Weird Publishing

It’s a weird world.  Publishing, I mean.  In the early days of shock and angst after Nashotah House, when it had become clear that UWOsh—the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh—wasn’t going to hire me full-time after a full-time year there, I considered that classic fall-back of the academic—publishing.  I wasn’t exactly clear on what an editor did in those days, but I was pretty sure I could learn.  Gorgias Press hired me and after just over two years, downsized.  I’d been in publishing long enough at that point to have learned about Transaction Publishers.  Housed on the Livingston campus of Rutgers University, where I’d been teaching for a few years at this point, Transaction had been founded by the sociologist Irving Horowitz.  Now that Gorgias was out of the picture, I contacted Transaction out of the blue and landed an interview with Horowitz himself.  Although he was most cordial, it didn’t lead to a job offer.

Eventually I was recruited by Routledge.  I was about to learn the nature of publishing in a whole new way.  Early in my time in the Taylor & Francis group (they had a letter signed by Walt Whitman in one of the board rooms) I learned that presses grow by acquiring other presses.  I suggested Transaction, only to be told it was too small of a “concern;” Taylor & Francis preferred larger fish.  When Routledge downsized I found myself again applying to Transaction.  Irving Horowitz had passed away by this point and before I could make an appeal, I was hired by my current employer.  There I have been ever since.

The other day I had cause to look up Transaction.  It was with some surprise that I learned they had been acquired by Taylor & Francis and merged with Routledge.  I’m sure that my suggestion of that acquisition had nothing to do with it, but I pondered what would’ve happened had I been hired by Transaction after Routledge cut me loose.  A few years later I would’ve found myself working for Routledge again.  And likely I would have found history repeating itself.  Publishing is a fairly small industry.  Books are a low-margin commodity (it pains me to type those words, but that’s the way the business world sees them).  Not too many people are interested in a company that has to sell lots of a specialty item in order to make them profitable.  Consumers tend not to buy books in bulk.  My time in publishing has been about connections.  And some of those connections are just plain weird.

Lower Education

Is there anything that can’t be sold? I think in the context of the free market, with its oxymoronic name, the answer must be a resounding “No!” A concept may be sold as a piece of writing or a patent or a trademark. Souls may be sold to the devil, at least according to the entrepreneurship of demons, if centuries of folklore are to be believed. A person who has betrayed his or her ideals is a sell-out. We can sell anything. Two related stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education confirm, in very different ways, this truth above all truths. The first piece, “More Notes on the Rise of Thrun Credits,” by Kevin Carey, notes how universities are in the business of selling academic credentials. Those of us who’ve gone through the educational grind-mill that leads one to poverty with the dubious benefit of a Ph.D. diploma to hang on the wall of our cardboard hovels, found this out the hard way. What matters is not what you learned or how well you learned it: where did you go to school? That is the most important commodity that a university sells—its name. It is sad that academia has gone after Wall Street, but there’s no changing the direction of this charging bull.

The second article, which I only spied because of a link on the first, was a tribute to Irving Louis Horowitz, world-renowned social scientist and founder of Transaction Press. In my days of desperation at Gorgias Press, looking for a new position that would make use of my editing and higher education (sales) background, I had contacted Transaction and ended up having three lengthy interviews with Dr. Horowitz. He was well known for his quirks, but he always had a kind word for me, and even read my book to find out more about me. Such determination and depth of investment are rare these days. In the end, I never did find a place at Transaction, although it was literally a ten-minute walk from where I taught my Rutgers classes on Livingston Campus. Publishers, it stands to reason, are also in the business of selling on the basis of reputation. Once Dr. Horowitz said as much during one of my interviews. “Without reputation, what does a publisher have to offer?” he asked.

Both of these ventures in which I have participated began as sources of disseminating knowledge. I was naïve enough to suppose that such ideals could survive the onslaught of that hissing serpent called finance, yet it is sad to be in a world where nothing falls outside its coils. Long before the birth of capitalism universities managed solvency and provided the intellectual inquiry that eventually led to its own demise. Publishers always sold their wares, but many pieces were published for the sake of their content, not their earning potential. That world no longer exists. In order to be paid you must have something to sell. All other transactions are null and void. We send our children to college to find jobs, not to learn. Maybe it’s just as well. Schools are busy with marketing and branding, so let our young ones learn the only system that works. For those interested, I have some swamp-land in Florida to sell…