espresso books


Linda Bree came to talk to the History of Material Texts seminar last week, on the subject of ‘Scholarly Publishing and Technological Change’. As someone who knows the world of academic publishing from every possible direction–Linda is Editorial Director for Arts and Literature at Cambridge University Press, and a scholar working on the ‘long eighteenth century’–she is uniquely placed to tell us what is going on out there, and her talk was indeed eye-opening.

As someone who subscribes to the scholarly orthodoxy that new technologies don’t replace old technologies, but force creative adaptation, I had completely missed what to her was the most important feature of the current landscape: digital printing, and Print-On-Demand technology. Although POD can be unreliable (do you really trust Amazon to deliver you a decent facsimile of that novel from 1833?), for scholarly publishers it is transformative. It gives old books a new lease of life (CUP calls its project to digitize its back-catalogue the ‘Lazarus programme’!) and allows supply to be more closely tailored to demand for new books. It also promises to make publishing leaner and greener, since digital files can be printed out in locations across the world, cutting transportation costs. And you may be able to have a book freshly printed by your local bookshop, if something like the Blackwell’s ‘Espresso Book Machine’ takes off more widely.

Other areas of the picture Bree painted were more murky. The question of how libraries will survive when they are spending their budgets not on buying books but on renting digital content; or of how publishers will survive as the web fosters the illusion (or the ideal) that content should come for free–these were left hanging. In the short term, though, it seems that the physical book will remain the medium of choice for academic monographs. If you’ve got to read a big chunky book full of footnotes, cross-references, and appendices, a book that you may want to scribble on and store away for future reference, ink on paper remains indispensable. For now.

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