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On publishing, science, and conservation

Publishing has always been a quirky business, with its own traditions and mores. Those traditions and mores worked quite well for quite a long time, bringing us enlightenment, outrage, joy, and much else. Whether that will continue to be the case for much longer is very much an open question. The digital revolution is well under way nearly everywhere, but traditional book publishing seems to be putting up a fight. Many if not most publishers are still trying to figure out what it all means.

Many people have written  about book publishing in the digital age, and the future of libraries part of that effort (on the latter, see in particular Robert Darnton on the National Digital Public Library). Many others have written about the related question of the need for changes to scientific publishing to foster greater (that is, freer) access to information. One place where the two domains of book publishing and open access science should overlap, but often don’t, is conservation, specifically conservation science.

Mainstream publishing houses, it sometimes seems, would rather stick pins in their eyes than publish serious works on environmental science, with the occasional exception of a book on climate change. Books about dogs, sure, maybe a few on other fuzzy creatures, and the occasional tome by Al Gore. Other than that, if you are an aspiring conservation scientists with a book in mind,  try your luck with an academic house or the always-useful Island Press. All too typical is the reaction of one prominent New York publisher, upon hearing of the proposal for the book that eventually became Nature’s Fortune; “Oh, we could never do a book like that! But good luck.”

Many editors at the big publishers –the newly merged Random Penguin (it is actually called Penguin Random House, but random penguins are more interesting) Simon and Shuster,  HarperCollins, etc,, will profess interest in books on the environment, only to have their marketing people put the kibosh on the project for lack of readership. Of course there is a chicken and egg problem here; if the marketers committed to marketing nature books perhaps they could create the markets they seek. Perhaps not, but the point is few if any editors are wiling at this point to go out on a limb for an environmental science or policy book, unless the author was once Vice President and won a Nobel Prize. Maybe Bono could sell a book on the environment, if it came with a U2 download included.

If the big houses are unwilling, and the academic houses unable, to get environment books into wide distribution, what are the options? There are some models. Sierra Club Books has been around since the 1960s and largely targets its membership. Most large conservation organizations occasionally produce  marketing-oriented, glossy books. IUCN at one time was committed to publishing books about conservation science, but it has largely abandoned the effort due to budget cuts and a change in leadership. The multi-lateral institutions — World Bank, GEF, UNEP, and so on — produce huge quantities of material, much of it valuable but too highly specialized to be of general interest.

The big conservation organizations like World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, and World Resources Institute (which has much more of a publishing culture than the others) could take this on. They all dabble in publishing, none of them with much effect. They should join forces, under the banner of making their conservation science more accessible and hence more powerful. Together those groups could create a powerful marketing force, the Conservation Publishing Group. They could also raise money to create a fund for the best writers in their organizations, and give them the time and support they need to write good books that people will want to read. That would require a level of cooperation among these groups that has been difficult to achieve except at the scale of the occasional project, and it would require a shift in among the legal departments  who reflexively treat books by staff as corporate property.

Such a collaboration, unburdened as it would be from any legacy of book publishing traditions, could dive into the digital publishing waters that most big publishers are only testing. The Conservation Publishing Group could be a source of innovation, and the rapid iteration of new ideas. It could join forces with an established publisher like Island Press to handle the details of editing, production, and distribution. The collaboration would be less about getting into the publishing business and more about generating the works that are worth publishing in the first place. That will be the hardest part; convincing the conservation world that writing books is a worthwhile  thing for overworked staff scientists to be doing. Hard, but not impossible. The fact remains that even in a digital world, if you want to convince someone of your seriousness and intellectual heft, you need to write book. Some traditions don’t change.

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