A letter to my mother from an art publisher in the U.K. this morning mentions "the collapse of orders from the American academic market." After 12 years in the making, our collection of my father's early and little-known papers (on which my mother and a student of my father's have been working interminably) is going to be looking for a new venue. My mother is still determined to issue it in physical form.
In a conversation in July with a major academic publisher, I was told that this year, for the first time, library orders of PDFs have outstripped orders of physical books.
Electronic publication is very convenient, but I'm sure I'm not the only person who has reservations about this development. Issues:
- Persistence. One of my scholarly fields involves manuscripts a thousand and more years old. Over the years, I've bought a couple of dozen editions of reproductions of these things, some with copious commentary and corrigenda. I'm happy at the prospect of more people being able to access these things in electronic format. But it occurs to me that these manuscripts have only survived because they were in physical form. I can imagine much of the written creation of our present day — which is disseminated far more widely than ever in the past — disappearing without a trace because most of it exists only in a state that is transient and much less stable than print (or inscription on stone steles).
- Preparation. Flat text and images are easy to prepare for electronic publication and can be printed into the form of a physical book with almost no trouble on the user's part. Dictionaries, however, have to be organized as structured data in order to be useful, and that requires more complicated computational treatment.