‘Academic Book of the Future’, a BOOC review

In a previous post I discussed the importance of really creative design in the layout of books, no matter their genre. At some point, however, the traditional format(s) of the scholarly book runs into some pretty serious limitations. What can we as scholars and editors do to smash through the limitations of  the book, to imbue it with new affordances?

This is a question that fascinates me, and it has so many possible answers. The limitations of publication – largely legacies of analog conventions being transferred over to digital environments – need to be routinely interrogated, stretched, and broken. Books must escape the prison of the PDF if they are to thrive in digital spaces. It is necessary to create new intellectual space and express scholarly creativity in traditional modes, but also to press ahead in reforming form as well as content.

A personal favourite experiment is Elisabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse’s Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life (2012, punctum books). The book appears in both an artfully edited print edition (available print-on-demand or as a PDF download for a small donation) and an interactive companion web-book (here). This book was, and still is, an audacious experiment in publishing convention, and one that we can all learn from. In the digital era, a book is what you think it is. Experimentation is crucial, and punctum books continues to offer a safe environment and atelier for the creative scholar and editor (as is the journal postmedieval).

It was this sentiment that birthed the subject of my book review, another notable attempt to comprehensively expand and change the parameters of the scholarly book within a more formal and funded collaboration. This book is the fruit of the UK AHRC-funded project The Academic Book of the Future. One of the major outcomes of this exciting project is BOOC (Books as Open Online Content), a new publishing format produced in collaboration with UCL Digital Press. The first BOOC in the new series (also called The Academic Book of the Future) is an attempt to push for a new and expanded standard in the production of online edited volumes, incorporating traditional text, blog posts, ephemera such as tweets (and the increasingly-crucial Storify), and the ever-more common medium of conference audio recordings/video.

BOOC

The book (and BOOC) is a breath of fresh air, and shows the efforts of meticulous planning, a pragmatic application of editorial creativity, awareness of the modes in which twenty-first century scholarship emerges, and the ways in which the twenty-first century scholar reads and re-reads. In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a fan.

The BOOC format encapsulates a variety of essays and perspectives at once, succeeding at a task that a conventional book would not be capable of. It is broken down by format (there are blue essays, green blog posts, pink Storifys and orange videos of presentations). The content types are also organised by category (show all, academia, publishing, libraries and bookselling). The volume makes concessions to the traditions of the print book – it has an introduction, for example – but presents a Table of Contents that gathers the diverse strands of internet scholarship. Online scholarly activity generates a rich plethora of content – SoundCloud recordings, YouTube videos, tweets, SketchFab objects, visualisations, graphics, text – that need a home in which they are presented to best advantage, but also preserved from the gaping maw of digital death that is the archived web (as this fascinating book shows, the Internet Archive can only do so much).

BOOC sets out to capture and edit this content in a solid and flexible format, and is the experimental issue one of many to come. The interface developed by UCL Digital Press (who have now developed a range of creative formats) is very pared down and elegant, a real pleasure to read. The typesetting is great (and stored, I imagine, in a useful reusable format at the back end of the publisher’s servers), and the apparatus surrounding the presentation of the videos, tweet and blog posts frames them well. The book performs all of the traditional roles of an edited volume – it captures arguments for posterity with editorial curation – but is also dynamic and flexible. It is well supported and reproducible. Samantha Rayner (the project Principal Investigator) puts it well in the introduction:

BOOC is not the answer to the question, ‘What will the academic book of the future be?’ – and it doesn’t claim to be. It is, however, the tangible result of a great deal of consultation, discussion, innovation, and perseverance. It represents some of the issues – contentious, complicated, deep-rooted, emerging, and provocative – that confront everyone who engages with academic publication. It will, hopefully, help deliver some practice-based answers to these issues, and in doing so, move the debates on.

The format is extremely capacious in its definition of ‘book content’, sourcing bespoke essays, re-posted blogs (a format that has shown its merit in venues such as the experimental Journal of Digital Humanities), Storified Twitter discussions from conferences, and videos from conferences and symposia. This diversity is extremely refreshing, and really captures the lively way that scholars are talking about their work in the twenty-first century. It crystallizes ephemera such as tweets and presentations into future-proof resources. It makes high-quality blog posts part of the permanent scholarly record. And yes, it contains essays. It captures the proceedings of an extremely important conference at the British Library on ‘The Academic Book in the South‘ for posterity. All of these tasks are a great service to academia, and completely Open Access!

As Rayner puts it, the format is a conversation as much as an experiment, and it is a conversation that we must continue to have. BOOC attempts to answer some important questions: how can born-digital books expand to be a different entity than their paper companions?; how can the increasingly-crucial blog debates that drive scholarly engagement and communication be preserved and amplified?; is there a better/different way to capture the feel of a conference than proceedings or edited volumes?; and, importantly, how can new book formats serve to future-proof scholarly outputs that are often nebulous and hard to quantify?

Some problems remain when money is involved. The perennial issues of access and affordability, for example: there will presumably be a large Gold Open Access/book processing fee to create a book of this nature, but I note that UCL Press – to their credit – have indicated a willingness to waive fees for unfunded authors/editors in certain cases.

This is the first step in a long journey and, above all, requires editorial imagination. This is not purely a function of layout, coding skills, writing or design, but a hybrid of these skills. The more that publishers and editors see themselves as experimenters and creatives, then the more new academic publishing formats will thrive. This includes both the avant-garde, and the more established publishing houses. And, in my opinion, it should be a thing of beauty. Not the beauty of a painting or of a sunset, but of a well-designed book.

As I mentioned above, I strongly feel that it is crucial to avoid a world where these new formats are the preserve of the academically privileged (grant holders, senior scholars, those with institutional affiliations etc.) alone – a sentiment to end this post with.

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Four design quotes applied to editing

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Handcrafted marbled endpapers of a book manually bound in France around 1880 (Giacomo Leopardi, Œuvres, vol. 2). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Aristeas.

Greetings to you all,

Today I am going to use four quotes taken from Margaret Kelsey’s excellent and oft-updated list of 72 Quotes about Design and Creativity on the InVision blog to discuss some of the aspects that I consider crucial to good editorial design. This will focus more on the ‘macro’ scale of editing – book design, project management – rather than the line-by-line ‘micro’ dimension. Having said this, I strongly believe that these principles are relevant at any scale, from word to paragraph to chapter to book to entire series (as point one discusses).

Without further ado, here are four of my favourite design quotes from Kelsey’s list applied to editing:

1) “Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions.” –Nicholas Negroponte

This is an aspect of editing and project design that is often overlooked. A lot of academic innovation is made through cautious, incremental change, but some of the most interesting, the boldest, books and articles are brought about through the combination of forms that are unexpected. When it comes to the design of an editorial project, rethinking the format can be key.

To give an example, I’ve recently been very impressed by the ‘Contemporary Writers: Critical Essays‘ series released by UK-based press Gylphi. Why? Because they have applied excellent design to the task of editing. They have recognised that writing critical anthologies on still-living 20th and 21st century authors is a difficult process, and requires a new juxtaposition of elements.

2) “Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” -Brian Reed

This is a particularly important principle for editorial interventions. Everything is edited in some fashion – it is impossible to write without editing. The question you, as the author – and your readership – should and will ask is this: is it edited well? Elegance of design jumps out, and is unmistakable. From the right front matter (the contents of a book such as the table of contents, preface, etc.) to an elegant arrangement of chapter, every publication is dependent on good design. Without it, a publication risks being perceived as ugly, dull, pedestrian, obtuse, or writerly rather than readerly.

A well-designed piece of writing invites the reader in, points out its salient features, provokes surprise, pleasure, and occasionally joy – or maybe that’s just me being a little too keen. Sometimes these features are simple. Sometimes they are profound. Innovative thinking is possible, even in the most formulaic publication.

3) “There is no such thing as a boring project. There are only boring executions.” –Irene Etzkorn

This is a particularly relevant quote for those at the outset of an academic publishing project. There is a common belief among academics with a certain attitude to scholarship or from a certain background that their research is not exciting or charismatic, even if it is extremely relevant, impactful, or important. Although recent years have helped to dispel this myth – the public are interested in many more ideas than academics give them credit for, but presentation is key – it is still very easy to let down a significant project with boring execution.

Is your project new, relevant, and exciting? Do your colleagues love it? Has it won funding from a scholarly organisation or government scheme? Good!

What about your publications? Choice of venue (do you pick the big established press or the small plucky one?), structure (do you follow the prescribed format of your discipline, or try something new?), and method of presentation (is the publication cheap or expensive, Open Access or restricted?) are all key. Even those seeking to reassure their reader by publishing through traditional outlets can still shine when designing their Table of Contents, arrangements of essays, use of editorial commentary, and so on.

Don’t let down an exciting project with a boring publication! Even if the ideas have the potential to excite, a dull presentation will obscure rather than reveal. Published research can always surprise and delight, and yet it takes good execution to do so.

4) “Design is so simple. That’s why it’s so complicated.” –Paul Rand

The point that I take away from this quote in the context of editing is this: a good publication takes a lot of time and effort in the planning and design phase that is rarely blindingly obvious to the reader, except in the elegance of the final product. Good editorial design is not in-your-face: it consists of simple decisions (typesetting, layout, use of images, arrangement, cross-referencing, appendices, and so on) that accumulate to make a well-designed book.

Clean copy makes a good book, but good editing is also about the receptacle that these words find themselves within. Even the best writing struggles to escape from the stifling effect of a boring design, or to appear coherent without the careful cultivation of content.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at an academic book review section in a journal and see how many reviews mention design or editorial decisions. Readers notice, and the more they read the more they notice. It may seem simple, but it takes a lot of painstaking work to design a publication.