In July I attended the Fitzroy History Society’s launch of Gertrude St Fitzroy by Jill Robertson, an 80 page A5 booklet about the history of Gertrude St. Earlier this week in the Leader I read about a new history of Fitzroy written and published by a group of Honours students from the University of Melbourne’s School of Historical Studies, collectively known as the FitzRovians.
Called Reflections of Fitzroy, the book provides stories of everyday struggle and cultural vitality throughout the long history of Melbourne’s first suburb. It has been published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Fitzroy’s municipal formation. Yarra City Council and the history society are apparently planning further events to celebrate the anniversary (not that you’d know it because there’s nothing on the council website).
I chased the history society for weeks in vain for a press release and cover image so I could help promote it (you can buy it at the Fitzroy Library for $10). I eventually scanned the Gertude St booklet cover. In contrast, I contacted one of the student authors on Facebook and she quickly sent me the copy to enable me to prepare this post, as I am keen to promote their book. Reflections of Fitzroy is available from the School of Historical Studies and costs $20.
While both books are extremely welcome, these publications are also a lost opportunity. The internet is not new, online publishing is established, and these books should have been published online. Small print run books are expensive to produce. The tiny distribution and cost to the consumer significantly limit the number of people who can access the information they contain. The almost nonexistent marketing means that very few people are aware they exist. Even obtaining them is difficult – it requires visiting obscure places during office hours and handing over cash. Everything about these books is inefficient.
I have had this argument so many times. A decade ago, while working as one of the editors of a postgraduate social and cultural studies journal Limina at UWA, I advocated that the journal be published free online to save the difficult task of raising the money for printing and to reduce the work of sales and distribution.
Publishing online and giving the content away is cheaper than printing books and selling them. The sales returns never come close to meeting the printing costs and subsidies are required. The sales and distribution work is time consuming and onerous and can be reduced by eliminating payment collection and posting physical products. Crucially, the loss made in printing is usually greater than the total cost of publishing online.
The other Limina editors were all too attached to the vanity of traditional academic publishing, and I quit in disgust. Now, of course, they are purely an online journal. All I can say is I told you so. Ditto to the person who told me in the mid 1990s when Adobe introduced the Acrobat PDF postscript file format that it was useless and would never last. I knew it would change everything about desktop publishing and I was right.
It does not surprise me that the history society did not publish online. Of the 60 people attending one of their recent talks at the Fitzroy Town Hall, only 5 were under 50 (including me). I doubt anyone under 30 knew the event was on because the society does not have a website and does no marketing.
At the book launch soon after this talk I spoke to three history society committee members. None of them could tell me who manages the society’s email address or reads the mail. No wonder I never got a response to my emails earlier this year.
I have repeatedly volunteered my time and expertise to help them develop an online presence and nothing has come of it. At this rate the organisation will not exist in a decade.
It disappoints me even more that a university is still wasting money printing small works. The students could instead have built a site or blog, split the content into chapter posts, and encouraged people to contribute their own knowledge. The entire book or individual chapters could also be provided as typeset PDFs to download.
The students could have received feedback on their work through the site from the thousands of people who could have accessed the content. In reality, very few people are going to see these timely publications due to the folly of refusing to abandon an antiquated and inefficient business model.
Before the internet, printed books were the most efficient way to transmit information and knowledge. This is no longer the case. Apart from novels and books where the convenience of portability is a significant use factor, the days of print are over.
A decade after being right but losing the fight when online publishing was radical and new, I am completely underwhelmed to find myself in exactly the same position again now that it is standard practice. This is why I quit working as an book editor and print publisher. Trying to innovate in a world controlled by mediocre middle aged bureaucrats was a waste of my valuable time.