Is There a Place for DIY in Scholarly Publishing? Lulu Says Yes (and may not be wrong)

Art from Frankfurt Bookfair, 2010 (CC0 1.0)

Lulu has announced the launch of a new online publishing platform that it is calling Glasstree. If you’ve heard of Lulu before you probably know it as one of several heavyweight players in the self-publishing arena, alongside Amazon (Kindle Direct), Apple (iBooks Author), and iUniverse. What makes the Glasstree announcement intriguing is that Lulu is explicitly setting its sights on “academic and scholarly authors and communities.” In other words, Lulu wants to be a scholarly book publisher.

What are the chances that Lulu’s experiment will succeed? At first glance, it sure seems unlikely. As popular as self-publishing has become (DIY titles account for over 40% of all trade eBook sales), any impact it has had on the academy has thus far been modest. After all, one of the bedrock principles of scholarly publishing is gatekeeping (i.e. letting in the good; keeping out the bad), a principle that seems fundamentally at odds with the self-publishing tenets of fast, easy, and low-cost. Indeed, DIY publishing companies pride themselves on minimizing the barriers to publication—surely a sign that Lulu faces an uphill battle. And yet, a closer look at the Glasstree website suggests that Lulu has a strategy that is at least worth watching.

To its credit, Lulu doesn’t hide its intentions. Visitors to the Glasstree home page are immediately greeted with a barrage of not-so-subtle one-liners aimed squarely at appealing to scholarly authors:

PUBLISH AND PROSPER

 

Glasstree Returns Control to Academic Authors

 

Experience Scholarly Publishing in a Whole New Way

 

A Better Publication Model for Academic Authors

What author doesn’t want more control over the publishing process or, for that matter, a chance to publish and prosper? You’ve certainly got my attention. Then comes the real sales pitch:

The existing academic publishing model is broken, with traditional commercial publishers charging excessive prices for books or ridiculous book publishing charges to publish Open Access books.

The give-away here is the mention of “traditional commercial publishers,” an obvious reference to the handful of conglomerate publishers that now control a sizable share of the academic monograph market—publishers including Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Taylor & Francis, which together churn out thousands of monographs each year at list prices that routinely exceed $100 per volume. Indeed, as one reads on it becomes clear that Lulu is appealing not so much to scholars working on their first (i.e. tenure) book but to experienced scholars; specifically, experienced scholars who have published previously with a commercial academic press and who feel burned by the experience. The following paragraphs reel off a familiar litany of complaints that one might hear outside the book exhibit hall of pretty much any scholarly conference:

Academics or their supporting institutions are poorly paid for their content. Profit margins are strongly skewed towards the publisher, with crumbs for the author and/or their employers. Submission to publication times are far too lengthy and service and marketing support insufficient.

 

Besides the lack of editorial assistance, marketing support, and a complete absence of urgency, traditional academic publishers are now often viewed as cherishing profits over the advancement of knowledge, and accommodate their shareholders over their authors.

Some of these complaints surely could be leveled against university presses, but the real target here is obviously commercial publishers, viz. the presses that cherish profits over advancement of knowledge while accommodating the interests of shareholders over authors. Indeed, it is this resentment-stoking aspect of Glasstree’s appeal that surely has a chance of resonating with a specific subset of authors—those both inside and outside the academy who are not subject to the pressures of tenure and promotion and therefore can afford to publish their books wherever they want. While it is hard to imagine most research universities taking a Glasstree book seriously for tenure, I can certainly see established scholars, particularly productive ones who are no longer in need of a monograph for promotion, using a service like Glasstree to publish “labor of love” books or books that grow out of side projects that wouldn’t count anyway toward career advancement—or simply books that no university press will take on. In short, Glasstree could be an attractive outlet for any number of books that typically would go to commercial academic publishers more so than university presses.

Of course, some will argue that commercial academic publishers, despite their faults, still employ peer review. It may not be as rigorous or as consistent as the peer review done by university presses, but it is certainly more than what one gets from a self-publishing company. But this is where Lulu’s plans for Glasstree really get interesting. According to the Glasstree website, Lulu is also launching Glassleaf Academic Services, which offers “peer review, all forms of editing, illustration and design, translation and professional marketing services. These services are designed for the academic community and are offered at affordable prices.” Lulu does this by offering tiered service packages (1-Star, 2-Star, & 3 Star) that start “as low as $2,625” and can go up over $8,000. Books can then be published in a variety of formats—both softcover and hardcover as well as eBooks, including Open Access eBooks.

It is unclear who will be doing all of this work but it seems that Lulu actually plans to hire living and breathing people—Content Project Managers—to at least oversee some form of peer review, copyediting, design, and marketing, even if they have some way of automating the work to exploit economies of scale. Here’s what the website specifically says about peer review:

Peer Review: Strengthening Your Content
This service is designed to save you time and effort in gathering peer reviews of your work. A Glassleaf Content Project Manager will manage the entire peer review process and consolidate feedback for you. Your Content Project Manager will compose a questionnaire and share it with you for review prior to distributing it with your content. The number of reviewers will vary according to discipline and your preference.

 

After the review process is complete, your Content Project Manager will provide you with the actual peer reviews and, in a summary report, will highlight significant and consistent commentary from your peers’ comments. After the report is compiled, you will meet with your Content Project Manager to review the summary of the reviewer’s commentary.

It is also worth noting that Glassleaf plans to offer 3 types of peer review: open, single blind, and double blind. Authors will be responsible for paying reviewer fees although the Content Production Manager will “negotiate the lowest possible fees on the author’s behalf.”

Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster (Source: Cassell’s History of England, Vol. 2, 1909)

Once again, I want to reiterate my overall skepticism that this type of DIY publishing will have a serious impact, at least for now, on scholarly monograph publishing as it interlocks with the current T&P system. In this, university presses still have a unique role to play. Still, one can’t help but wonder if Lulu isn’t onto something. Might they have found a sweet spot between the two endpoints of the scholarly publishing spectrum, non-profit university presses on the one end and commercial publishers on the other? The missing piece for self-publishing companies like Lulu has always been quality control, but as the quality of commercially published books continues to fall and price tags continue to rise, the Glasstree model has some definite advantages. Even the pay-for-services aspect doesn’t seem so foreign now that various proposals are being considered for subvention-funded (i.e. pay-to-publish) OA monographs. Perhaps the emergence of companies like Glasstree will force us, at last, to get a grip on what it costs to produce scholarly books and, more importantly, find ways to actually drive down those costs.

No matter how you look at it, the once-staid world of scholarly publishing is getting messier and messier. And it’s only going to get more so. According to the Glasstree website, Lulu has its sights set on more than just books:

Glasstree, in its initial phase, will publish books—monographs, thesis, series, serials, textbooks, etc. (both soft and hardcover, with a range of paper types, binding types, etc.), and eBooks (including Open Access eBooks). Future phases will focus on article based publishing, journals, conference proceedings, data sets, etc.

We all need to brace ourselves for what lies ahead.

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About Peter Potter

Peter Potter is Director, Publishing Strategy, at Virginia Tech’s University Libraries. A historian by training (B.A. Virginia Tech; M.A. University of Virginia), he has devoted his professional career to scholarly publishing, most recently serving as editor in chief at Cornell University Press. In this current role at Virginia Tech he is charged with assessing the research and scholarly environments at the university in order to guide the Libraries’ long-term planning in the area of publishing services. 
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