American literature is slowly going out of business. The publisher of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes and The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson is closing up shop.
Starting this July, the University of Missouri Press will begin to phase out operations. The press, which was founded in 1958 by a University of Missouri English professor, William Peden, has published approximately 2,000 titles over the course of its history.
Eclectic in its reach, the press has an impressive catalogue that includes offerings in women’s studies, African-American studies, creative nonfiction, journalism, and American, British, and Latin American literary criticism. It serves its region with series such as the Missouri Biography Series and Missouri Heritage Readers Series, and American letters in general with series such as the Mark Twain and His Circle Series and the Southern Women Series.
The press’s catalogue is deep and rich, and holds gems for both the serious scholar and general interest reader. In addition to the seminal collections of Emerson and Hughes, my own recent favorites are Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (2007) and Ned Stuckey-French's The American Essay in the American Century (2011).
One of the measures of a great university is the strength of its press. Press strength is determined by its catalogue, and its catalogue by the choices of its editors and the impact of its authors. Still, not every prestige indicator is marked in this direction.
For example, the existence of a great university press is neither sufficient nor necessary for membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities.
Last year, University of Nebraska, which operates one of the best university presses in the country, was ousted from the AAU; and Georgia Institute of Technology, which does not run a press, was recently admitted. The University of Missouri will neither be ousted nor even punished by the AAU for closing its press. The AAU criteria favor competitive research financing, not competitive catalogues; faculty in the National Academies, not award-winning university press titles.
University presses are nonprofit enterprises. Though these presses may reach a level of financial self-sufficiency in their operation, they are by and large underwritten by their host universities. This is part of the investment of higher education.
Most of the monographs produced by scholars have a limited audience — and very few make their publishers any money. However, their publication is still an important aspect of scholarly activity and knowledge dissemination.
The University of Missouri system afforded its press a $400,000 annual subsidy.
To gain a perspective on this figure and the value of the press to the university, one only has to consider that the head basketball coach at Mizzou makes $1.35 million per year — and the head football coach makes $2.5 million per year.
Closer to the cost of subsidizing the press are the salaries of the assistant head football coach and the linebacker coach/defensive coordinator, who each make just over $340,000 per year.
How does one compare a football season to a publishing season? Is an 8-5 season more valuable than 30 books published? Is running a press worth losing an assistant coach or two?
In total, the University of Missouri employs over 17,500 individuals. Currently, the press employs 10 people though in 2009 it was nearly twice that number. The economic crash of 2008 forced many state universities such as the University of Missouri to reassess priorities and scale back.
Mizzou made their priorities clear: in 2010, the University of Missouri’s head football coach received a $650,000 raise.
Louisiana State University, another football powerhouse, slated its university press for closure in 2009. Somehow, this press survived the state budget crisis. However, given that it is nowhere near as popular as their football team, I’m sure that it sleeps with one eye open, waiting for the day that university officials have to decide between a subsidy for the press — and a pay raise for the coach.
University of Missouri administrators are said to be "hashing out ways to create a new and sustainable model to operate a university press." They also assure us that "any future press won’t look like the current operation."
"We believe the publication of scholarly work is important," said the president of University of Missouri. "We’re working very diligently on what” the new press “will look like."
While there is no indication where the University of Missouri administration will go with this, the options here are limited. The most obvious, however, is to go digital. And here there is some precedent.
Though Rice University closed its traditional press in 1996, it reopened in its wake an all-digital press in 2006. According to a 2010 interview with Eugene Levy, who helped finance the revived press during his term as provost at Rice, the all-digital press was costing Rice $150,000 to $200,000 per year. "This was intended as an experiment," said Levy.
Coming from the Andrew Hays Buchanan Professor of Astrophysics at Rice the word "experiment" gains even more gravitas.
Rice hoped to save money by not printing books. Comments Levy, "The hope was that, without the burden of having to maintain a print inventory, the press might sustain itself largely on revenues from print-on demand sales." What the university found out was that there "are base costs that are irreducible" — "and that printing is only one of them."
However, the decision was not without its detractors.
One of the board members — who wished to remain anonymous — commented that new models of academic publishing are not going to be derived from a sales model. "We’re moving to a different era of scholarly communication where it’s more accessible to more people, and where we don’t have to worry about commercial viability," said the anonymous board member. Humanities publishing is being killed by placing emphasis on commercial viability — "there is no commercial viability," added the board member.
No matter what the form and how diligent the work, a university press requires resources. Just as it takes resources to run a successful athletic program, so too
does it take an investment to run a university press.
And comparatively speaking, the costs are negligible: an editor makes less at Mizzou than an athletic trainer, and even the assistant baseball coaches make more than the press director.
Perhaps the solution is not to compare athletic salaries to press salaries but to treat university presses on the same level as athletic programs. Both are auxiliary operations subsidized by the university, and both play an important role in higher education.
Perhaps we need to measure the scholarly impact of the books published by the press in the same way we measure the impact of the gymnastics or baseball team winning a game or their division. Or think of the cultural capital and prestige generated by the press as akin to the bowl victories or NCAA titles.
And just as we don’t scrap athletics if one of our teams loses games or money, we shouldn’t scrap university presses if they don’t generate enough revenue to cover their operation.
While it may not be the most popular decision for the University of California Press to take one type of book off of their list, if it makes their press more viable in some way; it is akin to downsizing or closing down a sport to make an athletics program stronger.
Think of the $200,000 invested by Rice or the $400,000 at Mizzou as the cost of being a strong university — a cost that in the big picture is most likely a fraction of the cost of one athletic coach.
What does it mean when a university press fails? It means not that its authors are not successful or that its press was not run well. Rather it means that its university has abandoned part of its scholarly mission: namely, supporting the publication of books that are the lifeblood of its faculty — and academia itself.
At last count, two dozen university presses will have booths or tables at Book Expo America, the annual trade show for the publishing industry, held this week in New York City at the Jacob Javits Convention Center (“Home of the Surprisingly Expensive Hot Dog”). By the time this column appears I will be on a long march through exhibit hall, foraging for the next season’s readings.
In advance of the expedition, I got in touch with each of the listed university presses to ask some questions about how things are going in a publishing environment that is, putting it euphemistically, ever more challenging. About two thirds of them responded to all or most of my questionnaire. In years past, I recall seeing some of the less-known university presses at Book Expo, but fewer of them in recent years; now those in attendance are, for the most part, the well-established places. It's too bad. It's also understandable. The hot dogs are the least of it. The booths are expensive, then they charge for the chairs, and if you want to ship the display copies back home, it'll cost you don't want to know. A lot to gamble on the off-chance that Charlie Rose's producer discovers one of your crossover titles.
Without making any undue claims for the rigor of this survey -- the methodology of which consisted of checking my e-mail every few minutes -- I’d say that the answers give a rough picture of how some university presses are adapting to the new normal.
The obvious question was whether the past year had been one of recovery. Or was “flat [still] the new up,” as the saying from the mid-‘00s had it? (That is, if sales haven’t dropped, you’re actually doing pretty well. See also the blues lyric “Been down so long, it looks like up to me” might be more fitting.) And what effect, if any, did the Borders bankruptcy have?
Out of the 15 university presses that responded to my questions, a dozen presses answered the question about recent business. Five of them said sales were up; another five, that they were flat. At one university press, sales projections had been “on target” – a discreet semi-answer -- while another reported that the year had been satisfactory apart from “a fall [in sales] on the backlist, which is worrying.”
Everyone misses Borders, but you don't hear any sobbing. Few presses noticed much impact on their business. “Borders was a great customer for our American history titles,” recalls Mark Saunders, assistant director of University of Virginia Press, “but their business had declined several years before they closed.” Consumers of scholarly titles continued to buy them -- just through other vendors.
“The closing of Borders did not have a significant impact on our revenue,” said Laura Waldron, marketing director at University of Pennsylvania Press. “Barnes & Noble has always been a much better bookselling partner for us.”
Susan Donnelly, sales and marketing director at Harvard University Press, wondered if the closing of Borders hadn’t created “some change in the way the average book buyer thought about bookstores and their importance to the community.... I would like to think so, would like to believe that people thought that bookstores were necessary.”
A good point. And just the question inspiring the effort to come up with a new sort of bookstore, as considered here two weeks ago.
What about e-books? Trade publishers have taken to the new format in a big way, and lots of e-book-only “presses” have emerged to exploit the market. (And “exploit” is the right word for it, in some cases. A number of skeezy enterprises simply repackage public-domain material – some of it of scholarly interest -- that is already freely available in digital format. Caveat lector.)
So it is undeniably growing readership -- and I'm finding that more and more scholarly titles of personal interest (up to half of them) are available for e-reader. The e-book format also has potential side-benefits for academic publishing. The “read a free sample” option, for example, often proves helpful in deciding whether to buy a hard copy of a book, or look for it at the library.
How many presses had e-books on their lists? What share of revenue did they bring in? And if a press hadn’t gone into e-publishing, was it a matter of some reservation about the format – or was there just a roadblock, institutional or technological?
The latter question proved moot. A dozen presses answered this set of questions. All were offering e-books. Three had just started doing so, and could not venture a guess about the effect on sales. Of the nine presses that did have the numbers on hand, five said that e-books now accounted for 10 percent of their revenue, give or take a little. Figures for the rest ranged from 2 to 7 percent.
Carey C. Newman, director Baylor University Press, said that he and his colleagues “have decided to leave it [e-book income] a zero in the budget until we can get a good track on it.” But caution is not skepticism: “We are expecting sales from e-books to be a nice fat number [over] this next year.”
Circulating each season’s catalog as a PDF ought to spare the cash-strapped university press the expense and hassle of printing and mailing it out. Likewise with the prepublication copies of new book sent out to reporters and reviewers. A few clicks of the keyboard and it’s done.
But such cost-cutting measures work if and only if the intended audience goes along with the change. Here we see the effect of what social scientists used to call “cultural lag.” An awful lot of us still want these things on paper. One day, when we are dead, the publicists can do everything from their laptops. Until then, a catalog must be delivered the old-fashioned way. Reviewing a book that arrives in PDF is possible, but no joy, and something to do only in a pinch.
Thirteen presses responded to my inquiry about this aspect of their business. All report that they offer both print and PDF catalogs. None suggested this arrangement was likely to change any time soon, although at least one sounded ready to let the print edition go as soon as possible. (Fear not: mortality will thin the herd of resisters soon enough.)
The situation with advance copies is broadly similar. Everyone still produces bound galleys, and almost everyone makes e-galleys available. The one exception, University of Pennsylvania Press, expects to offer them soon.
Jessica Pellien, assistant director of publicity for Princeton University Press, is enthusiastic about the ability to customize digital catalogs for specific disciplines or constituencies. She’s enjoyed “pulling out all the math titles for example and emailing that to our math media contacts,” she says, “or all the bird and natural history titles for our bird-blogging friends. I think it allows these contacts to immediately see the books that they are interested in without having to page past a bunch of other titles." It also means she can go anti-specialist when appropriate, “picking out the trade and academic trade titles for general media who are unlikely to review our more specialized books.” But while targeted digital catalogs are "essential for the way we work now,” Pellien says she “can’t imagine walking into a media meeting without a print catalog. So I hope we always have that.”
Susan McIntosh, marketing director for McGill-Queens University Press, calls the print version of their catalog “less of a sales tool [than] a general promotion tool for the press,” since it expresses the press’s "overall commitment to good publishing design.”
As for e-galleys, most respondents indicate that they are provided if a special request is made. “Typically, only urgent requests are done this way” at Indiana University Press, says Mandy Clarke, its trade marketing and publicity manager, “and even then, reviewers want the hard copy mailed. I have heard from a limited number of large review publications that they will be making the switch to e-galleys though.”
Colleen Lanick, publicity director at MIT Press, says that for the past few seasons e-galleys have been an option on the checklist sent out to reviewers over the past few seasons. (I recall seeing one or two other publishers doing so as well.)
New York University Press “will begin offering e-galleys for a select few of our spring and fall titles,” says Betsy C. Steve, a publicist there. “I find that a majority of reviewers and reporters still prefer receiving a hard copy, but enough are starting to request e-galleys and even e-books that we needed to start offering them as an option for our titles. Overseas reviewers are definitely the friendliest to e-galleys, as they eliminate the delays international shipping can sometimes create."
Not all that long ago, hardy pioneers at a few university presses first drove their covered wagons into the wild frontier of the blogosphere. It’s hard to remember how adventurous it all once seemed, how new and risky. The challenge today, rather, would be to find a university press (any sort of press, really) that doesn’t have a blog. Every press responding to my questionnaire had one. I asked how they were generating content, and what they did to promote it. The easiest thing in the world, after all, is to establish a blog, while tending it and finding readers is another story.
Michael Roux, publicity manager for University of Illinois Press, says that three to five items a week go up on the press’s blog, including “author opinion pieces, author Q&As, book announcements, and links to recent reviews, radio/TV interviews, and publishing news.” That list covers the range of content sources identified by the other presses that responded. It is a considerable improvement on the situation a few years ago, when many blog posts were hard to distinguish from catalog listings. Jodi Narde, e-marketing and social media specialist at NYU Press, says the press’s blog “very rarely [has] any marketing-type material” in its posts.
It’s a good policy, and one that others have developed on their own. “We’re doing our best not to be too formulaic about what we post and how we post it,” says Kate O’Brien-Nicholson, marketing director for Fordham University Press. “Obviously, book launches, events, anniversaries, positive press, etc. etc. etc., can be and are shared on the blog but we also try to make connections and provide context that we believe a reader might find interesting.”
Brendan Coyne, exhibits and awards manager at Johns Hopkins University Press, describes a publishing schedule approximating that of a regular periodical. “We carry posts written by our authors every Wednesday,” he says, in addition to two monthly features: The Doctor Is In, which consists of “posts by the doctors who write our consumer health titles,” and Wild Thing, “a look at the natural world around us” by Hopkins authors. A department called Over the Transom “gives brief overviews of different parts of the publishing process,” while Tales from the Assistant's Desk offers “commentary from the perspective of an acquisitions assistant.”
Meredith Howard, publicist for Columbia University Press, says that the blog runs multiple posts per day, including “the occasional shout out to our fellow UPs.”
It’s clear that being a powerhouse in this venue involves posting in both quantity and quality – as well as learning to incorporate platforms as they become available. Laura Sell, publicist at Duke University Press, mentions taking advantage of the graphics-friendly capabilities of a Tumblr blog, “where we feature short excerpts from our books and journals and display interior art from our titles to a visually-oriented audience.”
Carrie Olivia Adams, publicity manager for University of Chicago Press, runs through an overwhelming array of the tools now in use to make Chicago titles more visible, including an individual Facebook page “for each of our trade titles,” used “mainly for announcing author events and linking to review clips.” The box on the right-hand side of The Chicago Blog is a switchboard for making contact with some of the press's content-churning efforts, though not all of them.
She admits that it is difficult to assess the results of all the multifront experimentation. Even so, “we definitely think the online conversation is one worth being a part of, and it engages us with many savvy readers.”
And engaging savvy readers is, of course, what it’s all about.
Thanks to everyone who responded to my inquiries, and sorry not to have incorporated all of the interesting replies. See you at Book Expo.
In 2007, before releasing its first title, Open Letter Books, a literary press based at the University of Rochester, began running a blog called Three Percent. The title comes from an estimate of how large a share of the annual U.S. book output consists of translations. If anything, that figure may have been a little high even at the time. Given the continuing surge in the number of new titles published each year (up 14 percent between 2009 and 2010, thanks in part to print-on-demand), the portion of books in translation is almost certainly shrinking. Whether or not globalization is an irresistible force, provincialism is an immovable object. But Open Letter, for its part, is dedicated to doing what it can. The press brings 10 foreign-language books into English each year (most of them novels) and Three Percent tracks what is happening in the world of literary translation. The blog also sponsors the annual Best Translated Book Award, now in its fifth year.
As it turns out, the latest work from Open Letter was originally written in English. The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading is an e-book consisting of material that Chad W. Post, who is OL's publisher, has culled from his blogging over the past four years. (“Some were speeches that I had to give and wrote them first for Three Percent,” Post said by e-mail. “Two birds and all that.”) It can be downloaded from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $2.99 -- with all of the profit going to pay translators. You could read all this material for free online, of course, but that would be miserly.
So cough up the three bucks, is what I’m trying to say. It goes for a good cause -- and besides, the book is a good deal, even apart from the low price. The pieces have been revised somewhat, and arranged by topic and theme, so that the whole thing now reads like a reasonably cohesive attempt to come to terms with the developments in book culture during the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. As John B. Thompson showed in his studyMerchants of Culture (Polity, 2010), dealing with any particular change in publishing requires you to grapple with the whole system -- the vast apparatus of production and distribution that connects writer and public. Translation is one aspect of it, of course, but it links up in various ways with the rest of publishing. While Post was making his running assessment of the state of literary translation, he also had to think about the new ways we buy and consume texts. One of essays is called “Reading in the Age of Screens,” which indeed could be an alternative title for the whole book.
Notification that the book was available came to me last week via Facebook, which is amusing given Post's definite ambivalence about the "all digital, all the time" tendency of contemporary life. "In the digital world," he said in a note, "we tend to stick to what we already know we want, reinforcing certain patterns, and losing some of the serendipity that a lot of readers point to as a huge influence on their life." True, and yet I did buy the book and start reading it (on a screen) within a few minutes, and was able to ask the author questions later that afternoon. The lack of serendipity was not a big problem.
One of the things I wanted to ask Post about was the peculiar role of academe in regard to translation. University presses undoubtedly account for a larger share of each year’s crop of translations than trade publishers do. At the same time, the actual work of bridging language barriers has long been undervalued as a form of scholarship. An uninspired monograph generates more institutional credit than a much-needed translation. The Modern Language Association began taking steps in a more encouraging direction a couple of years ago, when Catherine Porter (a prolific translator of books from French) was its president. And this spring, MLA issued guidelines for evaluating translations as part of peer review. But without stronger institutional recognition of the value of translation, the American tendency toward literary isolationism will only get worse -- apart from the occasional surge of interest in, say, Swedish mystery fiction.
According to a database kept by Three Percent, academic presses bring out roughly 15 percent of the translated fiction and poetry appearing each year. “I suspect this figure would be much higher if we tracked nonfiction works as well,” Post told me. “As it stands, nonprofits, university presses, and independents account for 80-85 percent of the published translations.” He mentioned the presses of Columbia University, Texas Tech, and the University of Nebraska as examples of imprints bringing out excellent books in translation. But talking with literary translators working in academe means hearing “a bunch of terrifying stories about their translation work interfering with getting tenure, etc.”
Even so, there are young professors interested in the study of translation -- “and surprisingly,” Post said, “I know at least a few who are being urged (and evaluated) by their departments to continue translating." At the same time, the classroom is a front line in the effort to overcome resistance or indifference to the rest of the world’s literature. “It always shocks me at how few books from France, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, etc., that students read during their studies,” he says. “It's as if American and British authors exist in a bubble, or as if students are just supposed to find out about the rich history of world literature in their spare time.... I think it would be ideal if more international works were taught in classes, giving students a chance to explore the issues of translation and helping defuse the trepidation some readers have when approaching a translated book.”
Open Letter works with the program in literary translation studies at the University of Rochester. Students “take a theory class, produce a portfolio of their own translations, and intern with the press.” Post admits that the trends in the publishing world do not point to a future in which translation will be a booming field. Thanks to "depletion in the number of bookstores (especially independents), increased focus on the bottom line, [and] the immense increases in the number of published titles," the portion of translated books "will remain around 3 percent, or even decrease when you start counting self-published titles.” At the same time, a number of small presses with a commitment to publishing translations have emerged over the past decade or so, besides Open Letter. They include Archipelago Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, Europa Editions, Melville House, PEN World Voices, and Words Without Borders.
Calling it an issue “as fraught as it could be,” Post notes that Amazon is not only “funding a lot of organizations involved in translation, but they've started AmazonCross, a publishing enterprise focused exclusively on literature in translation.” In 2010, the online bookseller gave $25,000 to the University of Rochester so that the Best Translated Book Awards could begin offering a cash prize to the winning authors and translators.
Someone willing and able to spend the money “could make a huge difference in the landscape for international literature in a short period of time,” Post told me. “This doesn't have to be a corporation at all.… I think that over the next decade, as more small presses come into existence thanks to advances in technology, changes in distribution methods, and general dissatisfaction with a lot of the stuff coming out from corporate presses, the audience for international literature will continue to increase. There may not be that many more titles being published, but the publishers doing this work will get more and more savvy at getting their titles into the hands of interested readers, academics, reviewers, etc. -- people who aren't put off by the idea of reading a translation.”
That last part is, in the final analysis, the real crux of the matter. Even when books do get translated, they are sometimes promoted very poorly. In The Three Percent Problem, Post refers to one university press that seems committed to describing the foreign novels it publishes in terms that are strangely unappealing. Without naming the press I can confirm that the complaint is all too valid: the publisher's catalog always makes the books sound desiccated, lugubrious, and inaction-packed.
It's the kind of thing that reinforces what Post calls "the overriding prejudice" about books in translation: "that they won't sell, that only the most sadomasochistic of people will read them, that reviewers will view these books as being secondary to the original version, etc." The only cure is for enthusiastic readers to communicate among themselves, to strike a spark of interest.
The walk from my front door to Inside Higher Ed’s grand new offices takes about 10 minutes – or 15, if I am following the route that runs past a couple of unmarked graves. So I’ve come to think of the plots of commercial real estate where good bookstores used to be. One was a locally owned shop. It went out of business after years of competition from a behemoth national chain that opened its doors a few blocks away. The other, of course, was the behemoth national chain bookstore itself, which left a vast, empty cavern when its holdings were sold off not long ago.
On the way home, I sometimes visit an international newspaper and magazine shop that regularly becomes frozen in time. Few, if any, new magazines will be put out for weeks at a stretch. Instead, the owner rearranges the stock, mixing in unsold copies of old issues, which makes browsing the shelves a somewhat melancholy experience. (Obama has always just been inaugurated.) A flood of fresh material sweeps through the place every once in a while -- including scholarly journals and titles so recondite that they can’t have much of a market – only to disappear again after a month or two.
The bookshops were weakened, over the years, by online vendors, and finished off with the economic downturn. And in a different way, so was the newsstand, which I have been visiting for 20 years: the non-periodical turnover of periodicals started in 2009. Nor is the end of these tendencies in sight. What little remains of the Borders chain (which has closed hundreds of stores over just the past few months) may begin liquidating as early as Friday.
The company’s owners “have no room to complain that Amazon ate their business,” writes one blogger, “when they destroyed the bookshops that belonged to serious book lovers and staffed their stores with bored college students who made out with their boyfriends in the storeroom (or maybe that was just me).”
But schadenfreude at corporate misfortune is, in this case, a bit shortsighted. The impact of “restructuring” the retail book and magazine trade (to use the blandest possible term for this wave of creative destruction) goes beyond the obvious immediate effects on consumer behavior. A revival of independent bookselling is the least likely outcome, at least in the short run. Rather, the shrinking number of outlets for hardbacks and paperbacks will create a greater incentive for publishers to emphasize e-books. (As if wiping out the expense of putting unsold copies in a warehouse were not enough.) The tendency is likely to be self-reinforcing: the easiest way to get an e-book is from an online vendor. Last summer, a prominent cyberpundit predicted that the printed book would be “dead” as a major cultural form within the next five years. This seems a little less preposterous all the time.
Actually, most of the material can be downloaded for no charge the other 11 months of the year, as well. Almost two-thirds of it comes either from repositories for public-domain works (e.g. the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg) or Wattpad, a.k.a. “the YouTube for e-books,” which describes itself as “a viral community where readers connect with authors, share stories they like with other readers and create viral fan bases for both established and brand new authors.” According to the figures available on the fair’s website, another 2.1 million titles come from the World Public Library, which normally has an annual subscription fee of $8.95 for individuals. (Educational institutions with up to 1,000 users can subscribe for just $2 a year.)
After spending a while looking into it, I’d say that none of these numbers mean all that much -- especially not the claim to be offering 6.5 million e-books. There is much duplication of content between the sources. Wattpad offers 17,000 texts from Project Gutenberg, for example. I got 17 results back from World Public Library following a search for work by the early 20th century American author and publisher E. Haldeman-Julius -- but seven of them were copies of the same book, which is also available from the Internet Archive (which offers four copies). The readability of the texts is also quite uneven. For example, World Public Library carries Joseph McCabe’s volume on George Bernard Shaw -- a title long out of print. One of the PDFs had blank pages where the original had not been scanned. The other was complete, but the text was faint.
Well, you can't beat the price, at least during the fair. A yearlong subscription to the World Public Library comes to just under 75 cents a month. It’s less like an investment than a wager: if there turns out to be some valuable but otherwise unavailable e-book in the collection, then the gamble will pay off. In any case, the fair continues for another couple of weeks. Take a look around and see if it seems worth the six bits.
“All of us who are digital immigrants have vivid memories of reading printed books in our childhood, youth, or early adulthood,” writes Tony Horava, an associate librarian at the University of Ottawa, in the June issue of Against the Grain. “We can recall the color, the cover design, and the typographical look of the pages, and any creases, folds, or imperfections in the pages; we can sometimes recall the smell and texture as well. Each book brought with it a unique experience that was intellectual, social, and emotional; the physicality of the artifact combined seamlessly with the richness of the world contained within the covers.” (Against the Grain is a magazine for publishers, librarians, and booksellers, with a particular focus on scholarly and reference books.)
Horava’s essay “eBooks and Memory: Down the Rabbit Hole?” is nothing if not ambivalent. While acknowledging that e-publishing is “being developed in a richer environment of functionality, portability, and integration than ever before,” he also worries it has “in some ways … led to a flattening of reading, an anonymizing of interaction with texts.”
The e-book “is far more than a digital version of a print book,” he writes; “it enables new associations of thought, new forms of learning and thinking, new forms of knowledge, and flexible ways to transmit scholarship.” Which sounds just grand, except for the novelty wearing thin: “In separating the intellectual content from the container of information, we have paved the way for standardization of experience and a narrowing relationship with the intellectual object.”
If Horava sounds self-contradictory, it is for good reason: his paradoxes reflect conflicting aspects of e-publishing and its effects on how we read. But his emphasis on how consuming print involves “both the physicality of the object and the world of people and ideas contained therein” seems to miss another dimension of the encounter. And that’s the place where reader and text first rendezvous – a bookshop or newsstand, often enough.
Simply having so many publications together within the same enclosed space generates a kind of surplus of information -- an excess that creates its own indirect effects on the reader. A volume glanced over one day may come to mind, years later, as worth giving another look. Accidents of shelving can teach you the meaning of synchronicity. The algorithms at Amazon are no match for an intelligent person behind the cash register.
A short video that just came out a few days ago evokes the mood of a remarkable bookshop where (to borrow Horava's expression again) “both the physicality of the object and the world of people and ideas contained therein” seem especially dense.
The venue in question, Brazenhead Books, might best be described as a literary “speakeasy” in New York City. It is not listed in the phonebook, nor are directions to it available online. You have to make an appointment to visit -- and that means you have to know somebody. A few months ago, I attended the meeting of a circle of writers, graduate students, literary agents, and uncategorizable bohemian cognoscenti that gathers at Brazenhead on Thursday nights. (My jacket still smells like an ashtray, though reportedly there is now a ban on smoking.)
The owner, Michael Seidenberg, keeps hours more typical of a Jack Kerouac character than a small businessman. It's easy to imagine buying something there at two in the morning. The books, which are all secondhand, are in excellent condition, well-organized, and reasonably priced. And the selection is crap-free. If you tried to sell him a Dan Brown novel or one of those Chicken Soup for the Soul things, Seidenberg would probably throw you out of the store and ban you.
Actually the curmudgeonliness doesn’t run very deep. “One thing I didn’t expect from selling books this way was how much I would enjoy all the people that come visit me,” he told me. “Very life-affirming.” If he thinks you are the right person for a given book and can’t afford it, something can probably be arranged. (On the other hand, he might decide he can’t part with it.)
The short film about Brazenhead by Andrew David Watson, who has taught as an adjunct in journalism at Temple University, captures something important: it’s less a store than a space. And what that space feels like is a bunker or a catacomb – a retreat from the blooming, buzzing, twittering confusion of the post-print world outside.Seidenberg makes clear that Brazenhead is not designed as a refuge for the impending collapse of civilization: "That wouldn't make sense," he jokes, "because it's already happened. I mean, what did you think the end of the world was going to look like?" At least I think he was joking.
Some months back, one of the cable networks debuted a movie -- evidently the pilot for a potential show -- that inspired brief excitement in some quarters, though it seems not to have caught on. Its central character was someone whose grasp of esoteric knowledge allowed him or her (I'm not sure which, never having seen it) to command the awesome mysterious forces of the universe. Its title was The Librarian.
The program was, it seems, a reworking of a similar figure in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's in keeping with the fundamental law of the entertainment industry once defined by Ernie Kovacs, the great American surrealist TV pioneer: "Find something that works, then beat it to death."
At another level, though, the whole concept derived from a tradition that is pre-television, indeed, almost pre-literate. The idea that a command of books provides access to secret forces, the equation of the scholar with the magus, was already well established before Faust and Prospero worked their spells. The linkage has also left its trace at the level of the signifier. Both glamor, originally meaning a kind of witchy sex appeal, and grimoire, the sorcerer's reference book, derive from the word grammar -- one of the foundational disciplines of medieval learning, hence a source of power.
Today, it's much rarer to find the whole knowledge/power nexus treated in such explicitly occultic terms, at least outside pop culture. As for librarians, they are usually regarded as professionals working in the service sector of the information economy, rather than as full-fledged participants in contemporary intellectual life. That is, arguably, an injustice. But the division of labor and the logic of hierarchical distinctions have changed a lot since the day when Gottfried Leibniz (philosopher, statesman, inventor of calculus and the computer, and overall polymathic genius) held down his day job running a library.
The most persistent aspect of the old configuration is probably the link between glamor and grammar - the lingering aura of bookish eroticism. At least that's what the phenomenon of librarian porn would suggest. The topic deserves more scholarly attention, though an important start has been made by Daniel W. Lester, the network information coordinator for Boise State University in Idaho. His bibliography of pertinent livres lus avec une seule main ("books read with one hand") is not exhaustive, but the annotations are judicious. About one such tale of lust in the stacks, he writes: "Most of the library and librarian descriptions are reasonable, except for the number of books on a book cart."
But the role librarians play at the present time brings them closer to the most pressing issues in American cultural life than any cheesy TV show (or letter to Penthouse, for that matter) could possibly convey.
Their work constitutes the real intersection of knowledge and power -- not as concepts to be analyzed, but at the level of almost nonstop practical negotiation. It is the cultural profession most involved, from day to day, with questions concerning public budgets, information technology, the cost of new publications, and intellectual freedom. (On the latter, check out the American Library Association's page on the Patriot Act.)
Given all that, I've been curious to find out about discussions by academic librarians regarding current developments in their profession, in the university, and in the world outside. A collection of essays called The Successful Academic Librarianis due out this fall from Information Today, Inc. Its emphasis seems to fall on guidance in facing career demands. But how can an outsider keep up with what academic librarians are thinking about other issues?
Well, the first place to start is The Kept-Up Academic Librarian, the blog of Steven Bell, who is director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University. Bell provides a running digest of academic news, but for the most part avoids the kind of reflective and/or splenetic mini-essays one associates with blogdom.
My own effort to track down something more ruminative turned up a few interesting blogs lus avec une seule main run by librarians, such as this one. But this, while stimulating, was not quite on topic. So in due course I contacted Steven Bell, on the assumption that he was as kept-up as an academic librarian could be. Could he please name a few interesting blogs by academic librarians?
His answer came as a surprise: "When you ask specifically about blogs maintained by academic librarians," Bell wrote earlier this week, "the list would be short or non-existent."
He qualified the comment by noting the numerous gray areas. "There may be some academic librarians out there with an interesting blog, but in some cases I think the blogger is doing it anonymously and you don't really even know if the person is an academic librarian. For example, take a look at Blog Without a Library. I can't tell who this blogger is though I think he or she might be an academic librarian. On the other hand Jill Stover's Library Marketing blog is fairly new and pretty good, and she is an academic librarian -- but the blog really isn't specific to academic libraries.... Bill Drew of one of the SUNY libraries has something he calls BabyBoomer Librarian but it isn't necessarily about academic librarianship -- sometimes yes, but more often not."
Bell listed a few other blogs, including Humanities Librarian from the College of New Jersey. But very few of his suggestions were quite what I had in mind -- that is, public spaces devoted to thinking out loud about topics such as the much-vaunted "crisis in academic publishing." It was a puzzling silence.
"I can't say any individual has developed a blog that has emerged as the 'voice of academic librarianship,' " noted Bell in response to my query. "Why? If I had to advance a theory I'd say that as academic librarians we are still geared towards traditional, journal publishing as the way to express ourselves. I know that if I have something on my mind that I'd like to write about to share my thoughts and opinions, I'm more likely to write something for formal publication (e.g., see this piece.) Perhaps that is why we don't have a 'juicy' academic librarian out there who is taking on the issues of the day with vocal opinions."
And he added something that makes a lot of sense: "To have a really great blog you have to be able to consistently speak to the issues of the day and have great (or even good) insights into them -- and it just doesn't seem like any academic librarian out there is capable of doing that. I think there are some folks in our profession who might be capable of doing it. But if so they haven't figured out yet that they ought to be blogging, or maybe they just don't have the time or interest."
Now, that diagnosis may perhaps contain the elements of a solution. The answer might be the creation of a group blog for academic librarians -- some prominent in their field, others less well-known, and perhaps even a couple of them anonymous. No one participant would be under pressure to generate fresh insights every day or two. By pooling resources, such a group could strike terror in the hearts of budget-cutting administrators, price-gouging journal publishers, and even the occasional professor prone to associating academic stardom with aristocratic privilege.
Full disclosure: I am married to a librarian, albeit a non-academic one, who knew about the World Wide Web (and the proper grammar for using various search engines) long before most people did. She has proven to me, time and again, that librarians do indeed possess amazing powers. They also tend to have a lot to say about the bureaucracies that employ them -- and the patrons who patronize them.
An outspoken, incisive, and timely stream of commentary on the problems and possibilities facing academic libraries would enliven and enrich the public discourse. If anything, it's long overdue.
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One of his previous columns was on the pleasures of reading encyclopedias.