Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Academic publishing

There's a good article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Presses Seek Fiscal Relief in Subsidies for Authors": "Under this plan, all institutions would contribute to the pool, and give authors $5,000 to $10,000 in what are called 'subventions' that they could take to an academic press interested in publishing their book. Universities and colleges that require books and journal articles for tenure and promotion but do not maintain their own presses might be asked to contribute more than those that do. "

I don't think it's likely to come about that universities will really contribute to a fund without guarantees that their own faculty will benefit. I do think it's likely that more and more colleges and universities will dedicate money to helping their younger faculty to publish books. The shortfall involves relatively small amounts of money, given the huge financial commitment involved in hiring any faculty member in the first place. There's a good article in the latest issue of The Believer that sums up what took place at an MLA panel on publishing and tenure:

"Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University Press presents some numbers, which provide perspective. Average production cost of a university-press title: $25,000. Total number of copies of each title purchased by all university libraries in bygone days: 1,000. Number of copies of each title sold to all libraries in current crisis days: 200. A book that sells very well (say, 500 copies) might recoup: $10,000­$12,000. Average loss on average university-press title: $10,000+. Cost of subscription to run-of-the-mill scientific journal: $20,000. It's like a parody of a MasterCard commercial, but all of the "priceless" punch lines are so painfully obvious there's no reason to bother finishing the joke."

I realize how insane this will sound to anyone who is not involved in academia. And this isn't the place to explain why this isn't as crazy as it sounds. (Though it would make a good scene in a Terry Prachett novel... I've read a whole bunch more since I last wrote this, including just now the appealing Monstrous Regiment. Let's just say it casts a whole new light on "don't ask, don't tell." Does the NYTBR not review these books? Or did I just not notice? They should, anyway...) But trust me when I say that there are actually many good reasons that universities should make a $10,000 commitment to make up the shortfall, assuming that obvious concerns about it affecting the decision-making processes at the press. But I don't see why this should be the case--or at any rate, it wouldn't add too much extra complexity to a process that is already very deeply embedded in privilege. Nobody would be so idealistic as to say that the very same book manuscript, if submitted by an independent scholar or a scholar at a not-very-well-known institution, is as likely to be accepted by a top press as if it's by a well-known scholar at a prestigious institution. I do think that if it's a good book, it probably will be accepted regardless; but if it's a medium-good-sort-of-middling book, the names start to really matter. And if it's not a good book at all, well then....

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