Pressbooks, Monographs, and the Essence of the Book

Earlier this week I took part in a panel discussion at UBC on “Why Do We Need Academic Publishing in the Digital Age,” organized by the smart folks at UBC Press. The discussion touched on a variety of topics in scholarly communication, peer production, and the role of editorial, and we ran out of time before we really got into the meaty part of this really enormous conversation.

One of the meatiest questions that was proposed, which we only barely got started on, was about whether we are “inexorably moving to a post-book world.” I think this issue is of foundational importance to scholarly presses, who have for many decades organized themselves around the exacting demands of the scholarly monograph—a paragon of bookish essence which, like the literary novel, is difficult to imagine as anything other than what it already is.

Given the enormous movement in scholarly communications to adopt more open and fluid means of sharing both activity and results (e.g., the OA journal movement, the rise of social media, and the advent of massive database-driven publications like PLoS One, etc.), it’s hard to look at the role of the scholarly book in quite the same light. Releasing monographs as ebooks and even making them Open Access doesn’t fundamentally change what the monograph is nor what it’s intended to represent: the culmination of serious scholarship in a painstakingly produced, long-lasting, milestone in the scholarly record. How exactly does that model fit as we go forward into the digital age? Should we assume that because the scholarly book is so important that it will simply endure, while everything around it changes? I’m not at all confident about that.

At Books in Browsers last month, Pressbooks’ Hugh McGuire made an important comment about the nature of the book while considering how the book might be “opened” to the larger web of ideas and media. Hugh said:

A book is a discrete, collection of text (and other media), that is designed by an author(s) as an internally complete representation of an idea, or set of ideas; emotion or set of emotions; and transmitted to readers in various formats. (“Opening the Book”)

Juxtaposed to the ongoing fluidity of the Web, the book’s boundedness and “internal completeness” are what critically set it apart. Now, people have said all sorts of things around the definition of a book, but I feel that as we try to plot the future of publishing, Hugh’s statement of the essence of bookishness is about as spot-on as any I’ve read. And I think it fits really well with what the scholarly monograph is all about.

And yet…

Even if boundedness and completeness are what we ultimately value about the book (as opposed to other forms), it does not follow that these characteristics are the be-all and end-all of information and media. Or, put better, we needn’t take boundedness and completeness as a prescription for what serious media ought to be. Our challenge is to look beyond that.

So, for scholarly presses considering their own essence—and the role of the monograph in that—I think it’s important to not rely on the traditional status of the complete and bounded work as the paradigm.

A scholarly press is in the business of assembling, preparing, and distributing the authoritative voices on the topics in which it specializes. But authority is not going to be sustained by merely resisting the messy fluidity of the Web in favour of the anchor of older institutional forms. Instead, I think authority will only be achieved—in a new, digital environment—by a process of organic re-development, by way of going into the fluid webbiness of new media, and in doing so re-establishing the institutions and processes that actually confer it.

As my co-panelist Darcy Cullen—an acquisitions editor at UBC Press—recently pointed out in her excellent new book, Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text, the traditional mode of establishing textual authority is wrapped up in the system of material and visual cues—the “bibliographic codes” or “paratext”—that give institutional context to a work. “These elements,” Cullen suggests, quoting bibliographic scholar D.C. Greetham, ‘are the formalist “envelope” without which the book does not have existence, let alone meaning…’’(p13).

While this analysis explicitly and deliberately includes ‘electronic texts,’ we can’t simply make a substitution of the materiality of print for the materiality of an ebook (as the Kindle and its peers attempt). The new materiality of texts in the digital age is something that is much richer and more complex, and it has only begun to unfold for us. We will have to look to the evolving information landscape of the Web and digital media to gain any sense of how this new materiality—and the authority structures that accrue—actually plays out.

In light of this, Hugh McGuire’s Pressbooks project is a milestone. It represents a critical step towards (or perhaps a critical achievement in) reducing “the book” to its fundamental webby fluidity (as opposed to its stable ink and paperness), while preserving that guiding metaphor of the bounded, internally complete book. This is a fulcrum point. What Pressbooks allows is the deconstruction of the book’s traditional materiality, allowing it to then be re-constructed in a web-native mode, without throwing away the essence of what a book is, especially for those genres like the monograph, literary novel, extended memoir, that we hold most dear in our hearts and on our bookshelves.

How then will the authoritative structure and form of the book (or perhaps, of its successor?) be re-established in a web-native mode? We don’t yet know—the current form of the ebook is pretty underwhelming on this front—but it strikes me that we won’t figure it out until we become “web native” ourselves, taking our cherished notions of what books and scholarly authority are with us.

Darcy Cullen’s book further elaborates on a critical notion, drawn from Peter Shillingsburg, that the structures of bookishness and bibliographic authority well precede a text’s publication—precede even initial contact with an editor or publisher—because the structure and form of the book is always already in the minds of authors. We have all grown up with the book and its institutions. And so it’s not until we as a culture internalize the structures and possibilities of the digital, networked age that we will begin to truly write for it. We need to go through this time of de- and re-construction before we can (again, organically) begin to re-imagine what the book, or its successor, might be like.