Michigan Keeps Link to Controversial Publisher

University press faced criticism for distributing books published by leftist outfit but decides to maintain its ties, while also drawing up guidelines for such relationships.
October 25, 2007

The University of Michigan Press has faced intense criticism in the last two months for distributing a book -- on behalf of a British publisher whose sales the Michigan press handles in the United States -- that is highly critical of Israel. And that controversy led to a review of the relationship with the British publisher. But on Wednesday, Michigan announced that it was keeping its ties to Pluto Press and would continue to distribute its books. The case has been closely watched by academic publishers and others concerned with academic freedom, especially on the sensitive topic of criticism of Israel.

The controversy focused attention on a role played by many university presses in the United States as the American distributors for small European publishers that don't have worldwide sales networks. Similarly, many American presses work with foreign publishers to act as their distributors abroad. Under these deals, the distributing presses don't review (or endorse) the works that have been published by another press. And that was a key factor in the way Michigan described its decision to maintain ties to Pluto -- that the relationship was one of commerce, not scholarship.

"Distribution agreements are undertaken strictly as business relationships and have historically been a small part of the UM Press's business," said a statement announcing the unanimous decision of the press board to maintain its relations with Pluto. "Currently, the press distributes for five publishers. As is the case with all such commercial arrangements, books distributed on behalf of clients are not edited, reviewed, or produced by the UM Press, and they do not bear the imprimatur of the press or of the University of Michigan."

Michigan also announced a review of the way such relationships are set up. "University presses typically do not have stated guidelines for distribution agreements, but the recent controversy surrounding the contract with Pluto Press has underscored the need for them," the statement said. "In the coming year, Executive Board members will develop policy guidelines for distribution agreements. Underlying its deliberations will be the principle of freedom of expression, which is both fundamental to the University of Michigan's educational mission and integral to the UM Press's goals."

Pluto Press is an independent publisher in Britain that publishes many books by and for academics with a leftist perspective. The book that set off the furor is Overcoming Zionism, which argues that the creation of Israel was a mistake and urges adoption of the “one state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Israelis and Palestinians would form a new country, without a Jewish character. The book was written by Joel Kovel, distinguished professor of social studies at Bard College. While the book is not online, an interview with Kovel in the magazine Briarpatch gives a sense of both the depth and tenor of his criticism of Israel.

When pro-Israel groups found out that the Michigan press was distributing Overcoming Zionism, numerous blog postings and letters to Michigan administrators demanded that distribution be halted. Michigan briefly did so, but then resumed distribution, citing issues of academic freedom and First Amendment protections. But at that time, the university press said it would review its relationship with Pluto. The press said that it would not have published the book, and that fact raised questions about the tie to the publisher that did.

Roger van Zwanenberg, chairman of Pluto, said that he was pleased that Michigan would continue to distribute his books -- and that the case raised important issues for scholarship generally. Van Zwanenberg criticized the Michigan press for singling out Overcoming Zionism for condemnation, and said that is part of why the controversy grew. "Lots of books that are critical of Zionism are attacked and most editors say 'thank you very much' and continue with their business as normal and nothing very much happens," he said. But because Phil Pochoda, director of the press, was harshly critical of the book in an e-mail that was then leaked to bloggers, "the shit hit the fan," van Zwanenberg said.

The irony, he said, is that British publishers like Pluto publish works like Overcoming Zionism (by an American professor) and end up selling many copies to American readers, only to have American supporters of Israel bash the press and suggest that the United States doesn't need its books. Critical books about Israel are among Pluto's top sellers in the U.S., van Zwanenberg said.

"Many presses in the United States are frightened of the pressures that the lobby can place on them," van Zwanenberg said. "We get authors from the United States, precisely because they can't obtain adequate representation elsewhere, and we have a good reputation for scholarly work on the subject of Israel and Palestine, and we probably have the best collections of any university press in that area."

The idea that Michigan had to discuss a book Pluto published while briefly suspending distribution doesn't make sense, he said. "It is and always has been a commercial relationship. Nobody should expect our books to reflect well or badly on the university."

Van Zwanenberg added that the attempts by "the Israel lobby" to cut off Pluto's American distribution channel were an attack on free expression. "The lobby is very powerful and very well financed, and small presses like us could be destroyed by these people," van Zwanenberg said. "They are a threat to our existence and to free speech."

Since the controversy broke, Pochoda has declined to comment, referring questions to university public relations officials. His leaked e-mail to the author of Overcoming Zionism has been the subject of criticism from pro-Israel groups (who say that if he believes what he wrote, he shouldn't have been distributing the book) and defenders of the book (who say it shows an unwillingness to defend a controversial author). In the e-mail, he wrote: "For us, the issue raised by the book is not free speech but hate speech. Perhaps such vituperative and aggressive rhetoric works for the barricades, but it cannot be countenanced or underwritten by the university or the university press, even in this peripheral, distributed capacity."

On Wednesday, he did agree to discuss the dispute. As for the e-mail that was leaked, he said that it was sent in "strict confidentiality" and that the lesson he learned was to be wary of assuming such confidentiality will be respected in the online world.

More broadly, he praised the actions of the board of his press, both in regard to the book and the relationship with Pluto, saying that the board has "wisely and judiciously acted to affirm values of free speech." He said that Michigan has no intention of starting to conduct reviews of Pluto books and will simply distribute them as it always has.

Pochoda rejected the idea that university presses in the United States are scared to publish tough criticism of Israel. He noted, for example, that the University of California Press had published Norman Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. (That book, of course, set off a huge controversy, with critics of the book accusing the press of being irresponsible and defenders of the press accusing the critics of trying to be censors.)

It is true, Pochoda said, that Pluto is publishing different works from Michigan or other American university presses, but part of that relates to the missions of the different entities. "Obviously they are an overtly political press. No university press is an overtly political press," he said. "We try for books across the whole political spectrum."

While Pochoda said he didn't want to suggest what criteria he believes are appropriate for distribution relationships, he said that in the past, Michigan looked at "the fit with the press, whether we could promote it in ways consistent with ongoing activities" and the potential for the deal to work financially. Pluto, he said, "was not added to the distribution because of their politics. We entered into it because we thought it would be mutually beneficial."

Representatives of the pro-Israel groups that raised the issue of Michigan's ties to Pluto could not be reached Wednesday. But Jonathan Harris, director of the Michigan chapter of Stand With Us, wrote about the controversy (before Wednesday's announcement) in The Detroit Jewish News.

"The issue is not free speech. Stand With Us unqualifiedly supports freedom of the press, and the ideologically driven Pluto Press certainly has the right to publish whatever it wishes, however reprehensible the works may seem to others. The question is not Pluto’s right to publish these views, but rather, whether it is right for UMP [University of Michigan Press] to distribute and, in effect, promote them," Harris wrote. "Whenever a publisher distributes books produced by other publishing houses, the inescapable conclusion is that they meet certain standards. When the publisher is a university press, readers are led to believe that an academic review has taken place, and that a high standard has been met. The university may protest that UMP’s distribution of Pluto Press books does not constitute a legal endorsement, but that is not the message conveyed to the public."

Harris also questioned whether it was appropriate for Michigan to ally itself with a political publisher. "Even more disquieting is that UMP is violating the University of Michigan’s professed commitment to presenting a wide range of views," he wrote. "Through its special agreement with Pluto, UMP is promoting one ideology: the leftist radicalism and toxic anti-Zionism that make up Pluto’s inventory. Surely if UMP chose to distribute exclusively and without review all publications from the John Birch Society, there would be a vocal and swift condemnation and no grand appeals to the principle of free speech."

Sanford G. Thatcher, director of the Penn State University Press and president of the American Association of University Presses, said that the sort of relationship Michigan has with Pluto is "reasonable and appropriate" and similar to such ties set up by many university presses. "If Michigan's situation is anything like ours -- and I suspect it is and that this holds true generally for presses -- decisions about distribution do not go through the press's regular peer-review procedures, but are purely business decisions," he said. That isn't to say "that no editorial standards come into play and that the decisions are entirely mercenary," he said. Presses generally go for ties to publishers that "connect up in some way" with the lists at the press "because the press will want to advertise and promote these titles together with its other books in a way that will minimize extra costs."

Some presses work out "co-publication" agreements, he said, where a book is brought out by both presses. At Penn State, such relationships mean that "we do vet the books independently and make decisions, approved by our editorial board, to co-publish them."

But noting the tradeoffs involved, Thatcher said he could "understand why a press would prefer just to distribute." The distribution model is less expensive, he said, without costs for peer review or the financial risk of bringing out a title. While some might look at the furor over Overcoming Zionism and think that Michigan would be better off with co-publication, Thatcher noted that an argument could be made the other way, too. "Then Michigan wouldn't have the excuse of not knowing much about the book beforehand, and it would be obliged to deal with Pluto in a more selective fashion, agreeing to co-publish only some books, whereas Michigan might benefit best financially by agreeing to handle all of Pluto's titles in the U.S. as a distributor."


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