DIY Academic Publishing
Flogging a dead horse?
In the old days any self-respecting group of radical intellectuals or activists worth their salt set up a printing press. Control of the means of production generated heady times, and usually also growing debt and often bankruptcy. Today, new technologies make it ridiculously easy to set up a digital press with minimal costs.
Rounded Globe is a scholarly e-publishing operation founded in 2014. In this post we outline our operation and vision.
Our costs are as follows: web hosting, cover design, editing, coding, social media promotion. The most substantial of these costs is copy-editing (we pride ourselves on providing a service superior to most academic presses). Beyond editing and cover design, our costs do not greatly exceed those associated with running a normal website.
Our eBooks (as also our blog posts) are generated on the fly, with no intervention on our part, from text files stored in a Git repository. Git is a free program designed to facilitate collaboration on coding projects.
A Git repository is a centralised store for the work that keeps track of all changes to all documents and makes them accessible and editable from anywhere in the world.
Texts stored in the Git repository are formatted in markdown. Markdown is a simple markup language that allows humans to easily edit raw documents and machines to easily convert the result into a plethora of formats, such as epub, mobi (kindle), and html.
The distinguishing feature of our eBook production system is that we follow the commercial rather than the academic model. By turning our back on the pdf, the convention in academic publishing, we remove at a stroke all the costs associated with typesetting a manuscript. Pdfs are useful for embedding lots of visual information within a short text. But their adoption as the default format for books and articles is an attempt to reproduce the printed page on an electronic screen, reminiscent of the way the first printed books were designed to look like handwritten manuscripts.
Once you have set up your Git repositories and your host website you have to decide on how to distribute your eBooks. Rounded Globe authors publish under a creative commons license that allows the work to be freely shared, which by implication means that readers download eBooks for free.
On the surface, our decision to produce free eBooks aligns us with the open access movement. We are certainly sympathetic to the idea that the research of salaried university academics should be open to all. But Rounded Globe publishes the work of independent scholars as well as university employees, and independent scholars need to find ways to finance their research. At the heart of Rounded Globe is an experiment with a new model of scholarly production, reception, and income.
Our publishing model makes production, distribution, and revenue separate and independent activities.
Production: If we accept a submission, and if the author agrees to publish under a creative commons license, then, without charge, we transform manuscript into eBook.
Distribution: We share these eBooks on our website, but hold no special rights over them. The creative commons license means that copyright remains with the authors, who are free to distribute through other channels (at least two of our eBooks are also sold on Amazon), while any other site can legally host them.
In this model there is no place for market exchange, i.e. sales. Hence, we are unconcerned with profits, royalties, contracts, and VAT. As with the free software that runs Rounded Globe, this facilitates an uncomplicated operation and an efficient use of our time and energy.
Revenue: We fund our work through donations, the most part of which are generated via a Patreon campaign. Patreon is a version of the crowd-funding idea tailored to artists and musicians. Dedicated fans become ‘patrons’ by committing to donate a fixed amount each time a new song/video/etc. is released. Each month Patreon distributes over $6 million in donations. Ultimately, we would like to see Patreon, or some equivalent, supporting individual scholars. At present we use it to fund Rounded Globe.
At the time of writing we have only a handful of patrons, but their collective generosity brings us $335 each time we release a new eBook. This money is vital: it covers web hosting, cover design (outsourced) and allows us to pay a friend to do some basic social media. This still leaves editing, coding, and website maintenance. We have faith that our Patreon campaign will eventually allow Rounded Globe to (more or less) pay for itself.
The same basic model holds also for authors. In agreeing to the creative commons license, authors commit themselves to offering their work for free on our site (they may, of course, offer it for sale elsewhere); but we place donate buttons on the download page for each eBook, and suggest a donation of $5.00.
Rounded Globe also incorporates a marketing strategy derived from the many thousands of new fiction writers spawned by the self-publishing revolution initiated by Amazon. Self-published authors enjoy a potentially massive market, but face an acute problem of visibility. Their most common marketing strategy is the ‘giveaway’: distributing one eBook for free in order to generate an audience for other titles. For independent scholars who want to earn some income from their writing, Rounded Globe can be regarded as a glorified giveaway, fuelling interest in other titles sold elsewhere.
Changing Academic Culture
The extent to which Rounded Globe can help generate an income for authors is dependent on a number of factors, most beyond our control.
Where we can act is on the simple question of numbers. For every 100 readers, say one donates to the author. So the more readers, the more donations (and also the more interest in other titles sold elsewhere). For this reason, Rounded Globe has a duty to our authors to use social media to promote the visibility of their eBooks. (And we are still working out how best to do this).
But the visibility of a title, as well as readers’ willingness to donate, is very much in the hands of the author. Today we are witnessing the emergence of a new breed of social media scholar. Eleanor Parker, one of our authors, is a good example. Eleanor blogs on medieval history and literature – a seemingly obscure subject, yet she has over 8,500 Twitter followers. This means that she is in a good position (far better than Rounded Globe) to promote her forthcoming title on the Danish Conquest of England of 1016. But more importantly, Eleanor’s blog posts have brought a lot of people a lot of pleasure over a number of years. For such an audience the Rounded Globe donate button provides a way of expressing appreciation for more than just a single eBook.
More generally, the very idea of earning an income through donations rather than a salary or royalties is dependent upon creating a new kind of cultural space within which academics engage with others. The university system supports specialists who write for other specialists, providing the wider public with little reason to engage with, let alone support academic writers. But people outside the universities are hungry for well-founded accessible scholarship, and are not without understanding of the years of research that stand behind good scholarly writing. To the extent that academics begin to write for a general audience so, we believe, new opportunities for funding research will open up.
Rounded Globe provides one model of a new kind of scholarly e-publishing. Low costs and simplicity of technical operations are the keys to its survival. Both university academics and independent scholars have shown a willingness to submit manuscripts and publish under a creative commons license. As such, we have already demonstrated how easy it is to set up an ‘open access’ electronic publishing house.
But Rounded Globe was born from a wider vision of a different kind of academic culture, in which a substantial portion of scholarly writing is aimed at a general audience and where independent scholars have opportunities of financial remuneration. This wider vision will bear fruit only if we are able to connect with others working to similar or related goals. We envisage Rounded Globe as a hub, with its own loose but broad community, but also connecting a variety of independent internet communities, themselves focused around the productive activities of various scholars.
Such communities are not markets, and their existence is premised upon a relationship of mutual trust and respect between writers and readers. They provide an alternative audience to the present disciplinary groupings of fellow specialists, for whom academics today write almost exclusively. To the extent that such communities already exist they are centred primarily around blogs, which host a series of discrete, short texts. Rounded Globe allows academic authors to take this kind of writing a step further, composing eBooks that readers can download; and we provide one way in which readers may choose to support the work of scholars.