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Inside Oxford: Questions for Niko Pfund

Today we have the honor of having Niko Pfund, publisher-extraordinaire, answer some questions he is often asked.  Be sure to check back tomorrow to see part two of this series.

Having worked at both a midsized press (NYU) and headshot1.jpgthe world’s largest university press (OUP), and with experience as both an editor and a manager, Niko Pfund is currently Vice President and Publisher of the Academic and Trade division of Oxford University Press in New York. He began his career at Oxford, as an editorial assistant in law and social science, moved to New York University Press in 1990 where he was an editor and then editor in chief before becoming director in 1996. He has been back at Oxford since the summer of 2000.

As the publisher of academic and trade books for the world’s largest university press, I get asked a lot of questions. Below are the ones I’m asked most frequently, along with answers that, while not complete (since some of them would require a weekend seminar to answer fully), are, I hope, somewhat instructive. If anyone has any questions about my answers, or any other questions, I’m happy to take a crack at them.

1. “If my book is available online, will this hurt or help sales of the print edition?”

The frequency with which I’m asked this particular question, or a version thereof, outpaces all others by a healthy margin. And there’s no simple, clean answer.

Key to addressing the question is defining what is meant by “available online.”

If this refers to having a book included in the various visibility and marketing programs that have sprung up in recent years—most conspicuously Amazon’s Search Inside the Book, Google’s Book Search, Microsoft’s Live Search, or Barnes and Noble’s See Inside—the answer is almost certainly, “Including the book in these programs (which restrict access to only a percentage of the book) increases the book’s visibility online and therefore likely encourages readers to purchase a print copy.”

If the question refers to having full versions of the manuscript in PDF form posted in a completely unrestricted environment (say, on an author’s website), from which anyone can view and/or print the entire work, then things get a little more murky. Presumably the book will already be available via one or all of the above-mentioned visibility programs, so this sort of additional presence would likely add little by way of additional online presence, and it’s entirely possible that print sales would be adversely affected by such availability. But these sorts of things are very difficult to pin down and quantify in any truly conclusive manner, given all the factors at play.

If the question is asked in response to the appearance of a book in the offerings of a “digital aggregator” (meaning a company like Netlibrary, Questia, or Ebrary that makes books available online through its own electronic publishing platform), the answer depends somewhat on the book. The more specialized a book, the more likely it is to benefit from online visibility, and the more likely it is that people will be sufficiently interested in or stimulated by an online viewing that they will purchase a print copy. Remember, the book has proven itself to be a pretty solid and resilient technology over the past few centuries, and isn’t going away any time soon. However, if a book is a very short textbook, to be used for a single week in a given course, and it is suddenly available online to a large percentage of an increasingly resourceful student body that would otherwise purchase the book but can now read its 72 pages online or even print them out in their dorm rooms, it’s possible that print sales will suffer.

There’s a saying in publishing, “You can’t publish the same book twice,” meaning that, even as we look to history for examples and analogies to guide our future publishing, no two books are the same. And so this question really depends on a great many variables, including the nature of the book, the type of online availability, and the technology habits of the intended audience.

Sorry, the other answers are less complicated, I promise.

“2. Do you hate Wikipedia?”

Not at all, I’m actually very fond of Wikipedia, which is not only useful to me on a daily basis but one of the most interesting exercises in information-gathering we’ve yet seen. While there are obvious and stark differences between the goals and utility of Wikipedia and traditional reference works—say, the Oxford English Dictionary—we are rapidly moving toward an online environment defined by “multiple levels of authority” (in the words of our online/reference publisher, Casper Grathwohl), in which people know to go to different sites for different kinds of information. As the population becomes increasingly technology-literate and information-literate, as search becomes increasingly sophisticated, and as Wikipedia’s growing influence brings additional challenges (with prominence come expectations…), the one-stop shopping model will likely fragment, as people will know where to go for the best and most appropriate information, or will be led there automatically.

I’m actually increasingly bored by this question of whether Wikipedia is good or bad, and even more so by the easy vilification of it, a reaction often rooted in professional self-interest. After all, the Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the greatest reference work in the English language (and certainly the greatest reference work ABOUT the English language) found its origins in a wiki model, whereby scholars put out the word to English speakers far and wide that they would welcome hard evidence of the earliest appearances of English words. The response was astonishing (never underestimate the enthusiasm of amateur lexicographers), so much so that the building in which the word submissions were kept, called The Scriptorum, began to sink under the weight of all the paper. Wikipedia is here to stay and its evolution will be one of the more interesting publishing and technology stories in the next decade.

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  13. Dr Heiner Gillmeister

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