Yale University Press recently celebrated its centennial with a conference, “Why Books Still Matter.” The theme of the event – and the fact that YUP Director John Donatich opened by acknowledging the unasked question, “Do books still matter?” – reflects the troubled state of both university and trade publishing. Champions of the book arrived from all corners, however, with a variety of ideas.
My panel addressed “The Digital Future of Scholarly Publishing,” and consisted of Yochai Benkler, David Gelernter, Michael Heller, and myself, moderated by Harvard University Library Director Robert Darnton. (If you’re counting, that’s 3 law profs and a computer scientist among the presenters, a strange ratio for a discipline that has only in the past decade embraced book publishing. In fact, when I was writing my first book, I experienced substantial resistance from both my tenure committee and senior scholars elsewhere – a reaction that now seems laughable – but that’s a story for another day.) While we ranged from enthusiastic to somewhat resistant to the possibilities of digital rather than paper-and-ink publishing, there was general agreement that traditional books have great value.
Much of the defense of the paper-and-ink book revolved around its technical excellence. While some people love their Kindles, and digital technology will no doubt continue to improve, nothing has yet beaten the book.
For my part, I confess to having called books “the scented candles of the 21st century” –