Public Access

University presses now have a chance for their books to reach larger audiences. Scott McLemee wonders when they'll start taking it....

July 5, 2006

The following is based on my talk at the session on "Publicity in the Digital Age” at last month’s conference of the Association of American University Presses. For a report on the meeting itself, please check here.

For someone whose best waking hours are devoted to the printed page, it can be difficult to think of digital media as anything but a distraction, at best -- if not, in fact, a violation of the proper use of the eyeballs and brain. People who have made careers in print and ink often have a vested interest in thinking this way. The very word "blog" seems to elicit an almost Pavlovian reaction in editors, writers, and academics over a certain age –- not drooling in hunger, but snarling in  self-defense.

I share some of this conditioning, having spent the past two decades contributing reviews and essays to various magazines and newspapers. Of late, however, I've learned to move between what Marshall McLuhan called "the Gutenberg galaxy" (the cultural universe created by movable type) and "the broadband flatland" (as we might dub the uncharted frontier landscape of digital media).

Over the past 18 months, I've published about 200,000 words that have appeared strictly online, while also contributing to print publications. It feels as if the difference between them means less and less.

Yet with regard to making university-press books known to the public, it appears that the old gap remains deep and wide. On the one hand, there may now be more opportunities than ever to connect up readers with the books that will interest them. (That includes not just new titles, but books from the backlist.)

So much for the good news. The bad news is that, for the most part, it isn’t happening.

There are important exceptions. Colleen Lanick, who handles publicity for MIT Press, recently had an informative and encouraging article in the AAUP newsletter discussing how some university presses have set up blogs to promote their titles.

But my strong impression -- confirmed by a series of interviews in early June -- is that very few people at university presses have made the transition to full engagement with the developing digital public sphere.

Consider something I learned while talking to a couple of people who run fairly high-visibility venues in the world of what we might call "general interest academic blogs." One is Ralph Luker, the founder of Cliopatria -- a group blog devoted to history, which has been online since 2003. Cliopatria recently announced that it has  been visited by 400,000 distinct readers, so far.

The other person was Alfredo Perez, profiled in my column last year. His site Political Theory Daily Review is not, strictly speaking, a blog. It provides a running digest of scholarly papers and serious journalism covering a variety of fields of the humanities and social sciences. The site gets around 2,000 visitors a day, though that probably understates its influence. "Aggregator" sites like PTDR have a way of quietly affecting what gets noticed and discussed elsewhere online.

I asked Ralph and Alfredo how often they receive books from university presses "over the transom" -- that is, strictly on the publisher's initiative, in hopes that their sites would help make it known. As a reviewer, I get several books that way each week, usually in a pre-publication editions that costs the publisher relatively little to produce.

My guess had been that Ralph and Alfredo examined at least a few forthcoming books this way each month. It only stood to reason.  but it made sense to ask.

Both of them replied that it had happened just three or four times -- in as many years. They also confirmed what several other people have indicated in conversation: A few academic presses are willing to send a review copy to a blogger who asks for it. But most won’t. Often, publicists just ignore the request entirely.

That might sound like someone keeping an eye on the bottom line -- though it certainly doesn’t cost much to send a courteous e-mail message in reply to a query. In any case, it is a matter of being penny wise but pound foolish.

That realization hit home while interviewing Scott Eric Kaufman, a graduate student in English at the University of California at Irvine. He participates in a group blog on literary studies called The Valve and he also has a personal blog.

The Valve -- which gets around 10,000 visitors a day – has established a fairly amicable modus vivendi with Columbia University Press, which has provided examination copies of several recent titles to Valve members who wanted to devote symposia to the books. Kaufman told me it was not a matter of anyone at the blog having especially cozy relations with the anyone at press. It's as simple as the fact that the publicity department at Columbia will actually answer their requests.

Kaufman also told me about his experience in writing an essay on a recent novel. He provided a link to the Amazon page for it. The bookseller gave Kaufmann a small credit for each copy purchased by someone following his link. He estimates that he sold about 75 copies of the book.

Now, for a trade press (able to issue large print runs and to benefit from economies of scale), selling 75 copies of a given title in a few days would be a pleasant enough development. But it would hardly make or break anyone’s budget.

By contrast, scholarly publishers usually produce much smaller editions, even in paperback. The impact of even modestly increased sales would be much larger.

Providing bloggers with finished hardbacks could prove an expensive proposition, of course. But the prepublication galleys -- which I sometimes get in spiral binding, like a course packet -- would often be just as serviceable.

It would also help if more publishers were inclined to make extracts from their new books available online. For his daily roundup at Political Theory Daily Review, Alfredo Perez is always on the lookout for chapters of scholarly books to which he can link. "Very few presses do it, as far I can tell," he told me.

He also finds that signing up for e-mail notifications of new books from university presses rarely pays off: "They don't send out updates very often," he says, "and sometimes they don't do it at all." Academic publishers are now more likely to put their catalogs up online than a few years ago. But most seem not to have made the additional commitment of resources necessary to get the word out about their books.

Meanwhile, some commercial houses are starting to treat bloggers as just another part of the mass media. Wendi Kaufmann, who covers literary happenings around Washington at her blog The Happy Booker,  hears from trade presses regularly. Other literary bloggers have told me the same thing, as have some academic bloggers.

At least one internationally known publisher considers it worthwhile to send out dozens of its titles to The Happy Booker, in hopes that she'll give the spotlight to at least one – the same treatment given to the reviews editor for a large newspaper. "I get a box of books from Penguin every two weeks," she told me.

For any publisher or author trying to get some traction in this landscape, the situation can be confusing. It might be helpful to frame things in terms of what I’ve come to call "the price paradox." In short, the cost of making books known in the digital public sphere is both very small and incredibly intensive.

On the one hand, the monetary outlay involved in making content available online is relatively low. The cost of starting a blog, for example, is quite small -– in some cases approaching zero. And the potential audience is very large.

On the other hand, the expense of actually reaching that audience cannot be calculated in terms of simple bookkeeping. It involves significant investments of cultural capital. Time must be spent learning about the existing array of blogs, online journals, podcasts, etc.

As Richard A. Lanham indicates in his recent book The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information (University of Chicago Press), the most valuable thing in an "information economy" is not information, which is abundant. Rather, it is attention. Attention is a scarce resource: the supply is limited and difficult to renew. That, in turn, makes it important to be able to tap whatever pools of attention already exist. And doing so effectively requires some exploration.

Perhaps I should quit with the implicit metaphor here before this discussion turns into one big analogy to the film Syriana.... Instead, it's time to consider the practical implications. What does all of this mean to someone at a university press who is trying to get out word about a new title?

For one thing, the emerging situation requires doing some research to find out if a given blog or Web publication is likely to take an interest in the book. And the research involved might not be a one-time thing. Having a more or less standard list of journals to send review copies in any given field was appropriate at one point. But somewhat more flexibility is necessary now.

At the very least, it is worthwhile to spend some time learning to use blog search engines -- and also to get a feel for how various sites link up to one another. Google Blog Search is particularly helpful for making an initial survey of which blogs might be relevant to a specific topic. Technorati indicates how many links a given blog has received from other sites. It also lets you examine and follow those links -- perhaps the quickest way to learn how the conversational terrain is structured.

And when a blogger asks for a review copy, these tools would help a publicist reach an informed decision about whether sending one is a good use of resources.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to learning to move between the print and the digital domains comes from a certain unstated but powerful assumption. It could be called the ham-radio hypothesis. (Having indavertantly offended the Esperanto people a while back, I want to make clear to any ham-radio enthusiasts that the following is not meant as an insult.)

In short, there is still a tendency to think of bloggers, podcasters, etc. as some distinct group that operates apart from the worlds of academia, publishing, or offline culture. To treat them, in effect, as ham-radio operators -- people who possess a certain technical knowhow, and who talk mainly to each other.

The reality is very different. The relationship between online communities and other kinds of social or professional networks is a complicated topic. Scholarly careers will be made exploring this matter.

But it is fair to say that the ability to produce and distribute content online is less and less like being able to talk on shortwave frequencies -- and more and more like the skills involved in driving, or reading a map. You can get along without these skills, but that leaves you dependent on the people who do possess them.

UPDATE. A reader asks if there is a central index of academic blogs. There is no completely comprehensive list, but one valuable resource is the directory provided by Crooked Timber.


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.


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