Eduardo Mendieta is a professor of Philosophy and Latina/o Studies at Penn State University whose research takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social and political events across the globe. This includes Maps for a Fiesta: A Latina/o Perspective on Knowledge and the Global Crisis (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), by Otto Maduro, edited and introduced by Mendieta; and the chapter “Freedom as practice and Civic genius: On James Tully’s Public Philosophy” in Robert Nichols and Jakeet Singh, eds., Freedom and Democracy in an Imperial Context: Dialogues with James Tully (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 32-47.
As a well-respected educator, Mendieta – along with so many other academics – is on the frontline of dealing with ebooks, traditional texts, libraries and publishing changes as they impact teaching and learning across our world today. Mendieta describes the current situation on pricing and access to ebooks as “extremely important” to all academics and the future of learning and research.
NKH: Due to the pandemic, there is greater reliance on the Internet for work, education, communication and pleasure. The pandemic has changed schooling and working patterns, leaving it to individuals to find information, deal with increased leisure, and communicating with others. Beyond this is the role of libraries as cultural institutions that manage the cultural heritage not only for today – but for the future. Access to information and knowledge is critical, yet issues like ebook pricing are becoming critical.
EM: This is such an important question. Let me give you a sense of how important it is. I teach at a major research institution, Penn State University. Our library was close for more than half a year, until the library could offer pick-ups, which you had to schedule, but only for books that were not part of the digital sharing system. BUT, because many universities had to also go remote, the university library system across the US created a way in which libraries shared their digital copies of books. This is the Hathi Trust Digital Library System. Our local public library, which is outstanding, also shut down, although their website remained active. Eventually, they also came up with a schedule picked up system. Many of our graduate students and undergraduates could not access digital copies of books, and in some cases, a hardcopy is indispensable for writing a dissertation or honor’s thesis.
While I was grateful that I had access to digital copies of books through the Hathi Trust, it was not the optimal way to do research, that is to be able to read a book at your pace, and make annotations, and so on. At the same time, the Pandemic highlighted many fissures in our access to digital books. Although I live in a university town, my university is in the middle of rural PA. I soon learned that many of our adjacent schools did not have the digital bandwidth to sustain online learning. The same with many of my students, who could sometimes could not access their work, or upload their work, or access our zoom sessions, because of unreliable and weak Internet connections.
The lessons we learned are invaluable. Increase access to the Internet, across the country. Make sure we are ready to share our digital libraries across public institutions, and private ones. But one thing for certain is that our local library remained a vital and indispensable point of access to both digital and audio books, and the Internet. I would see people gathered in the parking lot of our public library accessing the public Internet.
As an educator, member of an elite institution, I know we have learned a lot from the pandemic pedagogy. I think we had to retool and learn to teach differently. We were forced to use new tools, which also allowed us to be in better contact with our students. In fact, in the last two years, I have been able to use only digital resources, which my students deeply appreciate. But, this has its downsides. The academic and trade book industries were badly hit. Bookstore closed, books were not being sold.
Publishers had a big crunch, and I am sure more and more of their shelves shifted to print to both digital and audio books, with a huge loss in print books sales and revenue. The book industry and market have been also affected by the “Amazon” factor, which the Pandemic only exacerbated. These trends are both alarming and perhaps salutary.
NKH: European library and academic groups are leading the effort to try to modify recently announced ebook price hikes. SCONUL and RLUK assert that the massive increases, especially for ebooks, are making access to key research materials unsustainable. UK librarians noting that “the average price of a Pearson Education UK title is changing from £31.73 to £190.38. A three-user license is also being added for all Pearson Education UK titles. However, Pearson claimed the new pricing will provide a “sustainable path” for the publisher to continue creating “quality content for UK students” which will also “fairly compensate” authors.”
EM: I am glad that Europeans are taking these hikes seriously and they are trying to do something about it. I think we are in the midst of another book revolution, or what we could call a ‘structural transformation of cultural production,’ to echo Habermas. In my own scholarly work, I noted how the 15th and 16th centuries in book AND newspaper production was integral to the revolutions that gave us our modern world: The 18th century revolutions, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and the creation of “imagined communities” of readers, reading across nations, classes, and faiths.
What the print book did in the 16th century, the paperback did in the 20th century. With the invention and production of ebooks, we may be poised for similar revolutions. The ebook is very versatile, when we think how it can be used by very different reading publics. Digital books can help us bridge both a class divide and an age divide, and bring in readers with different challenges and backgrounds.
But all these challenges and transformations also mean that the “industry” itself much face its own challenges. Books are both easier to produce, but the demand has decreased. We have fewer and fewer people buying “real” books. We have less and less “real” bookstores, where you can browse and fall in love with a physical book. So, the market pressure is towards digital and ebooks. The industry is trying to balance these shift.
Just anecdotally, our library, which is a premier research university library system that spans many libraries, recently announced it would cut back on the acquisition of “print” books, and shift towards “digital” subscriptions, such as those offered now by many publishers: Cambridge, Oxford, SUNY Press, Harvard, etc. Regularly we are asked: “Should we continue to subscribe to this journal?” and then we have to make recommendations about what to keep and what to shed. But most universities can bundle up their subscriptions, whether to digital journals or print books.
Nonetheless, I do think that because the market has become so tight, there is too much monopoly, and thus, the tendency to overprice. The publishers you mention are perhaps the most notable culprits.
NKH: Publishers have their rightful concern about profits and viability. However, librarians describe a growing publishers’ fear of losing their role in publishing as some reasons for these pricing actions. What factors – e.g., COVID isolation, available technology – do you see influencing publishers to want to make these changes now? Do you agree with this perspective?
EM: As I intimated above, we are going through a revolution in the production of books, which the COVID pandemic only exacerbated. The fact is that now every book is digital from inception, even if I wrote it with my ink pen or pencil. Before a book is a paperback or hardback book, it is a digital entity. With the shrinking of the market for books, there is less and less demand for the physical book. Most universities are also putting pressure on teachers to make their class readings affordable or digital.
I remember when I was a college student and I would spend the first two weeks of the semester gathering my 10 or 20 books for the semester. I spent a lot of money on my books, some of which I still have and adore. My students don’t have that experience, in part because most public universities are making sure that students don’t get burdened with too much overhead on their education—even or because tuitions have gone through the roof. But all of these factors, and I can list more, have created market pressures that are forcing publishers to shift their operations, marketing, etc.
I belong to an analog generation, who nonetheless saw the rise of a digital universe, which included books. Most kids today, and future kids, and their kids, will be fully digital. Many of my students don’t understand the difference between a peer-reviewed journal and a blog, or some website, or even Wikipedia versus a database of vetted journals. I went to college when we all dragged around books in our backpacks. I rarely see my students lugging their books. Most only come with their cellphones, an iPad, or a laptop and that is their entry point.
I am sanguine about the situation. We have great opportunities to expand access to all kinds of people who in the past could not buy a nice edition of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, or Herman Melville. I am also elated that many people with disabilities can have access to books, whether digital or audio. And, that perhaps a girl in Africa or India, can read Margaret Atwood on her phone or iPad.
NKH: Announced price increases have ignited protests, especially in Europe. Do publishers seem willing to compromise or pull back on these new pricing schemes? What might be the ‘next steps’ or long-term impact do you see this having on the academy, publishing and cultural heritage?
EM: My answer to this question must be taken with a lot of salt. I interact mostly with academic and university presses. This section of the market has been under a lot of pressure for already more than two decades. Many of the university presses we love and rely on, lost their university subventions. They had to survive or sink. They adapted. Many came up with sophisticated tools. Do smaller prints, first hardcover, which university libraries would buy, then a year later, a paper back print run. We had Borders, Barnes and Noble, and the local bookstore – now we only have Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Many academic publishers have created subscription options. For instance, the New York Review Books has flourished by having subscriptions to their editions – every month I would get their latest edition. Similarly with the Library of America and Verso, two publishers that I am also devoted to. Many university publishers are also coming up with some interesting ways to be able to continue to produce high quality scholarship that is accessible to students and scholars.
We may be leaving the Gutenberg Galaxy – to use that wonderful expression from McLuhan—and entering the iPad Galaxy, and the library with no books, only screens. However, I do think there are extremely worrying trends curled inside that snake. Most kids today don’t read, for pleasure, and they don’t share their reading experience with their peers. They are growing in a world in which they don’t share the same cultural references.
Not so long ago, I used to line up at midnight in a Border’s parking lot with my children to get the latest book of Harry Potter, which we stayed up reading. Then, they would share their reading with their peers. In the last decade as an icebreaker in my classes, I ask my students to tell us something about what they are studying, why they took this class, and what book they read over the summer that was not for academic reasons. I am surprised by how few of my students read just for the pleasure of reading, or for the pleasure of forming part of an “imagined community” of readers. Recently I read the following:
“According to the Pew Research Center, the average adult American reads 12 books a year, with half of Americans reading 4 or less. Those with a college degree do pick up more books at 17 a year, with half reading 7 or less, but it’s not that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.”
I found this extremely depressing and alarming. Not only for what it means for the book publishing world, but also for what it means for us as citizens of a republic that should at some level share some lingua franca. I asked my students whether they read: Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick, George Orwell, etc. etc. and very, very, almost none have read these writers. This is very challenging for an educator, who no longer can rely on some background of taken for granted references.
As for public and university libraries, the former are such an essential institution of every town across the US that they will continue to be a major player in the book industry—although as I noted the trend there is toward digital and audio books. Similarly with the university libraries, which are equally a behemoth institution, and there too, the trend is toward subscriptions and digital books that more students will have access to. The bookshelf is neither half empty nor half full, but a lot of changes will have to take place to make sure books remain the chain that links us across generations.