Born-Digital Publications: A Conversation between a Librarian and a Publisher, Part 2

Catherine Cocks's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.


As more scholars start developing multimedia digital projects, librarians and acquisitions editors both play key roles in supporting them and making these projects available to readers. In the following post, a librarian and an acquisitions editor who have collaborated on digital projects talk about how they think about this work and what they’d like to see more of. In this week’s post, librarian Anne Cong-Huyen poses questions to acquisitions editor Sara Jo Cohen. Last week we featured Sara’s questions for Anne.

The Publisher’s Perspective: Anne’s questions for Sara

ACH: What do you look for when evaluating proposals for born-digital publications?

SJC: The initial questions I consider for a born-digital project are the same questions that I consider for a traditional print publication:

1) Is this project a good fit for our list?

2) Is it intervening in a scholarly conversation in a clear way?

3) Is the work that this project is doing exciting to me? If so, will it be to other readers?

If the answer to all of those questions is “yes,” then there’s a second set of considerations specific to digital:

1) Are the digital elements of this project carefully curated and integral to the project’s argument?

2) Will the project work on Fulcrum, our digital publishing platform? 

3) Will preparing this project for publication create an unmanageable amount of work for the author and/or the team at the Press?

ACH: What makes born-digital publications different from digital versions of print books?

SJC: From a publishing perspective, the biggest difference between born-digital publication and digital versions of print books is that it’s impossible to publish born-digital projects in print form without flattening them significantly. Some examples of projects like this on the list at University of Michigan Press are A.D. Carson’s i used to love to dream, which is a rap mixtape that performs hip hop as scholarship, and Jacob Smith’s ESC and Lightning Birds, both of which are sound studies projects presented in podcast format. Because sound is integral to the research, arguments, and presentation of these projects, publishing them in print form would make them entirely different. Similarly, A Mid-Republican House from Gabii, which uses archaeological findings to present the construction, inhabitation, and repurposing of a private home in the ancient Latin town of Gabii, includes an interactive map of the dig site that simply wouldn’t work in print form.

ACH: What advice do you have for authors who are interested in publishing a born-digital project?

SJC: Contact the editor you’d like to work with when you have a strong idea about what your project will do but before you write your project proposal. I like to be involved in the earliest stage of creating a digital project so that I can learn what the author is envisioning and then help them refine that vision to ensure that the project will work for our readership and on our platform.

I also like to be able to talk to the author about the work that they’ll need to do to prepare the digital-only elements of their project for publication. For example, we require our authors to complete a Final Manuscript Submission Log with the metadata for each of the images, videos, sound files, and external links that they want to include in the project (available at our Form Bank). Because of our strong commitment to accessibility, we also require our authors to create alt text, which is descriptive text for all images for readers with print disabilities, for all illustrations; captions and visual descriptions for all video files; and captions for all audio files. Completing the Final Manuscript Submission Log and the accessibility work for a project can be time-consuming and I want authors to know about both as they curate the materials they’d like to include in their projects.

ACH: What are some important considerations that authors often forget about when putting together proposals for digital publications, or that folks don't know about?

SJC: It’s important to be aware that there are limits to what a digital publication can do or how it can work. The limits will differ from publisher to publisher based on what platforms they use to publish, the capacity and resources the publisher has to develop what an author’s envisioning, and an author’s technological ability to translate what they’re envisioning into digital form. The best way to figure out what a particular publisher’s limits are is to talk to an editor early in the process and ask what kind and quantity of file types can be included.

Along similar lines, authors sometimes think that a digital-only project is a good place to store a large archive they’ve collected of something like videos or interviews. A print monograph might use an archive as the basis of its argument, but that archive is not part of the monograph itself. Similarly, a scholar working on a digital project might collect an archive that serves as the basis for her argument, but that archive is not part of the digital project and I don’t think it should be published as part of it. Additionally, publishers are not really equipped to store and preserve archives, so it’s best to store one’s archive elsewhere, like at one’s university library, and curate what goes into the digital-only project in much the same way one would carefully select the graphs and images that would go into a print monograph.

Lastly, as I mentioned in my response to the previous question, it’s important for authors to know how much work is necessary on their end to prepare the files for their digital project. If media are being integrated into a manuscript, what’s the proper way to indicate where in the manuscript they should appear? How should hyperlinks be formatted in the manuscript? What kind of metadata does the publisher need and how do they want that information conveyed to them? Does the publisher expect the author to create alt text for images and captions for audio and video files?

ACH: What kinds of digital projects are you most excited about? What do you want to see more of?

SJC: Like you, I’d like to see more “smaller, simpler, more contained, more sustainable digital projects.” I think that some scholars think of digital publishing as an opportunity to create wildly complicated projects, but as you’ve noted, these are hard to preserve. It’s also difficult to make these projects accessible for readers with print disabilities and it’s difficult for some readers to follow nonlinear projects. My favorite digital projects are those that need the affordances of digital but that contain a limited number of carefully-produced elements. I’d like to see more scholarly podcasts like Wilfrid Laurier University Press’s Secret Feminist Agenda, more video-based digital projects, and a peer-reviewed video game or role-playing game.  I’d definitely like to talk to you about what community-centered and community-accountable work would look like and how we might support it at the Press.


Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing.