather than later university press publishing will migrate to primarily online dissemination. We're testing that proposition somewhat with dcbooks, but being very cautious at first."

The imprint's reception among authors may be divided depending on their area of scholarship. When asked how she would like to see the project develop, Alison Mackeen, Acquiring Editor at the University of Michigan Press, said, "I would be thrilled if it helps to expose otherwise reluctant scholars to the advantages of online publishing, and thereby improves the visibility and prestige of online publishing, among humanists in particular." And here is perhaps where the division is most clearly seen. "It is nevertheless clear that humanities authors are more conflicted about the possibility of a parallel online edition than, say, academics in information schools or media and communication studies."

Over the course of the next year the imprint will be publishing at least eight titles, and in the process testing the economics and viability of the model. The recently launched New Media World Series is edited Professor Joseph Turow of the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication. A Digital Media and Youth series will be launched in August, to be edited by Mimi Ito and Ellen Seiter of the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

As dcbooks continues to develop definite outcomes remain up in the air. Pochoda says, "When the dust settles, the press won't be the press we knew and the libraries won't be the libraries we knew. We're curious to see where we turn out, and no one can predict that yet—meanwhile, we're enjoying the ride."

Michael McCutcheon
Communications Assistant, AAUP