At a time when some university presses have cut back their publishing program or changed course, the MIT Press, which celebrated its first 50 years this spring, continues to look to the future—“relentlessly,” according to editorial director Gita Manaktala. “The retrospective glance doesn’t come naturally to us,” she said.
Perhaps that’s only to be expected at a publisher connected to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., which fosters technological development: from its Media Lab, where innovative experiments take place, including projects on what forms books might take, to the development of MITx, the Institute’s online learning initiative. “One thing we have learned from our backward glance this year,” admits Manaktala, “is that some of the press’s distinguishing features are in fact birthmarks that were part of our identity from the beginning.” According to Manaktala, those features include an interdisciplinary program that works in fast-moving fields, an international scope, and a focus on science and technology.
Although MIT itself published its first book in 1926, the MIT press didn’t launch until 1962, and forward-looking has been in its DNA. In 1995, the press published the first full-text interactive book on the Web in conjunction with the “analog” edition of William J. Mitchell’s City of Bits. Last year it released its first “video-book,” Learning from YouTube by media professor Alexandra Juhasz, which was peer-reviewed like other press books and given an ISBN, but it is only available online.
MIT Press director Ellen Faran looks at publishing as an opportunity to solve problems, which is a good thing, particularly since there are no shortage of them for university presses, between the move to digital in trade books, journals, and textbooks and changes in peer review, as more content, particularly in the sciences, migrates online. “Everybody being online changes what we know and how we know it,” said Manaktala. Then there’s the issue of participation fatigue affecting peer review. “I think we’re at that point already,” said Manaktala. “There’s so much output that it’s overwhelming. Our editors have to be incredibly selective about what they consider.”
The ready availability of content online also calls into question what should be a book, particularly for MIT, which relies on backlist for 70% of its sales. “We think about which ideas and arguments should persist over time. If something will serve its purpose better with lots of updates, maybe it shouldn’t be a book,” explained Manaktala. But publishing solely as an e-book isn’t necessarily a solution for a university press. Ironically, as she pointed out, the file conversion process is such that e-book updates can’t easily be incorporated into the existing retail environment. An additional challenge can be how best to serve a discipline, when the rapid rate of technological change can mean that what students are learning will be very different from where the field is heading by the time they graduate.
In addition to publishing 260 books a year, the press has an active journals program, with 30 journals, including ARTMargins, which was launched earlier this year to focus on the visual culture of Central and Eastern Europe and other marginalized regions.
While books and journals are different in terms of what they do best, Faran projects that “in the future there’s going to be more blurring” between the two. Already, the press’s Cognet platform provides content and community across journals and books that deal with brain and cognitive sciences. “We feel that publishing both of these forms of scholarship is valuable,” added Faran.
In the past year, the press has been experimenting with short books as part of its Essential Knowledge series. Its most recent offering, Peter Suber’s Open Access, offers a brief introduction to the subject of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles. One year after print publication, it will become openly available under a Creative Commons license. “Everybody still wants everything,” said Faran. “They want traditional publishing, and they want open access.” So far, MIT’s mix of titles is working. According to Faran, print sales for the books division are holding their own year-over-year, while e-books sales are experiencing triple-digit growth.
The press is also beginning to publish in new fields like digital humanities. A new book, Digital_Humanities, with contributions by leading theorists, including Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, and Peter Lunenfeld, is due out in October. The press is also engaged in developing new digital strategies for textbooks and following closely the needs of online learning programs, such as MITx, in which many press authors are involved; Coursera, cofounded by MIT Press author Daphne Koller; and Udacity, cofounded by MIT Press author Sebastian Thrun. —Judith Rosen