Friday, January 12, 2007

The Suicidal Death March of Academic Writing

In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas H. Benton writes on publishing and the ivory tower. It's a temp link only, but I'll give the highlights.

First, there's the call-to-arms:

It's time for most us -- and I am thinking in particular of younger academics -- to abandon the genteel pose of being aloof from the sordid marketplace. We should stop acting as if we were monks, destined for a lifetime of cloistered self-denial. Or romantic poets who die penniless and forgotten in their own time, but whose genius and poignant suffering will, one day, move the world to tears.

If we are going to avoid being blockheads, we are going to have to start writing books that more people will want to buy as something besides remainders.

Then there's the absurdist cautionary tale:

I have a colleague who is working on a visual-history project -- her first book -- and, apparently, few university presses can publish it in the kind of format that would do justice to the material. And few such presses are likely to invest much in promoting the book.

But after hearing my colleague give a lecture, a distinguished trade publisher jumped on the project immediately. It seems like an excellent opportunity for my colleague to produce a beautiful book that might reach a wide audience.

Yet my colleague wondered, "Is this respectable?"

At first I guffawed, but perhaps my colleague was right to worry, depending upon her career aspirations. A serious book, rigorously edited, that is read by 10,000 people rather than by 100 -- and that required no subvention -- is often discounted because it was published by a commercial publisher rather than a university press.

As a graduate student, I remember being warned that writing for mainstream audiences would become a red flag in my Google portfolio that I would never be able to escape. And Ph.D.'s who contribute to the blogosphere have been warned by the famous Ivan Tribble to watch their words. In many quarters -- particularly at research universities -- anything but scholarly articles in refereed journals and university press books indicates a lack of seriousness and commitment to the profession.

Then there's the personal confession:

I think becoming a columnist is the best thing I've done with my academic career. I'm sure it has frightened some prospective employers (pseudonymity seldom lasts), but it has also led to talks with agents and publishers. And, finally, it is beginning to lead to contracts to publish books that I think are as serious as my academic work but aimed at a much larger audience.

So far, the experience has been more rewarding and intellectually exciting than most of the crabbed, obscure writing I did when I was trying to prove I was a competent scholar. I find that thinking about a general audience makes me a better teacher than my academic writing ever did. My theory-soaked younger self must have sounded like a man from Mars to most undergraduates.

I no longer feel beholden to the petty rivalries and resentments that characterize academic life. It's like being born again. Imagine it for yourself: There are people out there -- possibly millions of them -- who are willing to pay for the pleasure of reading your work. Those people could give your ideas, expressed in a single mainstream book, the impact of a lifetime of scholarly writing. You can also earn the posthumous respect of Samuel Johnson, as well the relatives who warned you that professors tend to be paupers. Poverty and obscurity, as the world sees them, are not necessarily signifiers of academic virtue.

Yes, "Thomas H. Benton" is a pseudonym.

And what he says is true enough that some time ago, I removed anything on this blog that reveals my full name.


Brandon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brandon said...

Who is on the death march? Academics or publishers?

Tim said...

It seems clear to me -- and I take it to be TH Benton's opinion as well -- that certain elements in or aspects of the academy are dragging down university presses, not the other way around. All the stories I hear about from university presses is that they're dying to publish different kinds of books, not just but including material that can appeal to a wider audience. A good chunk of the animosity in the academy towards mainstream success can be chalked up to mere jealousy. And I think everyone would benefit from a more flexible attitude to publication -- scholars, presses, readers, universities, and students.

The only real situation where academic presses might be just a witness but a party to the suicide pact of academic publishing is when it comes to books about art -- or any book that requires HQ reproduction of images. They're so expensive to do for a book with a small run. And -- judging only by what I've heard -- most of that money winds up coming out of the scholar's pocket. I've heard professors tell students not to study art history because of the problems publishing in the field.

Ultimately it's the university's intransigence that makes this a real crisis rather than a problem to be solved. But Brandon, I think you're right (and it's worth reposting your earlier comments) -- the solution may be that UPs can find a new way to deliver the goods.

Brandon said...

I hated to delete my comment, but after I reread it I thought it might have been a little misdirected. It was hard to tell if Benton was more aggrieved by university presses or by the broader academy. Then rereading his comments, I could see that it was more the latter, but I still feel like he's a bit misguided in his perception of publishing. It's really difficult working in scholarly publishing to see the amount of authors that come through our house that project this overwhelming sense of entitlement and need for validation through book sales. The value of an academic press’s services is not the sales, it's the security in knowing that books we produce are the foremost in scholarly work (particularly through the peer review process, which is a process rarely, effectively never entertained at trade houses) -- hey, that's why we're nonprofit as we could never expect to operate in the black with such a mission.

Regarding high-quality (lots of colorful pictures) books, we can all agree that they cost a lot of money to produce. However, university presses still do them -- hell, Harvard published one of the most visually astounding books I’ve ever seen, The Smaller Majority. The photos in that book were printed on six-color press and quite literally pop off of the page -- it’s gorgeous. You’re right, though, that many academic authors are asked to come up with money to contribute toward high-quality elements, but that almost always indicates that the editor or publisher views those elements (not in general, but on a case-by-case basis) to be an unnecessary or whimsical addition to the book. Regardless, it’s rare that I see authors give money out of their own pocket -- there are dollars available to many by way of grants, department funds, university endowments, sponsorships, co-publications, etc. And that money is not typically used to justify the printing of the book, rather it’s used to offset printing costs in order to allow the publisher to price the book at a point where it can still be purchased by man and institution alike (so guys like Benton have to chance to reach the widest audience possible). Sure, art history is kind of a hairy area. But again I point you to alternative sources of funding -- probably more prevalent in the art world than anywhere else. I’m sure it’s never easy for an academic to stick his or her neck out for extra funding, but I’ve heard more stories from editors working with authors who are 1.) offended at the prospect that a publisher would suggest a thing or 2.) too lazy to try. Yes, they could be too busy to carry out such tasks, and that’s fair, but we should look at this from all perspectives.

I know a lot of an academic’s career hinges on publication and publication, in turn, is a complex affair. I can only offer one perspective. But a big part of me saddened that there are professors out there discouraging students on the sole basis of book publication instead of exploring solutions to these obstacles.

University presses aren’t presently in trouble because of a refusal to publish for a mass audience. They’re at a turning point due to the shift in ways in which students, academics, and people (yes, people . . . real people do read academic books) are gathering knowledge, whether that’s through libraries, remote libraries, online references, e-books, wikis, whatever. (Libraries used to buy 5 copies of a u.p. title, then five more when those copies were damaged, lost or stolen. Now libraries can buy one e-book accessible to an entire campus and then never think to buy another copy. There is the immediate question.) So, in the interest of speaking on behalf of the publisher and the “death march,” I would say that they are more concerned about the current evolution of information than they are about turning to a “mass” audience, an audience they were never founded, designed, or expected to serve. University presses will die if they are unable to adapt to modern, effective, and popular means of disseminating knowledge. They will never die for lack of turning their focus to a mass market. If anything, the turning their focus there would ensure their death.