Financial challenges have beset university presses for over a decade. Recent articles describe these financial challenges, particularly the high costs of producing a printed academic monograph. The new digital Rice University Press was conceived as offering a new business model that follows other 21st century corporate practices of unbundling as many aspects of the traditional procedures and processes associated with paper-based print publication. In the new model, nothing is either "in" or "out" of print, there is no press, warehouse, or backlog, while the highest quality of peer reviewed content is replicated in a digital object. The digital object can be printed on demand, for a fraction of the current cost of paperback or hard bound book. This article describes the context of the Rice University Press, and looks ahead to a time when scholarship may be far more innovative, with compelling, perhaps unprecedented narrative arguments arising from new methodologies and intellectual strategies that digital publication may foster.

Rice University has announced plans to resuscitate the Rice University Press as the first fully digital university press in the United States. After operating for decades as a traditional print-based academic press, the Rice Press was closed in 1996 after losing money and readership for several years. The decision to revive the press as a digital enterprise is a response to the current environment of scholarly publishing and communication.

Contemporary scholarly publishing is often defined as being in a “crisis”: university presses are losing money at unprecedented rates; the cost of journals has steadily increased over the last few decades; and the traditional print-based publishers have so far been unable to devise a migration to digital publishing that entails a reasonable new business model.[1] In Crises and Opportunities: The Futures of Scholarly Publishing, an interesting compendium of problems and proposed solutions is offered.[2] The authors often wrestle with the monograph and the discontents it can engender, as well as the ennobling tradition, the cultural potency, and the convenience of the printed book. The focus of the essays in this volume is on the humanities, as those disciplines rely heavily on the monograph for the promulgation of scholarship and, concomitantly, are the disciplines most beset by the reduced number of titles, rising costs, and the subsequent constraint of opportunity for younger scholars to find avenues for publishing—an essential step for promotion and tenure.

Some believe the environment in selected disciplines is particularly dire. Last year, writing in the International Center for Medieval Art Newsletter (ICMA), Beatrice Rehl states flatly that “Art history publishing is in a state of crisis. In the last four years, all university presses that publish in this subject have cut back significantly in the number of titles they are acquiring. Princeton and Cambridge have all but abandoned their art history publishing programs.”[3] Rehl points to several phenomena to explain this crisis, including the demise of the local book shop, technology, the competing costs of science and technology journals that can drain a university library’s budget, and the loss of available shelf space at many schools that results in a reduction in the number of volumes purchased annually. James Neal succinctly encapsulates the problem: “It is clear... that scholarly communication costs too much, it takes too long, the higher education community gives too much away, and the consequent crisis has gone unrecognized as a public policy issue.”[4]

These generalized instances of factors contributing to the perception of dwindling and ever more costly facets of scholarly communication become more sharply delineated in a recent cogent and insightful study by Hilary Ballon and Mariet Westermann, Art History and its Publications in the Electronic Age.[5] The authors, after extensive research, see the traditional methods of scholarly communication, including print publication, as largely failing to meet the needs of art historians. Unwilling to cry “crisis,” these authors believe that the field itself has become more sophisticated and that there are alternate means and methods of scholarly communication, particularly in the realm of digital publication, that could better reflect and support this sophistication, but they have not been exploited to the full benefit of the profession. Among the recommendations the authors pose include launching electronic extensions of the scholarly journals of record in their respective fields of study, and forming consortia that would break down barriers of access and distribution of images and develop publications of art and architectural history online.

In this context the Rice University Press decision to become fully digital and to focus on art history and related disciplines (from a publishing point of view) is a testament to the realization that the creation, dissemination, and organization of new knowledge vital to the advancement of many academic disciplines has become profoundly compromised and constrained by the current business models for the culture of the printed book.

A Library and Connexions Partnership

Libraries have for centuries purchased books, and the lessening buying power of their budgets over time also contributes to the crisis of scholarly publishing. At the same time, libraries contextualize books by placing them on shelves among books with similar topics and content. In larger research libraries, a browsing reader can discern a respectable subset of a field of discourse from which a particular book has been constituted. In this respect, libraries make partly visible the rich intellectual heritage and connections that inform a work of scholarship.

Because of the many ways an electronic book can be arranged and linked to, and the different media it can deliver, digital publishing also contextualizes scholarship. The new technologies in this way encompass and embed the traditional object of print publication within a wider range of intellectual continuity once provided by library shelves and catalogs.

The new Rice Press is a joint venture of Rice University’s Fondren Library and Connexions, a set of Web-based authoring, teaching, and learning tools that may be used by students, teachers, professors, and anyone interested in education.[6] Connexions modules are created and used by as diverse a group of educators as professors teaching advanced graduate courses in digital signal processing to high school teachers exploring methods of producing musical harmony. Its tools facilitate building educational communities. The free, modular, and interactive books and courses are in use worldwide by universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, distance learners, and lifelong learners. Connexions is multilingual, with content in thirteen languages and major Spanish and Chinese translation efforts. The surging demand for its educational resources is reflected by a consistent monthly average of half a million unique visitors from over 150 countries to the Connexions Web site. Through a partnership with QOOP, an on-demand printing company, Connexions makes printed materials available in a wide variety of formats, including paperback and hardcover books. Connexion’s sophisticated tools for content management and representation, its multilingual environment, ease of access, and security provide a readily available platform for digital publication, as well as the advantage of a cost effective print-on-demand arrangement with QOOP. Rice Press is using Connexions as its “printing press” and distribution system for its digital publications. Core elements of the standard model associated with paper publications remain intact. The Rice Press will, through its editor and editorial boards, solicit manuscripts of the highest quality, approving the best for publication, publish them as digital objects, and promote them through various electronic media.

The Rice University Press will focus initially on four general areas of publication.

1. Publishing original scholarly works in fields that are unusually constrained by the print-based model

As noted above, art history is often cited as a discipline particularly constrained by traditional print publishing. Whether defined as a crisis or not, art-history publication will benefit from alternate forms of scholarly communication to enhance and enrich research. Architectural history and archeology are similarly characterized, with the common thread that all of these disciplines rely on high-quality images as intrinsic to their methodologies. In response, the Rice University Press has selected art history, architectural history, and archeology as the initial areas of publication for two reasons: first, in response to the constraints those scholarly disciplines confront because of the very high costs associated with image-rich publishing models; and second, to establish as quickly as possible easily intuited benefits of a digital press. The process of reviewing, editing, and finally printing a paper book is costly and can take as much as a year from acceptance to publication. The Rice University Press will offer scholars a significantly reduced turn-around time—usually one week from acceptance to digital publication. This unusually accelerated cycle is possible because most of the procedures associated with print-based publications—indexing, table of content creation, formatting of text, and content management—are fully automated. There is also no printing queue.

2. Scholarly societies and centers

Often disciplinary societies and smaller centers, especially in the humanities, publish annual reports, reflections on their fields of study, or original grant-funded research. For smaller organizations, the cost of print-based publications can be prohibitive. Rice University Press will cultivate partnerships with these organizations in the hope of providing more affordable publishing models. Over time, the editorial board will approach research agencies such as RAND to explore more cost-effective means of promulgating their considerable annual stream of reports. Rather than produce hundreds of pounds of paper copies, an agency’s annual stream of publications is more economically published electronically and more easily cross-searched for thematic patterns. No single model appears to be the best; the multiple options that the National Academies currently offer, provisioning many combinations of print and digital representations, seem to work well.

3. New models of scholarship

One of our more important goals, but perhaps the most difficult to realize, is to accept the Rice Press as a platform for new models of scholarship. With the rise of digital environments, scholars are increasingly exploring opportunities to write book-length studies employing a variety of media: images, moving images, audio files, and links to Web sites that contain research data and background materials. These more dynamic knowledge representations are incorporated as part of their argument. The printed book cannot capture or even approximate these dynamic objects; the Rice Press can accommodate new forms of scholarship easily, and in the process may further support intellectual productivity of a more transformational nature. Impediments to achieve these ends have nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with the culture of academic research, particularly in the humanities.

4. Building the Niche: The Long Tail Press

As a subsidiary to the Rice University Press, but with a distinct publishing mandate, the Long Tail Press was created to work specifically with existing academic publishers, serving as a means of publishing out-of-print books and manuscripts that have been approved for publication by peer review boards, but which the presses cannot afford to republish. The circumstances speak to a “tyranny of physical space,” to use Chris Anderson’s term.[7] Most academic disciplines could be characterized as niche markets, yet the prevailing business model of academic presses has tended to follow that of more mainstream publishing houses where very high volume sales of a particular title are more statistically probable. The narrow market of the humanities suggests the long tail model—a title will remain available over a long period of time with no constraints as to the minimum of volumes to sell. It is not only viable, but is a particularly good fit as a business plan. The Long Tail Press will work with selected university publishers to provide an inexpensive conduit through which approved works of scholarship can more easily be distributed and integrated into their appropriate knowledge domain.

A Business Plan. Little Margins, Less Overhead

One of the most frequently asked questions about the Rice Press is: how will it ever make money? There are a few key points to make in response. Because the Press uses Connexions as its technical platform, there is no investment needed to build a digital-content-management system, and very little needed in the way of new tools and wrappers to help distinguish the Press from a typical Connexions set of modules. The powerful linking and conceptual aggregation Connexions provides, and the automated modularity of its architecture (a module becomes a chapter, a list of key words an index), reduces the time and human effort of producing a published digital object of a book to a matter of days. The only overhead costs of the Press are salaries: an editor, and a part-time content manager, at least in the startup phase.

Another key point is that the Rice University Press is very much a 21st century business, in that it has unbundled as many aspects of the traditional scholarly press as possible. Nothing in the Rice University Press is in or out of print; there are no warehouses, backlogs, or unsold inventory. There is no paper or ink, and no physical production, just as there is no printing press. This project concentrates on soliciting, rigorously reviewing, and ultimately making excellent scholarship available online. The printing, stamping, mailing, and other physical creation and delivery of a printed object is left to the choice of the reader and outsourced to QOOP. The intellectual content is thus disaggregated from the delivery mechanisms.

At present, a fee for downloading the digital object is under consideration. The Press will most likely make several dollars each time a title is printed through QOOP; QOOP will recover its printing costs and earn a small profit. About 5% of the printing costs charged to a user will be held in an account that will be used to distribute the Rice Press titles to disadvantaged populations. The profit margins are small with each printing or downloading of a title, but the overhead is also minimal. The revenue stream would come from the sale and printing of titles original to the Press. Given the comparably low costs for the download or printed book, it is expected that the Press will sell three times or more the current number of volumes that the traditional academic press routinely sells. This projection is based in part on historical trends. Going back two decades, when library budgets were more flush and monographs were less expensive and not competing with expensive technical and scientific journals, an academic press might enjoy sales of 3,000 or so copies of a scholarly book. That market has shrunk by a third in many instances, sometime even more. If the Rice Press can simply capture the earlier market, it will recover its costs in a few years’ time.

But additional sales from downloads or printing are expected. Because the cost of each title is much less than for a traditionally printed academic book, students will be more likely to acquire a title, broadening the potential market. The Rice Press will also have an online, monitored chat space for students and teachers to send their comments to the author, engaging in a conversation that is difficult if not impossible to achieve in the current print environment.

As noted above, the Long Tail Press will be able to publish out-of-print titles and titles that have been approved, but are deemed unaffordable to publish traditionally, also adding to the revenue stream both for the Long Tail Press and for the university presses that choose to partner in this digital effort. For all concerned, this is essentially “found” cash. At the same time, it keeps these titles perpetually accessible and always printable. It is impossible to know what out-of-print titles and shared publications might be included in this effort, but if roughly 10% of the catalogue titles is out of print in the larger academic presses, a significant market may exist to bring these titles back, with essentially no time limit imposed upon their accessibility and no minimum required for a printing run: a long tail. The Long Tail Press will initially focus on out-of-print books published after 1993, as most of these will be available in digital format, usually a Word document, in a version of Word that Connexions can automatically convert to XML.

While the precise license arrangement may vary slightly from author to author, by employing the Creative Commons protocols we assume that the author retains the copyright for all original scholarship published by the Rice Press. Quotes drawn from the Rice Press authors’ works will require attribution. Should anyone maliciously attempt to alter the original text, a tracking system will identify the source of the unauthorized intrusion. Authors will also receive royalties from their works that are printed through QOOP, and a percentage of the download fee if that is instituted. It should be remembered that under many current contracts with academic presses, the press, not the author, holds the copyright, and the authors, particularly those in art history and other fields reliant on images to support their arguments, are occasionally asked for a subvention.

It should be obvious that the Rice Press assumes, and will attempt to confirm, the repetitively argued benefits the rise of digital publishing technologies is supposed to offer: significantly reduced costs of production; a nearly ubiquitous delivery system (the Internet); the elimination of costs associated with backlogs, large inventories, and unsold physical volumes; and improved speed for the editorial process. Its advantage in setting out to test these assumptions may have more to do with starting with nothing, rather than with having an astute business plan. In a candid and thoughtful conference paper earlier this year, Karen Hunter, Senior Vice President of Elsevier Press, described in some detail the challenges facing traditional publishers when contemplating moving to a digital model.[8] Her focus was on printed scientific journals, but many of the circumstances hold true for any paper-based publisher. The key obstacle can be summarized as the cost of migration: how to get to a digital model, or how to phase a press to a digital mode of publication, while continuing to incur the overhead of inventories and standard production costs and, in the case of for-profit publishing houses, assuring shareholders or other investors that revenue is maintained. In this respect, one of the more fortunate aspects of the Rice University Press was the failure of its original incarnation. The new instantiation has neither legacy nor inventory to migrate.


There are many possible obstacles. Two salient ones can be cited, one abstract, the other of more tangible consequences. The perception of the Rice University Press as an authoritative and trustworthy enterprise is critical to its success. There is a tendency to dismiss digital publication as a catch basin of sorts, where an author who cannot publish through a major academic press will turn. This concern can be easily handled once the peer review process is established and recognized as being on par with the finest of traditional presses. Indeed, because of the technological facility to publish works of complex, multimedia content, scholars who have pursued new methods of constructing arguments and building intellectual strategies that exploit the technology in inventive ways may come to see this kind of press as the only adaptable model of scholarly communication.

The first Editor-in-Chief of the Rice Press in many ways embodies the dichotomy of tradition and innovation the Press represents. Fred Moody began as an editor in the 1970s working at the University of Michigan, editing and publishing samizdat literature smuggled out of the USSR. Over the years he has served as editor of more traditional print publications and published many well-received articles in exemplary publications such as the New York Times Magazine, and also published several original books. More recently he has edited online publications, and brings to the project a wealth of experience and insight into the distinctions and opportunities these different models of scholarly communication entail.

In order for this creative invention and methodological transformation to occur, it must be rewarded. As long as promotion and tenure in the humanities are based on printed publications, especially the paper monograph, it is unlikely that the power and nuance a networked scholarly environment offers will be exploited. Rice University Press is not intended as a digital substitute for a traditional press, but it may have to act in that guise as long as current academic policies hold fast.

As described in the forthcoming ACLS cyberinfrastructure study, Our Cultural Commonwealth, “[t]here is a widely shared perception that academic departments in the humanities and social sciences do not adequately reward innovative work in digital form. A handful of recent examples provide exceptions to the norm, but in the most elite universities traditional scholarly work, in the form of a single-authored, printed book or article published by a university press or scholarly society, is the currency of tenure and promotion, and work online or in new media—especially work involving collaboration—is not encouraged. Senior scholars now have both the opportunity and the responsibility to take certain risks, first among which is to condone risk-taking in their junior colleagues and their graduate students and to make sure that such endeavors are appropriately rewarded.“[9] Later this year new guidelines for tenure and promotion are expected from the Modern Language Association, which could augur some important changes in the academic traditions that structure professional advancement.


The Rice Press is conceived as an experiment, one that makes an evolving model of digital publication available to the academic world both for adoption and scrutiny. The fundamental concept of the press is that it serves as a transitional mechanism of scholarly communication that bridges the printed book—because that is the prevailing method of communication with a commonplace lexicon and associations accruing over five centuries—and the digital object, likely multifaceted and entailing different reading as well as research methodologies. If successful, the Press will create not so much a catalog of digital books or scholarly artifacts but a trusted, authoritative networked environment in which new forms of scholarship can be conducted.

It is also important to remember that printed texts in the first centuries following Gutenberg were not fixed, authoritative publications but often plagued by piracy, misappropriation, plagiarism, and, at best, very poor copy editing. In these early years of printing, a printed work did not entail anything near the trust and authority we give to it today.[10] That trust was an effect that occurred only after centuries of hard work, which included standardization of the many facets of physically producing a book, and a collective alignment of social and cultural habits pertaining to the interpretation of the book. Our collective nostalgia in looking back at the beginning of the Gutenberg revolution as a period of stability and methodical promulgation of new knowledge is skewed by recent scholarship; many of the troubles that attended Gutenberg’s invention are similar to the issues that have bedeviled the rise of digital cultural artifacts.[11]

A major difference between today and 1480 might be found in the tendency of new technologies to emulate the models of discourse and representation that precede them. The first printed works resembled manuscripts for decades; more recently the first cameras used to capture staged plays were simply films without editing or even rudimentary manipulation of the image of the event. There is no reason that a digital object should replicate a printed book. The opportunities for breaking the inherited model and reconstructing a more dynamic and provocative environment for the life of the mind are too interesting and, for better or worse, subject to nothing like the control of a hand press.

We may as a consequence marvel at the constraints of the Gutenberg legacy. Without predicting what the next generation of scholarly communication models might be, one can assume that in this virtual realm boundaries will become more porous and extensible, the methods of scholarship more visible, and the act of reading more encompassing. The transformational potential of vast digital holdings, accessible data, and a facilitating architecture that creates an interoperable skein transparent to all media is the virtual reality the Rice University Press will attempt to spur. The end point of the traditional press is thus an initial step in constructing an alternate destination for teaching and research.

Charles Henry is President of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), an organization engaged with the transformational changes in librarianship and higher education. He is also Publisher of the new digital Rice University Press. He was previously Vice Provost and University Librarian at Rice University and before that director of the libraries at Vassar College. He serves as chair of the advisory council for the new Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, is a co-author of the ACLS Cyberinfrastructure Commission report, and recently a Fulbright senior scholar to New Zealand.


    1. Sanford Thatcher’s “The Crisis in Scholarly Communication,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 3 March 1995, was one of the first essays to describe the circumstances. His recommendation—increase subsidies by universities—has been often repeated. http://ilt.columbia.edu/academic/classes/TU5020/SCHOLCOM.htmlreturn to text

    2. C. Alsonso, C. Davidson, J. Unsworth, and L. Withey. Crises and Opportunities: The Futures of Scholarly Publishing. American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper, No. 57. http://www.acls.org/op57.pdfreturn to text

    3. Beatrice Rehl, Special Report I: The Crisis in Scholarly Publishing. ICMA Newsletter, December 2005, no. 3.return to text

    4. James Neal, "The Future of Academic Libraries: Entrepreneurship and Innovation?" in Information Unbound. Publishing and Society in 2020. Ed. D. Seaman and J. Poznansky. The Folger Colloquium 2001. (2004)return to text

    5. Hilary Ballon and Mariet Westermann's report, Art History and its Publications in the Electronic Age. Report on a Study Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, can be found at http://cnx.org/content/col10376/latest/.return to text

    6. Connexions is described at the homepage http://cnx.org; an engaging video cast of its inventor, Richard Baraniuk, captured at this year's TED Conference can be found at http://ted.com/tedtalks/tedtalksplayer.cfm?key=r_baraniuk&flashEnabled=1.return to text

    7. Anderson's original article "The Long Tail" can be found at the Wired archives http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html.return to text

    8. Karen Hunter, "The End of Print Journals. (In)frequently asked Questions." A paper delivered at the University of Oklahoma Conference, "Printed Resources and Digital Information: The Future of Coexistence." March 2-3, 2006, Oklahoma City.return to text

    9. J. Unsworth et al. Our Cultural Commonwealth. The report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 48-49. http://www.acls.org/cyberinfrastructure/acls.ci.report.pdf return to text

    10. A. Johns, The Nature of the Book. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1999, is an excellent exploration of these themes. See also A. Grafton, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship. London: Collins and Brown, 1990.return to text

    11. The concept of the printing press as a force for stabilization and coherency is often attributed to E. Eisenstein's groundbreaking study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformation in Early-Modern Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. return to text