Embracing spreadability in academic publishing

—Sam Ford

The world of academic publishing was built on a model of scarcity. The specialist knowledge of an academic discipline was considered too limited for general commercial publication, so a niche industry was built to support the development and publication of essay and book-length academic publications. Academic presses played a vital role in this model and built their infrastructure to protect and make available academic essays for university libraries and specialists in a particular field. And, in return, the system for evaluating success among academics has been built in tandem with this publishing model—so that publishing milestones have become the logic on which tenure processes are built.

I had the pleasure of being invited to speak to the American Association of University Presses last summer on a panel about “reaching the world.” At it, I advocated that university presses have to rethink their raison d’être in the 21st century.

In a world where information is now overabundant rather than scarce, might it make sense that publishers have to change their logic dramatically in order to stay relevant? Rather than protecting and bringing information to circulation inside academia, as had been the old model, might not the role of the press be to curate and further cultivate the most important content in that vast field—and, equally as important—to focus on bringing that content to new audiences outside university libraries and professionals within one discipline?

I cited—as example—my experiences with Spreadable Media, the book I published this year (co-authored with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green) with New York University Press. There were few arguments or examples in this book that weren’t, in some form, published or presented somewhere previously: various white papers, blog posts, online articles, academic essays, keynote speeches, and so on. And we have published excerpts and examples from the book in a variety of places since it came out. Further, the overall project included more than 30 essays, available freely online, in addition to the book we co-authored.

As far as I can tell, the availability of all that material hasn’t hindered interest in our book. For whatever few people who would have bought the book but were instead sated by finding the information available online, there were many more that discovered the book through these various materials and purchased it.

Writing more than a decade ago about piracy, Tim O’Reilly said, “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors.” The same can be said for concerns of “self-cannibalization.” And the logic of at least some presses’ acquisition editors underscore this. Consider this statement from Harvard University Press: “prior availability doesn’t have a clear relationship to market viability.”

An early version of a piece Peter Froehlich (with Indiana University Press) published in Learned Publishing in October highlights the model now employed by Harvard Business Review Press as a potential way forward: the press embraces multiple-platform publishing, thinking about the connection among its blog, its magazine, and its books as varying tiers of publication and embracing authors who share their ideas elsewhere—in the process developing a reputation as a catalyst for thinking and then curating the best of that thinking in more increasingly formal ways.

In this model, the book acts as a thoroughly edited articulation of an idea at a moment in time: the culmination of work up to that point, the launching point of work to come. And the press helps take that idea and make it accessible, in reasonable fullness, to those who haven’t been following the development of the argument all along the way. In other words, the press’ role is about curating the information that most needs to be preserved and then making that information more visible to people outside the narrow field from which it came.

A similar model might be understood by publications like Fast Company. Authors like me write online pieces, with Fast Company receiving 24-hour exclusivity for our writing, followed by it being shared elsewhere. The magazine may pull together and curate its deepest, most considered pieces. Meanwhile, thoughts I initiated at Fast Company may end up eventually showing up elsewhere (properly attributed and sourced, of course). Such is a publishing model that still provides windows for a viable business model without being focused on locking content down.

This is a vital problem to be figured out, for not just the current and next generation of academics but, crucially, for the next generation of college students and all of us who benefit when ideas from within the academy spread throughout the culture and our professional worlds. It’s not just an issue niche university presses need to solve but rather a crucial question for us all.

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Western Kentucky University Popular Culture Studies Program, and co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (NYU Press, 2013). He is also a contributor to Harvard Business Review and Fast Company.