Tucked away in a corner of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, a bulky and unassuming machine whirrs to life. A few clicks of a mouse send the mini assembly line housed within into a frenzy while its Plexiglas exoskeleton provides observers a front-row seat to watch the carefully calibrated action.
Seven minutes later, the machine spits out an entire paperback book.
This isn’t a stack of stapled computer pages. It’s a retail-quality product glued and bound with a semi-gloss full-color cover that looks like it was just pulled from a nearby shelf. Still warm to the touch, the newly minted School of Social Work textbook waits to be joined by nine identical copies, which will soon find their way into the hands of University students, all for about $6 a pop.
While book lovers and e-reader fanatics everywhere enjoy pitting the established world of print media against the up-and-coming innovations of the digital age, student and faculty publishers at the University of Michigan have long been able to see the inherent fallacy within this hyped-up conflict.
As a seamless marriage of electronic convenience and physical utility, Shapiro’s Espresso Book Machine is a perfect symbol of the University’s ultimate vision: No matter the format, publishing should allow scholarly information to become a volume greater than the sum of its parts.
Print and beyond
The Espresso Book Machine is operated by MPublishing, which acts as the University’s primary academic publishing umbrella: It encompasses the University of Michigan Press, the Scholarly Publishing Office, Deep Blue (a faculty repository), the Copyright Office and the Text Creation Partnership.
The most recognizable entity of MPublishing is the University Press, which has more than 80 years of quality publishing experience under its belt.
Surprisingly, the majority of the work printed by university presses is for non-local faculty. Presses tend to focus on developing texts from only a few specific literary fields, drawing in authors who study within those academic disciplines from across the country. The University Press has historically specialized in areas such as political science, disability studies and ESL.
Though this field-specific focus is a traditional aspect of all university presses, the technological development of MPublishing’s services means specialization is giving way to a broad and inclusive publishing environment for a wide range of scholars.
“About five percent of our author pool is U of M faculty,” said Karen Hill, interim director and digital manager of the University Press. “But we’re not excluding them. One of our goals is to build that author pool and see if we can’t grow that number.”
English Prof. Tobin Siebers has published multiple textbooks with the University Press, many of which address disability studies. While his books have mainly appeared solely in print form, Siebers found that some forms of digital publishing, specifically electronic journals, complement his work well.
“This had to do specifically with illustrations,” Siebers said. “Because the cost of color illustrations is so large, it’s almost impossible to get good print quality. When you publish in online journals, they can publish the color illustrations very easily, and so you get a really good representation of your illustrations.”
While many faculty members continue to request print copies of their work, there is an undeniable sense that the world of information on paper is slowly finding a new niche within the publishing structure of the future. Even Siebers, most of whose works have been published in print, pointed out that research and sharing have become a digital process.
“The curious thing about this process is that most of the reading that I do, I actually do online,” Siebers said. “I’d say 90 percent — certainly, the vast majority of what I do, I do online now, and the only exception to that is material that doesn’t appear in e-books.”
As an author and a reader, Siebers has recognized a more holistic trend in the information industry. Instead of straddling an extreme divide between the use of print and digital technology, the academic community is shifting toward a thriving “multimedia” environment.
“It’s wrong to think that reading is only reading on a page,” Siebers said. “When you look at magazines there’s always illustrations, and having music and video links on a page just enhances the experience of reading.”
Breaking new ground
One of the major milestones for the University’s publishing division was the decision to unite the University Press and other smaller publishing units with the University’s MLibrary under MPublishing in 2009. The library had traditionally been a pioneer of digital archiving and dissemination, as the University was the original home for the widely read JSTOR journal database, and their technological experience has had an undeniable impact on MPublishing’s approach to their goals.
“The University library had been a leader in the building of digital infrastructure for libraries,” said Shana Kimball, head of publishing services, outreach and strategic development for MPublishing. “So it seemed like if we were digitizing our own collections and building these tools and expertise, we could also think about that for the use of a spectrum of new scholarly publications.”
MPublishing’s self-professed commitment to all forms of scholarly information is crystal clear. Though it provides first-rate standard print and digital book services, the division’s nonstandard approaches to new modes of sharing information truly set it apart.
“There are more ways to publish than just in a basic journal article and book form,” Kimball said. “We’re really interested in broadening access to the scholarly record in as many ways as possible.”
One of the University Press’s newest and most anticipated initiatives is the use of an XML workflow to publish academic material. XML, also known as Extensible Markup Language, allows an entire book to be reduced to a single packet of computer coding, creating a “master file” that can be sent to paper printers, e-book publishers and web archives.
By beginning with an XML book file, the publishing process can be streamlined for digital and print publishers while offering readers various choices on how to get the information. Not only can the system accommodate different modes of output, but it can also allow publishers to use new methods for releasing scholarly information that’s in “publishing transit.”
“(The transition to XML) will allow us to parse and piece out things earlier in the process,” Hill said. “If we want to use pieces for marketing purposes or put a first chapter up early, we’re changing our workflow so it can flow into whatever system it needs to present that.”
The University of Michigan is one of the few universities experimenting with XML-based publishing, and its innovative utilization of the coding process has garnered a lot of attention, which is hardly a surprise for a publishing division accustomed to turning academic heads.
“People are watching how we support these new pathways with new skills and new workflows,” Hill said. “That’s one of the things that does set us apart a little bit from others when they look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
XML formatting is just one of MPublishing’s many groundbreaking initiatives, each of which aims to transform reading into a more immersive and enriching experience.
The University Press recently worked to create a web community centered around “Theater Historiography,” a textbook it printed. The highly integrated site features videos, reviews, a faculty and student forum and discussions among scholars about the author’s ideas.
MPublishing is also exploring options geared toward a reassessment of textbooks, making the project an exciting prospect for students and their wallets.
“We’re really looking at the whole range of textbook options, both from a digital and print perspective but also from a pricing perspective,” Hill said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can get this information into the hands of students in a more effective way.”
The opportunity to tackle so many new projects is a rare gift for a university publisher, as press budgets are routinely slashed during tough economic times. The combination of ingenuity and the distinctive partnership between the University’s publishing sectors and its libraries is the press’s greatest strength.
“The library has the culture of experimentation and a willingness to take risks,” Hill said. “There’s a conservativeness at university presses, but when they partner up with someone like a library, it opens the door for much more in the way of being comfortable in exploring new ways of working.”
“I think that has got the attention of a lot of other university presses too, because they just don’t have that same resource,” Hill added.
Ultimately though, experimentation and innovation are focused on finding the most effective ways for the library to cater to the desires of academic writers and readers who use the press to spread and consume information.
“I would say that we design our publishing services to really try to meet the needs of our scholars,” Kimball said. “We don’t have a particular agenda about going in (a print or digital) direction. It’s always a negotiation between what can we afford as a publisher and what our authors and readers want.”
MPublishing may represent a hefty percentage of the University’s press capabilities, but it’s not alone. Countless independent units exist on campus: Everything from faculty research to student poetry is printed, uploaded and shared every day across and beyond the University’s academic community. One example is the Fortnight Literary Press.
Fortnight, which is partially funded by the Undergraduate English Association, is a literary magazine that prints student prose, poetry and art. Its issues are released on a monthly basis and its tight budget shapes much of the careful planning that goes into each installment.
“Each semester, we get a certain amount of money from the English Department,” said LSA senior Rachel Fentin, Fortnight’s co-editor in chief. “So we really do have to think about our monetary restrictions in terms of how many issues can we print, or if we can we print in color. But the nice thing about Fortnight is that it’s really flexible.”
Though Fortnight and UAE are independent of one another, the magazine has greatly benefited from a decision to move its issues into an online format to accompany the distribution of its print magazines, mirroring MPublishing’s multimedia initiative.
The magazine’s crisp online reading interface, which allows readers to enjoy full-color layouts and functionally animated page turns, serves as much more than just an archive for past material. The web distribution gives it a digital anchor point while helping the magazine to reach a wider student audience, including prospective writers.
“We thought it would be really important to have a way for people to look at what we do since we don’t really have a central location,” Fentin said. “It’s really nice to be able to point people that are interested in becoming involved with Fortnight to our website so that they can check out past work there.”
Fortnight’s multi-format distribution gives the student magazine more than just a way to reach a larger audience. By offering readers an electronic hub that supports the press’s printed installments, the magazine enjoys a vibrant literary ecosystem as well as an online home.
Press to print
Still, there are members of the academic community whose personal work doesn’t fit neatly into a scholarly or literary genre – MPublishing has found an answer to their needs as well.
The Espresso Book Machine prints more than just University textbooks. Not only can it recreate a whole range of novels which fall under the Creative Commons license, but it also allows students, staff and members of the Ann Arbor community to publish their own material on a small scale, right down to a full-color cover.
“People can take anything that they themselves own, like their own novels that they’ve written, or anthologies of their work or class projects, and they can make it a book on the Espresso Book Machine,” Kimball said.
“It’s easy to use and it’s available to anyone, and we’re seeing a lot of really innovative uses for it,” she added.
The range of publishing options offered by the University for its students and its community is vast. No matter the path the evolving world of publishing will take, it seems that the future of reading, learning and sharing information will be bolstered by more opportunities than ever before.
“This is the best time ever to be a reader,” Kimball said. “There’s just no dearth of really great stuff to read.”
Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated the University’s theater department was involved with the production of the “Theater Historiography” web community.