previous chapter
Chapter 9— Electronic Publishing Is Cheaper
next chapter

Chapter 9—
Electronic Publishing Is Cheaper

Willis G. Regier

Electronic publishing is cheaper than many kinds of publishing. Cheap electronic publishing proliferates newsletters, fanzines, vanity publishing, testimonials, political sniping, and frantic Chicken Littles eager to get the word out. Cheaper publishing has always meant more publishing. But students, scholars, and libraries complain that there is already an overproduction of academic writing. Electronic publishing would just make matters worse, unless it comes with additional features to manage its quantity. Scholarly publishing is prepared to enter electronic publishing, but will not let go of print. Why? Because the demands of scholars and libraries for enhanced electronic publishing make it more expensive.

Electronic publishing comes with a long menu of choices: differing speeds of access, adjustable breadth and depth of content, higher or lower visibility, flexibility, durability, dependability, differentiation, and ease of use. In such a field of choices, there is not a basic cost or an optimum one or an upper limit. Until the wish for more and the desire to pay less find equilibrium, there will be discomfort and hesitation in the shift from paper to ether.

At present, most mainstream digital publications remain dependent on print, either as a publication of record, as with most scholarly journals, or as a nexus for electronic sites, as with the Web sites for Wired, numerous newspapers and magazines, publishers of all stripes, book clubs, and booksellers. In this parallelpublishing environment, print costs remain in place; the costs of mounting and maintaining a digital presence are added on.

Some publishers have established Web sites, with little expectation of recovering those added costs, in order to maintain an up-to-date profile, to market directly to customers, and to be sure that when and if the Web market matures, they will be ready to compete for it.

Those who declare that electronic publishing is cheaper than print focus chiefly


on perceived savings in reproduction and distribution. Once the first copy is prepared, its reproduction and transmission reduce or eliminate the costs of printing, paper, ink, packaging, shipping, spoilage, and inventory. The manufacturing cost of a typical print journal in the humanities, for example, consumes about 50% of the journal's operating budget, and shipping and warehousing can eat up another 10%. Such costs are incidental in the electronic environment.

But electronic publishing adds numerous new costs to preparation of the first copy. Further, the savings enjoyed by the publisher are made possible only if the end user, whether a library or an individual, has also invested a hefty sum in making it possible to receive the publication. Both the scholarly publisher and the end user alike are dependent upon even greater costs being born by colleges and universities.

As costs became more routine for Project MUSE, Marie Hansen calculated that the additional costs for preparing parallel print and electronic journals is about 130% of the cost of print only. Even if print versions were dropped, the costs to produce the first copy ready for mounting on a server would be as high as 90% of the cost of a paper journal.[1] The cost savings for printing, storage, shipping, and spoilage are substantial, but in the digital realm they are replaced by the costs of system administration, content cataloging, tagging, translating codes, checking codes, inserting links, checking links, network charges, computer and peripherals charges, and additional customer service. The susceptibility of the Internet for revision and its vulnerability to piracy impose still other additional costs.[2]

There are also high costs for acquisitions. It has taken longer than expected to negotiate contracts with journal sponsors, to obtain permissions, and to acclimate journal editors to the steps required for realizing the efficiencies of the digital environment. Electronic editors play fast and loose with copyright, always waving the banner of "fair use" while blithely removing copyright notices from texts and images. Explaining to electronic editors why copyright is in their best interest, and thus worthy of observance, has been just one time-consuming task. As Project MUSE matures, we see more clearly the costs of rearing it.

The Supra of the Infra

The costs of building a university infrastructure are enormous. The Homewood campus at Johns Hopkins is home to 5,200 students, faculty, and staff who want connections to the Internet. The start-up costs for rewiring the campus for UTPs (Unshielded Twisted Pairs)-at a rate of about $150 per connection-would have been impossibly high for the university if not for $1 million in help from the Pew Trust. According to Bill Winn, formerly associate director for academic computing at the Hopkins, it costs $20 per person per month to connect to the campus network. The network itself costs $1 million per year to maintain and an additional $200,000 to support PPP (point-to-point protocol) connections. The annual


bill to provide Internet access to the 900 students who live off-campus is an additional $200,000. The fee to the campus's Internet service provider for a 4-megabit per-second Internet link, plus maintenance and management, costs the university about $50,000 per year.

Students, Winn says, require high maintenance: if their connections are insecure, it is often because the connections have been ripped from the wall. Last year, students in engineering attempted to install a software upgrade for a switch that exceeded their wildest dreams: it shut down the university's system for more than a week. That adds up to about $20,000 of lost Internet access, not to mention the costs of repair.

In 1996, Johns Hopkins University budgeted $70,000 for hardware maintenance and $175,000 for hardware upgrades, chiefly to handle rapidly increasing traffic. The million-dollar budget supports a staff of three technicians, an engineer, a software analyst, and a director for networking. Their skills are in high demand, the salaries they can command are rising rapidly, and they are notoriously hard to retain.

A $15-to $20-per-month access charge is comparable to other campuses elsewhere in the United States. When it costs $180 to $240 per person per year to link a computer to the Internet, a university's administration confronts a huge recurring cost. And the costs go deeper: it is typical for each academic department to bear most of the costs for its own infrastructure, and often some department systems are incompatible with others. In order to make an initial investment worthwhile, expensive investments must be made regularly: upgrades, peripherals, database access fees, consultants, and specialized software. It is no wonder that many colleges have second thoughts about their level of commitment to Internet access.

To some extent, electronic publishers are stymied by the lag between the Internet's ability to produce and its readers' ability to receive. The lag bears a price tag, and so does any effort to close it. Some institutions cannot or will not pay, most state governments cannot pick up the bill, and the federal government is increasingly reluctant to reserve space or investment for scholarly networking. It becomes a matter for the publisher and the market to decide.

Optimum Optimism

Digital prophets soothsay that electronic publishing will exacerbate monopolies and class divisions, or that a slow, steady spread of access will lower costs and promote democratization. In 1951 a new technology led Theodor Adorno to predict a publishing revolution: "In a world where books have long lost all likeness to books, the real book can no longer be one. If the invention of the printing press inaugurated the bourgeois era, the time is at hand for its repeal by the mimeograph, the only fitting, the unobtrusive means of dissemination."[3] By contrast, Mario Morino, founder of the Legent Corporation, electrifies campus audiences


by asking, "Which corporation will be the first to acquire a university?"[4] Costs are not everything. Even if they were, the Internet is full of threads on the inconsistent costs of access from place to place. If the digital revolution is a revolution rather than a colossal marketing scheme, it is because so many people and institutions are involved and invested.[5]

It may be that computers will be as ubiquitous as television sets and an Internet connection as cheap as a telephone,[6] but when I look at the role of the Internet in higher education, I see higher costs and foresee only more differentiation between universities based upon their ability to pay those costs. The conversion from print to pixels is not merely an expensive change of clothes: it is an enormous expansion of capability. The chief reason that scholarly electronic publishing costs more than print is that it offers more, much more, and students, faculty, and libraries want all of it.

Under the domain plan that Project MUSE, JSTOR, ARTFL, and other experiments are refining, electronic publishing achieves no less than seven advances in scholarly transmission: (1) instead of a library maintaining one copy of a work that can be read by one person at one time, the work can now be read by an entire campus simultaneously; (2) instead of having to search for a location and hope that a work is not checked out or misshelved, a user can find the full text at the instant it is identified; (3) the work can be read in the context of a large and extensible compilation of books and journals, including back issues, each as easily accessible as the first; (4) the work is capable of being transformed without disturbing an original copy; pages can be copied without being ripped out; copies can be made even if a photocopier is jammed or out of toner; (5) the work can be electronically searched; (6) there is no worry about misplacing the work or returning it by a due date; and (7) the electronic library can be open all night every day of the year. The increased value, if offered by a corresponding increase in price, permits libraries to spend a little more to be able to acquire much more: more content, more access, more use. Librarians pay close attention to what they pay for and many are willing to purchase ambitious electronic publishing projects. Project MUSE has already attracted 100 library subscribers who previously subscribed to no Johns Hopkins print journals, including libraries in museums and community colleges (see Figure 9.1).

If some claims for the digital revolution are laughably inflated, it is not for lack of information: the revolution has occurred with unprecedented self-consciousness and organizational care. That care comes from many sources. Foundation support has proved essential. The Association of American Publishers has led the way for standardization, defense of copyright, vigilance against piracy, and scrutiny of current and pending legislation. At Hopkins, Stanford, Chicago, and many other places, frank and frequent discussions between publishers and librarians have focused on the price and appeal of potential projects. Conversations with Jim Neal remind me that libraries are the original multimedium. For multiple reasons, librarians' reactions to the systemic costs of digitalization are immediately relevant


Figure 9.1.
Project MUSE Subscription Base

to publishing decisions. Many libraries are asked to acquire extraordinarily expensive databases without a clue about the relationship between price and actual costs, but partnering libraries know better.

For Project MUSE, the greatest cost is for personnel. For decades, it has been possible to maintain a journals program staffed by literate and dedicated people; MUSE employees also have to be adept with computers, software, protocols, and platforms. To raise MUSE from infancy, its employees must also be creative, patient, resourceful, and endowed with heroic stamina. Because their jobs require higher and higher levels of education and technical skill, starting positions are more expensive. Disregarding administrative costs, the staff of MUSE cost about 20% more per capita per month than the staff of print journals, and the differential is rising.

We are just beginning to understand the costs of hiring, training, and retaining qualified staff. Because the skills of the Project MUSE team are pioneering, those


who succeed are subject to recruitment raiding for higher salaries. Due to the inordinate pressures put upon them-the stress of tight schedules, the frustrations of downtime, the frictions of incompatible programming and opposed ideas-these young people are prone to rapid burnout.

Excluding independent contractor costs, personnel costs account for 46% of the start-up and maintenance costs for Project MUSE. Including independent contractor costs, which are themselves chiefly a matter of personnel, that percentage rises to 59%.

The second-largest expense has been hardware, accounting for 12% of total costs. Third is rent, at 3.3%. Fourth, surprisingly, has been travel, requiring 2.9% of investment. The travel budget is a consequence of the need to parlay and negotiate on every frontier: with the learned societies and editorial boards that run the journals, with the librarians who buy them, and with editors who contemplate moving their journals to MUSE. In the first two years of MUSE's development, our efforts to build MUSE were distracted by the novelties of the Internet-training staff, dealing with journal sponsors, conversing with libraries-each a task as vital as the selection of software or the conversion of codes. Marketing was kept to a minimum until MUSE had a complete package to deliver. With the completion of the 40-journal base in December 1996, Hopkins is now in high gear marketing MUSE. Travel and exhibits will have higher costs as MUSE strives to attract a subscription base strong enough to become self-supporting.

The electronic Market

Marketing on the Web is a different creature than marketing via print or radio, because it must contend with misinformation and with building an audience. Misinformation about an electronic site shows up in the same search that finds the site itself and may require quick response. MUSE responds readily enough to the Internet's search engines, but only if the person is searching. Even then, the searcher can read text only if the searcher's library has already subscribed. At the December 1996 Modern Language Association exhibit, about half the persons who expressed their wish that they could subscribe to MUSE belonged to universities that already did, but the scholars didn't know it. With usage data looming as a subscription criterion, we cannot rest after a subscription is sold; we still have to reach the end user and solicit use. Otherwise scholars and libraries alike will be unable to determine the value of what is available on-line.

The marketplace itself is changing. Most conspicuously, the unexpected formation of library consortia has reshaped many a business plan. Expectations of library sales have often hung fire while libraries consorted, but in the long run it is likely that by stimulating these consortia, electronic publishing will have served an important catalytic function for discovering and implementing many kinds of efficiencies.

The Net market is enormous and enormously fragmented.[7] In the next year there will be numerous marketing experiments on the Web. New and improved


tools emerge every month that will help us reply to scholars with specific requests, complaints, and inquiries. Publishers are cautiously optimistic that electronic marketing will prove more advantageous than bulk mail, and it will certainly be cheaper. Already most university presses have their catalogs on-line and many are establishing on-line ordering services.

Customer service is another high cost-at present, much higher than for print journals. Today it takes one customer service agent to attend to 400 Project MUSE subscriptions, while a customer service agent for print journals manages about 10,000 subscriptions. But the future offers bright hope. In February 1997, our customer service agent for Project MUSE sent an e-mail message to 39 pastdue subscribers to MUSE who were not with a consortium. Within 24 hours of sending the message, she received 29 responses to it, and 4 more arrived the next day. Each thanked her for sending the letter, and all 33 renewed for the year. Here the advantages of on-line communication are obvious and immediate.

There are also costs that are difficult or impossible to track or quantify, like intellectual costs. It is these costs that have emerged as the next vexed problem in the development of electronic scholarly resources. The problem has three prongs.

One is scholarly skepticism about the value of electronic publishing for tenure and promotion. Rutgers University has put a policy in place; the University of Illinois and Arizona University are in the process of setting their policies. Like everything else in the digital environment, these policies will likely need frequent change.

The fluidity of the Web, gushing with nautical metaphors, often seems a murky sea. Journal editors are anxious about the futures of their journals and hesitant about entrusting them to a medium as fleeting as electricity. Well aware of past losses to flood and fire, scholars prefer durable media. This preference is firmly based: scholarship studies its own history, its history is full of ideas that took years to hatch, and the Web seems unstable, engulfing, and founded on a premise of perpetual replacement. Scholars care about speed, but they care more that their work endures; that it is a heritage; that if they care for it well, it will live longer than they do. Scholars who use the Net frequently encounter defunct URLs, obsolete references, nonsense, wretched writing, and mistakes of every kind. Ephemera appear more ephemeral on-screen. Chief among the concerns expressed by librarians interested in purchasing an electronic publication is whether the publication is likely to be around next year and the year after.

The third prong is the sharpest: will electronic publishing be able to recover the operating costs of producing it, the costs of editing, of maintaining a membership, of defending a niche? If journals are to migrate to electronic formats, they will have to be able to survive there and survive the transition, too: the current competition is part endurance, part sprint. Since parallel publishing in print and on-line costs more, library budgets will either have to pay more to sustain dual-format journals, choose between them, or cut other purchases.

In the short term, there is reassurance in numbers. Rather than erode reader


Figure 9.2.
Types of Journal Subscriptions 1997

and subscription base, electronic versions of journals may increase them (see Figure 9.2). Even if paper subscriptions dwindle, the increase in subscriptions and readership may last. Perhaps, perhaps. Means for cost recovery for each journal must also last, which is why different publishers are trying different pricing strategies.

Competition in the electronic environment is expensive and aggressive (a favorite book for Netizens is Sun Tzu's Art of War ).[8] Foundation assistance was essential for enabling university presses and libraries to enter the competition, but it is uncertain whether their publications can compete for very long when founda-


tion support ends. Scholarship has deep reservoirs of learning and goodwill, but next to no savings; one year of red ink could wipe out a hundred-year-old journal. Unless journal publishers and editors migrate quickly and establish a system to recover costs successfully, the razzle-dazzle of paper-thin monitors will cover a casualty list as thick as a tomb.

The risks of migration increase the costs of acquisition. Publishers and their partners are trying to determine what costs must be paid to attract scholars to contribute to their sites. It is obvious that a moment after a scholar has completed a work, a few more keystrokes can put the work on the Web without bothering a publisher, librarian, faculty committee, or foundation officer. Electronic publishing is cheaper than print, if you rule out development, refereeing, editing, design, coding, updating, marketing, accounting, and interlinking. Further, there are numerous scholars who believe they should be well paid for their scholarship or their editing. Stipends paid by commercial publishers have raised their editors' financial expectations, which in turn exacerbate the current crisis in sci-tech-med journals. Retention of such stipends will devour savings otherwise achieved by digitalization.

How much added value is worthwhile? Competitive programs are now testing the academic market to see whether scanned page images are preferable to HTML, whether pricing should sequester electronic versions or bundle them into an omnibus price, what degree of cataloging and linking and tagging are desired, what screen features make sense, and a realm of other differentia, not least of which is the filtering of the true from the spew. We expect to see the differences between the costs and prices of scientific and humanities journals to grow larger; with library partners scrutinizing real usage and comparative costs, we expect these differences will be less and less defensible. We expect to see gradual but salutary changes in scholarship itself as different disciplines come to terms with the high visibility of electronic media. We expect to see shifts in reformation of publishers' reputation, with all that a reputation is worth, as professionally managed electronic media distance their offerings from the Web sites of hobbyists, amateurs, and cranks. Finally, we expect to see increasing academic collaboration between and within disciplines. As electronic publishing increases its pressure on hiring, evaluation, tenure, and promotion, the certification and prestige functions of publishers will increasingly depend on their attention to the emerging criteria of e-publishing, in which costs are measured against benefits that print could never offer. Because students, faculty, and libraries want these benefits, scholarly electronic publishing is not cheaper.

previous chapter
Chapter 9— Electronic Publishing Is Cheaper
next chapter