Because the University of Chicago has been in the journal publishing business for nearly seven generations, the anti-democratic ASALH regime assumes that their move to independent digital publishing will be successful from the beginning or at least the near future. So sure are they that they disenfranchised the membership at its Business Meeting in an attempt to keep the sell out alive. (After a motion to continue self-publishing was seconded, the regime illegally quashed the discussion and denied a vote.) Indeed, the membership in session was told that Chicago has promised us $100,000 plus in profits from year one with larger amounts to follow for the next four years. Gee, a deal that seems too good to be true. This would suggest that Chicago is working for free or that it has learned how to more than double the revenue of a scholarly journal. That promise of profits, if real, matches the total revenue of ASALH’s Journal of African American History, whose revenues have been declining by 5 to 10% a year–no better or worse than most.
What magic does Chicago have? What new technology or what new publishing paradigm? Neither. In fact, Chicago is just now trying to establish its own space on a digital platform. Like most relatively small publishers, Chicago, like ASALH, took advantage of the digital platform hosting provided by JSTOR. In this day and age, a venerable university press like Chicago should have done what Oxford and Cambridge did a number of years ago–left JSTOR for its own control over a platform. Funded by Mellon, JSTOR has proven to be not so good at selling its New Scholarship Program at home or abroad. And as technology becomes cheaper and easier to use, we all ask, why should publishers use JSTOR or anyone to house and sell our journals and our back files? So the larger university presses started cutting out the middle man. Atypon and Highwire are the major digital platform companies for hosting journals in the academic world. Another digital platform, Metapress, failed a couple years ago with a business model based on internet rather than library sales. Atypon gobbled up its customers. The two firms are increasingly dealing with universities presses directly, especially those like the University of Chicago, Duke University Press, the University of California Press. Unfortunately for state university presses that lack this in-house capacity–i.e., Penn State, the University of Illinois, and North Carolina–now look like veritable backwaters.
But low, none of this represents innovation. It is more like leasing your own tree to hide store your nuts. Actually worse, since these presses are still using someone else’s software and platform system. In fact, Wiley & Son, a commercial publisher, has bought Atypon. This is now a mess for any small player tied to them. It appears that JSTOR got out of Atypon and created its own platform in the nick of time and Chicago has outsmarted itself by leaving JSTOR at an inopportune moment. Chicago is now licensing software from a for-profit competitor that publishes more than 33 times the number of journals than it does. Chicago’s publishing outfit is 33 times larger than ours, so picture Chicago having its way with us and then picture Wiley having it way with Chicago. Actually it is worse than this. All told, Wiley will control the platform for 9000 journals, so Chicago’s roughly 70 journals constitute less than one percent. They will have less influence in shaping that platform than ASALH has had with JSTOR. If Chicago did not like the JSTOR deal, it is unlikely they will like the lack of influence it will have at Wiley’s Atypon. And the prices for the platform and formats will be dictated to all by Wiley and its 2400 journals! Having been a private in that man’s army, I know what it means to just be a squirrel trying to get a nut. Now Chicago will know, too.
Thus Chicago does not have a new innovation plan for journals that will allow it to enjoy such growth in revenue. Rather it has simply become a full-service modern publisher in its old age with both print and digital capabilities by tying its fate to someone else’s. This move no doubt saves them money by cutting out JSTOR, but not so much as one might think, and certainly it offers no technological advantage or savings to any of the content providers who sign up with Chicago. Whatever costs increases that Wiley brings to its company Atypon will simply be passed along some of the costs to the journals that have taken on Chicago as their publisher. Moreover, as Wiley reshapes Atypon to meet the needs of its journal division, Chicago will be forced to go along for the ride. JSTOR’s new platform was, of course, underwritten by philanthropy and Atypon’s will be underwritten by the capital raised by the commercial firm. This digital revolution in the academic publishing industry is about both major philanthropic investment and capitalist investments. It is for big creatures, not squirrels like Chicago or chipmunks like ASALH. Chicago has no secure place in the journal publishing industry, and no innovation propelling them forward. Anyone looking for short-term profits or long term ones are likely to be disappointed, period–whether an investor or a journal owner. The big companies will be fine as long as stock prices remain high, but the rest of us will experience declining revenue–Chicago, too. This is particularly true for anyone associated with scholarly journals in the humanities and social sciences, which the library subscription attrition continues annual unabated.
Worse still, if Chicago has established its own place on a platform, it is not free from the two generations of not having one. Indeed, the University of Chicago Press–no different from ASALH and may others–signed deals for our back files that places limits on their monetary value. We signed contracts, lots of questionable contracts, and they have devalued our back files. Virtually every journal publisher that has been around twenty years or more has signed digital contracts that are binding as we move into the future. In the 1980s and 1990s, the aggregators—JSTOR, EBSCO-Host, ProQuest, Gale-Thompson (now Cengage) came around selling journal publishers on how to make a few dollars more. Before the internet became the thing, publishers—seeing their journals primarily as print—signed away electronic rights. This in practice meant that these aggregators got the right to put our journals on CD-Roms which libraries could allow their patrons to use. It functioned much like microfilm. One scholar behind one screen reading data before the age of the internet and the pdf. But now those same contracts mean that electronic files are on online databases shared by millions for pennies, literally pennies. And while these contracts can be ended, the problem is that those contracts all had standard language—whatever is in the database stays in the database! You can take your new scholarship away, but your past belongs to us as much as to you! Chicago’s back files are still being sold by JSTOR, too. Why buy Chicago’s current and back file packages for a premium?
So here is the back file problem in a nutshell. You will have little luck trying to sell your back files to a library as premium peanuts when several aggregators are damn-near giving them away like acorns. Yes, it’s worse than peanuts. This is a not a good business plan. You want hundreds of dollars and they are asking the same customers for pennies on the dollar. It ain’t right, except that we all signed the contracts. And when people buy your complete bundle, it will not be for the back issues per se. People will really want to have your main journals–but why just drop most of your 70 journals for the five or so that are really attractive–and no back files. Why pick up the Journal of African American History when the bundle does not justify it and the back files are still on JSTOR, Ebsco-Host, Cengage, and ProQuest? We have witnessed this decision being made since the Great Recession, and it would be easier to justify now if the JAAH moves to Chicago. Moving a journal means losing, not gaining, customers when everyone is looking for an excuse to cut journals. Chicago is likely find that out right now with their own non-elite journals.
Perhaps the folks in the ASALH regime understand this, but I doubt it. They are new to all of this and they have tried not to talk to me—even when I came bearing a $55,000 check. They are ready to go to Chicago based on the prospect of status more than money anyway. But to those who see this as a way of making $100,000 in profit, this is a pipe dream. Chicago’s business plan is not viable. Perhaps the University will pour money in its own journals, but it will not long subsidize the journals of those it takes on. If this deal takes place against Robert’s Rules of Order, which governs ASALH’s proceedings, we will have damaged tradition for nothing, and left ourselves another mess to clean up after. The good news for associations like ASALH is that we can decide to ask members to pay for their journals once again. As we began so we shall become again–less tied to the academy for our well being.