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An Academic Press Gives Away Its Secret of Success

Of possible interest to readers of this list.  Ann Okerson

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  From the issue dated September 14, 2001

  Academic Press Gives Away Its Secret of Success 

    It's been a bad year financially for nonprofit publishers,
  according to most reports. High returns from inventory by
  booksellers closing their doors or trimming their stock,
  combined with sagging sales of what are considered
  discretionary products in a slowing economy, have forced many
  nonprofit publishers to rethink their plans and budgets. Even
  some of the largest and most well-known university presses are
  whispering about deficits.
  So it's almost embarrassing when I tell colleagues that the
  National Academy Press is on track for a record year in book
  sales. And it dumbfounds them when I mention that we make
  every page we publish in print available online -- free.
  Ever since new technologies began to hint at the possibility
  of reading books digitally, publishers have been haunted by
  the prospect that e-books would make print versions obsolete.
  The publishers have been trying encryption schemes, lockout
  mechanisms, and restriction systems to prevent unauthorized
  access to online material, with limited commercial success.
  For nonprofit presses, which operate close to the margin, the
  electronic future has looked like a minefield.
  Our experience may calm a few jitters. And it may suggest some
  ways that nonprofit presses can expand their influence in the
  electronic age, with relatively small investments and limited
  Our press is the publisher for the National Academy of
  Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute
  of Medicine, and the National Research Council. We publish
  more than 200 book-length works per year, and are required by
  our charter to perform a dual task: to disseminate as widely
  as possible the works of the academies and to be
  self-sustaining through book sales and fees for services we
  perform for internal and external customers.
  Those two mandates may seem contradictory, but we have found
  that, at least for a publisher of scientific and technical
  analyses and policy reports, doing the first encourages the
  second: Making our material easily and freely available helps
  us sell books. Our Web site (http://www.nap.edu) makes more
  than 2,100 books -- comprising 400,000 book pages -- fully
  searchable, browseable, and even printable by the page, all
  free. The material is made available in easily navigable page
  images, and we are in the process of providing even more
  easily readable and quickly downloadable page-by-page HTML
  text. Expanded research tools are in the process of being
  Our site is very busy -- from January through mid-August of
  this year, more than 3.2 million people had viewed more than
  28 million Web pages, including 15 million book pages. While
  those are great numbers in terms of wide dissemination, the
  more remarkable thing is that, over the same period, we have
  sold more than 40,000 books through the same site -- something
  approximating 25 percent of our overall book sales, and
  already surpassing the number we sold during all of last year.
  Moreover, our other sales -- via bookstores, an 800 number,
  fax, and mail -- have apparently not been cannibalized,
  staying pretty much in line with industry sales.
  It would seem axiomatic that giving away pages means that
  fewer people will buy the books, but that confuses the content
  with the product. Sugar, butter, flour, eggs, and vanilla are
  the contents of a pound cake, but quite obviously more than
  those contents is required to create something pleasing to the
  palate. It's clear to us that the material we publish -- the
  final printed book -- has a value quite distinct from the
  content itself, and a utility independent of any particular
  page. The handy, readable, formatted, bound volume is still
  the way most people want to read a book-length work.
  Comparing books to food is dicey, of course, but the appetites
  -- whether intellectual or gustatory -- have similarities. For
  some kinds of hunger, quickly digested information -- the fast
  food of the Internet -- serves a number of useful purposes.
  Doing research on facts, addresses, news, and the like has
  never been easier. However, in the olden days, before the Web,
  few of us actually purchased books to learn that kind of
  information anyway. We went to the library, we consulted an
  almanac or an encyclopedia, we asked friends, we called the
  operator, we subscribed to newspapers or magazines.
  We bought books we wanted to savor, not data to munch. We
  bought books we wanted to own, books we wanted to sink into.
  That's still the case.
  Book-length material tends to posit an attitude, a position,
  or a conclusion; it may hypothesize, assert, or persuade; it
  may entertain or enlighten; it may surprise or delight. It
  has, in short, its own context. Extract a page or a chapter,
  and it's no longer the same product. That's part of the reason
  that Web technologies, whether they offer page-by-page
  representations or chapter-by-chapter material in Web-ready
  form, can rarely compete effectively with book-length works in
  People are happy to find and browse through online material,
  but nobody -- and I mean nobody -- seems to be interested in
  devoting lengthy periods to reading for meaning online. Our
  server logs indicate that most people skim a book -- they
  choose a few pages, perform a few searches, print a few
  low-resolution pages. Apart from the act of printing, that is
  just libraryor bookstore-browsing behavior, not a threat to
  our livelihood.
  There is mounting evidence that people will read for facts
  online and, while they'll read small chunks of material --
  articles -- for perspective, few will read anything that runs
  for more than 30 pages onscreen. And when they do, it's
  unsatisfactory. Researchers at Ohio State University reported
  on a study last year indicating that even for college students
  who are making an effort to absorb as much as possible,
  material read on a screen is harder to understand than the
  same material read on paper. Last year, Forrester Research
  released a report showing that dropout rates for online
  courses can be as high as 80 percent. Why? In part, the
  Internet-research company found, because retention is 30
  percent lower for material read online than for material read
  in print. A few months later, Forrester forecast slow growth
  for both e-books and e-book readers. Why? Because the company
  found that not only do people generally dislike reading
  text-heavy documents on a computer screen, but they also
  retain less of what they read.
  The Web's promise is vast and still mostly unrealized, because
  the dot-com gold rush diverted energy from what the Web is
  best at: connecting people with ideas. From our perspective,
  the Web is already the best dissemination engine ever, which
  has the side benefit of providing vast new markets and
  audiences for our work. Scientists or program assistants or
  policy analysts in Gļæ½teborg or Kampala or Tulsa can find a
  policy recommendation or an expert conclusion in our
  publications -- from a book that they probably wouldn't have
  found before the advent of the Web. A student in Lubbock can
  explore Science and Stewardship in the Antarctic, and a
  teacher in Kiev can browse Preventing Reading Difficulties in
  Young Children. If any of them want to, they can purchase the
  book at hand. Enough do so to support our program.
  Does all this mean that every book publisher should put its
  books online at no charge? Alas, few for-profit book
  publishers are willing to invest money in giving content away.
  Their business models have profit maximization as the main
  goal, within which framework good people have to do good work.
  Opening content up, without locks or timers or payment, is
  just too outside the paradigm to be considered.
  Most nonprofit book publishers I talk with would like to be
  able to do something similar to what we are doing, and a few
  are doing so. The Brookings Institution Press is making more
  than 100 recent books available for browsing via its Web site
  (http://www.brookings.org); to date, more than one million
  visitors have browsed those titles, and online sales of the
  books have more than doubled. The MIT Press, the University of
  Illinois Press, the Columbia University Press, and other
  innovative publishers have initiatives that include free
  access to some book-length material. To my knowledge, no book
  by any publisher has ever sold less than expected because it
  was available free online.
  Only a few nonprofit book publishers have actually undertaken
  the risk, however, because most have very limited financial
  flexibility. They aren't blessed, as we are, with a parent
  institution willing to support a grand experiment, and any
  loss in today's straitened circumstances would take a big bite
  out of limited resources.
  The "crisis of the monograph," much discussed over the past
  decade, is at heart a crisis of limited resources. When the
  editing, production, and marketing costs of a book exceed
  income from sales, a press loses money. But a large proportion
  of a publication's cost is its marketing and promotion; if it
  were easier for books to find their own audience by being more
  freely accessible, presses might be able to afford to publish
  the scholarly monographs that are beginning to be too costly
  to produce. Free online access to the books might help us out
  of the crisis of the monograph.
  It therefore would behoove universities and the other parent
  organizations that sponsor, support, or otherwise give room to
  nonprofit publishing houses to consider a small investment
  that could have a big payoff. With an injection of $100,000 or
  $200,000 for initial staff and digitization costs -- and,
  perhaps more significant, a clear statement of institutional
  support for experimentation in scholarly publishing -- a lot
  more university presses could make a lot more of their
  publications available online in ways that would enhance
  scholarship and knowledge worldwide. It could even enhance
  their financial status. Successful initiatives like the
  National Academy Press's seem to show that the risks are not
  as great as once was feared, and that nonprofit publishing may
  flourish best when it is most open.
  Michael Jensen is director of publishing technologies at the
  National Academy Press.


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