#AcBookWeek: Ecologies of Publishing Futures

On the 23rd November 2015 The Royal College of Art hosted a symposium to discuss the Ecologies of Publishing Futures. The symposium asked ‘How do designers engage in new ecologies and what is the future of publishing?’ Academics, designers, storytellers, publishers, and students spoke about this from international perspectives and debated over the book and its lifecycle, as well as the role of writing, designing, and the processes of mediating, distributing, and reading.

Amongst the speakers was Andrew Prescott, Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and an AHRC Digital Transformation theme Leadership Fellow. He spoke from the perspective of a medievalist who has spent great deal of time studying manuscripts and records (writing his PhD thesis on the record of the Peasant’s Revolt 1381). Throughout his research, Prescott stated he was struck by the need to understand the wealth of information as physical artefacts, as well as just reading them as manuscripts. This work inspired him to continue on as a curator at the British Library, where he was part of a digitisation project which used special lighting techniques to discover the hidden letters underneath the repaired manuscript of Beowulf – burnt in a fire in 1731 and repaired in the nineteenth century. (Note: The Beowulf manuscript has been in The British Library’s possession since 1973 and a digitised version is now available to browse on their website, along with some additional information, here:http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beowulf)

Prescott spoke about how this work and his time at the British Library made him conscious of the hugely varied material forms of textuality. Historical documents can range from clay tablets to sound files and moving images, and, he argued, digital technology can help convey the wide-ranging nature of historical textuality. Digital technology also allows closer contact between libraries, archives, and museums. According to Prescott the important thing to take away from this is that dialogue with artists and designers is essential in articulating fresh perspectives on engagement with historical material. An example he cited was an art project by Fabio Antinori called Data Flags, which was exhibited at the V&A last year. He used conductive ink, which is often thought of as an analogue art form but can turn paper into circuits. Through other examples Prescott suggested that the textuality of art is always changing and shifting with the times and proved that the boundary between primary object, publication and interpretation is starting to be fundamentally restated. Prescott summed up his talk by ending on a somewhat cynical note: while all the possibilities he mentioned are there, people are bit taking advantage of them. His view is that the scholarly environment for an undergraduate today is less media-rich than it was forty years ago. Textbooks during his time as an undergraduate explored the potential of new printing methods, none of which have been followed through on.

Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House, had been given a brief to provide a provocation for the event on the state of digital publishing, so what he provided was a ‘where-we-are-now’ overview to provoke discussion and invite debate. He acknowledged the changes digital publishing is making to the publishing industry and talked about it from the perspective of someone who is in the midst of the shifting landscape.

Using an analogy of William Golding’s The Inheritors Franklin compared the plot of that novel, the collision of Neanderthal men and women with Homo sapiens, the people who would inherit the earth from them with the current state of the publishing industry. The analogy here being the moment of transition between print and digital, a short and historical moment of co-existence. And Franklin suggests that they can thrive with each other instead of being viewed as competitors. He recognises the urgency and potentially demoralising nature of change, but adds that it can also be exciting, depending on your viewpoint. As a digital publisher at Penguin Random House he motivates his team to explore the bleeding edges of this publishing transformation.

During this year Franklin stated he has seen some interesting and willful misinterpretations of what is happening in publishing. The fact of the matter is that 25%+ of publishers’ revenues are coming in via digital and that is not going to reverse. The “takeover” however, has not happened as quickly as people thought it would and Franklin states this is a testament to the formidable power of the printed book. Franklin is adamant that the word processor has not stopped writers continuing and developing the novel form so why should the innovation stop there? Franklin urges publishers to continue to be innovative with change and see what can come from it.

Professor Teal Triggs of the RCA stated that by talking about “ecologies” of the publishing industry, we can strive to understand the process of the lifecycle better and whether proposed models are going to be relevant. It’s important to look at the entire lifecycle, not just the editorial or author aspects but the design and distribution as well. Creative people think differently and their design thinking process can be a catalyst for forwar- thinking throughout the whole industry.


See Dan’s talk write-up here: https://medium.com/@PRHDigital/an-earthquake-in-the-petrified-forest-86f6ffa5c85d#.jpyxy6pmq

See Andrews’s talk write-up here: https://medium.com/digital-riffs/are-we-doomed-to-a-word-of-pdfs-11f57edaf926#.9r1w3lyh2

See twitter hashtag #bookfutures for more information about the symposium and other related events.


Acts of Reading: when, how, and where do academics and their audiences read in the digital age?

How academics and their audiences read is a topic inextricably tied in with the future of the academic book. On the 24th September 2015, Professor Andrew Prescott, Dr Bronwen Thomas, and Professor Miri Rubin, chaired by Dr Sara Perry, discussed Acts of Reading as part of The British Library’s ‘Digital Conversations’ series of events. The event was held at The British Library and co-organised by The Academic Book of the Future project, and was prompted by a previous blog post on a related topic by Prof. Andrew Prescott.

The panel considered such questions as: Have acts of academic reading changed in recent years and are they still changing? What formats and devices are academics reading in and on, and how has this affected their research and writing? What is the future of academic reading, and what consequences will this have for the academic book? How have these changes impacted public consumption of academic research and might this portend for academia and the public in the future?


The panel, as captured by a talented attendee! (© Lisamaria Laxholm: https://twitter.com/LLaxholm/status/647133130697121792)

Migratory reading

Dr Bronwen Thomas (Bournemouth University) began by outlining new opportunities that digital reading offers. She uses email and her university’s Intranet not only for collecting and aggregating links, but also for sharing them with her students. Reading becomes an act of community, of social connection and discussion, but the act of reading is also put off until the links themselves are clicked.

Digital reading offers a greater array of options for academics than hard-copy reading alone. “Even if a book is on my shelf, I am more likely to find a specific quote using a digital search, e.g. on Google Books.” But conversely, as Thomas highlights, citing Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen (which she brought with her to the event – in hard copy format) people tend to do more re-reading in print. The reasons for this are various, although the main one for Thomas is that with physical books there are less likely to be Internet-related distractions, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, emails.

Some researchers have also argued that when reading a physical book there is a greater sense of the internal topography and structure of the book, with readers having more of a sense of themselves within the space of the book, as well as an awareness of external space, and a memory of the situations of reading: How much is left of the book? Where was I when I read this – on the bus, in my office, in the bath? Thomas asks: what counts as reading? Does it finish when you finish the book, or does an insight strike you 5 years later?

Thomas described herself as a migratory reader – migrating between different kinds of modalities and media. She referred to the “PowerPoint state of mind”, an argument often cited with reference to digital reading. It describes a fragmentary style of reading; dipping in and out of texts. This type of reading, Thomas suggests, can occur with both physical and digital texts, but is arguably being heightened by an increase in digital reading.

You can read Bronwen Thomas’ reflection on the event here: http://www.digitalreadingnetwork.com/academic-acts-of-reading-event-at-the-british-library/.

Academic ebooks: pdf hell?

Prof. Andrew Prescott (University of Glasgow, AHRC) reflected on the issue of reading in blog posts before (https://academicbookfuture.org/2015/03/19/my-acts-of-reading-andrew-prescott/) and after the Digital Conversations event at The British Library (http://digitalriffs.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/acts-of-reading-redux.html).

He agreed with Thomas’ assertion regarding the sense-memory of physical books, recalling “one cold Christmas in the 1960s”, when he had received a book as a gift and taken it back to his warm bed to read. Prescott went on to explain why and how he had gradually turned to digital reading, because of the great advantages it offers: ebook devices are lighter to carry than most hard-copy books; there is immediate access to content through downloads, and faster access to recently published books. He described himself as an “e-reading convert” but expressed dissatisfaction with the cost of academic books – he often still has to consult academic books in a library, rather than buying his own copy or e-version. “We need,” he suggests, “an academic text version of iPlayer.”

But has there been a transformation in reading practices, prompted by digital text? Prescott suggests that he doesn’t use his phone or device to do anything that he didn’t already do before: “Pleased as I am with ebooks, they are very very boring products.” Academic ebooks have not, he argues, capitalised on the advantages offered by digital technology for scholarly purposes. For example, it would be incredibly useful, in a history ebook for instance, to link directly to the primary source it refers to – a digitised version of a medieval document, a database of coins, a virtual tour of a long-gone city. Instead, ebooks tend to be glorified pdfs, and fairly flat. “My dystopian view of the future,’ says Prescott, “is that journals will consist of pdfs of journal articles.”

He then went on to say: “this is partly why I got into the Digital Humanities. I want to see ebooks that encourage me to read more deeply.”

Contextual deep reading

Prof. Miri Rubin (Queen Mary University of London) referred to the linguistic turn of the 1990s and the intertextuality of texts, and how this is a useful frame through which to consider academic reading: everything that humans produce and how we communicate with and understand each other is coded in texts. Rubin explained how we have become “supple, multi-skilled readers of text” by learning to deconstruct texts and to acknowledge the importance of context.

Nowadays scholars undertake a great deal of research via databases and searches. Often, we aren’t physically embedded in reading contexts – we are no longer immersed in journals in the stacks, or flicking through pages of physical text, accidentally discovering other information in the process. Rubin asks: Does this new reading change the way we understand content? She gives an example of a colleague who was researching the 1975 referendum. Due to copyright issues, he had to look through the original articles in physical newspapers, rather than viewing them in a digital context. Seeing them embedded in their original contexts, surrounded by the adverts and other articles on the page, the referendum articles took on new meanings and relevance. This is not something that can always be fully appreciated when using digitally-reproduced sources.

But, Rubin asks, what about reading poems, or cult or sacred literature? Are there inherent issues in reading the Lord’s Prayer, for instance, in a fragment? Rubin suggests the “notion that the reading act is not complete until it is complete.”

The academic book of the future: born digital?

Bronwen Thomas recently wrote a textbook that included links to relevant web pages, but she admitted that this is an “unsatisfactory way of trying to connect. The links will probably be dead by the time the book is published.” Seeking permissions for images can also discourage the kind of engaging, interactive e-text that Prescott would like to see. Despite this, Thomas thinks that the academic book of the future will be born digital – conceived as digital right from the outset, and including audio-visual content, links, and interactive features. Rubin added to this, suggesting that academic books of the future should be able to create a completely holistic reading experience for research and writing, for example when researching the Magnificat, the music itself could be playing in the background via an ebook.

On the other hand, Thomas suggests that the idea of the ‘digital native’ is a “mythology” – her students wanted paperbacks, because they thought e-reading devices to be ugly and like something their parents would use. “Books,” Thomas suggests, “are becoming retro, like vinyl, and going into bookshops is visually exciting, so books still hold charm and appeal.”

Measurement and evaluation

Sara Perry highlighted that there are strong links between the analogue and digital, and our ways of reading. Perhaps, she suggests, there are “larger concerns around the sharing economy: bureaucratic shackles, politics, longer-term engagement, personal safety, the divides between communities, surveillance and data analysis, and corporate control.” She questions how acts of reading are affected by the academic contexts in which we find ourselves, for example academics are subject to the REF, the impact agenda, metrics, etc. She cited one of her PhD students who has created video games to advance archaeological research, deploying them alongside the trowel or camera as a toolkit of the archaeologist. This student wants her examiners to literally play her thesis, rather than read it, but she is being forced to battle with the assumption that the PhD should be a monograph. Hence, the game will probably become an appendix at the end of her thesis, eliminating the potential and possibility of it.

AHRC funding encourages people to collaborate and create new book forms and potentially new reading experiences, but whether that is a REF-able output is another matter. Andrew Prescott explains that someone submitted a totem pole to the recent REF, and it was accepted. But whether this is encouraged within the frameworks of individual institutions and their structures is another question. He sees this it as a problem that we have in terms of the structure of knowledge, which “is now being driven more by Wikipedia than academia.”

Finally, there were some thought-provoking questions from the audience:


“I usually forage – for a particular quote or piece of information, but when I find a book I enjoy, I tend to buy it and read it for a different reason. What do you think of re-reading, and what academic books do you re-read and why?”

AP: Vivian Hunter-Galbraith’s book on using Public Records: it has haunted me since I was about 20. Now it is only available in a 1960s reprint. I constantly refer back to it. I would probably buy the ebook, like you said, to find a particular quote more quickly.

BT: For me re-reading is literary re-reading, like reading Jane Eyre 50 times. I re-read it every time I teach it. I don’t read ‘academic’ books in that way.

MR: I do the foraging and the researching but then if like it I buy it and re-read it more fully.


“If you could have access to everything EVER published on something the size of a matchbox, would you say yes?”

AP: It’s not something I would turn down if you offered it to me, but I would point out that this idea is a deception, because in the foreseeable future I don’t think it could exist. Take the example of Tristram Shandy: Sterne went to great effort and expense to insert a DIFFERENT piece of marbled paper in every single one of the first copies of this book. How would you recreate something like this?

BT: Absolutely not: It would be meaningless! Going back to the idea of foraging, part of the process of reading is the discovery, the creation of my own library of content – it would be a meaningless mess of everything.

MR: Yes, absolutely!





The Academic Book of the Future: exploring academic practices and expectations for the monograph

This post was originally published on LSE’s Impact Blog on 24 March 2015 and is reproduced here with their permission.

What does the future hold for academic books? Rebecca Lyons introduces The Academic Book of the Future, a two-year project funded by the AHRC in collaboration with the British Library in which a cross-disciplinary team from University College London and King’s College London explores how scholarly work in the Arts and Humanities will be produced, read, shared, and preserved in coming years, and investigates key questions around the changing state and modern contexts of the academic book.

  • What is an academic book?
  • Who reads them?
  • What can technology do to help make academic books more accessible?
  • How can we make sure academic books, whether print or electronic, are kept safe, and preserved effectively?

Some of these questions – for instance “what is an academic book?” or “who reads them?” appear deceptively simple. However, the academic book is changing – contexts and readers even more so – and therefore these questions have potentially very complex outcomes. As with all the best research questions, they also suggest a huge network of other sub-questions, some of which this two-year project will be addressing in the hopes of finding some answers.

Anyone who uses academic books will have noticed a change (or several) in recent years in the terrain. There is the obvious expansion in the range of available formats, from traditional hardback and paperback books, to the wide world of digital, including epub, HTML, pdf, and so on. These developments, aligned with others in technology, have had a bearing on the ways in which we physically read academic books and the devices we use to access them, from tablets to laptops, pcs to e-readers, and of course not forgetting the humble hard-copy or print-out.

book of futureImage credit: Electronic Book by Tim Noko (Flickr, CC BY-SA)

Consequently, our acts of academic reading have changed. As Andrew Prescott highlights: we can now download academic biographies of long-dead monarchs whilst ‘trundling through the West Wales countryside’ on a bus. Not only this, but with an increasingly urgent and complex set of demands on academics’ time, including admin, research, writing, teaching, and putting together funding bids, the style and level of academic reading itself may have also changed. Geoff Crossick suggests, in his recent HEFCE Monographs and Open Access Project report:

It is felt by many that today’s scholars lack the time to read books thoroughly, and it is feared that the academic skill of ‘deep reading’ may become, or have already become, devalued or lost. The emergence of new technologies for information production and retrieval, the ability readily to download book chapters and journal articles, and changing societal expectations around information being readily and instantaneously available, might be compounding these fears that the monograph, and the academic practices that surround it, are becoming an unloved relic of a bygone age. (p. 22)

The transition into the digital age has also brought with it some pressing questions about the traditional shape, size, and format of academic books. With more and more research taking an interdisciplinary, digitised, and innovative approach, new outputs are being produced by researchers which increasingly trouble the traditional the boundaries and definitions of the traditional arts and humanities monograph. Where, for instance, do blogs fit in? – and more importantly, how are they credited and recognised by the academy – if at all? Michael Piotrowski considers books vs blogs in terms of academic prestige in a previous post on this blog, and in doing so also touches upon some other topical issues with a huge bearing on the academic book in modern academia, namely impact and recognition. In a post-REF world where impact is king, and where departments and researchers are measured by the amount of research they can publish, how are non-traditional outputs weighed and measured in the Arts and Humanities? And what about non-traditional publication methods, such as open access?

It should be obvious from this incredibly brief introduction alone that academic books and their contexts have changed, and are still changing, dramatically. We are barely scratching the surface here. How are libraries and publishers working in these changing modern contexts? What’s happening with academic books in the global south? What about non-English academic books? The Academic Book of the Future Project aims to bring researchers, publishers, librarians, booksellers, and everyone with a stake in the academic book into dialogue with each other in order to get to grips with some of these issues, and to help inform forward steps (including REF 2026). The Project is, at its core, an investigative conversation that uses a wide range of mini-projects and events to prompt meaningful discussion.

The pinnacle of the Project’s activity for 2015 is Academic Book Week (9-16 November 2015). #AcBookWeek is a week-long series of events taking place across the UK and internationally to celebrate the diversity, innovation and influence of academic books, culminating in an Awards Ceremony at the British Library. If you are in any way involved with academic books – whether it is writing them, producing them, selling them, or reading them – we invite you to get involved with this week, and with the wider Project, too. Join in the conversation, and help us to identify – and even shape – the academic book of the future.

Email the Project: Rebecca.lyons@ucl.ac.uk
Tweet the Project: @AcBookFuture
Follow the Project blog: https://academicbookfuture.org/blog/
Project website: https://academicbookfuture.org/

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the Author

Rebecca Lyons is the Research Associate on The Academic Book of the Future Project. She is also a PhD researcher at the University of Bristol, exploring fifteenth-century book history and female ownership of Arthurian literature in England during this period, and she keeps her own blog on the Middle Ages and postgraduate study: https://medievalbex.wordpress.com/