A Dogged Pursuit

Scholarly books can be a strain on the eyes and the pocketbook alike. Scott McLemee wonders if academic presses have found an answer in blogging....

September 29, 2005

On Thursday, by appointment, this column makes its rendezvous with the most recent output of the book trade, with university press offerings a speciality -- even though many catalogues crossing my desk seem divested of many scholarly titles at all. More and more of them seem filled instead with listings for regional cookbooks, detective novels, and photographic albums devoted to the flowers visible from the bicycle trails of state parks, suitable for purchase in the gift shop.

Is this an exaggeration? No, friends, it is not. Serious books do, of course, appear; right now, I am reading several at one go, each of them at least 500 pages long. (No doubt, as Kant said, it was too much work to write a short one.) But even these ponderous tomes are sometimes manifestly worse for wear -- victims of the (rolling and interminable) crisis in academic publishing.

One book from last year is sinking ever-lower in my must-read pile simply because there has not been time to set up an appointment with my oculist: It was set in type just slightly larger than that used to list the side-effects of a new drug. The editor of the volume in question says he was startled when he first saw it. And the readers, if any, feel his pain -- a sharp throbbing sensation, after about 20 minutes.

Easier on the eyes, but no less appalling, are the latest reports from the Library and Information Statistics Unit at Loughborough University, in the UK. Every six months, LISU crunches the numbers regarding British and American academic book prices. Since 1987, the statisticians have been compiling and analyzing the prices of books in 64 subject categories that are "closely relevant to acquisitions librarians’ needs." Categories include law, engineering, medicine (both human and veterinary), the various arts, and several branches each of the humanities and the social sciences.

Thanks to LISU's analysis of how prices are varying, librarians in charge of research collections have some sense of how to plan their budgets. Claire Creaser, the deputy director and senior statistician for LISU, has kindly provided me with the latest reports, covering the first six months of this year. (A more extensive presentation of the material is available for sale in CD-ROM format, including masses of data in Excel spreadsheets, if that sort of thing does not terrify you.)

First, the bad news: During 2004 to 2005, the overall average price for an academic book from an American publisher has gone up 2.2 percent compared to the previous year. "This compares to a slight fall in prices for UK books over the same period," as LISU notes, "and continues the recent trend for prices to rise rather more rapidly in the US than the UK." Indeed, the report focusing on British prices notes that they have gone down 4.8 percent over the past five years. A comparison with the comparable table for American academic titles shows  prices increasing by 35 percent since 1999-2000.

Then, the rest of the bad news: "There is no consistency or pattern in the half-yearly price changes [for US titles] over recent years, which can only make budgets more difficult for librarians." Prices in a few areas have gone down. (The 761 philosophy titles from American presses between January and June were 2 percent cheaper than the previous lot.) But the vast majority of subject categories have shown an increase in price. A graph covering the past two decades shows that, sometime around mid-1996, the average cost of academic books began to shoot ahead of the retail price index. The gap between them is now wider than at any point in LISU’s record.

The figures are, in short, what you’d figure: Not only are scholarly books getting more expensive, but most of them are growing more expensive faster than other commodities. I asked Claire Creaser if her associates had tried to extrapolate from their (by now, enormous) data set. She declined, saying, "We do not analyze trends in any detail, and do not make forecasts." But she did point to a summary of budget trends for UK libraries. Up to a third of the budget for a British academic library may come from US publishers -- a reminder that the increasing price of our scholarly exports does have a global effect.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Intellectual Affairs faces the continuing balancing act of determining how to budget the scarcest of resources -- namely, reading time. It is a common enough problem, of course. But for a journalist, there is the added complication known as the university press publicist -- though, come to think of it, scholars encounter them as well, usually while roaming the exhibit hall at a convention.

Now, in my line of work, eavesdropping on such conversations sometimes actually counts as research. (The discussion may possess anthropological significance.) But actually having a face-to-face with a university press publicist is very often a maddening thing.

A handful of them are genuine book people. They are in love with a few of the new titles, reasonably well informed about the rest, and smart enough to have established sound lines of communication with the acquisitions editors – so that, while talking to them, you just might find out what the press’s big titles for 2008 will be. Such publicists are rare.

As for the rest.... If you ask what the most important, interesting, or otherwise eyestrain-worthy things their press has to offer, they will pull out the catalog and – please understand that I am not making this up -- begin to read it aloud to you, sometimes in a manner suggesting that this is the first time they have had occasion to pay so much attention to it.

The tedium of it for everyone is heartbreaking. The molars grind. The mind wanders. Mine, actually, finds itself trapped in an audiovisual center where someone is screening a video of Leonid Brezhnev giving a four-hour speech on the need to increase oatmeal production in 1974. Was the man happy? Was his audience? And just how many more pages are there in this catalog, anyway?

Isn't that a bit harsh? Aren't publicists rather low on the chain of command, the service workers of the publishing world? Yes, and yes, respectively. But the scene just described is (for any satirical embellishment) a familiar one, and it does no good for anybody -- not for the press, not for its authors, and certainly not for the larger public.

Nor are there grounds for thinking the arrangement will correct itself. I don't intend to be mean-spirited about it -- but perhaps a frank expression of irritation and dismay would be better than pretending that the lackadaisical status quo ante has been anything but ridiculous.

It might be as simple as making sure that editors spend more time with publicists, and encourage them to read some of the annual output. For that matter, people new to the publicist's trade could be encouraged to talk with the authors. My sense is that really good publicists do all of this anyway, just for the pleasure of it. But that doesn't mean the skills and habits can't be taught. It would be to everyone's advantage if they were.

There must be a better way. And one possibility that has emerged comes to my attention via Colleen Lanick, the publicity manager for MIT Press, who is one of the good ones. Earlier this week, she pointed out the new MIT PressLog and a similar blog run by Oxford University Press.

To find out if any other academic publishers had climbed aboard this particular bandwagon, I contacted Brenda McLaughlin, the communications manager for the Association of American University Presses. She mentioned the one maintained by Cork University Press, in Ireland. But otherwise, Oxford and MIT seem to be in the vanguard -- though McLaughlin says that AAUP itself now has a restricted-access blog for its members under development.

An interesting development, then – if only for the timing, given the recent wave of anguish over the danger that a reputation for blogging might pose to an academic on the job market. (The rather hysterical tone prevailing in some quarters calls to mind what sociologists call "moral panic." But the iron cage of bureaucracy is, after all, a strange thing: Today, there are timid souls who worry that a prospective colleague's blog might be a record of torrid threesomes indulged while plotting to assassinate the dean. Tomorrow they will be retired, or laughed off campus -- whereupon blogging might well become mandatory, rather than forbidden. Stranger things do happen.

With the shrinking space for coverage of books in the mainstream media, it’s understandable that academic presses might seize on the blog form as a venue to push their product. "We've been tracking the blog activities of our authors and various postings about our books for some time," Colleen Lanick of MIT told me. "So we thought it might be an interesting experiment to try this out in some form, ourselves....We are encouraging our authors to write original pieces for the log about how their work relates to current events."

Sanford Thatcher, the director of Penn State University Press, sounds a lot more skeptical of the idea of blogs run by academic publishers. Joining us on the telephone during the conference call was Tony Sanfillipo, the marketing and sales director for the PSU Press  -- who, like Thatcher, is lately in the midst of dealing with the Google Print Libraries Project.  They aren’t technophobes, but that doesn’t make them blog boosters.

"When people think of blogging," said Thatcher, "they think for the most part of political blogs, of argument. The Oxford and MIT blogs look very, very commercial. Wrigley Spearmint Gum has its own blog, if I remember correctly, but I’m just not sure it makes commercial sense." He suggests that the Books for Understanding project, sponsored by the AAUP, might be a better example of how academic publishers can make the public aware of their titles. The project offers bibliographies of university-press titles that are relevant to current events.

"The blog entries [for MIT and Oxford] don’t look that different from catalog copy to me," said Sanfillipo. "They don’t really engage the reader the way a blog does. You don’t see any trackbacks or comments for the entries, or not at least not many."

A fair point, though the sites are new and very much under development. Brenna McLaughlin from the Association of American University Presses says that the phenomenon is in its infancy. "It’s having its time," she said. "We’re just starting to realize the need to reimagine traditional publicity and communications work. That means you have to face the staffing issue: How much time do people have for this at a small press? But I do believe it will become more common."

With any luck, the chance to "reimagine traditional publicity and communications work" will include a careful evaluation of the tendency to read university press catalog copy out loud to functionally literate adults. (If so, I’m all for it.) Not that audio doesn’t have its place. Colleen Lanick mentions that MIT Press is now "working on developing a podcasting feature for the log where we can conduct interviews with authors and they can read segments of their books."

For a moment, you can envision a world in which more people become interested in academic press titles – so they begin to sell better, and maybe the prices go down a bit, since the publishers don’t have so many copies returned from Border’s.... And then comes news of a study in England showing that "taxi drivers, pub landlords and hairdressers -- often seen as barometers of popular trends -- found that nearly 90 percent had no idea what a podcast is and more than 70 percent had never heard of blogging." When asked about the latter term, many people thought the questioner was referring to “dogging” instead.

“Dogging,” as the Reuters news agency explains, “is the phenomenon of watching couples have sex in semi-secluded places such as out-of-town car parks. News of such events are often spread on Web sites or by using mobile phone text messages.”

Moral panic or no, you probably won’t get hired if the faculty search committee thinks you are dogging.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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