Sept. 7, 2010

Cornell writes the book on new print/Web scholarly publishing model

As university presses across the country shutter their doors, libraries cut purchases and bookstores return orders, an innovative collaboration between Cornell University Press, the Cornell University Library and faculty members in German studies promises to create a new way of publishing scholarly books.

The books in a new series called Signale: Modern German Letters, Cultures and Thought are openly accessible online, wholly or in part, and printed in smaller-than-usual press runs. This saves the costs of warehousing and returns that result from larger press runs and makes the books available to a broader audience. Additional copies are printed to meet demand. The first two books in the series were published in August.

Four more titles in the series on German literature, culture and philosophy are forthcoming, and editors are reviewing many proposals for future books, from junior, midcareer and senior scholars.

"Signale is an experiment to find affordable means, using new technologies and divisions of labor, to produce rigorously peer-reviewed books in a relatively small but active and innovative humanities field," said University Librarian Anne Kenney at an event celebrating the publications Sept. 2 in Olin Library. This model could be used by other small humanities disciplines that rely on the book, Kenney said, but are suffering from market pressures on publishers.

A three-year Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant supports Signale's publication costs and planning to develop a viable business model.

Initial faculty reservations about digital publication seem to have been overcome, said Signale series editor Peter Hohendahl, the Jacob Gould Shurman Professor of German Studies and professor of comparative literature. "When we first started, there was quite a bit of skepticism whether a digital publication would be accepted as a true scholarly book that would allow people to get tenure," he said. "These worries seem to have disappeared."

Though initially wary, John Ackerman, director of Cornell University Press, now fully embraces the Signale model. "This is an exciting and even landmark day in the history of America's first university press," he said. "In 2010, what's changing is the very nature of our product ... we can no longer afford to be our own dedicated silo. We need partners within the university, we need partners outside."

The Signale collaboration puts Cornell at the forefront of an industry that must adapt or risk obsolescence. For scholarly publishers especially, whose books are the primary engine of recognition, tenure and reputation in academia, embracing digital publishing is vital, said Signale managing editor Kizer Walker, Cornell's German studies librarian and the library's director of collection development.

"Our goal is to make a significant amount of the content available online for free and at the same time retain an incentive to buy the print version," said Walker. "And it may be that we move toward sales of some other, more flexible and portable e-book version in the future."

Plans are already under way to display Signale books on Kindles and other platforms. Cornell Library, which publishes electronically in such disciplines as mathematics with its Project Euclid, brought its expertise in e-publishing to the collaboration. If Signale succeeds, it will offer a sustainable model that opens opportunities for scholars in other areas of the humanities.

Peter Lepage, dean of the College of Arts and Science, noted that in the past decade academia has been "crushed and knocked around" by the economics of publishing. "What I love about this project is that it's an example of a discipline taking control over what is happening to it."

Ackerman said Signale is just the beginning: "It is the first of what will surely be a number of collaborative projects though which we will develop business plans that enable us to publish the finest work -- in whatever discipline -- in this bold new, digital world."