In the January issue of The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press, tries to imagine a world in which "the well-wrought, slowly gestated essay" has replaced the monograph as the gold standard for scholarship in the humanities.
Some of his argument seems familiar. For one thing, Waters tried out an earlier version as a keynote address to the Council of Editors of Learned Journals when they met at MLA in 2007, where I heard it. For another thing, one idea in it came from me: the daydream of a world in which people would be penalized for publishing too much and too early in their careers. This is among the most cherished of my crackpot ideas. By now Waters has doubtless been subjected to some variation of it at lunch, probably more than once.
Of course there would be occasions when some wunderkind had so many ideas that brisk and frequent publication became a matter of urgent necessity. But that would be rare. A strictly enforced set of proscriptions would add excitement to things. Picking up a book or journal, you would know that it had involved some risk. Scholars might begin to publish pseudonymously, if they felt it was absolutely urgent to get a piece of research out. The spirit of adventure would probably be good for people's prose as well.
Well, someone has to draw up the floor plans for utopia. I found the page proofs of Waters's article while trying to clear my desktop before the start of the new administration. (Emphasis on "trying.") The title of the essay is "Slow Writing; or, Getting Off the Book Standard: What Can Journal Editors Do?" Another version ran as a Views piece here at Inside Higher Edlast year -- and if you missed it, as I did at the time, I'd recommend a look.
The alternative to utopia is not pretty, but a lot more probable.
The fundamental problem with the approach that Waters takes in his essay -- and in his little book Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship (University of Chicago Press, 2004) -- is that it overlooks the essentially compulsive nature of the human urge to produce and accumulate garbage. Waters seems to assume that the production of badly written monographs is an unfortunate failing of the system that could be fixed if different standards were adopted. But this is wrong.
The system works just fine. Unreadable works are unreadable precisely because nobody was ever supposed to read them in the first place. Communication is not the point; accumulation is. The producer of text accumulates credit for publication, while the glory of an ambitious research collection is that it is complete, whether or not any given work is used. The beauty of e-publishing is that it reduces the amount of physical space required to store all the unread material.
As it happens, all of this was predicted almost 50 years ago by Hal Draper, a figure best known (at least among people who know this kind of thing) for numerous definitive works in the field of Marxology. Draper also translated literary works by Goethe and Heinrich Heine, and wrote a widely circulated book about the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. I've heard that when the Sixties catchphrase "Don't trust anyone over the age of thirty" first caught on in Berkeley, people sometimes added "except for Hal Draper."
Draper's day job was as an acquisitions librarian at the University of California at Berkeley. His experience inspired him to write a short story called "MS Fnd in a Lbry," first published in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1961 and currently available online.
The anthropologist from Andromeda who narrates this piece of library-science fiction reconstructs the efforts of civilization to handle the accumulation of books generated as it spread throughout the galaxy. Libraries the size of a solar system were not enough to handle the human urge to churn out books. After billions of years of accumulation, a technological breakthrough allowed all of the material to be stored, in subatomic format, in a single drawer. Not to give too much away, but it isn't always easy to remember where you filed things.
Mark Twain once observed that “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Twain may not have been referring to what scholars assume humanities publishers want out of the peer-review process, but he probably would have appreciated the application.
According to the troubling “Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion” (2007), monograph publishing in the arts and humanities remains the key to the city of Academe. Moreover, in spite of plunging sales and soaring costs, monographs remain central to the mission of university presses and vital to the careers of scholars. In the monograph publishing equation, scholars play dual, crucial roles: they both write manuscripts and judge the value of others’ manuscripts. Reviewing manuscripts can benefit scholars and bring them into a respected circle. It can also inadvertently become detrimental to one’s career. Both roles demand academic rigor and a commitment to objectivity.
While the demonstration of academic rigor and objectivity is demanded of the author, it unfortunately at times collapses on the side of the reviewer. I’m not sure why this happens, but I know that it does. And when it does, the process gets dicey for publisher, author, and reviewer alike. Interestingly, while authors and publishers likely see the problem especially clearly, reviewers often seem alarmingly unaware of the stakes. In their role as peer reviewers, scholars might profit from knowing the publisher’s unspoken expectations and objectives; such knowledge might help them avoid the potential fallout from missing those expectations.
Keeping in mind that university presses publish roughly 10,000 new books annually, and assuming that they publish only 1 out of every 10 manuscripts, that means university presses are filtering 100,000 manuscripts per year. Of those, probably 15,000–20,000 get sent out for peer review. Granted, reviewing a manuscript for a university press is tantamount to taking a vow of poverty, but it will be part of your career either as an author or a reviewer. Odds are pretty good that you will, at some point, be asked to review a manuscript. Odds are even better that you will not tackle the assignment in the same way as others, with the same skills, or with the same assumptions about what the publisher wants.
Most publishers do provide — or should provide — readers with guidelines for evaluating a manuscript. Generally publishers want feedback about originality, documentation, how the work interacts with scholarship, suitability for classroom use, etc. This article will not revisit those issues. Here I’d like to dig a little deeper to reveal what I look for in the review process that scholars may think they know, but which “ain’t so.” By becoming aware of what publishers want (and don’t want), you might improve the value of your evaluation for all parties. Ultimately, a well-executed review should fulfill the professed scholarly allegiance to objectivity and academic rigor. Equally important, an ineffective review not only fails to give me what I want and need, it could jeopardize your future professional relationships with both publishers and other scholars.
Reviewers, even those who follow our guidelines, may think that they’re giving me what I want, but they often wind up submitting something else. Here are a few of the more egregious disconnects.
The New York Times book review. The request to peer review a manuscript is not the same as the request to review a book. Evaluating a manuscript’s merits and recommending or not recommending publication may seem like a book review, but it’s not. A scholarly book review unpacks a book’s argument, sets it in the context of similar works, and assesses the book’s value in that scholarly discussion. The book reviewer thus must assay a fixed object and place it in the scholarly grid of information. While the evaluation of a manuscript may (perhaps even should) include some of these elements, reviewing an unpublished manuscript is a fundamentally different process. Most obviously, an unpublished manuscript is still pliable: a case can be argued more strongly, a thesis written more clearly, and conclusions can sharpened to further advance understanding. The genre of the manuscript in hand should also be weighed: If the volume is designed as a course text, it should not be evaluated in the same way as a revised dissertation. Less obviously, reviewers often forget –– or take perverse pleasure in knowing –– that the career and future of a scholar hinge on the successful publication of a book manuscript. The published monograph can be the signal event in a professor’s career. Don’t get me wrong: the responsible reviewer should not take this last circumstance too lightly in either direction. This poses no ethical dilemma but a heuristic decision. You must be both responsible and decisive in either recommending or not recommending publication, and you must be able to articulate the “why or why not” behind either. In other words, as a first step in evaluating a manuscript, you should apply the same academic rigor and objectivity to assessing a manuscript as you would in writing your own book. Then look over your shoulder and remember that the review –– for good or ill –– may have consequences for your own career.
The "why-didn’t-you-write-a-different-book?" review. Really. It may not happen regularly but it occurs enough to be a vexing problem: A reviewer evaluates a manuscript as if it were written on a topic other than what the author has claimed. Many an editor has secured two reviewers who seem to be evaluating two different manuscripts. What is happening? Often one reviewer is evaluating an imaginary document other than the one that was written. For example, consider a manuscript examining the sociopolitical motives behind the burning of witches in 15th-century Europe. The author might have given only a passing nod to the economic and political history of firewood and forestry in 15th-century Europe. As one might imagine, a reviewer with expertise in late medieval firewood and forestry might perceive the lack of a discussion of the latter unforgivable. Piqued by the oversight the reviewer contends that the author has missed the whole point and takes the author to task for having discussed neither the history of the woodcutters’ guild nor the origins of German hardwoods. And while that may be a fine book, it’s not the manuscript the reviewer was asked to review and clearly not the book the author wished to write. Admittedly other causes can stand behind such a misreading: The author may have written unclearly in the first place. If that’s the case, then the book’s lack of an identifiable or a convincing thesis should be noted as a legitimate shortcoming. You should posit why the thesis fails or is indiscernible. But that’s not the same as peremptorily deciding that the manuscript should be about another subject and reviewing it accordingly.
A second, familiar permutation of misreading a manuscript takes place when the reviewer puts the manuscript back in its manila folder, pours a glass of Merlot, and discusses instead the reviewer’s own work, which by the way, should have been cited in the manuscript. This might be precipitated by ego, or it might be triggered by the failure to have actually read the manuscript. Lack of expertise might figure here as well. The outcome, however, is the same: I am left holding a feckless review that says more about you than the manuscript. As you submit the report, you may be pondering how good it feels to have corrected a major shortcoming of the manuscript, but I’m thinking it “ain’t so.” A review that so wildly misses the point forces me into an untenable position. What do I do with a vacuous review? The review has become part of the record. Sharing the review with the author risks a confrontation if not a lawsuit. Not submitting the review risks alienating you or violating procedures for handling manuscripts. Then there’s the question, should I recruit a new reviewer or just scratch the project? The next step toward writing a successful review is reviewing the manuscript sent.
The slashing review. And then there’s the slashing review. Clearly, more than a few peer reviewers regard the evaluation as an opportunity, to paraphrase Mencken, “to raise the black flag and begin slitting throats.” Regrettably, such actions come off more like Freddie Krueger than H.L. Mencken. Some seem to assault a manuscript gleefully: Brandishing their own cleverness and wit, they slash through the pages, intent not on evaluating the manuscript but on demonstrating their prowess. While everyone loves a black flag –– and Mencken –– the purpose of a peer review is neither to slit the throat of the manuscript’s author nor parade the reviewer’s rapier wit.
First, that kind of criticism proves helpful neither to the author nor ultimately to you, and, again, such actions push me into a dark corner. How do I return a manuscript stained with the author’s own blood? How do I say “thanks”? The slashing technique is misguided, but its creator clearly possesses an eye for weaknesses in the manuscript that might have be turned toward a more constructive reading. That would have actually helped. But the damage is done, and not just to the author and publisher. The slasher’s review –– and any inappropriate review –– will probably receive its own asterisk in the file: “Don’t ask Professor X to review manuscripts.” When paired with the “why-didn’t-you-write-a-different-book? review, the slasher’s review is a show-stopper. Then there’s the question, even in a double-blind arrangement, will I be able to protect your identity? Remember: in Academe only two degrees, not six, separate the author from the reviewer. Overspecialization means everyone knows everyone else. The short-term delight in savaging a manuscript will be hard to remember when the only person qualified to review your next book on woodcutter guilds in late medieval Germany is the individual whose manuscript you just shredded.
The intellectual comb over. Perhaps the most frustrating review and most impervious to fixing is the non-review, the intellectual comb over. This ploy simultaneously fails to review the manuscript and tries to cover up the failure by posing as an astute and perceptive scholarly assessment. While one might guess that this conceit occurs most frequently in negative evaluations, that is not the case. Reviews become even more problematic when they recommend publication without having exercised the kind of scholarly judgment and objectivity demanded by the evaluation process. The comb over is characterized by vague, unsubstantiated recommendations: tell-tale phrases like “needs to tighten up argument,” “could use some reorganizing,” “should consider restructuring argument,” “needs to add signposts,” or “needs to flesh-out this point” appear throughout. Add a long strand of so-called essential bibliographic references and a few names in the field, and voilà: A bogus review thinly conceals what might be (mis)interpreted as either laziness or incompetence. While all of these recommendations may indirectly address valid complaints, they are so vague as to be useless. Publishers — and authors –– need concrete, specific advice and the rationale behind it. I desire — indeed require — in the peer-review process the same academic objectivity and scrutiny that is demanded of scholarly writing itself.
I’ve read too many unhelpful reviews, plenty of valuable reviews, and a few stellar ones. The stellar ones remind me that the art of peer reviewing a manuscript remains one of the hallmarks of scholarship. Academics, especially humanists, often speak of themselves as being in “the guild.” If ever there was a time for a member to mentor a fellow-guild member, it’s in the peer-review evaluation. Here the craftsman or grandmaster can instruct the apprentice in the fine art of scholarship. And though the instruction may or may not result in publication, the report should emulate the twin standards of the guild: academic rigor and objectivity. Applying these standards to the peer-review process not only ensures a quality review; it keeps you in good stead with your peers. I also won’t file your name under “Don’t ask Professor X to review manuscripts,” which, on the one hand, may sound like a relief, but on the other, it places you and maybe your career on the periphery of a vital scholarly circle.
Patrick H. Alexander
Patrick H. Alexander is associate director and editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania State University Press.
Fewer university presses than in recent years had booths at Book Expo America, the annual trade show for the publishing industry, held last weekend at the Javits Convention Center in New York City. Then again, the whole event seemed smaller than it has in some while.
There were nowhere near so many piles of potential best-sellers available as buzz-generating freebies. What piles there were tended to be smaller, and guarded by publicists. The usual mountains of swag (promotional t-shirts, book bags, coffee cups, and knicknacks) were rarer still. Nor were many people dressed in novelty garb working the aisles. I saw Elvis near the escalator, wandering lonely as a cloud, and crossed paths with a couple of rather lackadaisical pirates.
This is how you know it's a recession. Even the rent-a-pirates seem cautious.
Yet with surprising consistency, the mood around the university-press tables seemed ... well, let's not say "upbeat" exactly (that would be pushing it) but at least marked by a certain spirit of Stoic determination. Scholarly publishing has been in crisis mode for years; the global economic downturn seems just more of the same old same-old. Like the song says, "Been down so long, it looks like up to me."
Behemoth trade presses are driven to find the next Da Vinci Code or Oprah Book Club selection -- just to cover the expenses incurred by all the other prospective blockbusters that flopped.
While the scale was much smaller, there was definitely a trend in that direction for a while with some university presses. The right topical book, published at just the right moment, might be a way to break out of the specialist niche and into the commercial big time.
But like trying to pay the mortgage at the roulette wheel, this approach has not, for the most part, proven viable. Over the weekend year, just one university-press publicist volunteered the hope that a given title might land its author on "The Daily Show" -- and then, only wistfully. The reality principle is back in charge now, at least for a while.
So this year, instead of asking about possible breakthrough books, I decided to query people at the booths about something else. Not long ago, the University of Michigan Press announced it would shift most of its monograph publishing to digital format. I wondered how this example was shaping the plans at other academic presses. Were they preparing to make the same leap? Was the economy giving them a rough push into the future?
After all, publishing an academic book is an expensive and not wonderfully profitable exercise. The print runs for most scholarly titles are so small that no economies of scale apply. Copies then often sit in warehouses -- another expense eating away at any possible return on the investment. Wouldn't switching over to digital publishing make sense? Indeed, isn't it just a matter of time?
It all sounds so obvious, so clear-cut. Or so I assumed at first while wandering the aisles of the exhibit hall -- pausing long enough to watch, through the transparent walls of the Espresso Book Machine as it converted a digital file into a print-on-demand volume. This took about five minutes, after which the machine spat out a paperback like a sandwich from an automat. It was literally warm (if not hot) off the press.
But discussions with people at the university-press booths soon disabused me of my assumptions about how the economy was influencing the march towards digital publishing.
Mark Saunders, the electronic imprint manager at the University of Virginia Press, said that e-books were now part of its output. But that his colleagues felt they had "just gotten a handle" on the issue of rights in digital publishing. The option of publishing titles exclusively in e-book format is not on the table. "We're approaching it in the spirit of hybridity," he said. ""We want to be able to offer our books in different flavors," he said.
Any notion that that the recession has rendered print-and-ink publishing too expensive is just wrong. On the contrary, the economic pinch means that lots of old-fashioned printers are willing to make a bargain. "On any book you need to print more than 500 copies of," Saunders said, "offset printing is still a very good option."
Shifting to digital is not the quick, smooth, cost-free move that it's sometime made out to be. For one thing, it's necessary to invest considerable time and resources into figuring out just what your options are. For small presses, it can simply make more sense to stick with what you have a track record doing.
Steven Yates, marketing director at the University Press of Mississippi, told me that the press is "looking for someone to handle digital content management" -- but that even doing that much "would be easier if cash flow were not a problem."
The same sentiment came through when I spoke to Debora Diehl, exhibits manager at the University of Kentucky Press. For now, she said, it made sense to "stick to the tried and true" because "money is just not available" to undertake much experimentation.
It's commonly assumed that e-books won't incur the same down-the-pike expenses that bound volumes do -- in particular, the cost of warehousing them. Server space isn't free, however. And it's worth keeping in mind the comment of one representative of a mid-sized university press who asked not to be identified.
"We have two guys working in our warehouse," this person told me. "The payroll for both of them costs less than hiring another IT person."
Everyone had heard about Michigan's switch to publishing monographs in digital format, of course. But are other scholarly publishers taking this as a model to which to aspire? I found no evidence that they were. Even presses that have made already made a significant commitment to e-publishing are proceeding carefully.
"We're selling e-books," said Colleen Lanick, the publicist for MIT Press, "and continuing to experiment with digital publishing, but I wouldn't say it is the economy that's driving it." Instead, much of the push has come from the press's own authors and public. Many of its titles concern technology -- and as a matter of course, authors "want their stuff online," says Lanick.
By chance, sitting right near my elbow I type up my notes from the weekend, there is a new MIT volume called Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes by Elizabeth Losh. Three chapters of it are available at the MIT Press site. Well, of course. Making scholarship available in digital form "is a question of how people want to get their books," says Lanick, "not of the expense of production."
At the same time, it clearly makes some difference whether or not a press has already invested in the resources required for digital publishing. Michael McCullough, books sales manager at Duke University Press, said that they were starting to sell e-books to consumers via Amazon as well as to academic libraries. McCullough attributes Duke's ability to expand its digital offerings to the infrastructure it built up to handle its stable of scholarly journals. "We were able to move into e-books," he said, "because of the journals -- it's generally accepted that journals are way ahead in this area."
Meanwhile, Harvard University Press is preparing to launch a new monograph series in digital format. Edited by Peter N. Miller, the dean of the Bard Graduate Center, the series is called Cultural Histories of the Material World. Daniel Lee, the press's director of digital content development, says the first volumes should be available in 2010. Titles in the series will thereby also become available in hard copies, through short-run printing and print-on-demand.
Many people take it for granted that the economic downturn amounts to a a tipping point in e-publishing, at least for scholarly presses, and perhaps especially for them.But even the publishers moving steadily deeper into the digital terrain are doing so watchfully.
The expression "tipping point" (with its implication of "point of no return") hardly seems to apply, to judge by this year's Book Expo. A more fitting term might be the one used by Ellen Trachtenberg, a publicist for the University of Pennsylvania Press. "We're at a tension point," she told me. "We don't have any e-books, but our board of trustees is keen on doing them, so we are looking into it."
And I suspect there are plenty of presses where discussion sometimes runs along the lines that Yates reports often happens at the University Press of Mississippi.
When the editors are going over an intensely specialized manuscript, he says, they will sometimes say, "This is a great book that should be published in digital format only -- and by somebody else."
Publishing -- especially university press publishing -- is a tough business. Recently, many presses have come under greater financial pressure or the threat of being closed completely. Much of this is due to the downturn in the economy, which strains state budgets and makes so-called ancillary operations like scholarly publishing expendable.
Some in university presses view this as a time to rally around the book as the focal point of scholarship and academic publishing. Part of the argument revolves around university presses as purveyors of hard ideas — ideas that push culture forward. Intellectual rigor, the hallmark of any good university or college, is also the driving force in university press publishing. This rigor is best reflected in full-length discussion of particular subjects.
Whatever the merits of books, this argument neglects to address fully the current financial and technological challenges. Disruptive technologies -- the Internet and digital information networks -- have made the printed book less important. Information gatherers have found an abundance of material on their desktops. More important, the psychology of getting information is driven by quick searching and the generation of instantaneous results. Trying to change users’ actions under continual technology improvements is futile.
Expanding university press publishing into the areas that are driving the current educational and research enterprises -- science, engineering, technology, etc. -- is definitely an option that must be explored. In fact, these disciplines were on the forefront of ushering in new forms of communication highlighted by arXiv, an e-print service in the fields of physics, mathematics, non-linear science, computer science, quantitative biology and statistics. University presses, except for the few Überpresses whose reputation transcends their parent universities, must also be concerned with aligning their interests with the strengths of their home institutions. By doing so, they become a vital tool in branding and marketing. Forays into tertiary fields are not strategic or sensible.
While moving into STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) publishing and producing cutting-edge textbooks – another idea of those who favor a continued emphasis on books -- would improve presses’ financial performances and provide them greater credibility, ready capital is not available to presses. Parent institutions or foundations would have to pump millions into the scholarly publishing business to jump start these programs. Commercial publishers have much deeper pockets and can offer richer services to their authors.
I had a recent conversation with a prominent engineering dean. He wanted to know why I was visiting, since his faculty was intent on getting published in Elsevier journals. I wasn’t the least bit surprised, but did mention perhaps some of his faculty might write “little books” on very narrow subjects. Basically, these books would be an extension of an existing journal article or an adaptation of class notes with the purpose of covering a topic, but keeping in line with the way faculty communicate in those fields. He thought the idea might work, but reminded me that his faculty was immersed in teaching and research, so that finding spare time for an endeavor that had negligible tenure impact would be hard.
University presses must move away from focusing on books or any one method of distribution. While I was at Purdue University Press we published a book entitled 100 Years of Change in the Distribution of Common Indiana Weeds (the title came with a free CD for easy searching). Weeds found their way across the state along highways and railroads — distribution networks. Likewise current scholarly information is a product of the channels available, including libraries, digital repositories, wikis, blogs, and social networks. The absolute growth in digital resources impacts the creation of information as well as the completed work. A scholarly monograph might be the end product, but we must realize that the pathway itself has hard information that scholars want to access, too.
University presses must become part of the new information infrastructure of the university. Presses must partner with departments, centers, and scholars to publish groundbreaking materials. University presses need to be good listeners. The university press editorial board, if made up of a diverse cross-section of faculty members, is a way to initiate this process. At board meetings, interactions have led to the discovery of programs that are being run independently at various schools that could be made much more vital through cooperative efforts.
I do not doubt that the book will continue to exist as a part of the scholarly enterprise. When television disrupted radio, radio survived. When the Internet disrupted television, television survived. When digital networks disrupted libraries, libraries have survived. All of the survivors have had to adjust to the new reality. Digital device are disrupting the traditional book. University presses have to show how vital they can be to their parent universities’ strategic direction. Traditional books cannot drive the answer any longer.
Thomas Bacher is director of the University of Akron Press.
The fall books have already started piling up. There are titles I’ve asked the publishers to send, and the ones volunteered by eager publicists, and the ceaseless influx of small books of poetry, which fill me with guilt for watching “Law & Order” reruns instead of reading them. (But verily, man cannot live by print alone.)
Before the new publishing season begins and they are lost in the flood, let me take a quick look here at a few recent titles – books I have found absorbing and rewarding, but not had a chance to discuss in this column. The list is miscellaneous, and the tip of an iceberg. I doubt they have much in common. But each title is a reminder of the fine and irreplaceable work that university presses do with no fanfare, and seldom much recognition. And let’s not even talk about profit.
The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. (a.k.a. Gates-gate) has generated great heat but not much light. Various media loudmouths have been outdoing themselves in portraying the Harvard professor as some kind of wild-eyed radical. This is, of course, a matter of ignorance, robust and unashamed. Gates is in reality the most anodyne of centrists. But at least the furious fantasies he has provoked should put to rest for good any notion that the United States has lately turned into a “postracial” society.
It seems like a good moment to recommend Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Hahn’s new book The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, a compact but challenging volume published by Harvard University Press. The author is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. His three chapters -- each a miniature monograph -- are based on a series of lectures at Harvard, given at Gates’s invitation.
Hahn looks at the complex way the African-American struggle for emancipation took shape both under slavery and in the wake of its abolition. This process involved the creation of institutions for self-governance, as seen in “the efforts of newly freed people to reconstitute their kinship groups, to form squads and other family-based work groups, to pool community resources, and, of course, to acquire land.”
These weren’t just social movements. They contained, argues Hahn, a political element. Hahn considers whether the activity of black Southerners during the Civil War amounted to a variety of slave revolt, and he sketches aspects of the political life of Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanist group in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Only the mo
st small-minded conception of American life would assume that these are matters of interest only to black readers. In a healthy culture, this little book would be a best-seller.
A few months ago, an editor asked me to review Adina Hoffman’s biography of Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, published by Yale University Press. To tell the truth, my heart did not initially leap at the opportunity. For I had never read any of his poetry, and rather feared that it might be full of slogans -- that, indeed, the poet’s own life might be one long slogan.
This proves that I am an idiot. A couple of sessions with his selected works revealed Ali to be a wry, ambivalent, and often understated lyricist. (In translation, at least, he seems a little bit like Edgar Lee Masters.) The figure who emerges from Hoffman’s biography is that of a quiet shopkeeper in Nazareth who carefully studied Arabic literary tradition, and also absorbed the influence of the Palestinian nationalist “resistance literature” – then created his own distinctive style: one stripped-down and unrhetorical, but sensitive as a burn.
One of the remarkable things about this biography, as indicated in my review, is that it evokes not only the political and historical context of Ali’s work, but also how his poetry took shape. Its quietness and simplicity are hard-won.
At the other extreme from Ali, perhaps, is Walt Whitman, whose poetic voice is booming, and whose persona always seems a couple of sizes too large for the North American continent. A couple of years back, Duke University Press reprinted his one and only novel: a cautionary tale of the perils of strong drink called Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate. I have somehow never gotten around to reading it, and probably never will. But it is impressive to think that Whitman grew to his familiar cosmic dimensions while stone cold sober.
His poetry certainly intoxicated the readers portrayed in Michael Robertson’s Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, published by Princeton University Press. The noun in its subtitle is no exaggeration. The readers portrayed here found in Whitman’s work something akin to a new scripture -- nearly as much as followers of Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy did the Book of Mormon or Science and Health.
You can still find R.M. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness (1901) -- where Whitman is identified as “the best, most perfect example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense" -- in New Age shops. Other disciples took his “chants democratic” as hymns for a worldwide socialist commonwealth. And his invocation of manly “adhesiveness” were understood by a few readers to be a call for what later generations would term gay liberation. Whitman insisted that his homophile readers had misunderstood him, and that when not writing poetry he had been busy fathering illegitimate children all over these United States. The biographers will continue to hash that one out -- though it’s clear that his literary persona, at least, is ready to couple with anything that moves, regardless of gender.
Whitman’s work gave some of his Victorian readers a vision of the world extending far beyond the horizon of the familiar and the acceptable. No surprise that they revered him as a prophet. Robertson, a professor of English at the College of New Jersey, tells the story of his steadily expanding circle of enthusiasts (which at one point aspired to become a global movement) with due appreciation for how profound the literary experience can be, when the right book falls into the right person’s hands.
Of course there are times when reading is a nothing but a guilty pleasure. So to go from the sublime to the sleazy, I have to recommend Jack Vitek’s The Godfather of Tabloid: Generoso Pope Jr. and the National Enquirer, published by the University Press of Kentucky late last year.
Not that the book itself is sleazy. The Enquirer may specialize in celebrity gossip, horrific crimes, UFO abductions, and Elvis Presley's posthumous itinerary. But that's not to say that the author -- an associate professor of English and journalism at Edgewood College, in Madison, Wisc. -- is anything but serious and measured in his approach. Vitek tackles his subject with all due awareness of its lingering cultural relevance. Pope modeled himself on newspaper tycoons such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.
The publisher also happens to have had family “connections” (as the preferred expression has it) with what its members do not call the Mafia. He also spent about a year working for the Central Intelligence Agency. This makes it especially interesting to consider the mission statement Pope released when he bought a local tabloid called the New York Enquirer in 1953. “In an age darkened by imperialist tyranny and war,” it said, “the New York Enquirer will fight for the rights of man, the rights of the individual, and will champion human decency and dignity, freedom and peace.”
Any biography moving between lofty rhetoric and very low company is bound to be pretty absorbing. The Enquirer, after it went national, reached a peak circulation of 6.7 million copies per issue in the late 1970s, with Pope playing an aggressive role in crafting its distinctive strain of populist sensationalism.
In a footnote, Vitek points out that Fredric Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism somehow overlooked Pope’s role as formative influence within what Jameson calls "the degraded landscape of schlock and kitsch." Quite right -- and it is good to have this oversight finally corrected.
It is possible that I have too many books. There, I said it. (That felt weird.)
Heading off to visit her mother before all of us rendezvous for Thanksgiving, my spouse dropped a gentle hint: “Maybe while I’m gone you could do some reshelving?” The most recent effort to impose some order had involved transferring books from the coffee table and windowsill to a consolidated mound on the living room floor. This was, I thought, progress – though evidently this is debatable. Then four or five huge boxes and a dozen padded envelopes arrived from publishers, in connection with a literary award I’m helping to judge. Americans may not read much poetry but they sure do write a lot of it.
So ... point taken. I’ve been wheeling belles lettres by the pound over to the Inside Higher Ed offices. At home I pack the already doubled-layered shelves as tightly as circumstances allow. This process has its downside: the rediscovery of volumes acquired years ago that now go into a “must read soon” pile.
This is not defeating chaos so much as rearranging it. In the midst of all this, I’ve stopped to look over the new issue of Against the Grain, with its symposium asking “Is There Any Such Thing as an Out-of-Print Book Anymore?” The short answer, it seems, is “no.” I feel like a junkie learning there will be heroin in heaven.
Against the Grain is the most interesting periodical you have probably never heard of. It appears bimonthly. It is written by, and intended for, what could be called the metapublic for scholarly writing: the research librarians, academic press people, booksellers, and digital publishing mavens. This is where they gather to compare notes. The magazine’s layout is plain, even severe. The intent is obviously to squeeze as many articles, interviews, reviews, rumors, and nerdy diatribes into the available space as possible.
Much of the content ends up online eventually. To get the full ATG effect, though, you have to read the print edition, and not just because of the lag time. The pages swarm with ads for books, databases, and specialized encyclopedias. For the ordinary bookish person, this fusion of commerce and conversation is intriguing and revelatory. It leaves you with a better sense of what happens to scholarly writing in the interval between the peer-review process and readers finding it in the library.
The November issue contains a special section of 10 pieces on what has happened to the concept of “out of print” work. New media, print-on-demand, and the online secondhand book market have rendered the label anachronistic. The lead article by John Riley (one of the magazine’s associate editors) conveys the scale of the transformation: “It is estimated that one hundred million separate titles have been printed since Gutenberg. At the rate that books are being scanned, we can expect to see the majority of important out-of-print books available online or as POD [print-on-demand] within a few years.”
Unfortunately this process has been uneven and chaotic – with digital warehousing proceeding apace, while bibliographical competence is a distant afterthought. Books are routinely miscategorized or assigned spurious publication dates. And the quality of the scanned text can leave a lot to be desired.
Here, my own experience may be worth mentioning. A few months ago, I was happy to be able to acquire an obscure volume of essays from the 1920s in a print-on-demand paperback edition. The book was something it seemed unlikely, a few years ago, ever to see reissued. Now it was suddenly available from online booksellers at a fair (in not exactly low) cost.
But when it arrived, I had a less pleasant surprise. The reprint house had not bothered to get a clean copy of the original text. It was full of underlined passages and marginal scribblings (all of them, as it happens, strikingly inane).This kind of disappointment is far from unusual. Other reprints may come with missing pages -- or a shot of the hand of whoever did the scanning.
“Perhaps we are on the cusp of every bibliomaniac’s dream,” writes Riley: “a universal library of all the important books from all times and places....There is a threat, however, that this utopia might actually turn into a dystopia as we risk trading all of our bookstores and libraries for a database of confused editions and missing text.”
The issue also discusses how libraries are using the robust secondhand market online to replace missing titles in their collection – or sometimes to acquire recent books at a bargain. A statistical overview of these changing buying habits appears in an important article by Narda Tafuri, an acquisitions librarian at the University of Scranton, who reports on a survey conducted in August.
Using data collected from collections-development specialists at 144 institutions – more than 86 percent of them academic libraries – Tafuri shows the role that used and discount book services such as Abebooks, Alibris, and Amazon now play. Most of the libraries responding (59 percent) had an annual acquisitions budget of under $500,000 a year.
Not quite 30 percent spent more than $1 million on acquisitions. The one thing held in common by the overwhelming majority (92.4 percent) of institutions was that they acquired books from the secondhand market. The few librarians who didn’t cited vendor contracts or lack of an institutional credit card as the reason. Among the reasons cited for buying books online were to replace copies of books gone missing or to acquire rare volumes.
But a surprisingly large number of institutions -- more than 72 percent -- “indicated that they were purchasing used or out-of-print books as part of ‘regular purchases’ for their library’s collection.” Most indicated that they devoted no more than 10 percent of their budgets to used books. The 15 percent or so earmarking more for secondhand acquisitions fell into a distinct group: “All of those individuals [who] responded that their library’s used and out-of-print purchases accounted for up to 11 to 25 percent of their book budget were from academic libraries.”
Other articles describe the digital-edition and secondhand markets from the other side of the transaction, including Bob Holley’s account of his own double life: “At work, I’m Dr. Jekyll – professor, scholar, and consumer of high culture. At home, I’ve gone over to the dark side to become Mr. Hyde, the Internet vendor who values books, CDs, and movies not for their intellectual content but for their marketability.”
Holley, a professor of library and information science at Wayne State University, has turned his basement into a warehouse for his online business. “Mr. Hyde scarcely looks at the great works of literature unless they are very cheap or used as college texts,” he writes, “but instead seeks out quirky non-fiction. He especially buys books on self-help, astrology, religion, or sex. While Dr. Jekyll wouldn’t ever read these books, Mr. Hyde is quite willing to sell them since they offer a good profit.”
Alas, people at university presses may read this and decide to bring out self-help books on astrological sex religions. It is probably a matter of time. Over the longer term, contributors to the symposium seem to be describing an emergent situation in which the online sales will drive down the price of new titles while academic collections are hoovering up scarce old books that will then be digitized, and so kept in print forever.
One of the survey questions that Narda Tafuri discusses gives a glimpse of what the next step might look like.When asked whether they had any plans to make digital titles available at their libraries through print-on-demand, almost 91 percent of respondents answered “no.” But when asked if they might want to offer such titles for sale as a source of revenue, more than 40 percent said that it was something they would be willing to consider.
Only 2.8 percent indicated they had immediate plans to do so. Given the cost of a print-on-demand book machine runs from $75,000 to $95,000, this is probably not the wave of the short-term future. But in ten years, who knows? The nature of progress is that it multiplies temptations. Diligently reshelving before I leave for the holiday, I’m not sure if this is a development for which to give thanks.
Seldom do professors have more than a vague notion of publishing as an industry -- of all that happens between the moment when the manuscript of a book is accepted and its final materialization on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. And this is as it should be. Innocence is no fault. It is best to think of the whole thing as miraculous. You write, and a grateful world reads.
My own naivete began to erode a few years ago from attending Book Expo America, the annual trade show for the publishing industry. This is a gigantic affair, lasting just over two days, usually scheduled over the weekend before Memorial Day. For some reason BEA 2010 has been scheduled for the middle of the week. By the time this column appears, I will be on my way to the cavernous display hall of the Javits Center in New York City, where Mammon exacts tribute from the Muses.
Hundreds of publishers from around the world meet with distributors and with buyers for major bookstores. The big trade presses have massive displays for their potential bestsellers, overshadowing even the most prestigious of university presses. There is a constant hum of busy people making transactions. Rights are secured. Translations are arranged. Members of the media (print and digital, mass and micro, professional and amateur) visit the booths to learn what new books are coming down the pike. Small crowds watch as translucent print-on-demand machines turn digital texts into fresh, hot paperbacks. There will be someone dressed as, say, Nostradamus, promoting a new historical novel in which he was both a vampire and a member of the Knights Templar. He may attempt to bite passers-by.
Authors make appearances and sign books – though usually not at the university press booths, which is probably for the best. There is such a thing as going from innocence to experience much too quickly.
Better to debate theories about commodification than to land in the big middle of it. You may not think of your scholarship as a commodity, but that is exactly what it is at Book Expo.
Or maybe not, this year. Preparing to make the long march up and down the aisles of the BEA, I've noticed how many university presses won't have exhibits this time.
We’re not talking about a total collapse of the scholarly book trade or anything close to it. Many large university presses will be there, including Cambridge, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, SUNY, and Yale. So will the presses of Fordham, Mercer, Minnesota, North Carolina, and many others.
Not counting something called Summit University Press (which publishes the teachings of various disembodied "Ascended Masters" regarding cosmic energies and the end of the world), there are at least 30 scholarly presses listed among the exhibitors. But there are conspicuous absences from the directory this time. The University of California Press is not listed, nor are the university presses of Iowa, Oxford, Stanford, Temple, or Texas.
I've been in touch with people from various presses to find out more about their decision to attend, or not. In some cases, it turns out their personnel will be roaming around the hall, rather than operating from a booth. Others have simply concluded that Book Expo has outlived its centrality. At least a couple of the presses listed in the directory will have a smaller presence than they have in the past.
Much of this is, of course, a predictable response to recent economic strains. Small publishers have long grumbled about the expense of having an exhibit. The smallest available booth size (a cozy one hundred square feet) costs $3,810. There are charges for every amenity, including chairs; you cannot bring your own. It is necessary for publishers to ship books, galleys, catalogs and so forth -- running to a few hundred dollars, at least, and often much more. People staffing the booth must find lodgings. And failure to pack a lunch will leave them at the mercy of rapacious hot dog vendors.
“We haven’t been to BEA in a few years,” Joseph Parsons, the acquisitions editor for the University of Iowa Press, tells me. “I talked with my marketing colleagues about this, and they told me it was a decision based on efficient allocation of resources: time and money. BEA is so big and expensive and time is at such a premium in that setting that we’ve found it a lot more productive to send our publicity manager to New York and Chicago twice a year, where she meets with media people over several days in one-on-one settings and can have real conversations about the books in the catalog. If it’s about building relationships, which it is, our approach has worked out well.”
MIT Press won’t have a booth in the exhibit hall, as in previous years -- though members of its sales force will have a spot in one of the meeting rooms set aside elsewhere on site. Colleen Lanick, MIT's publicity director, will be attending in a footloose capacity, rendezvousing with journalists and bloggers at various locations around the convention center.
"Not having a booth means I will miss some of the walk-by traffic," she says, "but it also has an upside, since I can attend more panels and sessions."
The University of Chicago Press has a strong profile for both specialized and crossover titles, so I fully expected to visit its booth for a look at forthcoming titles. But while there will be personnel to handle inquiries about publishing rights (an increasingly important matter, given the digital market) the press won't have books in the exhibit hall.
“We'll have a table in the rights area,” says Levi Stahl, the press’s publicity director, “but not the typical booth out on the floor....With the economy as troubled as it was last summer, when we had to make our decision about this year's show, we weren't convinced that having a booth there was the most efficient use of our resources."
I wondered if this was the shape of things to come. "That's not to say there's no chance we'll ever be back," says Stahl. "Rather, we'll be evaluating this year-by-year for a good while, I expect.”
In the past, Duke University Press has occupied two booths. This time, the staff will be operating out of a single one, where its representatives can meet “not only with traditional distributors and our sales reps," says publicity director Laura Sell, "but also with some of the many e-Book vendors, metadata distributors, and various other electronic vendors who frequent the show.”
But the publicist herself won’t be attending this time. In keeping with a theme that has emerged from my discussions with other university press folk, she indicates that Book Expo is simply not the red-letter event it once was.
“I did not find the show very productive for media encounters last year,” she tells me, “and I'd rather schedule a separate trip to NYC for regular publicity calls. I think we reach the book bloggers well on Twitter, so it's not worth it to go just for them.”
The decision not to have a booth for Temple University Press “was pretty much a no-brainer given financial considerations,” says Ann-Marie Anderson, its marketing director. Book Expo America “is a rather large expense on the budget with no good arguable return. Then the marketing budget was reduced; it was obvious BEA was no longer feasible.”
Anderson’s says Temple's publicist and foreign-rights coordinator will head up to New York to make the rounds, even so. But Anderson herself isn’t interested.
“I have asked myself as marketing director why I no longer feel a need to attend,” she says. “My answer is that since so few booksellers attend, I no longer get orders, so why go? I can send our special to all my accounts and to our sales reps. I use BEA merely as a professional and social networking tool. Yes, I fear our ‘trade’ titles miss out on the seasonal buzz but I ask, given the fickleness of bookbuying these days, would it have made any difference?”
Hard to say, of course. If you are publishing a book that somehow catches the attention of a person from Jon Stewart's staff, I guess it is worth the trouble and very considerable expense.
But that is a long gamble. Most books have small, distinctive audiences -- and the drift of the past few years has been toward using the less expensive (if not necessarily less demanding) approach of finding those audiences online. When you talk with university press publicists, it is clear that they are counting more now than in previous years on their authors knowing what websites, blogs, or social networking venues will be most helpful in getting out the word about their books.
Does this mean that scholars need to learn to think about that, whether they pay attention to the rest of the publishing industry or not? I'm afraid it does. There is such a thing as being too innocent. And anyway, it could be a lot worse. At least nobody is forcing you to dress like Nostradamus.
A few days have passed since the conclusion of Book Expo America, the annual trade show for the publishing industry, and it seems like I should have recovered by now. But you do not go to New York City to sleep. It was a hectic experience. In spite of the trend toward rethinking the importance of BEA noted in last week’s column, plenty of scholarly presses were on hand. They had scores of new titles on display -- if not always, as in previous years, for the taking.
Besides which, I stayed about two blocks from The Strand. That meant hours of rooting around, so now a box of old books is headed to me through the mail. (You do not go to New York to be frugal, either.)
As late as 2009, Book Expo occupied a cavernous exhibit hall and spilled over to a second floor that was only somewhat less gigantic. This time, the contraction in scale was unmistakable. Many publishers (and not just academic ones) squeezed into smaller booths than they would have a few years ago. One floor was quite enough. The directory was perhaps a third the size of the one for my first Book Expo, five years ago. And the event ran for just two days in the middle of the week -- rather than Friday through Sunday, as in the past.
But this condensation had the unexpected effect of making the show seem much brisker. People from Manhattan’s media and publishing worlds were happy to have an excuse to get away from the office for a while. "Last year, when Sunday came," one publicist told me, “I could have done cartwheels down the middle of the aisles and nobody would have noticed.”
Things had utterly changed this time in what some scholarly publishing folks called “the ghetto.” This was a stretch of booths on aisle 3700 where the university presses of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, McGill-Queens, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Princeton, Virginia, and Yale all held court.
With so many not-terribly-commercial presses right beside one another, you might expect this zone to be a fairly quiet. But in fact they were in a prime location, and the traffic was at times so heavy that there was gridlock. It was also noisy. All of my meetings with university-press people involved at least one use of the line “What was that you just said?”
By the second (and final) day, everyone sounded reasonably satisfied with the decision to attend. Even university presses far from "the ghetto" seemed to think that the event went well.
“We didn’t get a great spot,” one person said, “but least our booth isn’t across from the remainders this time. That really killed the mood last time.” Another publicist was relieved not to have ended up “next to the L. Ron Hubbard people again.”
Whether or not sales were looking up, people reported a sense that they were at least stabilizing -- which, given the recent trends, almost counts as a basis for optimism. Like the song says, “Been down so very damn long that it looks like up to me.” Whenever anyone expressed confidence about the future, I tried to find out if they were basing their optimism on anything in particular. Unfortunately, the responses tended to be vague, beyond the general sense that revenue from digital books was an encouraging prospect.
One case of a concrete, positive development involving an old-fashioned print artifact came from the University of Minnesota Press, which has kept in print a number of books by Christopher Isherwood, including his novel A Single Man (1964). This was adapted into last-year’s Academy Award-nominated film of the same title. Sales for the paperback were good, and one sees where that would be encouraging. Nevertheless, it seems difficult to extract any advice from this example -- apart from “be lucky with your back list.” (Though smart might count as much as lucky.)
One new title from a university press enjoyed an added bit of exposure during the trade show, given the approaching holiday. This was When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans (University of North Carolina Press) by Laura Browder, a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, with photographs by Sascha Pflaeging. A set of oral-history interviews and portraits of women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it received a notice in a special edition of Publisher’s Weekly circulated during Book Expo.
The writeup included a quotation from the book’s editor, Sian Hunter, who made a strong case for the special attention that academic presses can bring to their titles: “We tailored the publication process to make sure Laura’s academic and Sascha’s photographic expertise were highlighted, and we kept their contributions and concerns in mind as we made decisions on everything from thematic organization to paper choice and publicity.” These are things the commercial giants tend to regard as needless luxuries -- at least for any book that isn't going to dominate the chain bookstores, and frankly sometimes even then. It was good to see someone at Book Expo talking about editing and publishing as part of a craft, rather than an industry.
Let me end with some quick notes on forthcoming books that caught my attention while wandering the aisles. This list won’t be exhaustive -- just a few things I particularly look forward to seeing, or already am reading.
The expression “crossover book” is often used to label an academic title that has the potential to go beyond the academic world to interest a wider audience. With David Foster Wallace’s Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will -- forthcoming in January from Columbia University Press -- we need to coin a phrase that means the exact opposite. With the iconic image of a bandanna-wearing DFW on the cover, it is bound to catch the attention of a broad public. But this new book -- anchored by his philosophy honors thesis “Richard Taylor’s Fatalism and the Semantics of Physical Modality” (1985) -- is going to find readers primarily among experts in the semantics of physical modality. All 47 of them. You know who you are.
In addition to the thesis -- written at Amherst College while DFW was working on his first novel -- the volume will reprint Taylor’s paper “Fatalism” (1962) and a dozen responses to it published in British and American philosophical journals. The contents will also include a memoir by a fellow Amherst alum and an essay connecting DFW’s philosophical work to his other prose. It will conclude with another paper, “The Problem of Future Contingencies,” by Richard Taylor, who died in 2003.The book will be a lot shorter than Infinite Jest, but fewer people are going to finish reading it.
No commercial publisher had the good fortune or the good sense to acquire the rights to Jon Savage’s The England’s Dreaming Tapes, published in Britain last year and forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in September. Collecting more than seven hundred pages of transcripts from interviews Savage collected in the late 1980s while researching his landmark book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (1991), it is not the only oral history of punk rock available. But the prepublication sampler from the Minnesota booth, consisting of about one third of the entire book, was the thing I read first, and enjoyed most, after returning to my hotel room.
You can’t let the pleasure principle run your life, of course. I did keep an eye out for conservative titles while at Book Expo -- intending to read something more or less certain to challenge my assumptions about everything, or at least to remind me what they are. The problem, of course, is that you want to find something actually worth reading as well. After lingering around right-wing booths, I came to feel a sort of compassion for conservative publishers – or at least for the people designing their covers. Clearly it is proving as difficult to make Barack Obama look menacing as it was to show George W. Bush as thoughtful. In either case, the ears don't help.
As it turns out, Cambridge University Press will satisfy my craving with Norman Podohertz: A Biography by Thomas L. Jeffers. The author, a professor of literature at Marquette University, has had access to Podhoretz himself as well as to his papers and family. I see that on the final page Jeffers pays homage to the benefits the neoconservative mastermind has created for “his country, his people, and the values they exemplify and share.” Yes, this should do nicely.
At the other extreme, the radical press Verso -- now celebrating its 40th year of translating pretty much every European Marxist theorist anyone has ever heard of -- is scheduled to publish The Idea of Communism this fall. It consists of papers from a conference held in London last year, addressed by Alain Badiou, Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, and plenty more besides.
You may well be thinking, “Didn’tÅ½iÅ¾ek just publish three books last week?” and of course he probably did. (Either then or the week before.) But what makes The Idea of Communism newsworthy is that Verso is trying to find someone in New York to sponsor a replay of last year’s conference.
Assuming they manage to find a university to host it, this could be a major event in book-promotion history -- especially if there is an open slot forÅ½iÅ¾ek to host Saturday Night Live.
My ambivalence about Amazon seems a lot easier to manage now that the Golden Age of Impulse Buying is over. In 2007, at least half of my book-buying was a matter of snap decisions abetted by Visa. But the economic upheaval since then has broken me of this habit, and friends report much the same.
Shouldn’t my money go to a local independent bookstore? Given that Amazon offers both extremely specialized and out-of-print books, don’t my preoccupations oblige me to use Amazon? The luxury of pondering these questions was once part of succumbing to the acquisitive urge. But that was then.
Now, in any case, the questions seem largely moot. One of the best-established independent bookstores in my neighborhood went out of business in the fall of 2008 -- leaving thousands of feet of prime commercial real estate unoccupied in the meantime. Over the past decade, membership in the American Booksellers Association (the trade association for bookstores) has contracted by 50 percent.
A couple of months ago, the ABA announced a slight growth in its membership. But the long-term trend is clear. At this point, I’m not even sure that the big chain bookstore in my neighborhood will be around for another year. Temptation soon will be easy to resist, or at least harder to find.
While you might not be thinking about Amazon, rest assured that it is constantly thinking about you. That is one of the points to take away from a recent article by Colin Robinson in The Nation that deserves wide attention. (A very condensed version is also available on video.)
Robinson (formerly an editor at various presses, and founder of the new OR Books imprint) describes the cumulative and carefully-strategized impact of Amazon on publishers. Books now account for only a quarter of Amazon’s revenues, but this is the area where its power may be the most worrisome.
I wondered how people in the university publishing world would respond to the article. The first person to come to mind to ask was Sanford Thatcher, a former director of Penn State University Press, who is also past president of the Association of American University Presses. (These days he is an independent contractor, acquiring books for a couple of scholarly publishers.)
“I would describe the relationship of university presses to Amazon,” he told me by e-mail, “the same way I would describe their relationship to chain stores and Google: love/hate. There is no question that the development of these three phenomena, combined with the gradual disappearance of serious book reviewing from major newspapers, has transformed the landscape of both trade and academic publishing enormously over the past two decades.”
In the 1990s, chain bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble were viewed with favor by university presses as many of them began trying to publish “trade” books as well as monographs. “But the bloom went off the rose quickly,” he says, “once presses realized that standard operating procedures like the 90-day inventory turnover ended up creating lots of returns and not enough sell-through.”
That is, a new title had about three months to sell before a chain could return it. With the decline of general-interest venues for book reviewing, “not enough of these many new trade titles got reviewed in general media so that people would even know to look for them in the chain stores before they were returned in the 90-day cycle.”
At first, Thatcher says, Amazon had a similar appeal -- creating “much wider exposure for university press books generally, including lots that weren't even getting into the larger stores.” An AAUP survey of librarians showed that they were starting to purchase titles through Amazon. The online bookseller became “the second largest vendor for most, perhaps all, presses,” he says, “right behind the major library wholesaler Baker & Taylor…. For Penn State, as I recall, B&T accounted for about 50% of gross sales and Amazon for about 35-40%.”
So what’s not to like? Well, when Thatcher discuses the bookseller’s “hardball tactics,” his comments echo Colin Robinson’s article. Amazon launched its "Look Inside the Book" feature (giving customers a glimpse at some of a volume’s content) without consulting with presses, on the grounds that this was “fair use.” It was tireless in pressing for discounts, even as university presses have been squeezing pennies. (Academic publishing was the gasping canary in the economic coal mine, well before the recession hit.) And when Amazon acquired the print-on-demand vendor BookSurge, he says, it threatened to de-list books from publishers that didn’t agree to do business with it.
“I don't think anyone in university press publishing is happy with Amazon's strong-arm tactics,” Thatcher told me, “and you'd find pretty universal agreement with the complaints that Robinson quotes from various anonymous sources among press directors.”
Further confirmation came from the chief editor of a Midwestern university press who asked not to be identified. (This is understandable. Half the art of dealing with the 800-pound gorilla in the room may be keeping from drawing too much attention to yourself.)
“The single greatest advantage of selling through Amazon,” he said by e-mail, “is the reach of the company. A close second is the lack of returns, the bane of publishing. These factors aside, Amazon is a predatory corporation -- maybe not in a strictly legal sense of the word, but in practice, a shark. And swimming with sharks is dangerous.”
He noted last week’s announcement of an arrangement between Amazon and the powerful literary agent Andrew Wylie, who has launched a new digital imprint for his clients. Their e-books will be available exclusively for Amazon’s e-reader, the Kindle -- cutting publishers out entirely.
“As the recent agreement with Andrew Wylie demonstrates,” the editor told me, “Amazon is willing to go against its ‘partners’ -- their term of art -- whenever it chooses, and the fact that they're publishing Kindle editions directly from authors to readers underscores the contempt with which they hold publishers.”
He also pointed to “the striking contraction of independent booksellers in the United States” under the cumulative effect of online retailers. “The independents are our real allies,” he said, “because they know our work and know readers and are genuinely responsive. Amazon sells everything, from books to tablesaws.”
I had hoped to include comments by others from the university-press world – including whatever they might want to say in favor of Amazon. But my timing was perhaps bad. People seem to have been on vacation, or indisposed. But we’ll return to this topic in a future column.
Full disclosure: I did buy a book from Amazon just this weekend. It’s something that may never be available in a brick-and-mortar shop, nor that easy to find in libraries. But then you can rationalize anything, with a little time and practice.
A couple of weeks back, this column called attention to an unfortunate decision by the council of the London borough of Hackney to rename the C.L.R. James Library, which had been so christened in 1985 at an event attended by the author himself, who died four years later. Some people were convinced that the renaming was a deliberate insult by the Tories to a preeminent black British intellectual. My own policy is never to attribute to malice anything plausibly explained by obtuseness. The bureaucrats may have just assumed that James once enjoyed some local acclaim, but had been pretty well forgotten.
But his reputation has only grown in the decades since his death. Some 2,700 people signed a petition against the name change, and they did so from all over the world -- confirmation, if any more were needed, that James is a figure with a very long shadow.
Now comes word that the library will retain its name after it reopens in its new location. The building will host an exhibit on James, as well as an annual celebration of his work. The Hackney authorities have also apologized to Selma James -- the author’s widow, and an eminent figure in feminist theory in her own right.
“You gotta claim victory in your column,” a friend wrote the other day. “Not for yourself of course, but for the cause. Victories are good for morale.” Quite right. Credit goes entirely to those readers who signed and circulated the petition. And a note of personal thanks to whoever did the French translation of the column -- which not only expanded its circulation but made the columnist himself 10 years younger, to judge by the accompanying photo.
Besides writing a novel and several volumes of history and political theory, James was an energetic pamphleteer. But people paying tribute to him never use that word. "Pamphlet" seems to have a slightly negative connotation now. This is strange; it ought to be considered a neutral description, since it tells you nothing about the content, tone, or seriousness of the work so described. It seems rare for an American academic or serious writer to publish a pamphlet now. But if you turn from the bibliography of a prominent contemporary philosopher or public intellectual in Europe to his or her publications, it is remarkable how often something listed as a book turns out to be a long essay printed as a short paperback.
During the the 1990s, I heard various editors wax enthusiastic over the possibility of “reviving the pamphlet” as a format for serious publishing. But they never got very far with it. Publishing something in a timely manner and getting it into bookstores posed enormous problems. More recently, there was the trend of academic publishers mimicking Princeton University Press’s reissue of Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit. These, at least, have ended up in bookstores. But usually they have been overpriced miniature hardbacks with wide margins and lots of blank pages inside -- rather expensive items, given the amount of text made available. It is always tempting to photocopy such a book and take it back for a refund.
After getting a Kindle a couple of months ago, I started to wonder if e-readers might be the ticket to making the pamphlet viable as a format for serious publishing.
As if in reply, Amazon has just announced a new line of “Kindle Singles,” which the press release says will offer works “that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book.” They will be sold through a special section of the Kindle Store and at a lower price than normal books. (As of this writing, the Singles section is not listed yet.) The announcement is framed as “a call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world.”
While giving the company credit for reviving the pamphlet under a new name, it’s hard not to have reservations about so much cultural and commercial power being concentrated in one company’s hands. (I say this while fully expecting to buy Kindle Singles from time to time, once they become available.) Amazon already possesses extraordinary leverage over publishers, and its growth is routinely cited as a factor in the decline of independent bookstores. It's worth noticing that Amazon names publishers as just one constituency it is inviting to participate -- and at the end of the list. It is inviting potential contributors to get in touch with their ideas for Kindle Singles. This marks a step toward Amazon becoming not just a distributor of digital content, but a publisher, too.
On the other hand, why shouldn’t existing publishers be taking advantage of the e-book format to try this kind of thing? If this new initiative makes digital pamphleteering into a respectable form of authorship, then others ought to be able to take advantage of it. Dissatisfaction with what established publishers are doing has always been an incentive for starting new presses. And just remember: Very few of C.L.R. James’s pamphlets were ever available in bookstores, at least during his lifetime, but over the decades they have found their public. There is evidence that you can prevail, and they might name a library after you in gratitude.