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.