for a limited time only

My book Wired Wilderness is available until the end of the year as a high-quality, freely downloadable PDF via the beta site for a new interface to Project MUSE, which will give subscribers access to a library of ebooks from a number of publishers when it launches for real in January 2012. For about six months before the launch, the beta site is offering free access to approximately 300 sample ebooks from several publishers, including Johns Hopkins University Press, the publisher of Wired Wilderness. Project MUSE, which has until now focused on academic journals, started in 1993 as a collaboration between JHUP and Johns Hopkins’s library, so it’s only logical that JHUP books are represented. To go straight to the page for Wired Wilderness, click here. You’ll be able to download each part of the book separately. There’s no way to download the whole book as a single gargantuan file, though if you have access to Adobe Acrobat or another PDF authoring tool you could stitch it back together yourself.

There are a still a lot of questions to be answered as the academic publishing industry adapts both to the increasing popularity and usability of ebooks and the increasing salience of the bottom line.1 Obviously, clinging to print isn’t a long-term solution, nor is forcing individual researchers to purchase ebooks for personal use. I can imagine a world in which academic libraries fade away and scholars who rely on books have to use their own grant money to build up the collections they need — much as scientists build up lab equipment and materials — but it’s not a world I like. Consortia like Project MUSE and its plan to offer books through subscription packages to libraries offer one path forward, but where exactly that path will lead remains unclear. Among the pitfalls is the likelihood that libraries will cut their physical book purchases in favor of subscriptions to digital collections that are stored elsewhere and to which they could lose access for a variety of reasons. At the same time that information is getting easier to replicate and disseminate, we’re massively centralizing its storage; this is one of the dangers of “the cloud” with relevance way beyond academic books. It might seem crazy to worry about the fate of scholarship after the collapse of institutions that seem rock-solid at the moment, but, well, crazy things happen. Project MUSE claims that subscribing institutions will gain “ownership and perpetual access rights for books purchased,” but it’s not clear what that means. Will libraries have local digital copies of the entire database of books? If not, “perpetual access” is just a promise.

There’s also the question of authors’ rights. There’s nothing in my contract with JHUP that explicitly addresses the inclusion of Wired Wilderness in the kind of collection offered by Project MUSE, and the press has been unforthcoming with information about how this development impacts old-fashioned things like royalties. Subscribers will have to pay for access to Wired Wilderness and other books starting in January, and some of that money will go to publishers like JHUP, but whether any of that will trickle down to authors is still unclear. Not, mind you, that I’ve ever expected the book to generate much if anything in the way of royalties; enough for a nice dinner out at some point would be great. But there’s a bigger set of questions here about the relationship between authors and publishers in an era when some of the most exciting scholarly discussions are happening in blogs, open-access journals, and other venues that bypass the traditional academic publishing industry entirely. Much to ponder. In the meantime, enjoy the book!

  1. Adrian Johns is among those posing really interesting versions of those questions; see, e.g., his 2010 book Piracy. On the somewhat analogous case of free and open source software, see the work of Chris Kelty, who walked the talk by having his Two Bits published simultaneously as a free, interactive ebook and in print. []

Author: Etienne

Historian of science, technology, animals, and the environment.