Electronic Publishing Conference
sponsored by The University of Tennessee, Knoxville Libraries
September 17-19, 1996
Here there be Tygers:
Uncharted Tesseracts in the Age of Disintermediation
What's become clear as I've been observing and participating in this symposium is that many, if not most, of the themes I intended to overview have already been overviewed. So I've cut out (thankfully) much of the material I had in mind, and will focus instead on braiding, weaving, intertwining a few themes that either haven't been addressed, or haven't been as thoroughly addressed as the ideas merit.
First let me check something:
The numbers are likely to be similar or larger than those I found two years ago when I asked a similar
Things are moving very fast. What worries me is that they're moving even faster than I've predicted, and most people view me as... well, less than conservative in my predictions.
Two years from now, I think it's safe to say that online commerce will be well-established, we'll have much bigger digital pipes, many of us will have pointcast cable-modem television, even more of us will be using some variant of the Internet Phone. We'll still be irritated at the slowness of the Internet, but not because our graphics are too slow to load, but because our video feeds are choppy.
Three to five years from now? I'm much more hesitant to say. I expect to have a little book I carry around which is my display interface to the Internet--about the size of a trade paperback, with laser-printer quality resolution. In color. I expect to be able to have a mechanism--a sort of digital aide-de-camp--which will keep track of anything I ask it to, in realtime, by voice command, and recall it back from my storage resource at my whim. Sound recordings, low-res video recordings, financial transactions, transcriptions of conversations I had. Full-text searches of those transcriptions of my day-to-day, if I want; a database of all my expenditures that it keeps track of for me, if I wanted.
That's really cool, and all, but what matters more to me is not that my science-fiction dreams are coming true, but rather what these changes will do to the world and the society I know, especially, of course, how the changes will affect the publishing world, the professoriat, the broadest world of education and information and intellectual pursuit.
We need to think at least three to five years off, when we're considering what the relationships will be between publishers, writers, professors, universities, libraries, and readers, because we need to think of how it will be once the information infrastructure has moved beyond its infancy, and perhaps has moved into adolescence (much less, adulthood); when it has reached a point where most educated people have instant access to digital information, online video throughput is available in most urban areas, anybody can connect up with any other, and online commerce is safe and easy.
Because then we will live in a state of disintermediation.
DisintermediationSomething quite separate from the technology--though predicated upon it--something under the sun that is truly new, something unfathomably transformative, is being loosed upon us: disintermediation.
I think of societial disintermediation as the online tesseract--you remember, the "wrinkle in time" that shortens the distance between two points.
Two things are required to make possible the tesseract of disintermediation: rapid easy access to distant digital content, and easy financial exchange.
The first of the pair is here, as we all know. I can pull down a Web page located in Australia as easily and almost as fast as I can one from Duluth. Any material--whether a recording, a video clip, a multimedia presentation, a monograph, a poem, an encyclopedia--can be put online by its creators, and pulled down and displayed the viewers. In three years, it'll be absurdly easy.
The second part isn't quite there yet, but we're almost there, and that's online micropayments. Online payments are possible, but micropayments are still mostly an idea whose implications are still only vaguely understood. To my mind, when I can easily, safely, and comfortably pay a buck, a quarter, a nickel, or a a tenth of a cent online, then a day of revolution will have arrived.
I don't say that lightly, or with too much melodrama. I'm quite serious. Micropayments will be transformative, challenging most institutions, most governments, and most economies, perhaps even more than the Internet itself.
MicropaymentsMicropayments, in a searchable environment, changes everything. That's not an overstatement: it changes the economic foundations of all the intermediaries in the consumer age. What happens when I can send a nickel to someone whose suggested online resource I appreciated? When I can pay Stephen King directly more than his current royalty percentage for his most recent novel? When I can pay a buck to get a radio feed of an Indiana basketball game while residing in Baltimore? When I can pay a quarter an hour to watch ad-free tv? When I can watch a new multimedia presentation online and then choose what to pay? When I can skip the store and go right to the manufacturer's catalog? When I can pay a quarter to watch the 6:00 news at 8:00 instead of taping it? When I can ask any reader who likes an online article I write to send a dime to my email address? When I can invest ten or twenty dollars in small businesses worldwide without going through Wall Street or NASDAQ (when I'm willing to gamble with those ten or twenty bucks), and get my microdividends every month through micropayments?
These are transformative changes.
It was Colin Day, director at the University of Michigan Press, who first described the Internet as a "giant disintermediation machine," and he's right. The Internet will be--heck, is--challenging the historical intermediaries like publishers, movie studios, television stations, printing companies, libraries, specialty stores, universities, schools, salespeople, even governments. The filterers, the gatherers, the duplicators, the distributors, the finders, will all find themselves sprinting to restructure themselves in the new economy, and they won't all make it.
One extreme analogy would be that of cold fusion. If I could power my home, my car, my anything with a breadboxed-sized gizmo that gave me nearly-free power, then what happens to all that wire overhead? To the power plants? What happens to the small oil distributors, the coal miners, the truckers who carry the coal to the power plants? To the railways? To the stability of the Middle East?
It would all be changed, and it would throw lots of institutions into disarray. It would take a few years, as the old makes way for the new, but everyone would know that it was going to happen while it was happening, and everyone affected would be scrambling.
We're about to have that happen to us. It's not cold fusion, but it may be just as significant. In this revolution, the bookstores, paper manufacturers, book distributors, book trucking companies, and the like are more at risk, as are our current roles.
Intermediation is what we all do, every one of us in this room, in some form or another. What happens when so many institutions are put in doubt or confusion because their primary role of intermediation is challenged by direct digital access to anything we want?
IntermediariesIntermediation is what I as a publisher do--I intermediate between the writer and the reader, adding value and performing drudgery to earn the right to publish someone's work. We initially select a work to consider for publication, coordinate the peer review, the beautiful design, quality copyediting, production, publicity, marketing, distribution, financial transactions, fulfillment, and the like. We confer value by our selectivity, and confer status and tenure consideration and respectability by publishing someone.
At base, however, we are intermediaries, whose function could seem superfluous, if our function was seen by a jaundiced eye as only that of a printer and distributor of authors' work.
Intermediation is also what a library does--it gathers material which is likely to be valuable to the students, the researchers, the teachers in the institution. They add value by creating finding aids, organizing the material, storing it, keeping track of it.
But that same jaundiced eye could say Who needs libraries when I have ever-increasingly capable search engines, knowbots, independent finding agents roaming the Web for stuff that addresses a question I tentatively phrased? They're just intermediaries between the author and the reader, via the intermediate publisher.
It gets worse--Intermediation is what a university does. It coordinates the gathering of students to be able to take particular coursework for a desired outcome: a degree, an education, a job.
Intermediation is what many, many professors do: yes, we all have our areas of specific expertise, but most of us, in our classes, are using someone else's textbooks, someone else's writing, someone else's content, and filtering, explaining, interpreting that material for the students.
Disintermediation is what happens when society no longer necessarily needs the intermediaries.
With rapid access to digital data, and easy financial transactions, all the intermediaries are thrown off.
If I'm a student with a trade-paperback-sized digital interface, which can easily look as clear and clean as a book, then why should I buy a textbook for each of my classes? Any of them could be displayed in any way the publisher or author wanted, on my interface. I don't need a bookstore or library--all I need is access. Why should I go to the library if I can inexpensively get access to the material I need? Why should I go to the campus, even, if I can get a lecture, with hypertextual links to correlated readings, with offline questions-and-answers from TAs (or underemployed scholars)? To put it bluntly and frighteningly, why should I go to Tennessee when I could get a composite degree from the Ivy League's Greatest Hits, online, for the same price?
I think there are good reasons, and I don't really believe that UT will disappear, but I think there's reason for concern over the long term, unless the value that is added is more than simple intermediation. We must re-evaluate what it is we do, what purpose we serve beyond intermediation, to get to the core of what it is we are doing. Like Douglas Bennett said night before last, one question we must ask is how, in the new environment, we can retain and improve the qualities of scholarly communication that are essential to the ongoing development of intellectual discourse. Another question is how our choices--here in the scholarly community--will affect the development of the "information society." How we might influence the trends so that we can have a nation of educated individuals, with easy and inexpensive access to educational resources.
As a publisher, I'm faced with these questions (and others) when we are making decisions about pricing, design, production, the goals of the publication--all the nuts and bolts that pertain to the business of publishing. I'm trying to find ways to make sure that we, as a press, and we in the larger world of nonprofit publishing, adapt to the new environment to the benefit of all. There are dangers in any environment where professional publishing is only performed by the commercial publishers.
The new intermediaries--or the old intermediaries in new garb--who serve a function in the new disintermediated "tesseracted" world, will be those who adapt, broaden, and deepen their roles.
Re-intermediationIn spite of these disintermediation blues, I believe the book will survive for my professional lifetime, though in decreasing use for the scholarly market. The prestige of a book, if nothing else, will guarantee some print publication; JHUP's approach is that as long as there's a market, we'll publish our books and journals in print.
That's true of libraries and universities and scholars as well--as long as there's a market, they'll exist, especially if they adapt as they go.
Scholarly publishers are adapting as quickly as we can, and I think many of us will survive. To my mind, it's to the academy's benefit to encourage nonprofit publishers like university presses to survive.
In a disintermediated world, it's reasonable to suppose that quality content will perhaps be even more valued. However, the bar will have been raised, because we're no longer talking about simply placing content on a page with attractive typography.
Adding ValueDaniel Quoit Gilman founded the JHU Press in 1878 to "make public the fruits of scholarly research"; that role will not remain sufficient. "Making Public" can be done by any author these days; it's the added value that distinguishes publishing from printing. In the print world, few of us are likely to give the same credence to a pamphlet handed to us on the street as we will to a hardbound book from a scholarly press. That is true in spades online--a web page is no longer enough; an institutional imprimatur makes an increasingly large difference.
The values which publishers can add to electronic publication have similarities to those of the print world: scholars will still want beauty and elegance, will still want the prestige of selective publication, will still want copyediting, marketing, publicity, stability.
There's been some concern expressed in the last several days about how scholarly discourse can be strengthened, how the qualities of scholarly communication which we hold dear--high scholarly quality, academic freedom, intellectual organization of content, acquisition, access to material, and preservation can be maintained in an online environment. Several references have been made to the need for the academy to apply itself to this problem.
And that's true. The academy needs to apply itself to the problem, but I'm nervous about the "we can do that" effect. Remember when we all first got laser printers and lots of fonts? Remember what that stuff looked like? Sixteen different sizes, six different fonts. Pretty, wasn't it?
A similar, but much larger (and more expensive) "we can do that" problem began surfacing three to four years ago. Librarians began saying they didn't need publishers, because they could do that electronically. Computer scientists began saying they didn't need libraries or publishers, because they could do that, and besides, information wanted to be free. Publishers began saying they didn't need libraries or network chops, because we could do that. Then, as we began looking more closely into the complexities of the problems, we began to realize that libraries did more than simply provide access, that publishers did more than print and distribute books, that computer scientists did more than just drink Jolt Cola and eat pizza.
We're coming back around to applying our traditional roles through untraditional mechanisms.
Even today, with computer assisted architectural design, when any joe with a computer and some software can design a house, we would still want a "real architect" to perform the "real design" after we'd outlined our desires, because a real architect has experience.
Specialization--highly skilled professionals--are still needed to fully realize the potential of electronic publication. To do that, money is required. It's expensive (and can be an expensive hassle) to design and enrich a publication, to copyedit, to market, to perform customer service. It's expensive to make an online publication as fully rich as it can be; We as readers will be willing to spend money to have the best and broadest material.
In next month's Scholarly Publishing, I've got an article discussing the elements of electronic design, which center around the issue of tailoring electronic design to the content; of "solving the problem of the manuscript," as one of the best book designers in the country, Richard Eckersley, once described it.
Codex vs. MultexThe codex book--the sequential page, one-model-fits-all framework for presentation in the print world, is changing. Currently, encyclopedias are printed from first page to last, just like a novel is, with the only real difference being that the first has an alphabetical order and an index. Still, that index, and the order of entries, is in one fixed order, and we, as readers, adapt to it. We have a visual vocabulary which helps our understanding of what the structure is intended to mean, a vocabulary which we have learned since we first began reading.
In the electronic environment, that vocabulary is changed, as has the mechanisms for achieving the goals of the publication.
If an Edgar Allen Poe scholar here at UT wrote a monograph about Poe's sleep disorder and his consequent buried-alive imagery, she could print it in codex form, first page to last, with footnotes, and an index, and a bibliography.
How much more effective that monograph would be if that Poe scholar could have live references to Poe's work online, so that her quotes could be taken in full context, and so that her analysis could be read right beside "The Cask of Amontillado." That scholar might want to be able to make marginalia, or provide essay-length footnotes, or have images, tangential explications and pointers to information about sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders. The bibliographic entries could, in many cases, be "live," pointing to for-free and for-pay resources.
The monograph, to be fully useful, and to be done right, would benefit from, in fact needs, a group of professionals to do it right--to design (especially for readers with only a rudimentary visual vocabulary) for optimal reading, to make the structure internally consistent, and to do much of the "grunt work" involved in making it happen.
These are some of the new roles for publishers, which also are likely to include constant attention to other online resources that reference this work (to suggest links to it), inclusion in search engines, etc.
There are new challenges for scholars, as well--there is now the possibility, for example, of interactions with your readers. Do you want that? What about "conscious performances of scholarship" with your peers? For some material and some scholars, that makes sense; for other material and scholars, that would be overkill and silly. But in the new environment we will be challenged by the broadening of possibilities for publication.
We are no longer in a world where one-size-fits-all codex models can be force-fit onto every publication, and the economies of skill and scale don't apply as effectively any more. Tailoring of the added value--expensive tailoring--will be necessary for a great deal of the publication we will see.
Making it WorkIn an online world where disintermediation is at play, there is still need for some kinds of intermediation, and it's my contention that it makes more sense for universities to support university presses--both financially and through its institutional mechanisms--than to try to reinvent the wheel in department after department, university after university, scholar after scholar.
Even with the disintermediation intrinsic to the online world, there is some intermediation which becomes not only desired, but essential, if we are to realize the potential of electronic publications, and create a rich, varied, deep information universe, and scholarly publishers are well-positioned to perform that role.
The financial underpinnings--the necessary capitalism involved in dealing with the expense of electronic publication--the pricing, the access models, and the like, are what I'll try to do as I demonstrate three publications of the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Next: demonstrations of Project Muse, Walker's Mammals of the World, and The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism, to show what I mean.