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Chapter 9— Electronic Publishing Is Cheaper
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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.

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