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Weaving a Book into the Web
Michael F. Brown
While engaged in final editing of a book on indigenous intellectual property rights (IPR) early this year, I decided that it might be an interesting to create a website to complement the book when it finally appeared in print. This pairing of book and website is increasingly common in the world of textbook publishing but still rare for traditional monographs. After reflection, I settled on three goals for the project:
(1) Use the website to offer resources that are difficult to include in books, especially at a time when publishers are under pressure to cut costs.
(2) Seek a visually appealing design that doesn't interfere with the transfer of useful information. This militated against the inclusion of animated graphics and high-resolution images, which make a site hard to use for visitors surfing without benefit of broadband.
(3) Keep the site simple so it could be maintained with minimal effort after launch. This ruled out elements such as a blog (a regularly updated chronicle of personal reflections and opinions) or a threaded discussion forum. Although interactivity can generate excitement by building on-line community, my prior experience as a discussion moderator had taught me that I didn’t have the time or the temperament to ride herd on endless discussion. In contrast, monthly updates calling attention to breaking news or important legal decisions didn't strike me as unduly burdensome.
The most gratifying was how easily a website can break down the walls between a book and its subject matter. The website takes readers to full-text court decisions, legislation, and scholarly articles directly related to the subject of indigenous IPR and legal contests over sacred sites. Also provided are links to NGOs and advocacy groups that have emerged as key players inglobal debates about the regulation of cultural flows. These resources allow readers to check my book’s accuracy and to refine their own opinions about how indigenous intellectual property can best be identified and protected.
The site also serves a bibliographic function. My publisher, like many others these days, preferred space-saving endnotes, which are difficult for readers to navigate. The website allows visitors to download a single alphabetized reference list as an Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) document.
What proved surprisingly difficult, at least initially, was convincing my publisher that the website was a good idea. The issue was not cost -- my own college was willing to host the site and I could do the basic design work myself -- but defensive concern about the press’s intellectual property, which of course is my intellectual property, too. Once assured that my intention was not to offer long excerpts of the book that might undermine sales, the press struggled with the question of how to signal the existence of the website in the book itself.
My first thought was to include in the book a card that alerted readers to the website’s URL. To my surprise, the press's production staff deemed this prohibitively expensive. (How magazines are able to afford inserting a half dozen annoying subscription cards into every issue remains a mystery.) We settled on a less desirable solution: the URL would be mentioned in the Notes section of the book, on the dust jacket, and in print ads. Unfortunately, in one of those production hiccups that seem inevitable even at good university presses, the dust jacket reference never materialized.
The problem then became: How would anyone find the website? Links from my college’s site and a few other web pages devoted to the theme of indigenous IPR have helped to put Who Owns Native Culture? on Google’s radar screen. By the standards of e-commerce, however, the site’s hit-rate is modest and likely to stay that way.
Another challenge was sorting out intellectual-property issues unique to the Web. Whose permission, if any, must I secure to provide links to full-text articles publicly available in other websites? Was it acceptable to transfer copies of those documents to my own server in the interest of speeding access? If one of my goals was to call attention to new developments in indigenous IPR policies, could I post newspaper stories -- say, from the New York Times -- after the publisher had taken them down from the free, publicly available areas of its website? Given the ethical and legal ambiguities, these questions admit of no easy answers.
Was this small experiment worth undertaking? On balance, I believe it was. Admittedly, I find HTML authoring therapeutic in the same way that other people gravitate to needlepoint or gardening. But it also served as an introduction to the puzzles and possibilities of marrying two technologies whose logics differ significantly. Given the harsh economic realities of academic publishing, the Web is becoming a major venue -- in some cases, the only venue -- for anthropological writing. (Note the American Ethnologist's recent decision to limit book reviews to the journal's on-line version.) With the average anthropological monograph struggling to achieve total lifetime sales of 1500 copies, even a modestly trafficked website stands to reach a larger audience than most books. There is little question that anthropologists and publishers will have to think creatively about how to integrate the on-line and print worlds if our profession is to retain its modest foothold in the marketplace of ideas.
Michael F Brown is the author of Who Owns Native Culture? (2003). Resources on indigenous IPR can be accessed at his website.