Volume 10, No. 5 - July/August 2000
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ON MARCH 14, horror novelist Stephen King jump-started electronic trade-book publishing. He released a sixty-six-page novella on the World Wide Web, and twenty-four hours later almost half a million fans had downloaded it. What King did for horror, Princeton University history professor Robert Darnton now hopes to do for the academic monograph.
Darnton, a former reporter for the New York Times, is one of the most respected scholars of revolutionary France and the author of such popular works as The Great Cat Massacre and The Kiss of Lamourette. Why is he devoting his time and energy to an unconventional project in a still-untested medium? "Extremely generous" is how Darnton's agent, Lynn Nesbit, describes his decision to go electronic. "It is terrifying, really," Darnton admits. "I'm sixty-one years old, and I worry about getting lost in cyberspace and spending the rest of my life on this."
But Darnton has been drinking the Kool-Aid, as they say in the new-media business. He has become a true believer in the Internet's potential to transform academic publishing -- by helping university presses publish more monographs and maybe even by enabling scholars to produce better history.
Darnton says he was first motivated by the dismal state of academic publishing, which he surveyed in a March 1999 issue of the New York Review of Books. Squeezed by the rising cost of science journals, libraries have been buying fewer academic monographs. In the early 1990s, in response to dwindling library demand, the number of new titles began to decline. When he became president of the American Historical Association in 1999, Darnton decided to make the "monograph crisis" his cause.
The result was Gutenberg-e, a project that sponsors the electronic publication of exemplary dissertations. Starting in 2000 and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Gutenberg-e will annually award six young scholars twenty-thousand-dollar postdoctoral grants to publish their dissertations in electronic form through Columbia University Press, incorporating video clips, sound, and other new-media features. (After three years, Gutenberg-e winners will be free to publish in paper as well.)
But inviting younger scholars to publish on-line may be asking them to weaken their resumés -- they risk the stigma of association with the Web's ever-accumulating self-published trash heap. To bring prestige to the enterprise, Darnton worked with the American Council of Learned Societies to establish a second on-line publishing program, this time for senior scholars: the History E-Book Project, which the Mellon foundation granted $3 million in June 1999.
The first History E-Book will be Darnton's account of an itinerant bookseller's travels across France, which he hopes will have "some of the interest of a picaresque novel." Over the next five years, the History E-Book Project will buy the digital rights to about eighty-five new on-line monographs by established scholars, paying the seven participating university presses ten to fifteen thousand dollars per monograph. Some will be fat with elaborate new-media accoutrements, others will be plain text with hyperlinks, and most will be somewhere in the middle. The project will also digitize about five hundred influential backlist monographs. The titles, old and new, will be available at www.historyebook.org. Like the commercial venture netLibrary, the History E-Book Project will charge universities and libraries for on-line access to its books. The royalties earned will go to the presses and the authors.
Will e-books swell the volume of monograph publishing? Some doubt whether they can, others whether they should. "It seems unlikely that electronic books are going to be any cheaper to publish," says Walter Lippincott, editorial director of Princeton University Press. "The big cost for a university press is the gatekeeper function. It is not so much the copyediting and the printing and the binding in nice cloth. It is deciding which are the very best scholarly monographs to publish. And I don't see the demand increasing just because they are in electronic form. The fact is there is a limited demand for monographs." Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters suggests that Darnton may be tackling the wrong end of the bull. "I'm afraid it will all turn out to be a big waste of money," says Waters. "The notion of just letting more stuff flow out, when we are already inundated with stuff, is just making the world worse."
But Darnton is undaunted: He hopes the Internet will yield not only more monographs but better ones, with more of the texture of the past. He tested some of the medium's possibilities when he put his presidential address to the American Historical Association, "An Early Information Society," on-line. The electronic address features satiric eighteenth-century songs performed by cabaret singer Hélène Delavault, maps of Paris that detail the locations of cafés, and samples of conversation heard in the cafés by the king's spies. (Check out www.indiana. edu/~ahr/darnton/ for the two-century-old gossip about anti-sodomy raids and the gender of the queen's next child.)
Darnton's on-line monograph will be even more ambitious. Tentatively titled "A Literary Tour de France: An Electronic Book About Books in the Age of Enlightenment," the essay will be accompanied by its source -- a traveling salesman's 1778 diary, full of such details as how much he paid to have his horse shoed and bled. Darnton has in mind not so much an on-line scholarly edition as an on-line "archaeological dig." Along the stops of the book peddler's journey, Darnton hopes to place a series of essays on bookstores, smugglers, paper suppliers, and press workers, all hyperlinked to each other and to original source material. Eventually he hopes to post on-line some eighteen hundred letters and other documents from the period, drawn from the archive of an eighteenth-century Swiss-French publisher, the Société Typographique de Neuchatel.
That archive happens to be the basis of Darnton's own scholarly career. He first heard of it in 1963, and has been mining it ever since. "I must have published a hundred articles based on that archive by now, and some books," he says. Darnton hopes to develop an on-line site for the archive where other scholars can contribute their own interpretations of the documents and criticize his work and each other's. "I am imagining a series of essays on every aspect of the world of books, and I hope I can entice collaborators to explore the site further," Darnton explains. He himself would edit the site, and he imagines a committee of scholars would carry on after he retires.
It sounds like the stuff of scholarly fantasy -- the reader welcomed into the archive, the book transformed into a community that continues to research and write itself. And it's a long way from the humdrum matter of an academic monograph shortage. "I am participating in the subject I am studying," Darnton says. "If this book about books becomes a part of book history, it is going to get an even more severe reading by future historians. It raises the stakes."
David D. Kirkpatrick
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