The Bog of Lost Scholars

April 19, 2010

Books for Entertainment vs. Books for Research

Filed under: Publishing and Writing — castiron @ 11:06 pm

A recent post by Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, helped me pinpoint one of the disconnects I feel as a publishing professional with the discussion of ebooks and publishing changes.

In On Demand: Get out of the Way, or Give Me the Clicker, Sarah says:

But look at the progress elsewhere in entertainment media, and look at the puzzle that is publishing. If you’re in publishing, do you know about the alignment and collaboration of different technologies to make it easier for me to do something else: from my couch, I can watch tv, watch a Netflix movie, watch something from Hulu, play a game, or listen to music.

And it finally clicked for me: Most of the discussions I read about ebooks are focusing on reading as entertainment. But university presses aren’t primarily about books as entertainment; they’re about books for education, reference, in-depth scholarship.

Not that on-demand doesn’t apply to these uses! Of course I want to get information as fast as possible. If I’m trying to identify a weird bird outside, it does me no good to order a book that’ll get here three weeks from now — but it also does me no good to fire up the Wii or download a movie. If I need to read a particular person’s scholarship on Clarice Lispector for a journal article, the Wikipedia entry isn’t going to help. If I want an in-depth study of Sweatt v. Painter, I may not be thrilled about waiting until September for a book, but Netflix is no help either — I might be able to find a documentary that gives an overview, but not the level of detail I need. When I have a specific need, I’d rather get the book now, but I’m willing to wait because there’s no substitute.*

On the other hand, if I’m looking for something to keep me entertained while I’m waiting at the bus stop or sitting up with a sick kid at 2am, if one book isn’t available, I’ve got plenty of other choices: a movie, or a game, or a different book, or a book I already own. It’s in the publisher’s interest to make their book as easy for me to get as possible, because there’s plenty of other books and activities to compete with it.

*Yes, sometimes there is a substitute — an online source, or a preprint in a university’s Open Access repository, or another study by someone else. But the number of choices for, say, scholarly studies of the relationship between writing and violence in Spanish American literature is far more limited than the number of choices for “how can I entertain myself for half an hour before I go to bed?”

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