New Model for University Presses

Rice's unique, online approach takes shape -- in part by collaborating with traditional presses that can't afford to release books they believe have merit.
July 31, 2007

It's the nightmare-come-true scenario for many an academic: You spend years writing a book in your field, send it off to a university press with an interest in your topic, the outside reviewers praise the work, the editors like it too, but the press can't afford to publish it. The book is declared too long or too narrow or too dependent on expensive illustrations or too something else. But the bottom line is that the relevant press, with a limited budget, can't afford to release it, and turns you down, while saying that the book deserves to be published.

That's the situation scholars find themselves in increasingly these days, and press editors freely admit that they routinely review submissions that deserve to be books, but that can't be, for financial reasons. The underlying economic bind university presses find themselves in is attracting increasing attention, including last week's much awaited report from Ithaka, "University Publishing in a Digital Age," which called for universities to consider entirely new models.

One such new model is about to start operations: The Rice University Press, which was eliminated in 1996, was revived last year with the idea that it would publish online only, using low-cost print-on-demand for those who want to hold what they are reading. Since the announcement that the press was coming back -- and using a unique model by not publishing in traditional book form -- many in academic publishing have wondered how Rice would shift to a new format for publishing while maintaining the rigor associated with a university press.

The answer is that Rice is getting started in a way that points directly to the economic logjam in academic publishing. Rice is going to start printing books that have been through the peer review process elsewhere, been found to be in every way worthy, but impossible financially to publish. In this way, Rice will be linking established peer review systems with its new model of distributing scholarship.

Some of the books Rice will publish, after they went through peer review elsewhere, will be grouped together as "The Long Tail Press." In addition, Rice University Press and Stanford University Press are planning an unusual collaboration in which Rice will be publishing a series of books reviewed by Stanford and both presses will be associated with the work.

This fall, Rice will bring out one of the first Long Tail books -- Images of Memorable Cases -- by Herbert L. Fred, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston. Fred argues in the book that doctors have lost the art of bedside diagnosis, and the book is an explanation of that argument as well as a teaching tool for residents, featuring detailed color photography of patients in various conditions as their cases are discussed. In the teaching part of the work, the actual diagnosis comes after the reader has spent time with the written description and photographs.

Fred Moody, editor in chief of the Rice press, said that the book won rave outside reviews for the publisher Fred sent it to. That press, however, calculated that in paperback, it would need to be priced at least at $175, which the sales staff thought was prohibitively high. Moody met with officials of the press, which agreed to turn over all the peer review materials and rights to the book to Rice on the condition that Rice not identify the press that turned down the book for financial reasons. Moody said only that the initial potential publisher was "a prominent press."

When the book appears at Rice, readers will have access to all the photographs and text. Material will be free to view online, with a possible modest charge to download, and a more meaningful cost for those who want to order through print on demand. Rice will be able to offer people the book through print on demand for about $80, Moody said, a bargain for a lavishly illustrated medical book.

Fred, the author, has seen the advance work online and said that even though he started off hoping for print publication, he thinks the images look better online than they would have in print, and that they lend themselves to discussions among medical researchers or students. "It looks damn nice, and it's going to be available," Fred said. "You can't quite put into print what you can see in the computer."

Charles Henry, publisher of the press and also president of the Council on Library and Information Resources, said that same model will extend to Rice's other books, especially in its partnership with the Stanford University Press. While details are still being finalized, Henry said that Stanford would select five or six titles over the next year for joint release, using the Rice online process. Stanford is a great partner for Rice, Henry said, "because it is a first rate press that has peer review in place."

Setting up a peer review system has been a concern for Rice from the start. The press has wanted to show that it could have quality control comparable to a traditional press, but building a network of reviewers takes years, and so wasn't something Rice could do quickly. With Stanford and the Long Tail Press, "we don't need to recreate the peer review process."

Over time, Rice might create its own peer reviewers, but Henry said he thought the press could demonstrate its value and its economic model through joint projects with Stanford and other publishers.

Alan Harvey, editor in chief at Stanford, said he saw great potential not only to try a new model, but to test the economics of publishing in different formats. Stanford might pick some books with similar scholarly and economic potential, and publish some through Rice and some in the traditional way, and be able to compare total costs as well as scholarly impact. "We'd like to make this a public experiment and post the results," he said.

Another part of the experiment, he said, might be to explore "hybrid models" of publishing. Stanford might publish most of a book in traditional form, but a particularly long bibliography might appear online. Or for a book where digital images are essential, a digital version might be created. In film studies, "you can be talking about clips and only be able to use two stills in a book," he said.

There is no shortage of books that could be used, Harvey said. "There isn't a publisher around who won't tell you that they turn down good book proposals," Harvey said. Stanford rejects about 90 percent of submissions. Of the rejected ideas, Harvey said that about 60 percent either aren't of high enough quality or don't reflect Stanford's emphases as a press. But the other 40 percent are worthy of publication, he said. "There are a huge number of project that we think 'this is wonderful material, but there is a limited market.' "

Fundamentally, he said that the collaboration was about trying to find a new business and technology approach for scholarly publishing. "Lots of university presses have tried individual digital projects, but none of us has a real business model that will produce something that will change the underlying nature of our business," Harvey said. That's in large part because the presses do not have the technology infrastructure to produce many digital books (one of the problems stressed in last week's report on university press publishing).

"We don't have the infrastructure to produce electronic books and Rice does. We have the brand cachet and the peer review system," Harvey said. "If you put the two together, we could produce a brand of electronic projects that might actually be properly received."


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