By Daniel Kalder
SANTA MONICA: For over 60 years now the RAND Corporation has carried out research and analysis for governments, organizations, and institutions around the world. Famously, it was the work of Dr. Herman Kahn — a RAND employee –- that provided the seed for the military doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (Kahn was lampooned by Peter Sellers in the film Dr. Strangelove as a result). Less well known is that the famous think tank is also a publisher, with a catalog thousands of books deep. In fact, RAND published its first book in 1946, two years before it was split off from the US Air Force and Douglas Corporation to become the independent think tank it is today.
“It was called Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship,” says John Warren, marketing director of RAND publications. “It was about how to get a rocket into space and back — not just how, actually, but why you’d want to.”
A Not-for-profit Model that Pays
As RAND is a not-for-profit organization, its publishing model is radically different from commercial publishing. There are no pitches, or agents, or editors commissioning clones of whatever is selling like hot cakes at the moment. Rather a client contracts with RAND to research a specific area for them. The work is carried out, and afterwards, the results are sent out for peer review, both by researchers working within RAND and others outside the corporation. Then the results are edited, designed, formatted and published. From the initial research to the production of the book, almost everything is carried out in-house by RAND employees, all of it paid for by the client. And then it is made available to the public, downloadable — for free — in PDF format on the RAND website.
“Is it always made public?” I ask, thinking that some of RAND’s military or corporate clients might not want their rivals benefiting from the results of research they funded.
“Non-profit publishing is different,” says Warren. “It’s not about sales. Part of our mission is to disseminate information to the widest audience possible, so making it available is usually written into the contract. This means that we don’t get too many corporate clients, however, as they are worried that our findings might help their competitors. Instead we get associations — trade associations, business associations. For example, a few years ago the MPAA asked us to research the connection between piracy and terrorism.”
“And was there one?”
“A small connection, but the big connection was with organized crime.”
RAND publishing quickly saw the potential of the Internet for disseminating the fruits of their research far wider than printed books ever could. “We had one of the early Websites,” says Warren. “We started publishing on the web in 1992 or 1994. Now our policy is that almost everything is posted and made available for download. For instance, recently we carried out a study on the effects of the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and immediately made it available for free. It’s an unusual model, but not unique.”
Four million free PDFs were downloaded from the RAND website last year, by visitors from all over the world. “Our site doesn’t require registration, so we’re not sure exactly who is downloading them. But from the IP addresses, we see a lot from China, Russia, Pakistan. A lot of military . . .”
Interestingly, some customers still choose to pay for their books — approximately half of the PDFs are also made available as e-books and POD books for purchase. “Some people pay for the Kindle format, for example, due to the easier readability. Let’s say that for a book downloaded for free 25,000 to 30,000 times, perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 copies would be paid for, combining print and e-books. Print is dwindling, but there is still a demand. Our e-books however are available across fifteen e-book distributors plus two other vendors. They are available in all major e-reader platforms. The first day the Kindle went on sale we had 700 books available in the format at Amazon. Right now Amazon has around 1,000 of our e-books, while most distributors have 300 or 400. E-books used to cost the same as print books, which we price to break even. A year and a half ago I made decision to price all at $9.95. Any profits we do make go back into publishing program, to help us find new vendors, or develop enhanced e-books.”
Exploring Enhanced E-books
Indeed, RAND is at the forefront of exploring the possibilities of enhanced e-books. The Arc: A Formal Structure for a Palestinian State was originally published in 2005. For several years it has been one of RAND’s most successful titles in both the West and the Middle East and so an “enhanced” e-book edition was produced. In addition to the text, it features the Arc’s nine-minute overview video, as well as new material on initiatives for improving mobility, quality of life, and economic growth in the West Bank. In 2010 it was the winner of “Future Project of the Year” award at the World Architecture Festival, received an Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design from the American Institute of Architects, and was the subject of press and Huffington Post blog coverage.
Another interesting example of an innovative e-book published by RAND is I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force, by Bernard Rostker, a history of how the United States moved from the military draft to the all-volunteer force. Published in 2006 the book comes with a DVD that contains thousands of primary-source documents — government memoranda, Presidential memos, letters, staff papers, reports, even audio and video — linked directly from citations in the electronic version of the book. Clicking on a footnote takes the reader to the primary source document, such as the Gates Commission Report, a 240-page PDF document. Other documents include letters from President Nixon with hand-written comments, memos signed by Secretary of State Kissinger, and a video of President Carter’s State of the Union Address, when he formally announced the creation of the Selective Service. The extra material on the DVD would run into thousands of pages were they to be printed.
“In fact I Want You! was a little ahead of its time,” says Warren. “I tried to find someone who could do it just as an e-book but it was too big. Perhaps in the future all the information on the DVD could be part of the e-book too, but right now, no. That sort of thing could work for commercial publishers too,” he adds. “Right now, I’m reading Keith Richards autobiography, and there’s so much that could have been done with this as an e-book. For example, when he mentions a song, you could click on a link and listen to it streaming. But the drive for this sort of thing has to come from author. The author of I Want You! wanted to make this information available, he had the connections and he could get it declassified. The author has the vision; the publisher has the marketing perspective.”
RAND meanwhile is experimenting with new ways to promote RAND’s books to the widest audience possible. During 2010, LibraryThing introduced “LibraryThing for Publishers,” which facilitates publishers in creating a publisher page, providing metadata for their titles, highlighting featured titles, and linking to their website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. At RAND’s request, LibraryThing added the ability for RAND to provide URLs linking to the product pages of its books. There are currently more than 1,300 titles on RAND’s LibraryThing publisher page, all with links to the appropriate product page on the RAND website.
However, Warren admits that when it comes to social media, RAND advances more cautiously than it does in other areas. I ask why, and he reveals another difference between RAND and most publishers. It’s not just that they give their books away for free, or that they file their metadata much later than is the norm (one day before publication in some cases, vs. 6-9 months as is the industry standard).
“Well, we get the conspiracy theorists…”