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Academic Publishing: Something’s Gotta Change

November 13th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray



Imagine I told you that the biggest name academic in a particular field had just published a new book. How much would you expect to pay to buy it?

In my own field of media and cultural studies, I’d hope that the person had published with NYU Press, so that it was $20-25. But I’d know that if they hadn’t, it’d likely be something like $40. For instance, Graeme Turner’s recent What’s Become of Cultural Studies is $50 from Sage. Angela McRobbie’s The Aftermath of Feminism is $59 from Routledge. John Hartley’s Digital Futures for Media and Cultural Studies is $41.95 from Blackwell.

But David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s recent e-book Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages is $1.99.

Obviously, something is desperately wrong here (with the other books, not David and Kristin’s!), especially since I bet Angela and David & Kristin personally earn the same amount per sale, despite the 3000% price differential. And yes, yes, David and Kristin’s book is an e-book, but Kindle versions of the above three texts are non-existent for Turner, and are still $36.01 and $33.99 for McRobbie and Hartley respectively.

Something really must change in publishing. Many have been saying this for a long time. But Bordwell and Thompson are showing us ways to make it happen. In the rest of this post, I want to discuss this, and to invite you to dream with me about a better system, then to put on your practical hats and perhaps help make it happen. Read on:



1. The Rent is Too Damn High

First, the problem:

Academic publishing is an oddity, since as an author you need a mega textbook to make much money at all. Case in point: I have three books in print with NYU, Fandom, Satire TV, and Show Sold Separately. None are best-sellers, but all do okay. In monetary terms, that means that I’m lucky if I get a royalty check for $500 each year (for the three combined). I’ve made a bit more from my two Routledge books, Watching with The Simpsons and Television Entertainment, but mostly because they’re more expensive. Still, if you buy one of those five books, I’ll get about 50 cents to $2 of the sale. Meanwhile, to get them, you’ll pay $20-25 each for the NYU books and $36-38 each for the Routledge ones.

In the grand scheme of things, those books are pretty cheap for academic books, though. As alluded to above, a lot of books cost more, and some are ludicrously expensive since they’re intended for libraries to buy, not mere mortals – my Companion to Media Authorship, for instance, is a hefty $195 from Blackwell.

So the publishers are taking most of the money. I honestly don’t know enough about how prices divide up on their end to be any kind of a judge of whether that’s exorbitant and exploitative or entirely fair. I read NYU’s pricing as a sign that it needn’t be as high as some places, but read the general height of prices as a sign that these aren’t wholly unfair. When my editors start turning up at SCMS or ICA wearing solid gold grills with diamonds and hosting champagne, caviar, and coke parties in their Presidential Suites, I’ll get more suspicious, but for now I’ll assume this is just the way it is financially.

Another element of the economics here is that several publishers are growing cold on research monographs. Routledge, for instance, has a second track now for books that it doesn’t think will sell into classrooms sufficiently, and if you’re on that track, your book is released as a hardback (either first or only), and priced around $100 so that only libraries will but it. This means that authors are often being encouraged to textbook-ize their work. While some topics lend themselves well to classroom use, other research projects aren’t especially market-friendly: they may be important but dead on arrival at a press, simply because they aren’t seen as being market-friendly enough. So the money determines that some books can’t or “shouldn’t” be written.

But why do authors need to go through presses? Is there another way?



2. Bordwell and Thompson’s Answer

Bordwell and Thompson’s alternative model is remarkably enticing. By self-publishing, they have been able to drive prices way down. David once told me that he’d like his books priced so that they can be “impulse buys.” Indeed, if you’re in the checkout line at Target or Banana Republic, most things stacked up next to the cashier cost about the same (or more!) as this book. This radically, profoundly changes possibilities for circulation. If you’re teaching a Contemporary Hollywood Film class, for instance, why not just add the book to your syllabus, sight unseen? You hardly need to worry about gouging your students, and if you end up just using 20 pages of it, it’s still well worth it. If each professor with a class of relevance to the book makes this call, the book will sell at a heck of a rate. Or perhaps you’re working on auteurs, or blockbusters, or Batman, and you can spend $2 instead of get it at the library and hope it’s in? Done. And many non-academics may consider buying it too.

It’s also a really fast model. Anyone who has published an academic book is likely frustrated at how long it takes. While this matters to all of us writers who want readers, and who are proud enough of our work that we want it to see the light of day, it might matter even more to those of us working on the contemporary. It might even be better for those of us working on media: Bordwell and Thompson’s book includes embedded video clips for illustrative purposes, and one might imagine all sorts of other experiments in what content could be included in online self-published work.



3. The Importance of the Press Strikes Back

Presses might be seen as necessary, though, because: (1) they perform a value assessment function (and pay for it); (2) this value assessment function matters to personal and tenure, hiring, and promotion committees; (3) they take on the financial risk of failure, and (4) they handle advertising and promotion. I’m increasingly dubious about the latter, however. Take my friends Nick Marx and Matt Sienkiewicz, for instance, who recently published an edited collection (along with Rob Becker) called Saturday Night Live and American TV ($25 from Indiana University Press). I have yet to hear anything about the book from Indiana, but Matt and Nick have been waging a pretty impressive advertising and promotion campaign themselves. We’re musicians in the early 2000s, in short, realizing that good use of our MySpace page will likely promote our work way better than the label ever will. Which leaves us with (1), (2), and (3). How do we keep those while moving towards the radically lower costs of Bordwell and Thompson?

I love the experimentation that Bordwell and Thompson have shown. Let’s also stop for a second and note how awesome it is that two retired academics who could be sitting in their front room grumbling about the kids on their lawn and wishing that everything could be like it was twenty years ago are instead breaking new ground, innovating, and using their structural security to play around with the field and push it provocatively. May we all age as scholars as these two!

Their experiment, though, relies upon the name quality that they enjoy. Self-publishing is hardly a realm of prestigious, well-respected scholarship. But when you’ve got Bordwell and Thompson on the (e)spine, that’s going to do just as well as any university press of note. They simply don’t need the imprimatur that a press provides, either for prospective buyers or for tenure and promotion committees. Nobody is evaluating their scholarship in consideration of merit pay, promotion, tenure, or hiring. Financial risk, though small (given the small outlay on typesetting and so forth), is likely offset by the steady income provided by Film Art, and/or is underwritten as the price of an experiment. Finally, Bordwell and Thompson’s blog is a juggernaut of academic blogging, their fan following significant and often very loyal, and hence they have the perfect venue and setting for self-promoting the book.

Some others likely share this heady combination of structural security, ability to market, and ability to draw their own crowd, but probably very few. Henry Jenkins comes to mind: someone with followers in and outside of academia, with a popular blog, with an endowed professorship at USC, and with the ability to go it alone. A few others have several of Bordwell and Thompson’s advantages going for them, albeit likely without all of them. But all in all, as attractive as their model is, I worry that it’s not a feasible model for many others.

So what to do? I would really love to hear other answers to this question. I’ll hazard my own thoughts below.


4. A Publishing Collective

What if a bunch of senior scholars grouped together and created a common platform for the publication of their work? I say “senior” since it strikes me as important that these individuals be immune to the slings and arrows that junior folk would suffer from hiring, personnel and tenure, and promotion committees: they need to know either that they’ve done enough in their careers to insulate their reputations should online books be seen as black marks, or they need to be at points in their careers when it really doesn’t matter (they’re already a Full Prof, they don’t need a bigger, better job, etc.).

They set something up. It needn’t be free of peer review, as is the Bordwell and Thompson answer: they could still institute some system that would work by the same ramshackle gift economy that journal, grant, conference submission, and many other review systems employ. Or perhaps reviewing could be incentivized with some form of goodie down the road (enter your idea here): getting people to review a whole book might require this.

They employ someone (on a per job basis) to typeset and proofread. The “books” will need to look professional, and so some outlay of money is required. Perhaps they could get a grant for this. Perhaps one or more of their home institutions could sign on as patrons (more on this below), even if only to startup. Or perhaps they get a legacy university press to sign on to the experiment, albeit on the understanding that the economic model is not business as usual: typesetting and proofing is paid for, and maybe a touch of promotion, but everything else goes back to the author, with perhaps a little skimmed off the top to keep this group in the black.

They use their clout as scholars to help promote the book. We’re a small enough field that this could work, especially once readers realize that cheap, cheap books by excellent folk are on offer.

But it’s not just for senior scholars. Since I see this as an investment in prestige. If some of the bigger names in the field grouped together and made this site work, made it just as rigorous a review process, and made it a thing, I’d hope that this could open up the new entity to younger scholars in years to come. Right now, I wouldn’t recommend a newly minted PhD risk their career by publishing their first book as described above: it’s too hopeful to imagine that someone in a tenure committee won’t look down their noses at this. But if the entity I’m describing has been around for a while and a hot place to publish in the field (where, by the by, some of the people who will be asked to write tenure letters for younger scholars are hopefully publishing and learning the value of this model), perhaps it could become a viable venue for the publication of all sorts of work.

And here’s the thing: if it worked, it could also allow for many other experiments. Bordwell and Thompson have embedded clips. Other books of theirs have been experimental in other ways. And so could this group. Video and audio could be integrated yet more. Length could be wildly variable. Updating and editing could be made easier. And more.

I’m not naïve enough to think this would work easily. It’d be work, and would require a hardworking group of senior scholars to sign on to the mission, to take the leap with their own next projects, and to stick around long enough to foster something for the next generation. It would also likely help if it still carried the imprimatur of a university press. The Annenberg Press has been publishing the online International Journal of Communication, and is stepping into the publishing of e-books, so maybe it could be a strong ally, if not host for this new venture?

I’m not naïve, but I am an optimist. And I don’t think the status quo works. Or, rather, it doesn’t work for every book. I’m not radically proposing that we burn the presses to the ground and dance on their graves in our online, DDR-inspired world. I’d still see reasons why I want to publish a physical book with a press, and I’d still encourage others to do so. But I want more options and lower rent.

How about you? Anyone with me? What have I overlooked? How else could it work?


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  1. November 13th, 2013 at 10:53 | #1

    I am all for a more co-op, community-based approach to publishing that utilizes the Internet and digital distribution means to cut down or have no prices necessary in order to engage with academic work — not only would it be good for the academic community to be able to access open source materials, it could be a good way to reach out to the general public as well. Too often one of the things that keep us and what we do in the ivory tower is the necessity to pay to gain entry to the knowledge — what we are doing should be available to anyone interested in it. So an online, open, community-based, peer reviewed (either before or after publication) system is a necessity, and I would be all on-board for such an endeavor.

  2. November 13th, 2013 at 11:35 | #2

    Dear Jonathan,
    there are indeed many issues with academic publishing, both book publishing and journal publishing. The problems that you address regarding book publishing have many similarities with contemporary music publishing where many well-known artists left their record companies and decided to publish their music as self-publishers (for example Radiohead); they are indeed getting larger share of revenue per item sold and are able to organize good promotion through social media and fan base. The problem is with new and less well-established acts who usually need large labels to gain media attention, access to large events etc.
    Compared to music industry, it seems that academics are not so concerned with the sales themselves and with their share of sales income. However there is an important problem with value assessment and tenure/promotion criteria. This is probably the single most important issue with self-publishing in academia (although there are similar although smaller problems also in music industry; see for example http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/sep/13/my-bloody-valentine-slams-mercury-prize) and needs to be solved within the academic community: if universities adapt to the new reality and modernize their criteria regarding the promotion/tenure of academic staff, with the help of continuation of quality (but adapted) peer-to-peer reviews, as you mention, the academic publishing as we have it today (and with the problems that it causes) will become just one of the options and not a necessity as it is right now.

  3. Kit Lewis
    November 13th, 2013 at 13:40 | #3

    You may be able to sell a book for $2 and make the same money as a publishing deal, but a (decent) bricks and mortar publisher will push your book out to the public through advertising and plaguing the life out of Editors and book reviewers in relevant publications. Anyone can create an e-book for $2 but there are millions of them out there. Unless you can raise awareness of your work, it will sink without trace. You can do your own marketing but it has a cost in time and money, which is why books cost so much and the author sees so little of the cover price.

  4. Jonathan Gray
    November 13th, 2013 at 15:00 | #4

    Kit, I sense a lot of defensiveness. But that aside, I think you’re giving too much credit to the marketing teams: I edited Popular Communication for five years, and very rarely got requests to have books reviewed: my life was certainly never “plagued” by any press’ marketers (thankfully!). And even when a book on a topic that is near and dear to me comes out, these days I nearly always hear about it through friends and colleagues and Facebook or Twitter, rarely through flyers (which tend only to be made for textbooks), emails, or other marketing techniques. Meanwhile, I’ve usually found that the more compelling pitches to review a book are similarly interpersonal. Now, admittedly, your basic point remains: this would be hard to do, and would require effort. I wouldn’t see an e-book in a conference’s book room, I wouldn’t see it in the catalogs that come direct to my office. Again, I’m not saying we should burn the presses down: but let’s not over-romanticize them as treating our books as though they’re Hollywood blockbusters.

  5. November 14th, 2013 at 08:19 | #5

    Dear Jonathan,

    An interesting, thought provoking essay. It might be worth mentioning at this point that St Andrews in Scotland have managed to take the leap as it were, and have established their own university press, “St Andrews Film Studies” which ticks some of your boxes. The publishing house is led by a senior academic, books are typset in house by–from what I gather–research assistants and/or PhDs, and lecturers in the department. The books are available cheaply as e-books which, while not as cheap as Bordwell’s and Thompson’s latest, are VERY cheap in comparison to the prices charged by say, Palgrave or EUP (upwards of £30 for an e-book!). More, the optional hardcopies of the books are printed on demand as a means of reducing printing costs (by the company Lightning Source UK). This means that, for us punters/scholars, we have the option of a decent-looking book which is made considerably cheaper by the latest on-demand technologies. More, the printing company takes a cut once the book is printed, so there’s no payment upfront.

    I think your idea is a good one.

  6. November 14th, 2013 at 10:52 | #6

    You mean this book: http://www.amazon.com/Saturday-Night-Live-American-TV/dp/0253010829/ that you can follow at the this Tumblr: snlstudies.tumblr.com?

    We’re trying, certainly. If only we had a band…

  7. November 14th, 2013 at 13:33 | #7

    Have you looked at the WAC Clearinghouse? It publishes excellent peer-reviewed open-access books in rhet/comp (and probably other fields, too — those are just the ones I know). http://wac.colostate.edu/

  8. SWAurora
    December 10th, 2013 at 08:20 | #8

    It hasn’t been quite a month since this was posted so I guess it isn’t too late to insert thoughts. Perhaps as someone who works for an Academic Press I can weigh in. You are right, these books can be expensive. Well, at least the lithocase are. But there are a lot of things that are not taken into consideration, such as grant money, author’s giving their own money to use a better paper stock or whatnot, and of course the overhead. I am not talking about paying the light bill. I am talking about the designers, project editors, project managers, production assistants, copyeditors, typesetters, and printers (and that is in my department alone). There is also a director, art department, number crunchers, marketing (I will return to that in a moment), editors, acquisition editors, IT department, eBook division, and a ton of other people that I barely know what they do. We are paid to make your book not only look good but to sell well, because we do want it to sell. Our marketing department (who are all amazing) spend their days on Twitter, Facebook, instagram, and blogs, getting the word out. They solicit for reviews, attend conferences, put together catalogs, organize sales, and talk to their authors. My inbox is flooded with reviews, interviews, and articles about our authors on a daily basis. I quite enjoy reading them because the point of an academic press is to disseminate information out to the masses and any publicity they get and they happier they are, the happier we are. We are also working very hard to embrace the use of eBooks and other online sources and we are still figuring it out, just like everyone else. An eBook isn’t as simple as converting the file to a pdf, it still takes work and as we have discovered, coding an index in an eBook is not fun. That is how I ended up here. My job right now is to find out what the academic community wants and to see how we can add that to our workflow and output. I don’t usually respond to these things, but after reading this kind of stuff for days and weeks, it all kind of builds up. Believe me, we are on your side. We want your books published and not just for a profit. I have an entire bookshelf full of books that I am rather proud of and the pride comes from a job well done, not a paycheck. I love working in publishing and I love reading and we will continue to create and produce books that meet our quality standard.

  9. Jonathan Gray
    December 10th, 2013 at 10:34 | #9

    Thanks for this. I should clarify that I don’t mean my post to cast dispersion on the labor of print publishers. I am immensely thankful for the work that many people at Routledge, NYU, Blackwell, Polity, and others have done for my books. But the pricing is a problem — $50 for a 200 page monograph is prohibitive to use in many cases. So I’d love to see experiments, at the very least: some will fail, some will show what eBooks are missing, but hopefully some might help us all (writers, readers, presses) reevaluate our priorities and how we’re doing what we’re doing?

  10. January 28th, 2014 at 13:09 | #10

    I hope it isn’t too late to weigh in. I have been an independent online book seller and am a 1st year grad student now, so I have a unique vantage point to this issue. I am sure we are all aware of the familiar “end of books” argument that has been around since the down of the home computer. I can’t help but interpret Gray’s proposition as an extension of the “end of books” rhetoric. In this case, it is the end of “expensive” academic books. Book sellers have had to deal with the rhetoric of ebooks, recently but it is still the same old thing, with a new operating system. And yes, the realm of publishing, bookselling and reference books has had to change with the times, but (overprices) books are here to stay and here is why: the buyers are still here. As an impoverished grad student I wish I had access to more books on my Amazon wishlist, but I have an appreciation for the market forces that influence the price of goods. I am not talking about theories of economics (while they can give insight), rather I am referring to the thing I had to remind my self religiously when I was starting out as a novice bookseller pricing my used inventory, “people don’t buy books because of the price, they buy because they need the book”. If a book is $2 when the similar books are selling for $20 or $40, they will buy the $20 book because they need it. This is also true with new editions. For example only a small fraction will buy the older cheaper edition of a textbook, the rest get the one they need.

    On another note, it is interesting to put this discussion of manufactured suggested retail price beside the idea that publishing in journals that have paywalls restricts the flow of knowledge (http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2013/jan/17/open-access-publishing-science-paywall-immoral).

  11. February 26th, 2014 at 10:12 | #11

    Here is a very different approach to the issue. This is an open letter from a Community College Dean to textbook companies. These companies make it too hard and expensive to use electronic textbooks to help accommodate people with disabilities.


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