Academic Publishing: Something’s Gotta Change
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?
~~Tags: academic, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, presses, publishing