AAUP 2015 recap: Becoming Masters of Reinvention (Part 2)

Continuing from yesterday's blog post, Nancy Lightfoot recaps the second half of her experience at the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) 2015 conference. 

The Internet—and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—to the Rescue

University presses have been devoting considerable brain power to sources of funding, workflow efficiencies, and technological shifts for some time, and fortunately they are joined in that venture by others who are interested in preserving and promoting scholarship, including libraries and places like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. The Mellon Foundation has recently jumped in with full force by giving substantial capacity-building grants to nine university presses—one of these went to the UC Press to support technology and development of the Luminos monograph program and a California Digital Library faculty publishing portal called eScholarship. The goal of these grants is to help university presses develop open source platforms and new workflows to sustainably produce open access, media-rich, born-digital scholarship. There were brief presentations of these initiatives at the AAUP, but there are more in-depth summaries available at the AAUP website. The many routes to this goal funded by the capacity-building grants include distributed subsidies and author fees, as discussed above; workflow and content management systems to increase efficiency and decrease cost; technology for incorporating interactivity and new media; integration of OA content into Project MUSE to improve marketability and searchability; inter-press collaboration to decrease cost for outsourced processes; lowering costs and barriers to access for art and architectural images; enrichment of content to do things like measure reader engagement; and improving peer-review processes and publication standards for digital monographs. Technology and results will be shared in the scholarly publishing community and particularly among university presses.

Besides the University of California Press's Luminos program, the only Mellon-funded initiative discussed in detail in the sessions I attended was the Manifold Scholarship project in development at the University of Minnesota Press. Like the Luminos program, Manifold seeks to put monographs on the web quickly and with low cost to the press, but with a bit of a twist: the entire publication process, including critique and revision, will be not only open access, but linked, iterative, interactive, and perpetually refinable. It has the potential and intention to include critique, social media links, publication history, and commentary. There will be options for traditional print books, siloed content (non–open access e-books), and less interactive, openly engaged versions of the OA monograph available, but University of Minnesota Press Operations and Business Development Manager Susan Doerr estimates that 10 percent of academics will jump at the chance to share the growth and refinement of their work on the internet. Manifold's digital versions have the potential to evolve as new findings come to light, abandoning the characterization of the e-book as "a frozen web page." Like Luminos, Manifold Scholarship has a mandate to make open-source code available to other scholars and presses.

Format Fragmentations and Convergences

As a project manager in an Editorial, Design, and Production (EDP) department, I am charged with making books manifest themselves phsycially. The internet, the Mellon grants, and even the far-off-seeming idea of digital vellum give us the illusion that we can transform the beautifully designed books we've been making into beautifully designed e-books that we can click on and start reading. We can push a button in InDesign and export to digital formats and presto change-o!—we have an e-book. We can upload to the web and put the cover on Amazon and start selling copies, correct?

This is very far from the truth, I'm afraid. My first four hours at the AAUP meeting were spent reviewing in daunting detail the many pitfalls of trying to convert books to digital content in a variety of formats and across 17 different types of devices-of-the-moment. The take-away message from the highly skilled presenter, Laura Brady, is that the better the design of the book, the more problems you will have converting it to an e-book. If you've managed to do this once with an acceptable outcome, try to export your text to that template. By the way, formats, it will not surprise you to learn, are constantly changing. Change to EPUB 3 now (and presumably EPUB 4 or EPUB WEB when it appears), as quickly as you are able.

In the meantime, the beautiful layout you've worked so hard on in InDesign may not be recognizable in your e-book. Pictures will float away from their captions, hidden codes will emerge, text will disappear in night mode, and it's possible that your table of contents will also migrate to the back of the book. Further, the most important things you can add to your e-book—navigation, internal links and structure, page lists to cross reference with the print version, metadata, and accessibility for the print impaired—have no corollaries in your print book. No reader, wisely advised Brady, has ever complained about too much navigation in an e-book. I think of the fade I feel reading e-books and how lost I am without the little bookmark arrow and nod my head in agreement. But by the time you've "fixed" your print book by adding all these features and deleting all the "span soup" in the InDesign files, you'll have two different versions of the book that can't be reverse translated. And we all wonder who can afford to hire Brady. The speculation is "commercial publishers."

In the next session we learned about how and where to incorporate XML coding into what we do. If we adopt XML-first workflows, the promise is that we will be able to create content that might be more amenable to conversion to multiple formats, including formats that have not-yet been developed. It's a lot of work, the panelists seemed to feel, which people wouldn't mind doing if it got them increased sales or improved schedules. That doesn't seem to be happening to a significant degree. Jennifer Comeau, assistant director and EDP manager at the University of Illinois Press, talked about a slow rollout toward digital journal content, but emphasized the low payoff was leading to morale problems with an XML-first workflow: blurbers don't want to read e-books, it's more quality assurance work for staff, and so far combining and repurposing has not met a significant market need. Conversion of backlist content may be a good idea in terms of archiving, but while everyone seems to want to move to XML, there's not yet a clear incentive for doing so.

Bob Oeste, senior programmer and analyst at Johns Hopkins University Press, was more positive. According to Oeste, a Project MUSE survey indicates that 67 percent of users are interested in EPUB formats. Oeste demystified the e-book by explaining that it's nothing really more complicated than a zip folder, and all we have to do is make that folder contain the features that readers will want in the future without even know that they want them. I feel like maybe many years of explaining his work to people who can't understand it may have encouraged him to carry the simplification habit a bit too far, but I'm enjoying thinking about what I want from books that I'm not getting yet. My mind leaps immediately to The Matrix and I worry for a moment about smell-o-vision. I'd really like to be able to turn the pages of my e-book without using my hands, but maybe I'm being old-school thinking about pages. What Oeste actually means is that users want e-books to work on the web in a way that's more "app-like." As a user, I want that too. That is incentive enough for me to learn new coding procedures and do a few more checks of the text. But the consensus for this session is that the cost benefit analysis does not yet favor an XML-first workflow.

At the next session, XML-first workflows were adamantly presented as our only rational option. David Rech of Scribe Inc. emphasized the importance of a well-formed document with appropriately nested structures, and advised that we use XML "first, only, and always." This is the key, he explained, to future-proofing our content and making it flexibly adapt to a variety of formats. XML has coded, nested structure and we need to learn to think that way. I'm beginning to once again feel puffed-up and confident about XML-first. We're editors. We already code and we code first. We care about grammar. We already think about nested structures all the time. This seems encouraging. There are comments about the tail wagging the dog, but I'm quite sure the ideas in our beautiful books can survive nested structures. I've forgotten, for the moment, about the costs of XML-first workflows in the present and I'm ready to future proof.

Other dark-horse ideas for digitization get floated during the comments and questions portion of the sessions. These include having the University of Toronto code our files for other presses using eXtyles. (It's expensive, I hear. They already seem to be web compatible, someone else says.) Skip XML, advises one audience member; the commercial publishers are all using HTML5. Or, as another audience member advised, replace jobs in editorial and composition and send the whole process offshore. Or perhaps—there are "oohs" and "ahhs" at the product showcase as this happens on-screen—we can drag and drop a book into a system called Typéfi Publish to virtually eliminate editing and coding, move proofs quickly to our authors, and convert back and forth between formats. There go the offshore jobs as well. My editor's heart sinks as I note that these feats are listed under the heading "Solwution" in the Typéfi literatureWe really do all make mistakes.

I quietly asked whether my colleagues were converting their content to XML. They all said they were. I asked them what they were doing with them and they didn't yet know. The goal at this point seems to be archiving and re-purposing. Rebundling articles has had promising early results for some journals, but getting the permissions sorted out is difficult. Our press is sending our InDesign files out for conversion to e-books and we are still producing beautifully designed print books that I admire fetishistically. We are using an XML-last workflow, and producing e-books just fine.

I am a passionate print book lover, but I truly want to embrace the future and even love reading books on my phone. I'm excited by the multi-media content in science textbooks and apps and want IU Press books to be able to incorporate this technology as well. I believe in open access and accessibility. However, my firm sense of purpose was beginning to waver in the face of so many approaches to digitization and so few clear success stories. So it was with great excitement that I attended my last digitization session: "The Grand Convergence: The Evolution of an Interoperable Publishing Ecosystem." The description reads "The publishing ecosystem we've all come to take for granted is fragmented and siloed, but there are some key initiatives underway to address this problem, three of which are highlighted in this session." I was definitely feeling the fragmentation and silos in the digital publishing ecosystem, and chose to look beyond the fact that that Grand Convergence session described not one solution, but three. I'm very glad I did.

In this session, Bill Kasdorf, the Vice President of Content Solutions at Apex, described the efforts of the W3C—the World Wide Web Consortium—to develop international standards for interacting with the internet that will allow us to achieve interoperability between various digital formats such as EPUB, XML, and HTML, which is the language the web uses to create documents. Kasdorf, who has a background in book composition, values design and seems to value the book. Within a few years, he says, we will have EPUB WEB, which will allow a single file to move seamlessly from the web to e-books on a variety of devices, and even to print books, which I hope will be beautifully designed. Convergence will represent the best of all worlds: XML and EPUB will bring styling, metadata, and packagability to the book and the web will bring structure and accessibility.

Next, Erich van Rijn of the University of California Press presented the HTML5-based format that will provide web access for their Mellon Foundation–funded Luminos OA digital monographs series. Van Rijn's vision is that we adopt a reverse workflow: writing books on the web using HTML5 and exporting them to InDesign for print and elsewhere for all the formats we can imagine. He points out that web usage is large and growing: market penetration is 40 percent and has tripled since the year 2000. He argues that web apps are getting better and better, and offers the compelling example of the superiority of the web version of Facebook versus the phone versions.

With support from the Mellon Foundation, Luminos and eScholarship will create a low cost and fast way to move author revision and editorial processes directly to the web, where all editing will be done using track-changes in HTML5. The web-first workflow will allow them to offer suites of publication services that libraries generally can't offer (it's worth a trip to the eScholarship portal for examples). With the promise web standards developed by the W3C, there will be automatic conversion to any format you like and no need for any typesetting. This raises concerns for me, but I know Bill Kasdorf will have his eye on this as well.

Next, the University of Minnesota Operations and Business Development Manager Susan Doerr described the web accessibility and flexibility of their Manifold Scholarship monographs, where they've added interactive and iterative components. This program is discussed more fully above. Their source code and platform will be open access and available to all presses and incorporates everything we love about the internet—constant updates, links, interactive content, and instant open access—into the scholarly monograph.

These are all different systems and platforms again, it is true. And people are already scurrying to replace them with EPUB WEB. But if we can truly share our most rarefied, provocative, complex, and least-read books as webpages with anyone who wants to learn, I'm in. And if we can then with a push of a button print out the lovely, beautifully designed, carefully edited IU Press books I love so much, I'm more in. And if people with print disabilities can push a button and hear these great books as clearly as I can read them, I'm in even more. I think I'm even in for an EPUB WEB2–first workflow.

It's an exciting time in publishing and the little zip files that are holding our e-books are getting to be things we never imagined we wanted without our even knowing we wanted them. It was a rare privilege to watch great minds sort through the difficult problems we try to slog through every day and imagine better things for the scholarship we value so much. The diversity of approaches presented at AAUP, though daunting, was an inspiration in itself. The support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation colored the entire proceedings: all remarked they had never seen such a positive atmosphere of collaboration and collegiality. At the final session, "How Can Universities and Their Presses Co-evolve?", Jill Tiefenthaler, the President of Colorado College, spoke eloquently about the growing funding inequalities between universities and the challenges associated with providing affordable education to our students. We have likely never needed the humanities—and university presses—more than we do now.