Susan Wallace Boehmer, our Editor-in-Chief, recently took part in a forum on scholarly publishing organized by Bookbuilders of Boston. The text below comes from her talk, which she informally called “What’s Changing and What’s Not as HUP Goes Digital.”
What I like about books are not the usual things people mention as they wring their hands about the world going digital. It’s not the smell of ink on paper, the tactile turning of pages, the lending and giving of your favorite books to friends and family, the practicality of books for beach reading (no worries about sand, water, batteries). It’s not the usefulness of books as coasters for a cup of hot coffee, or the social cachet that comes from having a well-stocked library in your home.
Don’t get me wrong: I like the physicality of books quite a lot—as an avid book owner. But as an editor, and more important a reader, what I like about scholarly books is something else.
More than anything, I like their length. I prefer ideas and opinions and narratives that are just too complicated, too nuanced, to fit into a New Yorker article, or a Wikipedia entry, or a series of public lectures. But at the same time, I like the boundedness of books—the sense you get at the end of 300 or 400 pages that you really have a good firm grip on the subject. This is of course an illusion—there are dozens of other books out there that grab the subject in quite a different way. But the feeling that you’ve mastered something—however fleeting—is what keeps me going back to books. What you feel at the end of a good book is kind of like a runner’s high—though I guess we should call it a reader’s high.
Another thing I like about scholarly books is their table of contents. When I was a developmental editor, I’d sometimes tell authors that I wanted them to write three things for me. The first one was an ad: 250 words that would persuade readers that of all the books in all the bookstores in all the world, this is the one you must read next—buy it! Of course the true purpose of this writing exercise was to get authors to focus their own minds on what their book was all about.
The second thing I asked authors to write was a novel. Needless to say, I didn’t really want them to write a novel, but this was my way of telling authors that every book, nonfiction as well as fiction, must tell a good story—and they should never let an irrelevant truth get in the way of that.
The third thing I asked my authors to write was a poem. And this is what the table of contents is: it’s a little piece of verse that signifies and anticipates all kinds of mysterious, enlightening things to come. A table of contents, like a poem, has to be aware of meter and form, metaphor and echo, alliteration and allusion. It has to be lyrical. It has to sing.
The table of contents leads to another thing I like about nonfiction books, which is their division into chapters. Chapters are not like essays. Essays—in a magazine, let’s say—relate to one another sort of the way out-of-town first cousins relate at a family reunion. They have polite conversations, and maybe you’ll notice a little family resemblance, but mostly they come together briefly and then they go away to live their separate lives. Chapters in a book relate to one another the way siblings do: every one of them is looking around at every other one, all the time, sizing them up and figuring out when to play together and when to get out of the way. A book with chapters is a tight-knit little family: there’s tension in every relationship, but they’re still all in it together.
In serious book-length nonfiction, I also like the interactivity of text with illustrations, graphs, tables, notes. In other words, the things I, as a reader, like about scholarly books can be very readily transported from print to digital. And when you do that, you get some important bonuses.
The most talked about bonus, in this Kindle age, is transportability: you can carry a hundred pounds of books with you on one small electronic device.
Readers of ebooks also get searchability: you don’t have to depend on a static, sometimes inadequate index—you can search for any word or phrase you want.
Discoverability is another big plus with ebooks. In both Google-type searches and library-system searches, listings for ebooks are starting to appear above print listings because the digital edition can immediately connect people with the information they’re seeking.
Ebooks also increase availability. To get a book, you don’t have to live near a bookstore or library or be within reach of UPS. This is a huge advantage for developing countries, and it’s a new way for HUP to fulfill its mission, which is to disseminate scholarship around the world.
Finally, there is accessibility. Ebooks are wonderful for people with failing eyesight, weak muscles, and reduced mobility.
So, one of the big questions we’re asking ourselves at HUP these days is not “How do we save the printed book?” though we certainly hope to do that. The questions we’re asking are “How can we save the unique features of a scholarly book that make it such a valuable form of communication? How do we preserve a book’s boundaries, if the book no longer has a binding? How do we promote a book’s authoritativeness, along with its authorship? How do we save the contents, when the container—cloth cover, paperback, ebook—is constantly changing?”
Now, I realize that boundedness, authoritativeness, and static content are not the things that most people get excited about when they speak of Web 2.0. They want interactive information sharing, interoperability, collaborative creativity, wikis, and so on. They want people “in conversation” with one another.
Those are very good things, and we want them too. But when all is said and done, HUP’s core business is publishing scholarly books, both print and digital. Our editors work closely with our authors to put together the best book we can possibly make—long but bounded; well-organized into chapters by a table of contents; authoritative as well as authorial. And then, as the architects like to say, we put it out in the rain. Other people in the field will check the argument carefully for leaks, and they’ll start to talk about what they’ve found—on blogs and journals and social networks. Sometimes, our authors will join in, and the debate will become lively, maybe even heated. And what they or others learn from this exchange will, perhaps, become the basis for a new Harvard book.
So what is a “Harvard book”? We’re not about heirloom gardening, or the science of winemaking, or field guides to birds of the Northeast. We’re about the evolution of childhood, the black freedom struggle, the failures of capitalism, religion in a secular age. Our authors address philosophical questions about human capabilities, the idea of justice, the notion of common sense. They explore the Islamic Awakening in Saudi Arabia, the making of modern India, the life and legacy of Deng Xiaoping. They raise legal questions about constitutional originalism and capital punishment, and probe cultural questions ranging from the tribal imagination in civilized society to the role of copying in the digital age. As the media landscape rapidly shifts around us, we believe that books from scholarly presses have become more essential than ever before as resources for understanding critical issues facing the world today.
The point I would like to make is this: At a time when so much talk in university presses centers around adapting to our collective digital future, Harvard Press continues to be an editorially-driven publishing house. And at a time when so many people are decrying the death of the liberal arts, we are making the humanities the centerpiece of our book-publishing program, and indeed the focus of our global mission. To fulfill that mission, we, like other scholarly publishers, are taking bold, responsible steps in new directions, but we are continuing to stand firmly by that marvelous creation we call the book.