It’s Apps Away

The first app marketing announcement.

One of the problems in the e-book market is the proprietary nature of many readers. To get the full features of some offerings, customers must choose their platforms—I-Pad, Kindle, Nook, etc. While PDFs can be read across many platforms, the media richness of the documents does not always meet customer demand. For example, the new I-Author tool allows user to incorporate video, audio, and other multi-media options, but only I-Pad users can get the full benefit of those titles. In its infancy, some companies are now offering services to convert book content into apps that run on multiple platforms. Using this method a publisher can provide the greatest distribution for their products and do much to eliminate the need to develop for each proprietary system.

Looking ahead along the online course development path, apps will become quite common, one would guess. There could be the Psychology 101 app, an app that could provide links to lectures, readings, and other rich materials to improve learning. One thing that is apparent in this information stream is that some courses will become commodities – low price will determine enrollment as long as a range of universities accept the credits toward a student’s graduation. The State of Ohio might have, for example, an Introduction to Sociology app that is available to all students at Ohio public institutions.

One benefit of creating apps for introductory courses is that, if handled well, universities can enhance the preparedness of their graduates by concentrating on higher level instruction. Students could take app-based courses without worrying about the circadian rhythms of semester-based classes. Further, app-based instruction could fit within the business culture allowing companies the option to certify their employees in certain areas as technologies disrupt operations and call for new practices. Instructional apps could be developed and deployed for specific needs.

As students and individuals consolidate their lives onto their chosen communication devices, apps might be the key to gaining market share.  In this environment, as with all products, uniqueness and high-quality brands will win out. Universities will need to maximize their best programs and turn them into available apps.


Innovative University Presses

The Greeks Tweet!

Recently Peter Dougherty the director of Princeton University Press published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education with the title, “The Global University Press.” The thrust of Dougherty’s piece was that the growth in higher education around the world coupled with English becoming the standard language of universities provides financial opportunities for university presses that are strapped for income. Dougherty’s analysis has some validity, but his opinion that the scholarly monograph will be the cornerstone for future university press growth doesn’t coincide with trends at universities.

Only one of the several technologies that Dougherty identifies, digital collections of non-serial, university press material, will become a monetary stream for publishers. The other technologies Dougherty mentions are areas presses should have already invested in — creating international online distribution channels;  creating print on demand global distribution channels; using online publicity mechanism to market titles; and using social media to inform their international sales representatives. These technologies have been around for years and the failure to capitalize on them, or doing so now, is like buying a Corvair while the world is driving Priuses.

Dougherty piece tacitly identifies a point that clearly demarcates university presses from each other. Many university presses have already used these technologies to survive. The internet and its communication mechanisms have given a larger footprint to small and mid-sized university presses, allowing them to compete on content and not sheer size. Smaller university presses also had more compact organizational structures, a nice way of saying very small staffs, precluding large decision-making apparatuses. Small presses could move much faster. In many ways, the smaller presses can be likened to business startups with cutting-edge ideas, but not enough capital to bring them to market.

A few other points that Dougherty makes don’t seem to align with global realities. The hegemony that many university presses have will give way to the growth of presses in developing countries as those countries become better educated and their literacy rates increase. Those countries will create structures to publish and distribute their own researchers’ works. Revenue opportunities might not be as abundant as Dougherty contends.

Second, the behavior of graduate students and faculty will impact university presses ability to sell entire monographs – the bread and butter of scholarly communication, especially in the humanities. Graduate students and faculty will discover content by searching the internet or university OPACs. After discovery, researchers will piece together articles and excerpts for their particular “book.” Undoubtedly, some complete monographs will be purchased online or in a paper version and these books will likely be printed, one off, at a campus outlet or library.

Second, presses need to create open access materials, especially textbooks. Many faculty members have authored textbooks under Creative Commons’ licenses. Many adopters have the view that open-access textbooks are simply not as good as commercially-published alternatives. University presses can use their current vetting and reviewing systems to begin to alter this perception. Further, presses can create ancillary materials, and negotiate with online testing services like WebAssign to fulfill students’ expectations. Presses’ marketing and distribution systems would allow for wider awareness of open-access texts.

The speed of information creation and distribution requires organizational change in the areas of procedures and focus. Smaller university presses work more like entrepreneurs. Larger university presses can gain a lot from looking at innovations created at their smaller counterparts. If presses work to create content for distance learning systems and impact the cost of textbooks by working in the open-access environment, they will pay back universities for their investments and still be able to publish monographs and regional titles.

The Future of Scholarly Presses Has No Business Model; It Has Many

As a university press director at a small university press (we have a staff of 3.25 FTE and augment operations with a few paid students and several interns who get course credit for working at the press), I have a great understanding of the term “barebones operation.”  Supply and demand does indeed drive pricing, but some models are emerging that will have a true impact on the availability of scholarly information. Currently, the larger costs of running a university press are in the areas of  acquiring content,  copyediting and page layout. Printing costs are controllable in many ways, especially with the rise of good quality digital printing including print-on-demand. Conversion services that turn a print-ready PDF into an e-readable version for 99% of the current platforms are very reasonable.

One initiative that will open up content for end users are systems like the UPCC, University Press Content Consortium ( Project Muse has contracted with over 70 university presses to provide content to academic libraries and other organizations in a manner similar to journal content. The collection allows publishers to take a traditional book and add its content to a digital platform extending the financial return on each investment. Further, however, the platform opens up the way presses can think about distributing content by allowing for a reversal of the traditional production cycle. Content can be made available in a digital format initially. By providing presses with information on usage, presses will be able to decide if certain content needs to be collected for a print version or e-book.

Secondly, while slow to catch on, open access monographs are still a viable way to provide for lower priced academic books. In the open access model, a university might fund an author’s work or provide a sabbatical or exchange time to create a monograph. Funding organization can also provide grants to university presses to ameliorate pre-press costs. Decreasing the costs initially, enable presses to offer lower-priced printed and e-book editions.

University Press directors who read Joshua Kim’s 10 ideas to lower the cost of university press books (  probably are doing so with a smile and a nod. Here’s my take on the thoughts, using college football as an analogy.

  • Concise Book – Shortening games to three quarters, especially night games, would reduce costs. So would eliminating overtime and going back to ties.
  • Go All Digital – Instead of playing real games, use a system like Madden College Football 2012 to decide game outcomes.
  • Go Virtual – If coaches are hired, have them work out of their homes or bring in temporary trailers to house them during high-activity periods.
  • Go Flat – Forget the coaches altogether. Have players run the teams.
  • Outsource Copyediting – Outsourcing coaching would reduce the gigantic costs of hiring and firing coaches.
  • Embrace Business Development – Be a pioneer; let an NFL team run your college football operation. Forget the concept of scholar-athlete.
  • Sponsorship – Have folks rent a football player for a season. Some strings attached.
  • Go Naked – Fully account for every football cost. Disclose it all. That would be something.
  • Embrace Failure – Go back to the single wing. Never punt. Use systems with one defensive lineman and eight defensive backs. Onside kick every time.
  • Brainstorm the Business Model – Look at all the alternatives. Start a new program at your school that selects 22 different guys from the student body to show up at the stadium to play against 22 guys selected from the opponent. One week of practice. Play schools within an hour’s drive only. Get rid of all the divisions.

End results aren’t always predicated on a lack of trying. The external environment changes and solutions are not apparent or even feasible. One lesson that is clear is that there is no business model. The days of selling 1,000 or more books to academic libraries are gone. Each project is a new business model. As I always like saying, if the solution were that easy, everyone would already have done it. The challenge is in the uncertainty.


An Early Adopter