On Publishing

I fear I may be transitioning.  I may actually be becoming someone who knows something about publishing.  Reading about the merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill actually seemed interesting.  What’s happening to me?  Actually, the largest impact has been the realization that scholars need to become more aware of the world around them.  As a doctoral student I was taught to find an unexplored subject and write obscurely on it.  Then, when it’s time to publish, to say to the editor that general readers will understand and find it compelling.  It took some time, however, even though I frequented Waterstones and Blackwells, to realize that the books they housed were not the kinds of books I’d been taught to write.  Back in America, where the brands were Borders and Barnes and Nobel, the same thing applied.  People want books they can understand.

Two articles that caught my attention recently addressed the plight of the academic monograph.  One was “Worried About the Future of the Monograph? So Are Publishers” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The other was “Making Monographs Open” from Inside Higher Ed.  Both share some common themes: scholars write books so obscure that even academic libraries won’t buy them and since it’s “publish or perish” it becomes the publisher’s problem.  Listen, I understand that mentality.  Isolated in the woods of Wisconsin with the wind howling through the trees, writing about weather in the Psalms seemed perfectly natural.  Forgetting that the average reader doesn’t know Hebrew, I assumed everyone would find my disquisition irresistible.  Even back in the early 2000s publishers disagreed.  Life is so interesting!  There are so many minutiae to explore!  If you haven’t had the pleasure of following in the tracks of a thought that won’t let you go, you’ve never been really seduced.  But then, somebody’s got to pay for all this.

Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that publishing is a business.  Indeed, higher education is now a business as well.  Everything’s a business.  To stay solvent publishers have to sell enough books to cover the cost of making them.  As these articles point out, that cost isn’t negligible.  The scholar who explores the publishing industry (as rare as that may be) will discover plenty of resources to help rethink academic writing.  Even without reading the industry rags, just paying attention when you’re in your neighborhood bookstore can be an eye-opening experience.  I was looking for a book (hardly even academic) last time I was in Ithaca, New York.  If any town is likely to have such books on the shelf, it’s Ithaca.  I had to ask and leave empty-handed.  There are lots of books out there, colleagues!  And if you want to get yours published, it pays to do a little research.  Your time will not be wasted.  And I fear I’m becoming someone who knows a little about such things.

2 thoughts on “On Publishing

  1. Among the problems of unrealism among scholars is their desire to hold in their hands a lovely, commercially produced physical artifact, suitable for the shelves of a late 19th century full professor of Classics or History (Prefarably of one in a named chair at Oxford). This simultaneous with being “unworldly” and above it all. As a long-time theological librarian I took note of this as well as the fact that most of their predecessors had a quality that our contemporaries don’t: family money.

    In our current world there are plenty of ways to publish obscure and valuable work that is not commercially viable. Usually this involves 1) electronic production and 2) avoiding the high-end commercial entities that add little value but a lot to the price (especially in journal publishing). The trend has been the opposite of wisdom, of course. Association publishers tend to contract with the expensive European publishers and abandon their in-house publishing programs. They largely do this because they are offered positive cashflow and the opportunity to have their journals in print and not just electronic, and to relieve some of the administrative/distribution work from the journal editor, but at a VERY high cost. Associations & academic institutions can produce high quality publications for much less than the cost of the commercial entities, but it requires rethinking and a bit of fortitude in reformulating how academic communication (which is what it was called in the 18th c. btw) is done.

    I interviewed for a pretty senior position at a big IVY a few years ago. There was a good deal of concern, university-wide, about getting costs under control & using the considerable leverage of the University both in terms of financial clout and regulation of publication rights to pressure the publishers for a radically better deal, or in the alternative to go their own way with publishing.

    In the course of the interview, including talking with senior faculty members, it became clear that the faculty had the clout to stop the university from doing anything and that that was what they were going to do. Why? because they liked the current system in which they were featured in the “most prestigious” journals and had everything in paper. This despite the fact that huge proportions of publications in paper were being trucked offsite because there was no room for them in the nearby libraries.

    It’s not that I believe that “everything will be online” or that any of this is free, but the lack of awareness by faculty of the real-world consequences of their desires undermines the ability to make detailed, high quality scholarship feasible.

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    • Many thanks for this, Drew! The longer I’m involved in this the more I see your point about privilege and prestige. (I became an academic from a background of poverty and my lack of connections ensured I’d never thrive in the industry.)

      As a sometime author, I think part of the issue is that you want to have something physical to show someone. When you say “I wrote a book,” others (mothers included) want to see it. A Kindle just doesn’t count. At the same time, electronic forms for purely academic titles makes a world of sense. Thanks for the comment!

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