Reaching Real Audiences Virtually

ipad displaying books on shelves in front of binary code effects background
Image derived from public domain images via Pixabay.

A typical book publishing workflow necessarily includes a stage at the end of the process in which a book makes its way into stores and libraries. Because it’s a physical object, it requires physical space devoted to its delivery from publisher to reader. But what happens when the book isn’t a physical object, and doesn’t require this middle distribution space at all? The digital publications we are providing, like those of other university presses pushing the boundaries of typical publishing formats, do not require a store or a library for readers to access them. All an interested reader needs is a web browser. So how do interested readers discover this kind of content? It’s a seemingly simple question that’s difficult to answer. And it’s part of what we’re trying to work out under our ongoing digital initiative here at SUP.

Because the projects we’re publishing live on the web, it’s only logical that we look to what the web has to offer in terms of reaching audiences. Although Amazon and other online booksellers might normally seem a clear avenue for getting content to readers, there’s a major hurdle here with our projects: they don’t cost money. They are free to read and experience. And without the potential for online sellers to make a profit, there is little reason for them to maintain a record or target ads for these kinds of products. While this remains frustrating (could these marketplaces not work with publishers who also provide physical cost-based products to at least list them in their indexes?), it means we can focus our efforts on libraries generally and readers directly.

perhaps distribution and discovery are challenges we need to take on among ourselves, with the people creating, facilitating, advocating, and stewarding these innovative scholarly works

Assuming that some of the readers will be finding their material via libraries’ discovery mechanisms, we are investing attention into making sure our projects make it into these systems. But even that is a bit complicated. Libraries have their own workflows for creating or ingesting existing records into their unique catalogs. At SUP, we are working directly with our cataloging librarians and Stanford University Libraries to create customized records for our interactive scholarly works, which require more individualized attention than typical books. Our process involves providing metadata on format, content, identifiers, and access to a librarian who then goes through the project herself to capture any additional details that might be relevant to the catalog record. BISAC codes are translated to LOC categories, and DOIs and multimedia formats are listed out. (The accuracy and precision—or lack thereof—of categories and formats are another blog topic altogether.) And in the end a catalog record is generated in SearchWorks, Stanford’s Blacklight-based online catalog. Furthermore, this record generates a record in WorldCat, which libraries worldwide provide their patrons access to. The challenge remains how to get that record into each library’s individual catalog. Though it might be argued that level of distribution isn’t necessary for something freely available on the open web, it is vitally important that scholarly works, even free ones on the open web, are findable by the same means that researchers are finding their scholarly articles, books, and other resources.

There has been talk among librarians, publishers, and digital content creators about organizing toward a system that might feed these kinds of records to those distribution and discovery spaces that scholars, students, and researchers currently utilize. We’re interested in keeping this conversation going. Conversations with proprietary web discovery systems have not yielded encouraging results, so perhaps distribution and discovery are challenges we need to take on among ourselves, with the people creating, facilitating, advocating, and stewarding these innovative scholarly works. While university presses will always need to sell books to continue to publish them, this type of open-access work requires different ways of thinking about how we get valuable scholarship into the hands (or onto the screens) of interested readers.

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