The future of the book is now

Rice University is bringing back its academic press — online.

Although the new press will solicit and edit manuscripts the old-fashioned way, it won’t produce traditional books. The publishing house will instead post works online at a new Web site, where people can read a full copy of the book free. They can also order a regular, bound copy from an on-demand printer, at a cost far less than picking up the book in a store. . . .

Because all books will be in digital form, authors can amend their tomes online, link to multimedia files elsewhere on the Internet, or even chat with readers. Books would never go out of print, and more might be published because of the press’s lower cost structure, Rice officials say. Rice officials are also considering asking authors whether they want to allow “derivatives” of their works to be created online. The Connexions site operates under an “open-source” model, letting readers update online course material.

Here is the Connexions site where all this will happen.

  • Where this model would really be valuable is in scientific/technical journal publishing. The costs of these journals (some as high as $20K per year for libraries) and their limited circulation means that their primary mission, disseminating scientific knowledge, is not being done optimally.

    There are informal networks of pre-prints and re-prints which try to get around the bound issue problem, but a formal approach would be better.

    Most scientific literature ages rapidly so that citations to a given published article decline to almost zero within 2-5 years. This is another reason why rapid, online publication would be ideal.

    The field is controlled by a few large publishers (Springer, Elsevier, etc.) so we can expect strong resistance to continue.

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  • Where this model would really be valuable is in scientific/technical journal publishing.

    This has already begun: check out the Directory of Open Access Journals, a collection of online peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • In fiction publishing you have the Baen Free Library at Baen Books. Last I heard, even with Jim Baen’s death (he owned Baen Books) they plan to continue with the library.