[Marxism] U. of Michigan Press says goodbye to dead trees

Joaquin Bustelo jbustelo at gmail.com
Thu Mar 26 16:50:22 MDT 2009


The article says, "Because digital publishing is so much less expensive --
with savings both in printing and distribution -- the press expects to be
able to publish more books, and to distribute them electronically to a much
broader audience."

But what is a "digital publishing" house? Sounds to me like an oxymoron --
sort of like a distributor of vinyl records for player pianos. 

Publishing is now and has always been a business based on monopolistic
prohibition of competition. When major industrial equipment, a complex
organization of labor, capital to finance unsold inventory, etc., was
required to publish books, the major publishers established essentially a
cartel: each would print the books they had "rights" to and not poach books
from other publishers. It was not copyright law that led to this situation,
but the other way around: the cartelized monopolization of publishing led to
copyright law, and actually it took hundreds of years for "copyright" in the
modern sense to be developed (the first modern copyright law was the 1709
English Statute of Anne).

Now we have a situation where the production of copies of anything in the
digital domain is trivial. The means of reproducing works can no longer be
monopolized or found only in a small number of large establishments, but is
within reach of hundreds of millions of people. In this framework, what does
a "publisher" do that is different from an online library, save charge
money? 

Prepare the manuscript for the public? But a lot of that is ALREADY
automated and more likely to become attached to the author rather than
publisher. Promote the book? The publisher as publicist hardly sounds like a
good business model. Provide "Digital Rights Management?" There isn't a
single such scheme that's been around for a few years that hasn't been
broken, and mostly they last a few months. But there's an even bigger
downside. In a few years, no one will make a reader for the DRM format your
book is in. (Remember "Microsoft Reader"? Even Word 2007 can't create files
in the required .lit format: the product will be dead and buried in a couple
more years.)

In the case of digital-only university "monographs," the "publisher's" role
seems to be solely to provide a legitimizing imprimatur, the official
blessing of academia. I suspect as this evolves, quite a tussle will evolve
over the right to "publish" books in academia (i.e., bless them as suitably
erudite or academic).

Joaquin





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