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Dandelions, Prestige, and the Measure of Scholars
August 22, 2013 - 9:45pm

Two of the communities I hang out in talk a lot about publishing. For academics, being published in the right places and enough times is a measure of worth. The peer review system attached to scholarly publishing is widely presumed more unbiased and less prone to the vagaries of local politics than peer evaluations of teaching, even at institutions at which student learning is more central to its mission than research. It’s also more fungible. The reputation a scholar builds for teaching tends to be a local currency. Scholarship is the currency of an entire discipline.

I also hang out with writers of genre fiction. Being published by the right publisher used to be the gold standard, because publishers were the route to distribution channels, attention, and sales. True, prestige and sales were often inversely correlated, but both had value.   

In both communities, the connection between publishers and prestige used to be tight. Publishers had the power to bring a work to the public, and then the public played a part in determining which works brought prestige back to the publisher. That connection has loosened a bit, but as more people compete for scarce rewards, what prestige publishers still hold is widely coveted, and with so many academics competing for so few jobs (and writers for book contracts), the prestige economy suffers from inflation, which gives publishers a lot of power, if not a monopoly.

In this inflationary era, individuals are assumed to be pitted against one another in a competition that is supposedly about merit but really isn’t. Some good academic book manuscripts about topics that appeal to a niche are unlikely to get published because university presses have to cover their costs (as do trade publishers, though it’s less of a secret that their books must have sales potential). The fact that there are different routes open to participants in these prestige economies gives people choices they didn’t used to have, but it also makes them defensive about the choices they’ve made and critical of the ones they didn’t.   

I’ve been thinking about this after reading a piece about Neil Gaiman quoting Cory Doctorow on the difference between being a dandelion and a mammal and which makes more sense for writers. Doctorow argues that raising a mammal means putting a lot of effort into the survival of one precious being. (He was a new father when he wrote this and possibly short of sleep.) In contrast, a dandelion spreads a lot of seeds, knowing many won’t germinate, but that doesn’t matter. Plenty will still come up in every crack in the sidewalk and all over your lawn. In the context of writing, the Internet enables dandelion-like efficiency and speed in distribution. The fact that not everyone will pay a writer each time they read a book is less important than the ability to find those lawns and cracks in the sidewalk and take root. (In other words, the value of being discovered by someone who will go on to regularly buy your books is greater than the value of collecting a little on every copy distributed – a different way of asking “which do you prefer, piracy or obscurity?”)  

One thing I found intriguing: Doctorow reported (this was in 2008) that he earned about 8 percent on each sale when a reader of his blog clicked through to buy a book he mentioned. That’s a higher percentage than authors often get in royalties on a paperback sale. Though there’s an apples-and-oranges problem with this comparison, it’s still striking that an Amazon affiliate who simply puts a bit of identifying information in a link on their website could get a higher share of the price of a book than the author, which is a demonstration that discovery has a higher value than we realize, and traditional authorship perhaps less.

(Amazon, of course, doesn't allow affiliates to operate in states, like mine, that have passed laws about collecting sales tax from online businesses, and it has switched things up by becoming a publisher and promotional platform as well as a bookseller, and their royalties are different, but that’s another story.)  

Advocates for spreading scholarship freely online may well be in the dandelion camp when it comes to the best way to handle their work, but there is still the problem of sustaining scholarly projects that take a long gestation and years of work before they can stand on their own. How do we value that time-consuming work? Will its success depend on promoting it through multiple online channels, hoping for it to pay off in name-recognition and attendant opportunities? I don’t know the answer, but I am a little troubled that so many arguments for open access make a case based on how much benefit it brings to individual scholars and their careers.

The Internet has often been blamed for short attention spans, but I think what is more insidious is the way it has begun to embody in the architecture of dominant online platforms assumptions about commerce and competition as fundamental drivers of human behavior. Too many aspiring writers have bought the notion that they must relentlessly self-promote and produce. (One book a year? Why not three?) They are miserable twice over when they fail to make a living (joining the vast majority of all writers ever) and blame themselves for not working harder. 

When it comes to scholars, the precariousness of our day jobs has only heightened the desperation to gather as much fungible prestige as possible. I wish we could think instead about what matters collectively and in the long run rather than individually and right now. Measuring scholars in terms of publishing productivity and prestige is doing a lot of harm.

Let a thousand flowers bloom, but please, let’s not count them.   

 

 

 

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