(Experimenting, Exploring, Examining) ETC Press
A Little History
The idea of ETC Press began when I was trying to write my doctoral dissertation about hypertext in hypertext to help illustrate the unique potential of this new medium, and at the time (late 90s) the graduate school was concerned about accepting a “website” as a doctoral dissertation. The compromise was to create a linear text that was mapped from the hypertext to submit for the doctorate. Thus, I ended up with two relational texts. This, in turn, led to the idea of being able to create interactive academic scholarship across multiple media. And while there are ample traditional ways to publish, there didn’t seem to be many (if any) avenues for people interested in doing academic work experimenting with various media. This was the impetus for creating a forum to experiment with digital and physical texts as a form of legitimate scholarship, and that, in turn, became ETC Press: a place for experimenting and exploring scholarship and media. It’s an applied research initiative that is comprised of scholarly activity and publishing projects in order to both explore these issues and produce media.
In the summer of 2008, ETC Press went live with a public beta, launching with two titles and a goal to release around four or so a year. “Beta” is a phase of development where you are still testing, and a public beta is open to users to help test and improve your features and process. So our titles are published, but we were still working to polish our process. As of this writing, there has been two more titles released, with three more close to publication, and around a dozen projects in process for publication in 2010, 2011 and beyond. This essay is going to provide an overview of the story and process of how and why ETC Press was started. I helped get it going, and am currently the editor, so I’m going to share my perspective on the inspirations and ideas that have led to ETC Press.
As mentioned above, the initial concept that led to the founding of the ETC Press started with my doctoral dissertation. Back in the late 90s, I was writing my dissertation in HTML (hypertext markup language) since I was interested in taking advantage of hypertext links within my text, as well as links out to the web at large. My committee was supportive although I received several comments about the desire to “write” comments on the pages (bear in mind that this was before the advent of weblogs). Concurrently, I discovered that the graduate school was unwilling to accept a website for a doctoral dissertation. This led me to create a conceptual mapping of the website into organizational and topical categories that enabled me to shuffle the sprawl of all the various pages into a linear order that I could then print and submit to the graduate school as a text. These two experiences served as the initial inspiration for exploring cross-media scholarly work that took advantage of both the hypermedic nature of the web and the solid tradition of discursive texts. Over time, I dabbled with colleagues on database-driven solutions that would enable an author to write multimedia texts and automatically present them as websites or texts and more, and I continuously researched related work and projects, since I found this to be an interesting new avenue of scholarship.
Carnegie Mellon University has a history of encouraging and supporting innovative and interdisciplinary projects. The Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) is a prime example of this. The ETC is an interdisciplinary academic center that offers a terminal professional master’s degree that focuses on entertainment technologies, ranging from games to animation to theme parks and more, and how these technologies can be applied across a variety of fields, from entertainment to education, to social issues and more. Graduate students work in teams on semester-long applied research projects in which they design and develop working prototypes.
When I joined the faculty at the ETC, my background in both industry and academics made for a good fit with the center. Don Marinelli, a professor of drama who worked in the computer science department, founded the ETC with Randy Pausch (a professor of computer science) and together they helped to instill the applied interdisciplinary research focus at the ETC. When Randy knew he wanted to get back to more research with his Alice project, and Don knew he wanted to grow the ETC and host centers around the world, my previous experience with founding an academic center and chairing programs made me a good fit for directing the ETC in Pittsburgh. The ETC was an ideal place to more fully explore the nascent ideas I had around experimenting with media and scholarship, and with the support of Don Marinelli, the idea of an innovative, experimental publishing imprint started taking shape. The idea was to provide a venue for authors willing to push the envelope on the nature of scholarly work across media that fit into the applied research projects of the ETC. So now we just had to figure out what the actually meant (both logistically and conceptually).
What followed was about 18 months of work on the concept and logistics. The concept came together quickly. We formed an advisory board for high-level discussions, and an editorial group for logistical details, and we began laying out how to implement an academic, open source, multimedia, publishing imprint. The advisory board is made up of industry and academic professionals who can provide feedback and input into what and how ETC Press works. We chose to use Drupal (an open source content management system) and incorporated the Book Module so that we could host all our publications online. Drupal was a good choice for several reasons. It’s open source, which aligns with our mission; it makes it easy to find modules to customize the system to a great degree; and the programmers on the faculty and staff of ETC could make specific changes to fit our needs.
We partnered with Lulu, a publish-on-demand company, to help handle all the printing details. This choice was crucial for ETC Press, as it enabled us to bootstrap this process with no hard overhead costs. Also, Lulu was important to the entire endeavor because their ability to publish on demand in several formats and across different media enables us to actively and seamlessly create multiple editions of texts, playing with how discourse can be documented. So, this relationship with Lulu has helped ETC Press both logistically and conceptually.
Creative Commons licenses help us to encourage readers to remix publications (which in turn we could publish as more editions). The Creative Commons license keeps the ownership of the intellectual property with the original authors, but makes it freely available for others under generous usage permissions, to encourage further exploration and experimentation. To further encourage this, we’re working with the Institute for the Future of the Book and MediaCommons, and their multimedia authoring and collaborative tools, Sophie, and In Media Res, so that authors can explore new ideas and methods on how to “write.” This allows ETC Press engage with authors using these tools, and it provides the Institute for the Future of the Book with another publishing outlet for authors.
Similarly, ETC publications will be entered into Thoughtmesh, which automatically tags content and illustrates connections across all the texts in the mesh. This connects the ideas in ETC Press publications with other writings and ideas. And all ETC Press publications will be entered into Feedbooks e-reading platform so that they can be read across a variety of mobile digital devices, making it convenient to access ETC Press publications. Finally, the ACM Digital Portal has agreed to archive all ETC Press publications, which enables us to reach every university library that subscribes to ACM (and most do). BreakPoint Books, which runs bookstores at professional conferences, will carry ETC Press publications. All of these relationships enable us to expand the distribution of ideas and ideally encourage more discourse across topics and fields. In turn, ETC Press provides content for their platforms. Together, we can explore and experiment with the idea of scholarship and publication.
Also, there were (and are) many other groups working on similar initiatives. We continually search for and contact others doing similar work. We are looking to support collaboration opportunities as well as the chance to learn from their ideas and concepts.
Many authors are also addressing the problems and promises of open cross-media publications. James Boyle, Christopher Kelty, Gary Hall and Lawrence Lessig all have books out on the open source nature of ideas.
During all of this conceptual progress across meetings with the advisory board, we were also working on the logistics of running a small academic publishing imprint. We had some funding interest from both the publishing industry and foundations. After discussion with our board, we decided to remain independent in order to most freely experiment. We believe that unfettered experimentation is crucial to the success of ETC Press. We worked with CMU’s counsel to hammer out contractual agreements for authors that would clearly state that they retained ownership of all their intellectual property while granting ETC Press permission to publish a version under a Creative Commons license. It’s important to us to make the publishing process with ETC Press as author-friendly as possible. We want them to benefit from joining in the experiment. Concurrently, we worked on an agreement with Lulu to have them handle all of the finances on both sales and royalty payments for all of our authors across all publications. Lulu handles the logistics of the free downloads, and the sales of the print versions.
Through their online services, Lulu also enables us to easily assign ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) and LCCNs (Library of Congress Control Numbers), which gets ETC Press publications listed in the bibliographic databases. CMU’s counsel also helped with the wording that enables us to include copyrighted images with permission in publications in which the text is under the Creative Commons license. These contracts and details took some time to draft, but in the end they enabled us to start ETC Press with essentially no overhead and the primary involvement of myself as Editor and John Dessler (an ETC professor and talented new-media designer) as well as input and advice from the advisory board throughout the process. A downside is that we don’t have any marketing budget, but we try to use the web, email lists and social networks to help promote the ETC Press, and CMU’s public relations office is also supportive with press releases.
We are also still working to streamline our publishing process (hence the public beta phase). We’re working with Lulu document templates and dynamic websites to help with the layout of the books as well as to increase and improve dialogue around ETC Press publications as they’re in process so that authors can more easily work together on projects with these collaborative tools. As mentioned above, ETC Press has been going for just over a year, and we have four publications out with around a dozen or so more projects in the pipeline. For us, a “project” is any media publication (text, website, dvd, etc.). So far, all of the projects have come through our contact with people interested in experimenting with publication. We’re also open to proposals submitted through our website. Looking at the four current publications, it’s interesting to see how they’ve done in terms of sales and downloads and Lulu helps collate this data for us. I should note that free downloads are plain text-only versions of publications, while the print versions are fully formatted with images. Together, the four publications have sold over 500 copies, and have had over 11,000 downloads. So, we’re seeing the spread of ideas, and through feedback received online and at professional conferences, people appreciate the access to a free download, but also express a strong desire to own the publications in physical form. So, we’re continuing to examine different pricing structures that include free plain text downloads, and print versions priced as inexpensively as possible. That said, our goal is less about making money (although print-on-demand enables us to not run at a loss) and more about the value of the open sharing and wide distribution of ideas.
To sum up, ETC Press is a publishing imprint just out of public beta as we have fine-tuned our process. It’s affiliated with the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). ETC Press has a partnership with Lulu.com, and an affiliation with the Institute for the Future of the Book and MediaCommons, sharing in the exploration of the evolution of discourse. ETC Press also has an agreement with the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) to place ETC Press publications in the ACM Digital Portal, and another with Feedbooks to place ETC Press texts in their e-reading platform. Also, ETC Press publications will be added to the ThoughtMesh.
Authors publishing with ETC Press retain ownership of their intellectual property, and all ETC Press publications will be released under one of two Creative Commons licenses that were chosen through discussion with the board and discussions with potential authors:
Every book will have an associated website for comments that could be considered for subsequent versions of texts. The ETC Press website allows registered users to download versions of publications and share creative new rewritings as well as add comments to the current publications. ETC Press is partnering with Lulu to enable instantaneous multiple versions of publications and foster a community of collaborative authorship and dialogue across media. In other words, it’s easy to create a second version that includes comments from the website. The idea is to make ETC Press publications as accessible as possible and best enable the sharing and discussion of ideas and concepts. Currently, we have colleagues working to provide translations of ETC Press books in Spanish and Korean.
We believe digital media affords interesting new dynamic possibilities full of promises and problems in terms of academic discourse and communication (i.e. learning, scholarship, publication, documentation and community, etc.). These possibilities are playing out in three inter-related ways across content creation, distribution, and assessment. Granted, these three categories blur significantly, but I'm going to address them separately below in order to illustrate how they inter-relate with each other.
In terms of content creation, digital media has increased the ability to create content collaboratively across mixed and multiple media. Authors can work together through wikis or other content management systems to create media publicly so that the process of creation is transparent, and "readers" can get involved through their own edits, or comments, or remixing of content. So, the very notion of reading and writing as separate activities is blurred by digital media. Also, digital media can be created to serve as a platform for further user-generated content (like GameStar Mechanic and Digital Youth Network). So, the work you're creating enables users to create their own. A great example of this would be video games that are released with their own level editors that help players to create their own levels and content. And authors can mix (and readers can remix) their media, combining text, audio, video and interactive moments to make the most of each medium together. Also, multiple versions of texts can seamlessly exist across time as content is created, edited, remixed, and improved. Of course, this doesn't come without problems. User-generated content blurs the line of who owns what (the player who created the level, or the company who made the game, or both). Also, with the ease of creation, the volume of content increases exponentially, making it hard to sift through it all in general, and specifically to find the highest quality and most pertinent topically. And with the mixing (and remixing) of media; good, clear design becomes more important than ever, to help best create media through which readers can experience the content.
In terms of content distribution, digital media more closely combines creation with distribution, which enables more channels of communication than ever. Just by working in a wiki or on the web, authors and designers are enabled to make their work immediately available. And aggregation sites take content from all over the web and collate it. Some sites automate the collation through algorithms, while others have editors who help curate the content collation on their sites. The ability to semantically tag work helps to categorize and combine works. Also, new publishing-on-demand companies (like Lulu, Blurb, Magcloud, Zazzle, Issuu and more) enable a bridge between digital and physical publications as authors and designers can readily offer both. Similarly, platforms created to help generate user content often have a hub or index to help collect all the related work created. An example of this would be the online stores associated with the current videogame consoles (XBox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Nintendo WiiWare) that make it easily for small independent developers to share their games.
The ability to effectively search through all this content becomes critical, so that you can find what you're looking for, as well as get some sense of the quality of work. Again, some sites do this algorithmically (like Google) while others curate (like Boing Boing), or combine the two (like WolframAlpha). And many sites also enable the community to add their own tags, ratings, and reviews, which adds another layer to how works can get disseminated. Plus, every webpage is not just another node, but also another avenue of distribution. And digital media enables the potential for content to become completely modular, to be pieced together in a variety of ways. Again, questions of quality come up amongst all the quantity of content out there, but sites continue to work on ways to help you find what you're looking for. In general, digital media is making it easier than ever to share content far and wide.
In terms of content assessment, digital media can go beyond the notion of ratings and reviews as discussed above, and is more about an overall sense of the effectiveness of digital media to communicate information and enhance communication, and more. While traditional methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis and assessment can be applied to digital media experiences (in terms of academic studies), digital media also opens up the possibility of new methods of assessment and evaluation. As mentioned above, community engagement is more readily enabled through dynamic digital media, and multiple iterations are more easily created to respond to feedback and input. That said, digital media can have real-time feedback in which data is able to be continually assessed and content is able to be immediately improved. You don’t have to wait as long in order to make improvements. Also, the constant data collection helps to see is larger patterns of community activity, so we're able to see group choices and get a sense of how and when decisions are made and problems are solved across subjects and situations, and get a sense of how critical thinking is developing across the community.
Granted, there is the problem of having things happen too quickly, so there isn't enough time to better evaluate what the data mean. Of course, this is the case in general, but with digital media it’s exponentially more complex with the speed and quantity of data you can collect. Also, just tracking data doesn't provide cogent information in and of itself. There is always the need to interpret the data to determine what it all means (again, a not uncommon problem, just to a larger and quicker degree, and it takes more time than immediate real-time feedback). And design becomes even more important and crucial. Authors have to also be designers in order to create meaningful experiences, and information design is an extremely effective way to find meaningful patterns in data. Information visualization tools can help authors and designers to see patterns of activity within the community. And building on our assessment methodologies, we should be able to create digital media with assessment systems and processes that enable authors to recognize patterns and evaluate what does and doesn't work with the interactive experiences they created, and work to make improvements and then see if the changes make the experiences more effective and engaging. Plus, it would be invaluable to document the process of creation and see both successes and failures which would help advance the discussion. This in turn, would enable authors and designers to create experiences that are able to adapt to users based on their skillsets. Digital media can enable us to assess the effectiveness (in terms of communication and learning, choices and decisions) of the work we've created and make improvements.
As should be apparent, digital media excels at the blurring of categories, as content creation, distribution, and assessment are closely interwoven through digital media. And throughout, digital media enables interactive engagement and participatory agency with content, so the distinction between author, designer, reader, user, and player all blur as well. That said, critical creation, or design combined with critical thinking, becomes even more of an issue as digital media makes it easier for more and more people to create content. The ease of use allows for a huge sea of content. Digital media can be used to help increase literacy and critical creation, which are invaluable skills and talents that need to be fostered in our hyper-mediated world. Digital media isn't the end all, be all, but it does open up all these new possibilities that we want to explore.
Looking specifically at ETC Press, we are interested in the participatory nature of digital media and content creation across multiple media. We are looking to blend digital and physical publications, and continually find new avenues for sharing the work created through ETC Press. On the one hand, we acknowledge that in an academic context, digital media has yet to earn the credibility of traditional textual publications. As a CMU entity, we want to build on tradition with books published-on-demand. And we're interested in sharing ideas and complementary innovations, as groups can work together adding to the process and products. And most importantly, we want to further spread and share ideas. ETC Press is committed to these explorations and experiments, and we will continue to look for groups to connect with and share in the process and products. These innovations in digital media are starting to grow in credibility and creativity through the associations, ideas, and interactions of those involved. All in all, digital media hold great possibilities that are worth exploring fully. Ideally, ETC Press will serve as one locus within the field that enables insightful work to be done across a variety of media.
We plan to remain small and focused to enable us to experiment with our multimedia publishing process. This is definitely an experiment in the notion of publishing, and we invite people to participate. Anyone interested in getting involved can reach us through our website. We are exploring what it means to "publish" across multiple media and multiple versions. We believe this is the future of publication, bridging virtual and physical media with fluid versions of publications as well as enabling the creative blurring of what constitutes reading, writing, and publishing.