University Press tries digital publishing
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The University of Pittsburgh Press is dipping its toe into the uncharted depths of the digital publishing waters.
Joining with Pitt's library system, the press is making about 30 scholarly titles in its Latin American Series available for viewing online free through its Web site -- a move that eventually could lead the press to make most of its 500 scholarly publications available for online viewing.
"Right now, it's an experiment to learn how people use our books," explained Peter Kracht, director of electronic publishing. "We're making one small portion of our back list available so we can watch for usage patterns. Are they looking for references, for material for classes or their writings? How do our books satisfy different uses?"
While browsers can download individual pages and the entire book can be read online, the complete book is available only for purchase in its bound form. None of the books is in the public domain and the press holds the electronic reproduction rights.
Selection also is limited to Latin American titles that sell for about $25 and are more than three years old. The press plans to expand its offerings next year and, depending on how successful the program is at luring new buyers, to add even more in coming years. But it will omit such books as its highly regarded Pitt Poetry Series from the service.
The goal is aimed at determining "Who wants to buy our books?" Mr. Kracht said. "The fact remains that, in the end, people still want the paper book, but right now, we don't see much of a market for scholarly books."
He said that such other universities as Michigan and California also are exploring digital book access because "everybody recognizes that the future is digital. Pitt is approaching this future more cautiously because we need our own experience. In the broadest sense, this is just the beginning."
The process begins with the actual book. Its pages are scanned and converted into digital images by the university's library, a resource the press lacks.
"The press is tapping the kind of resources that only the library can bring us," said Cynthia Miller, press director. "Will it help us sell books? Some university presses have seen a variety of responses. We don't know until we try it."
Mr. Kracht added that the library already had made the investment in equipment and staff to scan, store and provide search tools. "It was not hard for both sides to see the advantages of cooperating on a initiative such as this."
Despite the press' turn to the digital page, Mr. Kracht sees no threat to the printed, bound book.
"Reference publishing was the first to go on line," he said, "because just looking up information is something very amenable to digital environment. The fact is that it's just not that easy to read the whole book online.
"Bound books are easier to browse in," he added. "They are simply physically different than reading a screen. With a bound book, you have a real sense of where you are in the book. That can't be duplicated with a computer."
Because the Pitt Press believes that the world of reading will "never be purely digital, we're looking to offer a mixed media" for readers, he said.
First Published January 22, 2008 12:00 am