Reading on the cloud – an opportunity for scholarly publishing?

Scholarly publishers make their publications available in a variety of formats. They include hardback books, softback books, PDFs, ePubs, braille editions, and anthologised, serialised or translated text. Each format has its own advantages and disadvantages. Print books, for example, may be offer a comfortable reading experience and, through enumerating editions and impression, stabilise text and make it easy to cite. But they require manufacturing and a bricks-and-mortar distribution system – and for those reasons may be far from environmentally optimal.

Because each format has specific disadvantages, there’s much to be said for publishing in a range of formats to enable readers to choose what works best for them. Currently the main options for readers of scholarly publications are:

  • buy a print edition (new or used)
  • borrow  a print edition
  • download an e-book (legally from a retailer or illegally from a pirate).

Cloud computing

The development of cloud computing provides a further option. When digital publications are made available ‘on the cloud’, readers may read them without needing to download text.

Advantages to readers include geographical accessibility and so, in effect, portability – readers may access the publications through any Internet connection – and the avoidance of the downsides of downloading (notably clunkiness, digital rights management (DRM), and security fears).

One example of a cloud-publishing service is 24symbols, which when launched was figured in the press as ‘Spotify for books’. 24symbols’ model offers readers a choice between subscriptions, namely Freemium (you can  access books free of charge, but you encounter advertisements) and Premium (which is paid for, is free of advertising, and offers an option to download the publications).

As publishers we have begun to use 24symbols and have begun to use the service for both our Professional and Higher Education and our Creative Writing Studies series – for example, we’ve made Stephanie Vanderslice’s Rethinking Creative Writing available in this way.

There is also some interest in the industry in making audiobooks available on the cloud (for example, through Audiobooks.com – a service I’ve no firsthand experience of ). This is likely to be of more limited appeal to scholarly publishers: limited markets make it difficult to carry production costs and features such as tables, figures, and notes don’t translate.

Cloud computing for scholarly presses and institutions?

As well as offering its subscription services direct to readers, 24symbols also offers a platform for organisations to offer their publications to readers direct: that is –  to borrow the wording of their (not so slick) marketing literature  –  they offer

a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) to publishers, academic institutions, product and service enterprises, and other types of companies interested in offering a branded cloud reading service to their customers and/or employees.

It may prove to be the offer of SaaS that is of most significance for scholarly publishing. This kind of service (I presume we’ll see further such offerings from other providers) offers university presses and learned society publishers an option for reaching  readers direct (thus cutting out the industry supply chain) without undue capital cost.

Moreover, provision of Freemium and/or Premium options enables presses to make choices between open access (i.e. producer-pays) and traditional (reader-pays) publishing. 

The SaaS model also provides a way of supplementing – perhaps even supplanting – university repositories. Though the development of repositories has proved a welcome addition to the publishing landscape, they have some weaknesses. They often lack visibility and recognition – and the very term ‘repository’ is unfamiliar to many potential users.

SaaS cloud-publishing would seem, therefore, to offer providers of scholarly publications with an exciting option. An idea that excites me even more is that repositories from a number of institutions may band together to provide a combined offer to readers – though that would require an openness to ‘co-opetition‘ not regularly encountered in the world of universities and research centres.

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