Merchants of Culture 5: Not All Digital Is Created Equal

The online subscription model has worked wonderfully for academic journals, as John Thomson summarizes in Merchants of Culture, because

  • “The market for scientific and scholarly journals was an institutional market.”
  • “The subscription model for journals already existed.”
  • The move into an online environment provided new opportunities for making large quantities of relevant content available that can add value for the user.
  • “The nature of journal content also lent itself to online dissemination. Journal articles are generally very short . . . and hence they can be either read on screen or printed out with ease. . . . Scientists and academics can access them any time from their desktops and offices without having to visit a physical library.” (pp. 337-38)

But what is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. Thompson goes on to say that the features related to journal publishing generally haven’t applied to scholarly book publishing which does not operate by subscription.

Academic publishers and others have made scholarly books available online . . . but the take-up of these offerings has been modest at best. . . . There is every reason to believe that in the coming years we will see a slow but steady increase in the sale of scholarly book content into research libraries in electronic formats. However, this is not to say that it will necessarily be at the expense of print versions, which will continue to be purchased by many libraries. . . .

If this analysis is correct, then what we’re likely to see in the field of scholarly book publishing is not the wholesale migration from print to electronic dissemination but rather the development of mixed models of revenue generation. . . . A scholarly book is a different kind of object from a scientific journal and it is used in different ways. It is fine to browse a book online or to search a text to find what you need, but if you want to read a substantial part of the book, most readers prefer to have a printed version.” (pp. 342-43)

As Thompson suggests, there are subtle but important differences between academic journal publishing and academic book publishing. Therefore different digital strategies are needed for each. Likewise, publishers may be wise to develop distinct digital strategies that take into account the distinctives of each segment of their programs. A one-size-fits-all approach maybe easy to administrate and execute, but it may not be the most effective or successful.

This series on Merchants of Culture begins here.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.