exploring new business models for scholarly publishing—part 2: via Gravity's Rainbow

"Anyone who isn't confused really doesn't understand the situation."

— Edward R. Murrow

MaryKatherine Callaway (Director, Louisiana State University Press, 2011-2012 AAUP President) shared this nigh-perfect quotation with us in her inaugural address. Its Yogi Berra-like logic captures the vertiginous unrest of the moment in scholarly publishing. Surveying a changing landscape, trying to connect the dots, stars, planets, and chart a new course—in concert with one another and given the gravity of the situation—can be dizzying.

One corner of the problem may be that, at least in some ways, we’re attempting to learn Calculus without Trig and Algebra under our belts, or we’re trying to install a software upgrade on a program we bought back in high school and haven’t used since—there may be several steps missing that the new fixes need to work.

When tackling a shapeless problem it’s sometimes good to go with the gestalt you do know. Within a succinct statement of a well-known corner of the problem perhaps we’ll find a beneficial view to our new solutions—some Wait, …what? goggles or x-ray specs, (if not a secret decoder ring) that we can use to look at b-models a little differently.

The well-known corner is Music and Film. Folks used to point to the Music industry and then to the Film industry and say: What’s good for the goose will make a good publishing platform. I.e., new media-adaptive solutions would work for all us goodly media folk or lead us all to perfect solutions, and, as we know, they often don’t. To which the pointing folks say: Why can’t you be more like your brother?!

The problem with this comparison corner is that we weren’t created equally; we evolved separately. I.e., this is our first magic box; for Music and Film, it’s their second.

If we want to see comparable business models in action, truly how an industry responded to a similar shift, we have to dolly back about a century to when each one’s first magic box happened—Radio and TV. A) How did they respond to that? B) Where did they go from there? And C) How did they, then, make the leap between magic boxes? A + B + C would be the beginning of an apples-to-apples comparison.

ANSWERS to A, B, AND C: Music and Film lived through generations of adapting to life in America as broadcast media before the Internet happened. Whereas: we didn’t. As Callaway said, we kept our heads down; our nose in our technology, if you will.

As a result, we are adapting what are basically 19th century social models to the 21st century world. By comparison with broadcast media, we evolved Balkanized and a bit unique. We’re running Galapagos2.0. They are driving BMWs on the autobahn.

My point (if ever I will find one) = in order to accomplish some of what Callaway asks of us in her address, we may need to imagine an “alternate timeline backstory” for ourselves to get from there back to here again in a way to compete. I.e., the trappings of those changes (evolutionary adaptations) might serve us well—if we were to suddenly transmogrify ourselves to have them.

So, the What if…

What if we had had our own magic box about a century ago—and it doesn’t need a name for a thought experiment, we can use a variable; call it an X box—that had done for books what Radio and TV did for Music and Film, and we had spent the last eight or nine decades as members of the broadcast media in America—how would we have evolved as an industry? Not technologically, but socially, interdependently, communicatively, behaviorally.

To imagine an answer to that question, we may need to loose our pattern-recognition skills on our brothers in arms in the broadcast media: pbs and npr.

As Callaway said: "[B]eyond good communication and good policies, as the task force on scholarly models stated, it's clear that we must also build on synergies within our own universities and in our larger communities, seek out those with similar interests and goals, and work together to build a stronger whole."

So to risk mis-channeling McCracken: Can we see anything of our who-might-have-been selves—in pbs and npr—that could help us build a patch to the new upgrade(s) of ourselves that will make better sense of current options?

Wait, …what?