What is the future of book publishing?

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David McDade

David McDade looks back at 10 years of IOP ebooks publishing and reviews the highs and lows of launching a book programme

What are the biggest challenges in scholarly book publishing? 

The challenge of innovating in scholarly books is an interesting one. If we picture a spectrum of technological development, we can imagine traditional print books at one end, progressing through flat PDFs and then formats like ePub that can facilitate more dynamic and interesting features on the other end. Moving further out, we might consider additional enhancements that lie outside the book itself via web links, or the inclusion of relevant code and data sets. Beyond that might lie, for example, online courses which have evolved from popular student textbooks, or digital reference libraries which are essentially databases of chapters or encyclopaedia-style entries.

I would argue that, although all these products may share some common DNA, the spectrum of innovation described above has already extended beyond what most people consider to be a book. Courseware and reference works absolutely have their own utility but people still like books. Readers understand, within certain parameters, what to expect from a book: what it will do for them, how much information it will contain, how much it will cost. As part of the experience of writing, authors value the experience of holding a physical book in their hands and putting it on their shelf once the hard work has been done. That’s why, despite being a born-digital book programme, IOP ebooks are also produced in print.

So, the challenge is to find the right balance between innovation and tradition – not for the sake of tradition itself but because of the enduring value and appeal of the book format as a container of knowledge. I think we’re in a good place with that right now, but we are always looking at new possibilities that fit our authors’ and customers’ needs.

What are your thoughts on open access book publishing?

Open access is, of course, another type of innovation in the industry. The landscape for OA books is much less evolved and standardised than in the journal world – certainly regarding the STM (scientific, technical, and medical) disciplines that my organisation operates in. It’s a different story in the social sciences and humanities where the book is often the format of choice for sharing primary research findings and where funding support is driving change at a faster pace.

That said, OA is an option that our authors are likely to seek out on an increasingly frequent basis in the years to come and we are continually monitoring the new and innovative models that our fellow publishers are developing in this space. We can learn a lot from their experiences.

What have you learned from working in book publishing? 

I feel privileged that my career has taken me around the world and allowed me to meet talented scientists working in many different fields. As a humanities graduate, I have always valued gaining some insights – if only very superficial ones – into their work and the ways in which the vast landscape of scientific research connects across disciplines. That remains a thrill.

What are you most excited about for the future of IOP ebooks?

It takes many years and a great deal of perseverance from publishing teams to establish a brand-new book programme and I see the first ten years as only the beginning. It’s been exciting to see the momentum gradually build as authors and readers have come to know about what we’re doing, and to seek to be a part of it. In those ten years we have published almost 800 books and there are hundreds more in the pipeline. That feels like an achievement. So, I’m excited to see that progress continue and for our programme to become even better known and read.

Another thing I feel incredibly positive about is the role of the book in the scholarly ecosystem. Books tend not to be at the cutting edge in the way that journals are, but I believe they play a crucial role in making sense of the research, providing accessible gateways into the primary literature, and of course facilitating the teaching and learning of new generations of researchers. As the world’s research output continues to snowball in volume every year, I believe the role of books in providing some signal in the noise will be more valuable than ever.

And, back to technology, there are things on the horizon like augmented reality which could be useful in bridging the physical and digital book worlds. Turning that into a viable business model is another thing, but the tech is exciting.

If you could have published one book in history, what would it have been and why? 

I should probably go for a ground-breaking work of science like On the Origin of Species or a profound work like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus but, since I get to choose, I’ll say something by Cormac McCarthy who is one of my favourite writers.

If you weren’t in publishing, what would you be doing? 

Reading, travelling, and dabbling in music.