Digitalization and the Publishing of Books

Department blog article

by Dr. Gunther Maier


"[...] Book publishers face the same challenges as journal publishers. Just like articles, book manuscripts can be uploaded to a server and made available for download via the Internet. However, open access published books are much less popular than journal articles. There are probably a number of reasons why this is the case. Books have more pages than journal articles. Therefore, PDF-files for whole books are larger and less easily handled than article files. Academic books are wider in scope and therefore readers like to jump to different parts of the text, which is easier in printed books. In addition, many [people] simply prefer to hold a book in their hands and to put it in a bookshelf.

Printed academic books are probably less at risk of becoming extinct than printed academic journals. However, this does not mean that the publishers of academic books are on the safe side of digitalization. In the recent years digitalization has also revolutionized the production process for printed books. Traditional printing methods are characterized by substantial fixed costs related to the handling of printing plates. These plates, which each hold a limited number of pages, have to be set up, mounted into the printing press, and dismounted to allow for the printing of the next set of pages. Traditional printing of books requires a certain minimum quantity to be able to spread the fixed costs and reach an acceptable price per copy. This is the reason why books that serve a niche market like academic literature and do not sell in large quantities, are quite expensive.

In recent years, digital printing methods have improved substantially and gained significant market shares. In 2015, a study estimated the share of digital printing on total printing worldwide at 12 percent and expected it to grow to over 20% by 2018. These technologies, which are similar to the laser and ink-jet printers we have in our offices, get the content directly from the computer and do not require printing plates. This eliminates the fixed costs of traditional printing and makes the technology very attractive for small editions; down to even just one copy. Some printing companies have started to use this technology to turn the printing process upside-down. They offer “book-on-demand” deals where the book not printed and then sold, but first sold and then printed. Currently, these companies make most of their money with photo-books and self-published novels of [aspiring new writers].

In academic publishing, the potential is huge. The technology allows innovative universities and scholarly organizations to start their own publishing press. Since there is no stock of printed copies, the risk is minimal. Printing only starts when the book is sold. The printer also ships your book to the customer, collects the payment and passes the royalty along to you. When you register for ISBN and observe some minimum standards, you can also get your book into the distribution channels of all the online bookstores. The total cost of publishing a book via book-on-demand, digital printing, and online booksellers is relatively small – far below the usual price of comparable academic books.

Let me illustrate this with an example. At the open access journal REGION, where I serve as technical director, we decided to publish a special issue as a print-on-demand book. The book is 240 black and white pages, A4 format with paperback binding. The fee we had to pay for setup and for international distribution was approximately € 30. You can buy the book directly from the printer for €22.99. Via Amazon the book is available worldwide. But, also most other large online bookstores offer it. Try it out. Just search for “Quality and Inequality in Regional and Urban Systems” edited by Karima Kourtit, Peter Nijkamp and Roger Stough. In addition to Amazon, I found the book at Thalia, Hugendubel, Waterstones and Barnes & Noble.

When universities realize that with these technologies and distribution channels, they can get books at much lower costs than what their libraries have to pay and with very low risk, they will take over publishing of academic books from the publishing companies. In addition, this technology will allow them to produce textbooks tailor made for their classes and update them as the content of a course develops. Digitalization is impacting all parts of academic life; also the publishing of academic books."


Full article by Dr. Gunther Maier available on the MU Sustainability, Governance, and Methods Department blog