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What a Press Can Add in the Age of DIY Publishing

What follows is a rough transcript of the talk I gave this past weekend at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses. The panel was organized and chaired by Eric Zinner, Assistant Director and Editor-In-Chief at New York University Press, and the presentations before mine were by Monica McCormick, Program Officer for Digital Scholarly Publishing at New York University Press, and Shana Kimball, Co-Director of the Scholarly Publishing Office at University of Michigan Libraries. Their presentations had focused on library-press collaborations, and Monica in particular had mentioned the difficulty she had with hearing press representatives refer to what they do (in contrast to what libraries do) as “real” publishing, pointing out the equal realness of library-based publishing initiatives. I began by connecting my remarks to that comment, saying that authors themselves are producing a number of online publishing ventures that are similarly real, and that need to be treated as such if they’re going to be adequately understood.


I come to the question about digital publishing that we’re discussing today from the perspective of an author, rather than a publisher, which is to say that your mileage as editors and publishers will no doubt vary. But I want to begin by being clear we are in the age of DIY publishing, even in scholarly circles. More and more journals are being founded in platforms like Open Journal Systems, which allow their scholarly editors to do the work they have done all along, while making the results of that work freely and openly available to the scholarly community and the broader world beyond. And more and more scholars are developing online presences via platforms like blogs that allow them to reach and interact with an audience more quickly, more openly, and more directly, without the intermediary of the press.

All of this is made possible by the development of the read/write web, the relationship between dynamic code and relational databases that has given rise to the host of new self-publishing and user-generated content platforms that have sprung up over the last ten years. This technological transformation has a potential not unlike that which the word processor brought to scholarship. Prior to the word processor, typing was largely an outsourced form of labor; scholars very often passed on their typing, sometimes to the secretarial pool, sometimes to their wives. But with the advent of the word processor, typing became part of the process of writing itself, such that the vast majority of scholars now manage their own typing. Similarly, I’d suggest, the read/write web and the platforms it has enabled are making it increasingly likely that publishing will become an integrated part of the process of scholarly work as well.

These new mechanisms of DIY publishing have utterly transformed the direction of my own work as a scholar. I founded my blog, the original “Planned Obsolescence,” in 2002, just after I finished the submission draft of my first book; it was an exercise in immediate gratification as, having spent three years revising my dissertation into a book, I found myself itching to get some ideas into circulation, to get some feedback and response, and I figured it would be at least a year and a half or so before the book saw an audience.

Needless to say, my sense of the publishing timeline was extremely naive, and even more so at that particular moment in time than it would have been otherwise. I’d finished the manuscript right after the dot-com bubble burst, and because of the financial situation many presses were then facing, it took me two and a half years for me to find a press willing to take the book on. In the interim, the manuscript was repeatedly declined on financial grounds, including once after having gone to readers, resulting in positive readers’ reports, and spending a total of ten months in that press’s hands.

The book did finally come out in 2006, and did quite well, as far as it goes; the reviews of it have been good overall, it won a CHOICE award, and its sales figures have been respectable, but it didn’t exactly skyrocket to public attention. Instead, all of my first citations, lecture invitations, and other forms of public recognition stemmed from work I was doing on or related to the blog. In fact, though I don’t have empirical data to support this, I suspect that if you asked around, I’d almost certainly be far more associated with my DIY work online than with my officially peer-reviewed, press-published work.

So in an age in which more and more authors can do it themselves, the question becomes how the role of the university press needs to change in response. What, in other words, does a press add in the age of DIY publishing, and how might reimagining the relationships between presses and scholars help foster a dynamic new development in scholarly communication?

Traditionally, one of the key services that university presses have pointed out that they provide has been “authorization.” I mean that term to highlight the intimate relationship that has been crafted between authorship and authority: while any academic researcher could be considered a scholar, only after having her work vetted and validated by a press or similar body could she be considered, or more to the point will she be treated, as an author. Presses have thus claimed as among their most important functions the imprimatur they thus convey, though a pre-publication mechanism for separating wheat from chaff, and for (if you’ll forgive my pushing this metaphor too far) refining that wheat into flour.

The separation-of-wheat-from-chaff end of authorization, I want to argue, is a claim that you might want to distance yourselves from in the age of the read/write web — which is not necessarily to say that you won’t be doing it, but that it’s not your best claim for significance going forward.

Why? First of all, my fellow academics’ over-reliance on presses’ work as arbiters and creators of quality has allowed us, as lots of people including Lindsay Waters have argued, to outsource a significant percentage of the labor involved in exercising judgment over the work of our colleagues in promotion and tenure reviews to you. This situation isn’t good for you, as you can’t afford to be responsible for our tenure decisions — and I mean that in a most literal sense: you simply cannot afford, under the current technical and administrative regimes within which you operate, to publish everything that’s of publishable quality. And in fact the pressure on scholars in book-oriented fields to obtain that university press imprimatur in order to get tenure is covering your desks with a lot of pages of manuscripts that often shouldn’t be books at all.

So the claim of authorization as the locus of your value to the academy isn’t good for either of us, as our dependence on your judgment has created what Diane Harley yesterday referred to as an “arms race” in the academy, as now everybody has to have a book in order to get tenure. By instituting such a concrete metric of scholarly accomplishment — either you have a book or you don’t; either it came out from a prestigious university press or it didn’t — we get to avoid the altogether uncomfortable business of exercising judgment over the work of our colleagues in promotion and tenure reviews, and in so doing to avoid actually reading and engaging with one another’s work. Instead, we defer to the neutrality of the decisions you have made about a text, as disinterested arbiters of quality.

In the process, however, we fail, as Steve Ramsay recently pointed out, to recognize that while your publication decisions do of course include scholarly assessments of “quality,” they’re also in significant portion driven by the market. A book manuscript may in fact be the most brilliant, most important thing ever written about the Icelandic epic, but if you can’t count on selling more than 150 copies of it, how many of you would really take it on? And should that scholar be denied tenure because her work wasn’t marketable?

So when I say that you should consider distancing yourselves from claims that one of your primary functions is the “authorization” of scholarship, I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t look for the best quality work, but I do mean to say that claims that the university press imprimatur is the marker of scholarly authority is hurting the very scholarly work you’re seeking to promote, by encouraging scholars to mistake market-driven decisions for evidence of importance.

And, at least among a certain subset of younger scholars, as the impact of the digital humanities spreads, it’s making the press seem irrelevant, as in the age of DIY, author-centric publishing, a greater and greater percentage of scholarly communication is simply going around you. Scholars are posting their work online, and though we can probably count on one hand the number of scholars who have been granted tenure or promoted primarily based on their blogs, there are a few, and there will be more. Scholars are also creating new kinds of online publishing networks, like my own MediaCommons, and, gradually, more scholars are rejecting publication venues that don’t include open access options. And more and more of us are working on creating means of post-publication review and assessment for those openly published forms of scholarship. In this sense, Diane Harley’s point yesterday was almost right: we don’t yet have fully accepted modes of doing open peer review online, but we are in the process of developing a host of ways to filter the hyperabundance of writing out there, through the use of what Michael Jensen has called the new metrics of scholarly authority. These newer mechanisms will help us determine not whether something ought to be published but, having been published, what kind of impact it has had on the field. That impact, after all, is the thing that promotion and tenure reviews should really be looking at — not whether Cambridge or Oxford or Harvard or MIT thought a book was good enough, or rather thought that it would sell enough copies, to publish it, but whether it’s turned out to be important in the field.

So, if the value added of the press in an age in which scholars are increasingly publishing by and for themselves is no longer bound up in the conferral of “distinction,” in the separation of wheat from chaff, where does it lie? First of all, the refining of wheat into flour is still a necessary aspect of the press’s work, but my feeling is that this work needs to begin much earlier in the process, that the role of the editor needs to move back away from the acquisitions editor model and toward the development editor mode, finding scholars who are doing interesting work out there on their own and helping them shape it for your particular audience. This could function as a new mode of collaborating with scholars as they do their own publishing. What that looks like as a business model, of course, is a puzzle, but one could imagine that a forward-thinking university, one that understands that publishing the work of its faculty is part of its core mission, would be willing to commit funding to support editors who do this kind of developmental work.

Second, in that collaboration with authors, university publishers will need to work with libraries to ensure that the data standards and platforms used in DIY online projects are appropriate, sustainable, and preservable.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is dissemination, the aspect of publishing that presses have most excelled at, far beyond what scholars could do on their own and vastly different from the ways that libraries operate. Presses have well-established distribution channels through scholarly societies and professional organizations, through libraries, and so forth. But dissemination in the DIY age means something different. If, as Bob Stein suggested yesterday, in the new model of publishing online, a book is a place in which readers and writers interact, it’s not that the text needs to get to readers, but rather that readers need to be brought to it. In an era in which review will increasingly take place post- rather than pre-publication — stuff will just get out there, and then will need to be assessed in terms of impact — one of the key roles of the press will be gathering readers and reviewers within a text, facilitating discussion of that text and, through that discussion, not at all incidentally, finding more scholars with whom to collaborate.

This is very much what we’re trying to do at MediaCommons: creating a network of scholars writing and discussing their work with one another in ways that can help foster collaboration and lead to more new work. MediaCommons is a digital scholarly network focused on the field of media studies; we’re publishing a range of projects ranging in length from the blog post through the journal article to the monograph, all of it open. We’re also experimenting with new modes of open review through projects like my own monograph, Planned Obsolescence, and through a recently completed experiment with Shakespeare Quarterly, which conducted an open review of the articles that will be appearing in its special issue on “Shakespeare and New Media” — a review, incidentally, that the editorial board considers so successful that they’re discussing ways to use similar processes in the future.

So we’re having some significant success with MediaCommons, but the challenges we’ve faced lie in the areas I’ve mentioned: shepherding projects through from inception to review; building communities to discuss those projects; turning the self-interest of DIY publishing into an interest in the community of scholars in the field; and assessing the impact that those projects are having on the field with which they’re interacting. We’ve thus built partnerships with the NYU Libraries’ Digital Library Technology Services group, who are working with us in developing the systems through which this community can interact and through which the texts we publish will be preserved. We’ve also partnered with NYU Press in seeking projects to develop together, and in thinking about how to forge the relationship between the “Y” of DIY, the individual, and the larger “Y” of the field.

It’s clear that scholar-driven entities like MediaCommons, NINES, and so forth, will increasingly take on parts of the current role of university presses, creating both the environment within which work gets done and the systems of review and authorization for that work. But we continue to need help in building an active, participatory audience and in building readership and discussion within the texts we’re publishing online. We also need your help in creating mechanisms through which the impact that the DIY publications scholars are producing can be made visible to our review committees. Along the way, we hope to take some of the pressure off you, to create other publication options other than the university press book, options that can come to have the same kinds of credibility that the book has had.

So all of this is mostly to say that DIY scholar-centered publishing can and should be your friend: it can create alternate channels for work that really shouldn’t be books, and it can help you find the work of scholars who should be published in book form. My hope remains that these new modes of DIY publishing will put an end to the practice of scholars outsourcing their typing to you, and will foster new kinds of collaborative relationships between scholars and presses that will be fruitful for all of us.


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