My First Open-Access E-Book
By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University
In academic publishing, there are few warning signs before a contract is cancelled. This was so for an editor, to whose project I had contributed multiple works. We had all conducted research, drafted chapters, created data visualizations, engaged in double blind peer reviews, revised our own works, and settled on a fully developed manuscript. Near the end of the development cycle, there came concerning media reports of a novel coronavirus, first affecting people abroad. Then there came word of human-to-human transmissions. And then, suddenly, it was breaking on our shores and inundating us all. Amidst the emergency declarations and stay-at-home orders came word from the editor, who had forwarded an email.
I hope all is well with you and your family during this uncertain time as the global COVID-19 health pandemic is impacting everyone around the world substantially. Regrettably, the negative global economic impacts of this crisis are enormous, and it has been felt within all industries around the globe including the publishing industry. Like many other businesses, --- has been forced to review all its business activities and structures to make the necessary adjustments to deal with this crisis and navigate through this uncertain time.
The publisher was cancelling its contract with the editor as a matter of survival. (Indeed, academic book publishers mostly have very thin margins. Most will not publish a work unless an identified market of buyers—college students—has been pre-identified. Others have a business strategy of collecting as many quality works as possible to shore up digital content libraries that are accessible through paid subscriptions. Or they have combinations of strategies for viability.) I have a continuing professional relationship with the publisher, which has a high level of professionalism and ethics and the best of intentions. However, Job 1 of any company is survival, which means a sufficient cash flow for operations.
All the individual copyrights to the respective works reverted to the respective authors, and the integrated cohesive concept of the work was no more. The title initially held for an ISBN was released. We were on our own.
Right after notification, I suggested that the editor pursue publication of the entire revised manuscript with another publisher with whom I had a prior distant relationship. Then, as more economic data emerged, that did not look as promising, even though my contact had been encouraging of the outreach. At that time, while waiting the 4-6 weeks for an answer, I decided to explore an open-access publishing option so as not to lose out on the sunk costs to the respective works. A year of work had been invested in the project, and the folder with the respective research files, datasets, data visualizations, and such (both raw and finished files) totaled 19 GB, some 17,779 files, and 69 folders. (When publishing in another’s edited work, the only “payment” is one complimentary copy of the published book—often in a .pdf format, and not even a print work. In other words, the “loss” of going to open-access is minimal, and then the published work is theoretically much more available to the larger world and is no-cost and free to readers / users. Editors of collections receive a small percent in royalties, but these are often just a few hundred dollars in the lifespan of an academic book. In terms of investments, thousands of dollars of published contents are read and some selected, used, and cited. There are many weeks to months invested into a chapter manuscript. That is not to mention all the work with review, revision, and everything else involved.) In general, simultaneous manuscript submissions are not appropriate; however, time is also of the essence when protecting work, so explorations of other possibilities are possible as long as the active offer is not contravened.
An open-access publisher on campus. Several weeks prior, I had attended some online sessions presented by faculty about “open-access” week, an endeavor at Kansas State University encouraging faculty to create their own online learning contents to help students save on textbook fees. (This is about disintermediating between editors at the commercial content providers and substituting for professional presses.) One of my co-PIs on a grant application under consideration had presented on Pressbooks, the open-source technology underlying many electronic books. He showed how easy it was to upload a formatted Word file into Pressbooks, which handled the general layouts and had a range of book styles that could be applied.
After some exploration and the support of my direct supervisor, I was given an account on New Prairie Press’s instance of Pressbooks at the university. The deal was that I would learn the tool, upload the manuscript, and wait to hear on the decisions made by the second commercial publisher. The benefit was that I would have the knowledge of how to use the tool for other instructional design projects on campus (at least two could possibly use this capability). I would simply delete the project if the commercial press greenlighted the project. If not, then I would go to open-access publishing. (I had considered Open Books Publishing, which has a superb reputation; however, in the fine print of their author manual, they advised pursuing book grants and dropped the note that it cost about £5,000. That seemed expensive, with funds tight all around. And indeed, I later found that a full layout only “cost” me about four days of work, even with the learning curve of the new technology.)
Initial questions. Initially, I had some basic questions I wanted to answer, and most were technology-based ones:
- How well would the .jpgs in MS Word come out? These were 350 dpi and rendered from the .tif files for publication. The .jpgs were preferred in Word because of their much smaller size, and the visuals were essentially placeholders for me to integrate the visuals optimally within the text.
- How much effort would it take to render a book from print into digital format using Pressbooks?
- How would a book written for print generally play out on a digital platform? Would it work even without those elements that are more interactive and more engaging?
Some of the questions were socio-political ones:
- How would this work stand up against other holdings in the book collection?
- Would the campus politics enable this work to achieve publication even without a target learner audience?
Regardless, I treated the work as a learning exercise to better understand the platform.
Steps from “Commercial Print” to “Open-Access Digital”
The work went as follows.
1) Re-framing and reordering the chapters. Chapters submitted to another’s edited project means that how the editor (or editorial team) frames the concepts will “color” the respective chapters. In this case, I had to extract the seven chapters and reconceptualized them separately from the original edited book. My areas of focus are limited to my interests and capabilities, and that had to be reflected in a more focused book title. I had to find an overarching concept that explained the works and also that enabled them to stand on their own. After the title, I reworked the parts of the book to help in orientating readers to the contents. There is an overall trajectory, too, in terms of the respective play on the main concept (social world sensing through social media and in particular, social imagery). Also, the reframing meant I had to add an introduction and an epilogue, so I wrote those up and added decorative visuals.
2) Uploading the Word files. After a run-through of the respective contents, I went ahead and uploaded all the chapters, so I could see how the respective works looked and how they “played together” digitally. (What I should have done was uploaded one chapter, evaluated how it looked, and then reformatted the draft chapters. However, it was not until later that I started to understand the nuances of style and tables and other aspects of the platform.) It turns out that tables from MS Word do not show well on the platform, and I had to rework every single one, in some cases losing the shading of intensity tables in order to get the border formatting to work. The borders themselves have a limited range of options for a book, and those have to be set appropriately to the contents and the overarching book layout style (I chose “Baker Theme” for mine).
About the layout themes, I have some simple criteria. It has to solve more problems than it creates, and it has to represent the contents in a readable way. There is something about, “You’ll know it when you see it” in the selection, along with the reasoned aspects. Beyond that, there is also nothing perfect, so one goes with what one has access to. (Readers can change their visual look-and-feel in some electronic book versions via in-app settings and / or on web browsers. These personal preference options enable improved accessibility.)
The platform itself is flexible and encouraging of updates, and I found myself adding pull quotes, separator visuals, sidebar boxes, and other layout features. While it seems “unfriendly” not to enable social commenting, I have learned from other projects that the broad public includes various trolls and spammers who will take advantage of any gap.
Figure 1: My Book Project in Pressbooks
3) Creating a visual book cover. With open-access, the author has to commission a cover or make one (that is original and does not contravene anyone else’s copyright). That said, the platform itself offers a wide range of options in the cover creation.
4) Checking against the “print” and “digital” pdf outputs. Initially, a day or two into the project, I thought that it was done. However, my colleague at the Center for the Advancement of Digital Scholarship (CADS) suggested that I look at the exported .pdf files to catch some of the formatting challenges.
5) Proofing. In the case of open-access publishing, the proofing is the responsibility of the author. For those who have been in the field a while, it helps to approach a work with a fresh mind…to use all available technologies for the evaluations…and to clean everything up. (Usually, this is done as early as possible, with the finalized Word files. In the real, the proofing phase is for a few straggling new citations and layout errors by the commercial company’s book production team).
6) Go, no-go? The final decision on whether to continue with the publication will depend on the ultimate decision made by the second commercial publisher, which has the right of first refusal for my work. I am somewhat ambivalent about whether it is the commercial print press or the open-access one as long as the work makes it into the public. In either case, I will be working on marketing endeavors and working to drive traffic to the resource. I know I’ll be giving information away about readership, which is kept by others, regardless.
Some General Lessons about Academic Book Publishing
Meanwhile, I have learned some general lessons about academic book publishing.
1. The rationale for a text has to be intrinsic because the extrinsic motivators are limited and provisional. The fundamentals of book publishing are disincentivizing. Without that internal drive, a person cannot actually produce or stay the course; a person will drop out.
Law, policy, and professional ethics abidance
2. Any text has to follow a raft of laws related to intellectual property (including copyright), accuracy, reputational protections (non-defamation, non-libel), privacy protections (media releases), and other considerations. A work takes a year at least to build, and any breaking of adherence to the laws compounds risk.
3. Any text has to follow the conventions (and professional ethics) of research.
4. The original Word files should be as complete and correct as possible because fixing a digital manuscript on-the-fly online will be make-work otherwise. Also, the original Word files should be fully and accurately styled (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.).
5. An online book looks much more engaging with a lot of relevant (and original) visuals.
6. Open-access does something positive for the soul. It heads off having to turn down a raft of requests for access via social publishing platforms (because one would be contravening signed contracts with commercial publishers). This assumes that one has internalized all the various standards related to work in this space, so that the “open-access” does not end up as a “vanity” project.
Finally, as an addendum, Social World Sensing via Social Image Analysis from Social Media (2020) is live! The e-book may be downloaded in either a print or digital form of the PDF. Or, in the online book, the Contents may be seen in the dropdown to the left...and the respective chapter-for-reading on the right.
Figure 2. Social World Sensing...Online
About the Author
Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
She is eliciting chapters for a book titled "Practical Peer-to-Peer Teaching and Learning on the Social Web."
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