university publishing, wine, terroir, academic, scholarly publishing, presses, texas, fear and loathing, faculty, football, deathly hallows, computer science, hypervisor, bad metaphors. 

Any attempt to interpret current reality is a fiction; any attempt to speculate about the future is fantasy. In the transforming world of media, the attempt to suggest what the future of a particular type of publishing house might look like is fraught with many perils, all the more so with academic presses, which dodge a fusillade of interested contributors, stakeholders, and claimants on time, staff, and resources.

Certainly an academic press is a unique beast: seeming to teeter constantly near bankruptcy, and yet closer to the source of often windy (for its blessed fortune, rarely parsimonious), intellectual brilliance than any other modern communications organ. Laboring for its own house, university or college, as hopefully something more than a publishing kept-woman, and most often serving one or more swaths of academic interests, it remains dependent on being a merchant of many services: not just running a press, but perhaps a scholarly repository. Not just books, but journals as well. Not just serving an academic provost, but perhaps a nonacademic administration as well. It’s as if every small-town bread shop had to find its way to financial survival by selling cupcakes, taking in laundry for customers, and hosting tea parties for its out of town landlords.

In the swirl of change around publishing, we see a dogged and determined drive toward communicating and sharing outside of traditionally mediated channels, taking advantage of easy to use tools to publish information online directly. It is an odd beast, indeed, that demands this system of output continue to be erected within the scaffolding of a critical evaluation by colleagues—the entertaining cabaret known as peer review—that presumably constrains acts of gross academic plunder, blasphemy, and error. Or not.

On the release of Anthologize, a plug-in for WordPress crafted by a handful of scholars that permits authors to manage content for output to electronic formats entirely suitable for self-publishing, it behooves us to remember that a scant few years ago, cobbling together a personal blog was a bespoke enterprise in complex programming. To suggest that the trend toward commonplace online engagement will accelerate is a supremely safe bet—even in a short-timed world committed to drowning itself through a carbon-infected heat wave.

Why have a university press at all in such an environment?

The other day on the highway, I passed a generously sized minivan with a gigantic white-steel mushroom perilously cantilevered atop its roof, adorned with shrink-wrapped corporate advertising for CBS News. The cables coiled on the roof were as thick as a fireman’s hose, and giant, hinged plates provided access to electrical connections surely capable of consuming greater power than Henry Adam’s dynamo at the Chicago World’s Fair.

For what? The news of the day can be carried further and faster by a person on a subway platform with a cell phone camera in hand, with the video uploaded to YouTube. Who cares about pixel density when a train passenger 10 feet away can record a white policeman shooting a prone, handcuffed, unarmed African-American man in the back? Via the courtesy of an increasingly ubiquitous capacity for public surveillance, I don’t need a logo-wrapped, blinged-out TV news van to witness the death of a helpless man.

Many the virtues, many the dangers in such surveillance. Beyond re-airings of a grainy cell phone recording, the TV station owners of that blinged-out van, and all of the other local mainstream press, provided thoughtful attempts at balance and understanding for an insane act that initiated an angry riot in downtown Oakland. The press provided a mechanism of structure to the conversation, whether angry or defensive, bombastic or reasoned, distorted or analyzed. It didn’t own the dialogue, couldn’t attempt even to control it. But in a way, it was there to fall back on as a conversational pivot point. Agree or not, it was something to refer to when everything else was hot and noisy, dangerous, provocative.

A university press? Not a controller of the means of information production, certainly. And perhaps not even anymore a useful mechanism for production, in and of itself. Perhaps, though, in its localized editing, something more like a support framework.

There’s a concept in computer engineering, in operating system design, called a hypervisor. A hypervisor is a layer of software that supports the operation of multiple virtual machines (VMs)—in essence, software that supports the creation and use of many different computers from a single unit of hardware. A hypervisor abstracts the fundamental interfaces of a computer—how to access the memory, storage, I/O, and microprocessor code—and provides a standardized way for different operating systems to use those underlying resources. It captures low-level error conditions, preventing one VM from impacting another even in its death throes, all while ensuring that each VM has the resources available that it expects in order to execute. Further, it also has a responsibility to not subvert the resources that its clients’ VMs require—its purpose is a limited one, and it strives as much as possible to get out of the way.

It’s conceivable that a hypervisor is a crude analogy for some of the raison d’ être of an academic press in the coming years. It can’t and shouldn’t try to control what runs—what forms of scholarly communication are utilized, or who utilizes them—but it provides the management substrate upon which those communications can optimally execute. Rather than microprocessor code and memory, its resources are marketing, technical expertise, editing, and the provisioning of external data resources to assist the publishing endeavor. A hypervisor press has an omnipotence that individual contributors do not—it has a more complete understanding of the information environment, and can facilitate each individual effort’s resource utilization.

However, we can quickly stretch this too far. And yet perhaps we can reach the same point by asking the obverse question: not “What does the university press become?”, but rather “Shall we kill the university press?” In answering that question, we may see role and function emerge from the rubble of our past efforts to organize scholarly communication. What would we miss beyond the press’s role as least common denominator dustbin of published dissertations, a merit badge provider for those scholars who have managed to extract the normalized sweat of brow object known as a monograph from their studies and educational indoctrination?

If we turn to consider a Kansas State press, or the regional press of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas, we see a press with a proud backlist and a vibrant history. Or, rather, we did. The SMU example is telling—it was rudely taken to the gallows by its owners. The faculty and author protests were provocative, touching on the value contributed by presses to the academic enterprise. Judy Alter, the former director of Texas Christian University Press in Fort Worth, opined, “The university press has a dual role—the collection, distribution and contribution of knowledge, and adding to the prestige of a university.” “We reach audiences that don’t care about the football team,” she said. “We take the university’s name into a different world. If you don’t have a press, you become a second-tier university.”

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the people who appreciate SMU football often read books, we must speculate that part of the value of the prestige of the SMU Press is (or was) in cultivating the better part of society in Dallas and Fort Worth. After all, the people in the Dallas metro area who pretend that they live in New York must be able to discuss the great intellectual ventures of their town, and the combination of the Dallas Symphony and UT Dallas Health Science Center arguably don’t quite manage to rise to the necessary height. As for sports, SMU and the Dallas Cowboys have the lower order of citizens well covered.

However, hue and cry have had their desired effect, and a study group has been formed to consider the mortal judgment and propose clemency. In an innovative reach for the future, SMU’s provost has read the tea leaves and written, “If the university is to have a press going forward, it needs to be a model for academic presses of the future within this digital age.”

This might have been a nod to Rice University Press (RUP), a digital press. At the time of its conception, the suggestion already suffered two, linked, glaring weaknesses: (1) RUP is part of a university that is widely considered superior in many aspects to SMU (with a notable exception for football), and (2) more toxic, Rice is in Houston.

Although the logic might be opaque for anyone other than a Texan, the latter observation alone was probably enough to poison any collaboration in practice. However, it suggests that SMU might have been at least theoretically copacetic with its former university press publishing delegated to a joint or subsidiary venture with Rice.

It’s certainly an interesting concept—a single university press could establish the infrastructure and customer services to directly support direct digital publishing on behalf of a wider number of university press brands. It brings to a more expeditious and radical conclusion the nascent efforts of a small number of presses for coordinated e-book marketing that is just now reaching the planning stage, with a scheduled launch in Fall 2011. Taking a year to launch an online store is a sorry schedule indeed, given the rate of change in publishing.

We’ll not get to see such a multipress digital publishing platform arise from the Gulf oil lands of Houston’s ambitions, however, with the demise of the Rice University Press. I broke that story on my own blog, months after the university had evidently decided that sweeping the press under the budgetary rug was its own best innovation; as the provost emeritus stated, “There was not an open public discussion on campus,” and “The press was never a large campus issue.” So much for the prestige of having a press (; ). Increasingly, it appears that for at least some universities, not much is actually lost when one kills a press.

As I wrote in an afterword to the RUP closing, I believe this is perhaps the best time in over a century for the academic community to embrace exploration and change in how we prepare and disseminate information not only within academia, but arguably more importantly, to the larger academy of global citizens beyond.

Recently, Jodi Picoult, a best-selling “chick lit” author, complained (notably, in a tweet), that the book review coverage of the New York Times was just a bit, well, precious. “The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction—and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author,” said Picoult.

Although Ms. Picoult is served well enough by her publishing house, she is failed by the larger publishing establishment. The bias in mainstream press toward literary work indirectly encourages the more rapid and efficient development of online communities for poetry and other fiction in alternative venues, and therefore, denudes mainstream literary fiction of some of the advantages of early experimentation in online engagement.

Whatever the future services of the university press, providing the same realm for engagement, linkage, enthusiasm, and derivation that experimental literary fiction provides for its fan base, such as HTMLGIANT, will likely be top among them. It is in this same path as a hypervisor that the press of the future may be able to facilitate and engender communication and sharing, without having to feel ownership over the path of its production and distribution.

The hardest shift in all of this, of course, is in determining where income might be extracted. If a university press suddenly announced that it would re-launch itself today by merely selling packaged print or digital things (books, journals), it might not be the kind of business plan likely to prompt the eager attention of angel investors. Yet, there may be something in providing a home to conversation that bears fruit. If being able to discourse in a community of like-minded scholars around the topics of the day has value, then a press should be able to extract them. This is very much the heart of the motivation for avant-garde publisher Richard Nash’s nascent imprint, Cursor Books. In his venture, every community is its own imprint. Whether there is sufficient income in traditional book packaging in concert with community engagement, versus supporting rich community engagement only, is something he is likely to determine soon enough.

I have often ranted to others that a press such as the University of California would do well to establish an imprint dedicated to wine. The wealth of its backlist on viticulture, wine, and wineries is singular; the nearness of the faculty of the University of California, Davis is compelling; and above all, the Bay Area’s Wine Country network of professional associations among faculty, winemakers, wine community writers, and the interested public is a unique resource. This vision, along with video interviews with winemakers, detailing the science of particular viticulture techniques or the genetic history of varietals, are all compelling threads that could be interwoven among digital texts to provide a wide range of interesting points of engagement, and along with engagement, revenue.

The hurdles? Start-up costs and expertise. The likely result? If such an imprint—let’s call it Terroir—were to be initiated, it would have to have start-up funds from other sources, and likely have a fair measure of independence from the existing press’s operations, while retaining the ability to extract value from back rights whenever possible.

It matters far less that the University of California Press might have little to do with the development of such a new transmedia imprint, than the fact that the capacity to build it is now trivially available to us using web-based tools. Terroir—a word that refers to the complex interplay of geology, soil, climate, and culture that informs a wine—would be most reliant on the skein of influences that permeate multiple communities, bound at its roots by academic investigation but enlivened by passionate businesses and consumers. The conversations that emerge would be supervised at a high level by the hypervisor of Terroir’s management but not controlled or directed by them. My new Terroir Press would be a new and very different kind of press.

The recent self-immolation of Seed’s ScienceBlogs, “Pepsigate,” instigated largely by a shortfall of communication around the insertion of a corporate-sponsored blog into a community of highly respected, independent bloggers, demonstrates that the ideology around academic freedom and independence remain worthy of note. More critically, the incident suggests that a hypervisor press’s maintenance of an environment of mutual respect among contributors is a paramount prerequisite for healthy and energetic participation.

The demise of recent university presses, and the shortage of radical concepts of digital presses that extend beyond simple enrichment of texts with additional media, point to a persistent overreliance on producing product instead of engagement and community, and too much concentration on scholarly communication, over-communication with broader audiences, grounded by scholarly interests and insight. Opening up a press—moving a press higher up the information food chain by making it a hypervisor press—may be a path toward reinventing its work and producing new utility for academic and global citizenry.

But now—Salud!—time for a glass of wine.

Peter Brantley is the Director of the Bookserver Project at the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based, not for profit library. He is the editor of the Reading 2.0 discussion list, and contributes regularly to several blogs on libraries and publishing, discussing transformations in media and information access. He serves on the board of the International Digital Publishing Forum, the standards-setting body for digital books. Peter has significant experience with academic research libraries and digital library development programs, and was previously the Executive Director of the Digital Library Federation, a not for profit membership organization of research and national libraries.