For all that they are seen as bastions of knowledge and unfettered flow of information, colleges and universities are not typically known for welcoming rigorous scrutiny of themselves. They often have love-hate relationships with the journalists who cover them.
So imagine my surprise in 2002 when R. Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri’s Journalism School, asked me, an investigative reporter on its faculty, to write an institutional history of the school, the world’s first and arguably best, to commemorate its centennial.
The offer felt like an attractive one -- he agreed to pay a sum commensurate with what a New York City book publisher would pay for a trade title found in the country’s major bookstores, and had lined up the University of Missouri Press, a first-rate academic press, to publish it. Still, I said no -- I was under contract to write a trade book, I did not think I could handle a second book project at the same time, and the idea of an institutional history sounded potentially boring. But the dean demonstrated persistence. Each month that passed, the money became increasingly appealing, in part because my advance from the trade publisher had long since run out.
I was sure, though, that my unshakeable demand -- complete editorial independence – would cause the dean to draw back. I was wrong. When he agreed to that condition, I said yes, despite my reservations.
You have it right: Mills chose the person most experienced at unearthing skeletons, digging up dirt, (substitute your own cliché, if you like), to tell his institution’s history. Was he crazy, or gutsy, or what?
Protected by my written promise of complete editorial independence, I began digging -- er, researching. What happened over the next five years surprised me, a veteran of seven trade books, over and over.
Surprise Number One: The secrets hidden in archives. As an investigative reporter, I am accustomed to being stonewalled when I seek information from government agencies, private sector corporations and even not-for-profits such as charities. Yes, I had used archives before, so I grasped their importance. That said, what I found at the University of Missouri archives astounded me at times. The dedicated, skilled archivists delivered box after box to the table where I was taking notes. They never withheld folders, never inquired about my motives, never complained about the voluminous nature of my requests.
Inside the boxes I found revealing information about journalism school programs (including budget increases and cuts) as well as documents about faculty, staff and students, many of them still living. Negotiations preceding faculty hires, disciplinary panels, tenure and promotion applications and votes – all there for my consumption.
Surprise Number Two: The prickly questions of self-censorship I faced. Access to sensitive files meant potential invasions of privacy if I decided to publish what I found. As an investigative reporter writing in the omniscient third person, I worry about invasions of privacy infrequently. A story important to a broad readership must usually trump concern about an individual. That formulation might sound heartless, but those uncomfortable with it should never become investigative reporters.
I felt differently as the chronicler of the journalism school’s history. My name would appear as author, but I did not consider the book so much “mine” as I did “ours,” with me representing current and former faculty, staff and students. I understood from the start that lots of folks constituting “ours” wanted me to produce an upbeat centennial history rather than an expose. As a result, I discussed only the tenure and promotion controversies necessary to document themes, such as the troubles faculty at what is partly a vocational school encounter when being judged for tenure/promotion by a campus-wide committee of Ph.D.s in biology, physics and history.
Not all the self-censorship puzzlements arose from archival material. For example, I knew from my decades at the school of faculty on faculty extramarital affairs; faculty on staff extramarital affairs; and faculty members who began romantic liaisons with students. How to handle those, especially because at least a few affected the educational atmosphere within the school? I considered writing about the impact of some affairs without naming names. But that would have violated my personal ban on anonymous sources and subjects. Furthermore, failing to name names would have cast a shadow on the uninvolved. For better or worse (probably worse), I omitted all such sexual liaisons from the book, except for rumors involving the founding dean and a student, rumors that had been published previously. That student became a faculty member, as well as the dean’s second wife after he spent years as a widower.
Surprise Number Three: Examining my biases. I arrived at the University of Missouri in 1966 as a student. I graduated from the journalism school in 1970. In 1978, I joined the faculty, eventually became a full professor with tenure, and continue to teach there part-time. That means for more than 40 years I have known many of the people mentioned in the book. I never pretended to put aside all biases. I devote more paragraphs than some other author might to my mentors. I devote more paragraphs than other authors would to Investigative Reporters and Editors, a professional group with headquarters at the journalism school; I served as executive director of IRE from 1983-1990, and still serve as an editor on IRE’s magazine. I did my best to avoid score settling, but probably failed to erase or even hide all my negative reactions to certain individuals. In the preface, I warn readers: “When I possess firsthand knowledge of people and occurrences, I have allowed that knowledge to inform the narrative. I am acutely aware that my firsthand knowledge is open to interpretation by others with different values and vantage points.”
Surprise Number Four: The dilemmas of context. The journalism school has been home to ugly episodes of racism, sexism, religious intolerance, homophobia and ageism. I worried about slamming the journalism school for such behavior when the same ugliness permeated the entire university (the first African-American faculty member did not arrive until 1969), city, county, state and nation. I eventually decided to cover a few of the most significant ugly incidents in depth, and omit the rest.
Well, the book is generally available now (press.umsystem.edu). Its main title is The Journalism of Humanity, part of a quotation from the founding dean Walter Williams, who, by the way, never attended college but eventually became the University of Missouri’s president. The subtitle is “A Candid History of the World’s First Journalism School.” I believe the word “candid” is accurate, despite what I omitted.
It can be a frightening time to be in the publishing business. The economic mechanisms that support the reproduction and distribution of information in print have been disrupted by the economics of digital media. The newspaper industry provides just one example. As Eric Alterman pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, “In the Internet Age,… no one has figured out how to rescue the newspaper in the United States or abroad.” Print circulation is at its lowest level since records have been kept and online revenue from advertising and subscriptions are nowhere close to making up for those declines. It is well known that journals and scholarly presses are also struggling to adapt their business models.
At the same time that established publishing organizations are struggling, more and more academics and academic organizations are attempting to enter digital publishing. They are digitizing new content daily, developing new software tools, and collecting new data. Naturally, the creators of these online academic resources (OARs) wish to make them broadly available and to ensure their continued availability and currency.
These new digital resources have generally been created from one-time grant funding or short-term commitments of resources. However, unlike a printed book, digital resources require continued investment. The software systems and platforms on which they depend must be upgraded and kept current. It is the nature of digital resources to be continually growing and changing, attracting new content, and rapidly cycling through revisions and additions.
Increasingly, therefore, foundations, government agencies and universities are asking where they will find the recurring funding to sustain these online resources over time. They are requiring the leaders of such projects to develop sustainability plans that include ongoing sources of revenue; in short, they are looking for academics to act as publishing entrepreneurs. Success in such endeavors requires entrepreneurial expertise and discipline, but in our experience at Ithaka, few OAR projects employ fundamental principles of project planning and management. Why don’t they?
What we have observed is that deep cultural differences separate the scholarly mindset from the mindset of the e-entrepreneur. Most people overseeing online academic resources are scholars, raised in the academy, accustomed to its collegial culture and deliberative pace, shielded from traditional market forces. However, the rapid changes and ruthless competitive landscape of the Internet require a different mindset. The challenge for a successful OAR project leader is to marry the scholarly values essential to the project’s intellectual integrity with the entrepreneurial values necessary for its survival in the Internet economy.
To assist project leaders in successfully managing digital enterprises, Ithaka embarked on a project to study the major challenges to the sustainability of these online academic resources. Working with support from the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Strategic Content Alliance, we interviewed a range of people both in the academy and industry. During that effort, the fruits of which were published last week, we identified several aspects of the entrepreneurial approach that seem particularly important to creating sustainable digital projects:
1. Grants are for start-up, not sustainability. Most often, project leaders should regard initial funding as precisely that -- start-up funding to help the project develop other reliable, recurring and diverse sources of support. The prevailing assumption that there will be a new influx of grant funding when the existing round runs out is counter-productive to building a sustainable approach. There are exceptions to this assertion -- for example, if a grantee offers a service that is vital to a foundation’s mission or is exclusively serving an important programmatic focus of the funder -- but these cases are unusual.
2. Cost recovery is not sufficient: growth is necessary. Project leaders need to adopt a broader definition of “sustainability” that encompasses more than covering operating costs. The Web environment is evolving rapidly and relentlessly. It is incorrect to assume that, once the initial digitization effort is finished and content is up on the Web, the costs of maintaining a resource will drop to zero or nearly zero. Projects need to generate surplus revenue for ongoing reinvestment in their content and/or technology if they are to thrive.
3. Value is determined by impact. OAR project leaders tend to underestimate the importance of thinking about demand and impact and the connections between those elements and support from key stake holders. The scholarly reluctance to think in terms of “marketing” is a formula for invisibility on the Internet. Without a strategic understanding of the market place, it is only through serendipity that a resource will attract users and have an impact on a significant population or field of academic endeavor. And of course, attracting users is essential for garnering support from a variety of stake holders: host universities, philanthropies and government agencies, corporate sponsors and advertisers. The most promising and successful online resource projects are demand driven and strive for visibility, traffic and impact.
4. Projects should think in terms of building scale through partnerships, collaborations, mergers and even acquisitions. Project leaders need to consider a range of options for long-term governance. Start-ups in the private sector, for example, aim for independent profitability but they also consider it a success to merge with complementary businesses or to sell their companies to a larger enterprise with the means to carry those assets forward. Not-for-profit projects should think similarly about their options and pursue different forms of sustainability based on their particular strengths, their competition, and their spheres of activity. Given the high fixed costs of the online environment, collaborations and mergers are critical for helping single online academic resource projects keep their costs down and improve chances for sustainability.
5. In a competitive world, strategic planning is imperative. In the highly competitive environment of the Web, project leaders must embrace the best operating practices of their competitors -- a group that includes commercial enterprises -- for mindshare and resources. That means they will have to act strategically, develop marketing plans, seek out strategic partnerships, understand their competitive environment, and identify and measure themselves against clear goals and objectives for how they will accomplish their missions successfully and affordably. An academic disdain for “commercialism” can doom many a promising scholarly project to failure on the Internet.
Historically, academic projects have been shielded from commercial pressures, in part by funders, but mainly because their economic environment operated independently from other areas of commerce. This separation between the “academic” and “commercial” economies is no longer meaningful. The project leaders that are most likely to succeed in today’s digital environment are those who can operate successfully under the pressures of competition and accountability, and in the messiness of innovation and continual reinvention.
6. Flexibility, nimbleness, and responsiveness are key. OARs need to develop the capability for rapid cycles of experimentation (“fail early and often”), rather than spending years attempting to build the optimal resource in isolation from the market. Unfortunately, many OARs are structurally set up to do the latter – their grants commit them to promised courses of action for several years and tie them to specific deliverables. Leaders of online academic resources may not realize that many funders would prefer nimbleness if it means that the OARs will have a greater impact. Funders, for their part, must recognize that multi-year plans need to be highly flexible to allow for adaptation to new developments in technology and the marketplace.
7. Dedicated and fully accountable leadership is essential. Running a start-up – and developing an online academic resource is running a start-up – is a full-time job requiring full-time leadership. The “principal investigator” model, in which an individual divides her time among a variety of research grants, teaching assignments, and other responsibilities, is not conducive to entrepreneurial success. New initiatives aiming for sustainability require fully dedicated, fully invested, and intensely focused leadership. If a principal investigator cannot provide it, he or she will have to retain a very capable person who can.
If new digital academic resources are going to survive in the increasingly competitive online environment, the academy needs a better understanding of the challenges of managing what are essentially digital publishing enterprises. Leaders and supporters of these projects must orient themselves to an entrepreneurial mindset and embrace principles of effective management. If they are unable to do that, important resources serving smaller scholarly disciplines will disappear, leaving only those projects that are commercially viable.
Kevin M. Guthrie
Kevin M. Guthrie is president of Ithaka, a nonprofit organization with a mission to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for higher education. From 1995 to 2003, he was the founding president of JSTOR.
For many young academics (whether graduate students or assistant professors preparing their tenure files), the subject of publishing is a source of anxiety and consternation. In addition, whether or not one has a sound understanding of publishing more often than not is true thanks to being teamed up with a helpful supervisor. Thus, what most young academics know about publishing is only limited to what little they may have heard from helpful -- and often not so helpful -- mentors.
In this essay, I will uncover what I believe are five secrets to publishing success. These tips arise from my experiences in the fields of philosophy, political science, and law as an author, an editor, and founding editor of the Journal of Moral Philosophy. These experiences may be of particular use to readers working in the areas of humanities and social science, but I hope will also be relevant to readers in different disciplines. The advice below is general and there are always some exceptions, although what I note below is most often the case.
Secret #1: Finding your voice
The biggest key to publishing success is what I call ‘finding your voice.’ What does this mean? Well, think about essays you wrote for classroom assessment. These essays often focus on particular topics and literatures that are covered in specific lectures. When you write, you have a particular audience -- for example, your supervisor -- in mind.
Success in publishing requires a new mindset. The key to success is to find your voice and connecting with the public. When you write for a journal, your audience is unknown: They will be people with an interest in the general area, but they may lack the specific expertise you bring to a topic. You cannot assume they will have the same perspectives on the relevant literature and they will be unknown to you. Writing for such an audience is a different practice (and experience) from writing for classmates and for assessment.
Perhaps the best training ground is the realm of book reviews. Book reviews are easy to have accepted, first of all. Book reviews are typically handled by someone other than the editor, normally a ‘reviews editor’ or ‘book reviews editor.’ I strongly recommend graduate students and others e-mail review editors, stating their areas of specialization and level of study while asking to review a book for the journal. Review editors will almost always agree and when they do -- voila! -- you have a publication ‘forthcoming’ for your c.v. A star is born.
Book reviews are a great training ground because they force you to write in a new way. Reviews are typically between 500-1,000 words. A good review will discuss the main findings and key arguments, while also offering one or two criticisms; there is not room for much more. A good review is never entirely positive. These 500 words or so are practice in small bursts at writing for an academic audience -- your audience -- for the first time. They offer opportunities to develop your skills at communicating to others in your field whom you have not met. The practice lies in writing with a new mindset. You will not know who all the readers of your review will be. One trick is to ask fellow students or colleagues to read your review and provide some feedback. A second trick is to work with a journal’s book reviews editor. These persons are part of your general audience—and they are often very happy to help you develop your review so that it communicates best with the journal’s audience. This advice can truly be invaluable. Indeed, the better you can communicate to this audience, the better are the chances that your work will be published.
Thus, if you desire to begin publishing, then your first step is to get into the proper mindset. Your success will be built off your ability to communicate with a general audience in your area. If practice would help, then book reviews are an excellent place to start.
Secret #2: The importance of focus
In addition to finding your voice and writing from an appropriate point of view, there is a second important secret behind publishing success. This is focus. No matter how clearly you can write (itself a major bonus), you will never find publishing success without constraining your writing within a particular focus. A publishable article is about a clear problem and limits its entire discussion to addressing this problem. Arguments or discussions that address the main problem less than 100 percent should not be exiled to footnotes, but omitted altogether: If your article is about x, then don’t discuss y also. For example, if your article is about a misreading of a particular argument, then do not write about anything else -- such as other misreadings -- that is not directly relevant.
The importance of focus is a particular blessing. First, a clearly focused article is easy to read. The reader knows what is at issue, the steps taken to address it, and the results of your analysis. An article lacking focus also lacks clarity: Readers may be confused as to the main general problem motivating the article, why certain arguments or viewpoints are discussed, and the prospective benefits from your conclusions.
Secondly, a clearly focused article is easier to write. There is no need to give in-depth analyses of everything ever written. Instead, the goal is to say only as much as is needed about only as much as must be discussed to give proper attention to your problem. A sharp focus not only makes your work clearer and easy to follow, but also provides clear parameters to work within (and limitations on the size of the literature you must address).
The importance of focus is simple. A publishable article is an article that referees believe merits publication. It is easier for referees to take this view of your work if they can clearly identify the structure and arguments of your work than if your work is muddled. Referees may not always accept your work even if clear, but they are more likely to reject your work if unclear.
Secret #3: Rejection is the norm
Publishing might not be as highly prized as it is if it was easy for everybody. I believe following the secrets to publishing success outlined here may help make publishing more likely, but rejection is the norm. It is an old publisher’s tale that for every article accepted, about seven are rejected. This sounds about right. Most reputable journals have acceptance rates of 20 percent or less. The end result is that it would be foolish to become upset or too surprised from a rejection as the vast majority will be turned down.
Think positively about rejections as opportunities, rather than an opportunity lost. Often rejection letters will be combined with comments from the editor and referees about potential worries they had about your paper’s quality. These comments can be invaluable as they highlight what your readers have stumbled across. Even when referees offer comments that seem mistaken, view these in a new light: If mistaken, they are a call for greater clarification on relevant points to ensure future readers at another journal do not make the same mistake. Indeed, often nothing can be more helpful than solid criticism from referees. The more advice your paper gets from experts in the field on how it can be improved, the better.
Do not worry too much about rejections: Every author is rejected at one time or another. The trick is not to become demoralized.
Secret #4; Getting a book contract
Few things can boost a career more than a well regarded book. Books receive great attention: how often are there ever "author meets critics" sessions centered on an article? Given this importance, you might think that acquiring a book contract always far more difficult than getting an article accepted. This is not the case.
An excellent book contract is not just about ideas, but also its marketability. Let me first say a few words about this market. Academic publishers regularly remark to me that the difference between academic publishing and trade (or commercial) publishing is that academic publishers have far lower expectations of sales. This is because academic books are not often the stuff of New York Times bestseller lists and blockbuster movies. Sales for most academic books are 500 copies or less: only 5 percent or fewer books sell more than 1,000 copies. (On average, textbooks almost always sell best.)
Given the relatively small sales involved, a solid marketing plan is crucial to the success of a book proposal. Proposals should always spell out clearly how the proposed book offers something new and unique that does not yet appear in the market. Your idea may be “correct,” but if a publisher is unpersuaded that a book will at least break even or fare better, a proposal will often be dead in the water no matter its intellectual merit.
Many publishers have a space on their Web site with information on submitting proposals. As a rule, most U.S.-based publishers expect a full draft of the book to be in hand. Some U.K.-based publishers may accept a book proposal without a full draft prepared in hand, but they will always require sample chapters with the proposal. These proposals and sample chapters are then sent to readers to help advise the publisher on whether to accept your proposal. (You may often be asked for suggested names for these readers, especially where a publisher is very favorable.) If accepted, there will be an agreed date for completion and your draft will be reviewed, but normally only to suggest some helpful final revisions prior to publication.
There are at least three more items worth noting. First, authors rarely keep deadlines and this is rarely a genuine problem. Academic publishers tend to aim for a February release. This is seen as ideal as new catalogs are often produced at this time to help market new books for inclusion in the next academic year’s course syllabi. Taking an extra two or three years beyond the contracted deadline is fairly common, although taking five or more years may render void your contract.
Secondly, keep proposals brief, at between 6 to 10 pages. Always note full contact details, a brief biography, a few pages on chapter outlines with descriptions of chapter contents, and two further important items. First is the previously mentioned section on marketability, to clearly demonstrate that your project is unique, new, and timely. While your proposal should be specific enough to satisfy fellow specialists, these specialists do not vote on approving your proposal at publishers’ editorial meetings: ensure that a non-specialist can understand what issues are at stake and what contribution to knowledge you have in mind. Avoid writing about any books individually, but group them together where possible. For example, do not comment on each book separately when discussing the market, but talk about books that share a similar approach and discuss them together.
The final item worth noting is that journals normally stipulate that articles submitted to them may not be under consideration elsewhere. This is almost never true with publishers. Many publishers allow multiple submissions and this is often noted on their Web sites.
A well-spelled-out idea with a clear presentation of how it fits in the market will combine to create a powerful book proposal.
Secret #5: Publishing takes time
The fifth secret is that publishing takes time ... and probably more than you might think. More than once I have had an eager young scholar ask -- when submitting an article -- if the paper would appear in print six months from today. The answer is very clearly "no;" the peer review process itself may take this long in extremes.
Let us assume a paper is accepted today. Can we be fairly certain that it will appear in six months? Again, the answer is no. For journals, papers for an issue will be sent to a project manager who will then collaborate with a typesetter (who converts papers into the fonts of the journal) and copy editor (who notes possible grammar problems, incomplete references, unclear language, and the like). This will easily take one month. Papers are then sent to authors, often with a copyright assignment form. Authors must then respond to any queries from the copy editor and make final corrections. (They must also sign the copyright assignment form or the piece will go unpublished.) These corrections are then returned to the copy editor who conforms final corrections with the typesetter and the journal editor before the issue is sent to the printers. The process from the moment the editor submits the next issue to the publisher’s project manager to print and distribution is no less than four months and often five or six months long. Books may take even longer, given that there is more to copy edit and a need for an index to be composed after final proofs are created.
If this process takes about five or six months, then why did I say that we cannot be fairly certain a paper accepted today would be in print in about six months? The reason is that all reputable journals have a backlog. Once accepted, your article joins a queue. Authors should normally expect their papers will not be in print sooner than 12-15 months.
The importance of knowing this fact is that, if having a paper in print is important for you, you should expect this process to take more than a year. Do not expect journals to publish more quickly than this.
What to do today
I believe that these five secrets will bring about greater publishing success. There is wide variability between journals and publishers, but these secrets offer a good standard operating procedure to follow. If you have not published before, contact a reviews editor today: ask the editor if you can review for his/her journal and start on your path to improving your ability to communicate with a general audience.
Publishing is never easy, but it also is not mysterious. Knowledge of its “secrets” may help unlock doors and reveal new routes to success. Best of luck!
Lynn Worsham, editor of JAC, a quarterly journal of rhetoric, writing, culture, and politics, recently wrote a helpful essay offering suggestions to professors to help them navigate the peer review process and have articles published in their field. It was so helpful, in fact, that I passed it out to our students who are thinking about one day entering into the disciplinary conversation. However, what I found missing from it was what we professors would like to see from editors and peer reviewers. As we are expected to follow some written and unwritten rules, editors and readers should be reminded of a few ideas, as well.
First, most professors I talk to about this issue complain a good deal about the amount of time it takes for them to hear back from editors and readers. Many of us know that the problem often lies in the hands of the peer reviewers, as we have been readers at one time or another ourselves. However, when we are the readers, we seem to forget about the professors at the other end of the submission process, so it only bothers us when we are the ones doing the submitting. There are times, though, where editors and readers are simply not holding up their end of the bargain by returning a decision in a timely fashion. If professors wait over a year for a response, their progress toward tenure is severely affected, especially if they actually honor some journals’ requests for not submitting the same article to various journals simultaneously.
What can make this matter even worse is when professors have to keep track of which journals have responded to the articles they’ve submitted so that they can remind the editor of the submissions. I have encountered and heard stories of editors simply ignoring e-mail queries about where one’s manuscript is in the process. Time that we have to take to investigate where we stand in the process is time away from the research we should be doing to keep up with our discipline.
Next, editors should also follow the rules that they set for us writers. For those journals that still require hard copies of submissions, a self-addressed stamped envelope is almost always requested (and should be sent anyway, as most professors know, though some choose to ignore that knowledge). However, I have had several journals send rejection notices via e-mail and keep the stamped envelope. This practice is a minor inconvenience, of course, especially for those of us who do not have to pay our own postage. However, for graduate students and part-time faculty, those mailing expenses can add up, and every stamp that is not used simply adds to the cost of submission. Just as professors’ not numbering pages correctly or not quite following the correct formatting is a reflection of their inattention to details, editors’ not following their own rules reflects poorly on the journal and its staff.
The last and most important issue when it comes to editors’ and readers’ responses to professors, though, is the tone of the response. Those of us who are engaged in academic discourse know that readers will disagree with our arguments, and we know that editors will decide, for whatever reason, that our submissions should not be published in their journals. However, that does not give them license to insult either our work or us. In speaking to friends and colleagues, we all have horror stories about responses from editors and readers that are nothing more than ad hominem attacks or a dismissal of ideas because of the readers’ particular view of a work.
This type of response can be especially problematic for graduate students and professors just beginning in a field. When I was in graduate school, I submitted an essay on Edith Wharton to a journal. The essay was the best one I had ever written, as far as I could tell, and I was eager to begin participating in what I hoped would be my future discipline. I attended a college, though, where professors never discussed publishing, so I had no knowledge of it before I entered graduate school. Not surprisingly, the journal turned down the essay and rightly so, as it was certainly not the caliber of writing that editors should expect. However, the response has stuck with me for years, as the reader simply wrote, “This is a good essay, for an undergraduate.” When I tell that to most people, they are surprised that I stayed in the profession and that I ever submitted anything again.
As professors we are not afraid of a healthy debate about ideas, and we seek honest feedback on our work. However, insults, whether directed at those ideas or at us personally, have no place in the critical debate. We would never allow our students to write essays using some of the responses I have seen from readers, nor would we write those comments on our students’ papers. Instead, we would tell them to focus on the ideas of the critics, as we focus on the ideas our students present in their essays. We put aside our personal feelings about the students and try to truly engage the ideas in and of themselves.
What professors truly want is constructive feedback that will make them better writers, thinkers and researchers. If, especially in our early days, we have somehow overlooked a seminal work (or a work that a reader at least believes is seminal), or have faulty logic, then, please, tell us so, but do so in an effort to make us and, therefore, the discipline, stronger.
I have had several wonderful editors help me take an article that was not fully formed and change it into one that they and I could be proud of, simply by asking a few questions or making one or two truly helpful suggestions. One editor simply suggested looking at two or three sources; only one of them turned out to be helpful, but that one led me to turn a few-page opinion piece into a full-length article that went beyond a scope I could have imagined. When I submitted a book manuscript to a university press, I received a rejection letter that was a page and a half long, and, to be honest, it stung. However, after reflecting on the comments, I revised the manuscript, adding enough material to lengthen it by a third, then had another press pick it up.
We do not expect to be coddled, but we do expect to be treated decently and to have our efforts dealt with respectfully. In the same way that editors and readers wish to be treated as professionals who have guidelines that writers should follow, so, too, do professors wish to be treated as ones who are trying to make a contribution to our disciplines.
Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University. His forthcoming book, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels (Kennesaw State University Press), will be published this year.
I am sick of reading about Malcolm Gladwell’s hair.
Sure, The New Yorker writer has funny hair. It has been big. Very big. It is audacious hair, hair that dares you not to notice it; hair that has been mentioned in far too many reviews. Malcolm Gladwell’s hair is its own thing.
Which is only appropriate, since in his writing, Gladwell has always gone his own way. But he’s been doing it long enough, and so well, and has made so much money, that some folks feel it’s time to trim him down to size. That hair is now seen as uppity.
Gladwell is a mere journalist. He’s not shy, and like many children of academics, he is not intimidated by eggheads. He does none of his own primary research, and instead scours academic journals to find interesting ideas -- he collects experiments and experimenters. He is a translator and a synthesizer, and comes up with catchy, sprightly titled theories to explain what he has seen. Some have called him a parasite. He has called himself a parasite.
It seems to me there’s always been a bit of snarkiness attached to discussions of Gladwell’s work. This is often the case for books that have become commercially successful, which is something that seems particularly to stick in the collective academic craw. There is a weird hostility in the reviews of Gladwell’s books that is directed not at the big-haired guy himself who, like a puppy, nips at the heels of academics and then relishes the opportunity to render their work into fluid, transparent prose, but toward those many people who have made Gladwell famous: his readers. No one matches the caustic condescension of Richard Posner, who said, in a review of Gladwell’s Blink, that “it’s a book for people who don’t read books.”
The reviews of Outliers, Gladwell’s latest book, show that even a New Yorker writer can go too far. People are now attacking Malcolm Gladwell as a kind of brand. The critiques boil down to a few things, one of which is that he doesn’t take into account evidence that refutes his theories. In other words, he’s not doing careful scholarship. But we all know that even careful scholarship is a game of picking and choosing -- it just includes more footnotes acknowledging this. And Gladwell never pretends to be doing scholarship.
Gladwell is also accused of being too entertaining. He takes creaky academic work and breathes Frankensteinian life into it. He weaves anecdotes together, creating a tapestry that builds to an argument that seems convincing. This, some reviewers have claimed, is like perpetuating fraud on the (non-academic) reading public: because Gladwell makes it so much fun to follow him on his intellectual journey, he’s going to convince people of things that aren’t provably, academically true. He will lull the hoi polloi into thinking they’re reading something serious.
Which is, of course, the most common complaint about Gladwell: He’s not serious enough. He’s having too much fun playing with his ideas. And, really, you can’t be Serious when you’re raking in so much coin. Anyone who gets paid four million bucks for a book that mines academic work -- and not necessarily the stuff that is agreed to be Important -- is going to become a target. His speaking fees are beyond the budgets of most colleges. In this way, his career is now similar to that of David Sedaris, who can command an impressive audience and still be dissed by the literary folks. Everyone who’s anyone knows that you can’t sell a lot of books and be a serious writer. Just ask Jonathan Franzen. Or Toni Morrison.
I don’t see Gladwell as a social scientist-manqué, or a philosopher wannabe. Instead, I read him more like an essayist. I think of his books as well-written, research-packed, extended essays. Let me show you the evils of imperialism by telling you a story about the time in Burma when I was forced to shoot an elephant. Let’s look at this (bad) academic prose and think about the relationship between politics and the English language. But instead of using his own experiences, he builds on work done by others. He uses a wry, quirky approach and blithely ignores the received wisdom and pieties of academe. He doesn’t seek out the researcher who’s highly regarded within her field; he looks for people who are doing things he finds interesting.
Gladwell reminds me of the kind of student I knew in college, the nerd who takes weird and arcane courses and then rushes from the lecture hall excited about some idea the professor has mentioned in passing and goes straight to the library to pursue it himself. He stays up all night talking about it, and convincing you that even though you were in the same class, and heard the same reference, you have somehow missed something. Maybe not something big, but at least something really, really cool.
Perhaps I have more trust in readers than to believe that they can be so easily bought off by a good story. And I wish that academics, instead of pillorying Gladwell for being good at translating complicated ideas, would study the way he does it and apply some portion of his method to their own work: He makes mini trade books of monographs. Surely this is a lesson worth learning. He uses the narrative art of the magazine writer to animate ideas. He profiles theories the way Gay Talese or Joan Didion did celebrities.
The audacity Gladwell shows in his writing, connecting seemingly disparate things and working hard, yet with apparent effortlessness, to make the ideas engaging, gives me hope for the future of books. It makes me feel better to see folks buying Gladwell rather than the swimmer Michael Phelps’s memoir or vampire novels -- not that there’s anything wrong with that. Yet this same audacity is what gets Gladwell into hot water with academics. He’s not supposed to do this.
Unless you are an aged physicist, you don’t really get to write books that “purport to explain the world.” You can, of course, try to explicate tiny portions of it. Science writers like James Gleick and Jonathan Weiner can go a lot further than most scientists in terms of making arcane principles understandable to the Joe the Plumbers of the reading world and no one gets bent of out shape. Perhaps it’s because of the assumption that scientists, with a few notable (often British) exceptions, are not supposed to be able to write books that normal people can read. Social scientists and historians are, however, expected to be able to know what is interesting and important about their work and present it to the public. Brand name thinkers like Susan Sontag and Martha Nussbaum can take on big ideas. But these people are experts; journalists shouldn’t try this at home.
What I love about Gladwell is that his writing is like his hair. You can see it as arrogant or scary (he writes about being stopped more frequently by cops when he had a big afro), or you can see it as playful and audacious. This is why, of course, so many reviews mention it; he has the right hair for his work.
One final, dour complaint about Gladwell has to do with his relentless cheeriness. He thinks that people are basically good, though he understands that sometimes circumstances aren’t. I can’t abide high-brow literary novelists who trash fiction that “cops out” with a happy ending. Maybe I’m hopelessly low-brow: I still love Jane Austen and Shakespeare’s comedies. The academic response to most things is generally: it’s more complicated than that. And sure, much of the time it is. But if something’s artfully crafted, I’m willing to cut the author some slack. I don’t ever expect to be thoroughly persuaded of anything; I’m characterologically skeptical and like to do the thinking on my own. Gladwell’s books invite me into a conversation. I think that’s part of the job of a good book.
For me, reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books is like watching Frank Capra movies. Just because they make you feel good and keep you entertained doesn’t mean that they’re not doing valuable work or tackling hard and real issues and ideas. Sure, someone else could have handled it differently. George Bailey might have finally committed suicide; the bank in Bedford Falls could have asked for a government bailout. But right now, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to read books that are a little more hopeful. And yes, audacious.
Rachel Toor teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. She writes a monthly column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and her most recent book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running. Her Web site is www.racheltoor.com.
Among the hundreds of new regulations in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) passed by Congress in August 2008 are new mandates that require colleges -- and, more specifically, college owned or operated bookstores -- to publish the ISBN numbers and retail prices for textbooks, other trade titles, and related course materials that faculty recommend and students buy for classes. The new HEOA mandates reflect, in part, Congressional concern, echoed in many state legislatures in recent years, about the rising cost of textbooks. The ISBN mandate becomes operational in July 2010.
No question that the ISBN mandate will fuel changes already under way that affect how and where college students buy textbooks. Student Monitor’s fall 2008 survey of full-time undergraduates reveals that 16 percent of undergraduates “bought most of their textbooks online,” up from 12 percent in fall 2007. Additionally, Student Monitor reports that “the share of students who purchase most of their textbooks from their on-campus bookstore continues to trend down: fewer than six in ten students (57 percent) purchased most of their textbooks at their on campus book store,” compared to 64 percent in fall 2006 and down from 72 percent in fall 2005.
College bookstores are (for-profit) service organizations: Prior to the emergence of Internet book sellers just over a decade ago, college students were largely a captive market for the (often one) campus store, usually owned and operated by the college or university (or operated under contract on behalf of the college by an agent such as Barnes & Noble or the Follett Higher Education Group). The money saving options were not where to buy (which store) but what to buy (new or used). Until recently, for most students at most institutions, the primary source for new or used books and related course materials was the “college” store.
Enter the Internet. As with other products and services, Internet merchants provide price and service competition for local providers, in this case college bookstores. The emergence of Internet book merchants -- initially Amazon, followed by Web-based resellers specifically targeting college students such as BigWords, CampusBooks, TextBooks, and others -- offered students new options: the Internet brought a new transparency to the prices of both new and used textbooks. Case in point: in fall 2008 my daughter, a UCLA student, purchased a new accounting book from Amazon for $135 that the ASUCLA store was selling for $176.
There’s little argument that the HEOA mandate to publish ISBNs and retail prices brings a new transparency to the textbook market. It facilitates the efforts of students to shop for books based on price. Concurrently, the ISBN mandate poses new challenges for colleges, college stores, and the firms that operate college stores (and the store Web sites) under contract.
Ahead of the regulations due later this year from the Education Department, campus administrators, college store directors, and, yes, even campus lawyers are parsing the HEOA legislation (Section 133) and also reviewing bookstore operations, Web sites, and current contracts to assess compliance issues. For example, as reported by Theresa Rowe, the CIO at Michigan's Oakland University in a recent Educause listserv post, the campus counsel at Oakland recently rejected an ISBN–link-system solution incorporated into the campus portal provided by Barnes and Noble, the contract operator of the campus store for Oakland.
Campus counsel at Oakland ruled that the B&N link-solution is "not legally acceptable [under HEOA] given that [the university’s] contract with Barnes and Noble does not obligate [B&N to provide the ISBN linking service]; hence, if [B&N] fail[s] to comply with the statute Oakland would have no one to point the proverbial finger at.… if we did, [simply] saying that B&N screwed up is not a good defense to a claim that [the university] failed to comply with federal law."
No doubt lawyers at other institutions may have different perspectives on the linking solutions provided by store operators. Still, it is a safe bet that these contracts will be carefully reviewed -- and many will be revised -- following the release of the regulations governing the ISBN mandate later this year.
While the new transparency that accompanies the publication of ISBNs may be good for Internet book sellers, it will also be a catalyst for new services that target college students and also colleges and universities.
For example, Apple’s student-oriented iPhone ad broadcast during the NCAA men's basketball championship game on April 6 highlighted SnapTell, an iPhone app that supports “photo commerce:” take a picture of a book (including college textbooks) and the SnapTell app will link you to multiple Web sites that sell the book. On the institutional side, Verba Software, a Cambridge, Mass., firm launched by some recent Harvard grads, offers an application that links course lists to IBSNs and then searches the Web for the best prices for new and used textbooks and course tomes.
Internet book resellers that target college students and the textbook market proclaim that they save students money. (Hey, Amazon saved me and my daughter $40 last fall!) So we can expect the ISBN mandate to foster more competition between bricks and clicks -- the campus store on (or near the quad) vs. the on-screen Internet reseller. The ISBN mandate will accelerate the demise of a once captive market: college students buying books and course materials at the local college bookstore.
Many will applaud the increased competition because students will save bucks on books. Still others who lament the decline of “community bookstores” to chain stores, big box stores, and Internet booksellers will also lament what may be the demise of campus stores, as they continue to lose the annuity-like revenue stream from textbooks and course materials that has been essential to their operations.
But let’s also acknowledge that the HEOA mandate to publish ISBNs will not resolve the recurring complaints about (and some might add structural problems affecting) the suggestedretailprice of textbooks and course materials -- and by extension the wholesale price of course materials.
Here other factors are at play that include accelerated updates to stem the used book market, the costs of developing ancillary materials for faculty and maintaining web sites for students and professors, routine and appropriate development and production costs, modest author royalties and, yes even a little profit. Regardless of what I paid for my daughter’s accounting textbook last fall, these factors and others all affected the wholesale price that both Amazon and the UCLA store paid for the book assigned for my daughter’s accounting class. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)
Kenneth C. Green
Kenneth C. Green is the founding director of the Campus Computing Project. Disclosure: Amazon, Apple, Follett Higher Education Group, and Verba Software are corporate sponsors of the project.
Technology, encouraging mass production and homogeneity, could appear a natural enemy to those who still celebrate regional idiosyncrasies. And the online bookstore, ideal for marketing e-books to a global audience, might seem to portend short shrift for regionally themed books that are more suited to a smaller, more local market.