Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Some Thoughts about Books and Access

by J J Cohen

I've published three books with Palgrave Macmillan (1 2 3). I've published three with the University of Minnesota Press (1 2 3). Palgrave books are limited run affairs: $90 hardcovers sold mostly to research libraries. Electronic versions exist, but only if your institution subscribes to Palgrave Connect (mine does not: too expensive). Needless to say, with this model of publishing Palgrave sells few copies of each book. They don't have to: at almost a hundred dollars a pop they know that their company will earn enough to make producing the volumes a good investment. For them. Authors collect little return; most individuals cannot afford the books; dissemination is low.

The University of Minnesota Press, on the other hand, publishes most of its books in simultaneous paperback (Palgrave went to paperback only for The Postcolonial Middle Ages, and that took two years; unlike the hardcovers that have struggled to reach 200 sales, PoCo Middle Ages has sold 1200 copies). UMP also partners with Google (at least in the US) and Amazon to make their books available in reasonably priced electronic versions. Medieval Identity Machines is $26 in paperback, and $14.04 for the Kindle or Google Books versions. My other two Minnesota titles are priced similarly. This pricing structure obviously works. I just received my UMP royalty statement with information on lifetime sales to 6/30/11. Medieval Identity Machines: 548 softcovers; Monster Theory: 2032; Of Giants, 1489. I don't understand why any publishing house would shy away from reasonably priced, simultaneous softcover books.

Or electronic versions. For the first time ever, I earned more royalties on digital sales than on physical copies, almost one third as much. I'm also grateful that "Monster Culture: Seven Theses" finds its way into so many coursepacks, especially (oddly enough) as part of first year writing programs. And someone put that essay in this book; although they didn't ask me, they did pay the press for it, and UMP sent along an author's cut. The permissions income from "Monster Culture" will buy a very nice dinner. With wine. And maybe even dessert.

But you know, I'm not publishing my work in order to purchase the occasional good dinner with wine and dessert. No sane person composes a scholarly monograph for the financial rewards. I publish because I want to be part of as capacious a scholarly conversation as possible. In the end it doesn't matter so much if people like my work (though it is pleasing to be liked): I just want my work read, and reacted to. If scholarship possesses a life, then its vitality inheres in this embodied process of writing, reception, rethinking, rewriting. Perfect books -- the ones that are magisterial, unimpeachable -- sit on high shelves and demand to be admired. I think it's OK for them to cost $100. They aren't usually interested in mixing and mingling. I want my books to wander the world, to bring the exchanges that animate their pages (every good book is a collective effort, even when published under a single name) to unexpected places ... and, in time, be superseded. The best end of a book's life occurs when someone cares enough to compose a better one.

So I'm a big fan of open access publishing, of presses like re.press and punctum that publish in print (for a reasonable fee) and allow quick, free downloading. I wish more presses followed this model, or at least enabled easy access to e-versions of books (Ohio State University Press, home of the promising Interventions series, requires that you order a CD for $9.95 and have it mailed to you to obtain an electronic book). I have no idea what the contours of the publishing landscape will resemble in the years ahead, but I am reasonably certain that the future is with Minnesota, re.press and punctum rather than the $90 books of Palgrave, Brill, D. S. Brewer, Ashgate, and so on.


hd said...

My press is offering an electronic edition of my forthcoming academic monograph, which excites me. One thing, however, that I didn't consider until it was already in production was the increased cost of using images within an electronic book. (I should state that I am very lucky that my institution generously provided me with a small stipend to cover the cost of securing rights to reproduce images in my book.) Having secured reproduction rights for the hardcopy version (many of which were generously provided by museums for free), I then had to secure new rights for electronic dissemination. None of them were free this time around. In fact, it was a *whole* new world of fees, partly because of that ability to wander (at times a bit too closely to "commercial" uses of images). Simply put, I ran out of funds, paying for a few of the images out of pocket. It was not a huge amount but I mention this only to add texture to the debate about open-access and authors' academic labor; hopefully other cultural institutions will engage in the discussion, particularly as museums move towards virtual collections online. I also mention it to give first time authors a heads'up: budget wisely when dealing with rights of images and ask ahead if there's a plan for an ebook!

Sarah Werner said...

Both you and hd make good points here. I've been planning a while now to write a piece about my experience in publishing my last collection with Palgrave (it's not been a joyous one: whatever tradeoffs I was making in terms of cost to purchase and limited reproduction I thought would be offset by their well-oiled system for getting books into libraries. HAH!). And I'm quite annoyed at myself for being an author in some of those collections, since I now have no reproduction rights to my own work at all.

hd's advice is wise, too, and something I've heard from other authors as well: images in ebooks are an entirely different ballpark. Luckily, more and more libraries and museums are shifting towards a CC non-commercial license, so while that wouldn't have helped h, it would make images in open-access works viable.

ASM said...

Maps and Monsters was in hardback for two years as a crazy price, then put into softcover for a reasonable one, and has sold better as the latter, of course. They also, though, made an E-Book without telling me. This was a problem because I didn't secure the rights for the images for this use, and they cost much more. I was not interested in paying that -- if presses want to go that route, they will have to pony up cash for permissions.

They actually offered to make an eversion without the images, as an alternate, which shows how carefully they have thought the process through...

Nick Moschovakis said...

I have long wondered why we don't move to all-digital publishing in academic fields for which the market is (let's be honest) small, at least compared with the potential audience for general-interest books. Digital publication would be less costly and, therefore, fairer to less wealthy purchasers (a class that now might be considered to include even the best-reputed public universities). In addition, digital publication would be better for authors. Hasn't every one of us come to rely more on publications that are available digitally than on those available only in print? (Again, let's be honest.) Digital publication, as Jeff implies, is better for the conversation.

Rob Barrett said...

The folks at Notre Dame told that that, come January 2012, they and a bunch of other university presses will be moving tons of their back catalog to digital formats. I have no idea what that will do to, say, the images in Against All England; I paid for them three years ago. Will the presses have to pay, or will the images disappear?

Brian Harrington said...

Rob, Notre Dame is part of the University Press Content Consortium (UPCC), which means that Against All England will be showing up in Project MUSE on January 1. ND has redacted the images. It seems that most presses are working on securing electronic rights going forward, but don't have the staff or budget to do it for the backlist.

Jennifer said...

I too think the images issue is a big one for digital publishing, but clearly we are in a transition stage. In my experiences recently with chapter-length pieces in collaborative volumes, the press has mentioned to us the possibility of an e-book at the time we were getting rights for images, so that we could decide for ourselves if we want to pay extra. Otherwise, the e-book goes on without images. I chose to get e-book rights for a few essential images, but not for everything in the print volume. That said, it is frustrating that potentially greater exposure for authors requires that they pay more for rights. Asa's right that at some point, the press should be taking on some of these additional costs - but I don't really see that happening.

Paul said...

I like digital publishing because, as everyone is agreeing, it really does make the conversation more accessible. But I do worry about the ephemerality of publications in a purely digital world.

Perhaps the most frustrating for me are publishers like Oxford, who do offer electronic books but at hardback prices. $100+ monographs are out of the reach of most individual scholars, but at least libraries purchase them. Who's buying the $100+ Kindle versions of those monographs? I'd guess almost nobody, which pretty much defeats the purpose of publishing them electronically to begin with.

Rob Barrett said...

Thanks for the info, Brian. I guess the loss of the images only invalidates some of my argument. :P

Rob Barrett said...

(Just to clarify: my disappointment is general, not aimed at Brian and/or Project Muse in particular.)

Anonymous said...

Nick: I don't see it happening for a while. My institution recently appointed a committee to consider tenure requirements, including things like digital publishing. And then it made it clear that this committee was "exploratory" and unlikely to change anything in a long while. At least for young scholars, the risk of publishing digital is too high.

Maybe, just maybe, if the UPs stopped publishing *anything* on paper and it became truly impossible to get a book out in print rather than (for a youngun in a small field) almost impossible, maybe then universities would consider alternative forms of publication. I am not holding my breath though.

Twitchdoctor said...

I'm in agreement with you about the open access model and certainly about digital editions. Since I bought a Kindle and started paying more attention to digital editions, however, I'm noticing two models out there among scholarly presses.

1) What the hell is digital? I have so many scholarly books on my wish list where there is no digital edition. Scholarly presses arguably have the most to gain by going digital. There's some research showing that people who own e-readers, for example, tend both to buy more books and buy books in multiple formats. And the costs of releasing a digital edition are relatively low. Speaking of which. . .

2) And I'll take your firstborn, too! One thing that is a huge turn-off for digital editions: when it is only marginally cheaper or (god help us) in some cases more expensive than the hardcover of paperback. Scholarly presses, however, seem to be particularly prone to this. Maybe because so many of them are on the bones of their bum, they are figuring that they can make up their budgets in digital sales. Image rights may be playing a contributing role here, as some have mentioned, but I've seen this even in (predominantly in, actually) books with no image content at all.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, everyone, for contributing to this important conversation. Some salient points have emerged:

1. Presses need to think more about what the transition to digital editions entails when it comes to the rights to reproduce images. Blacking out images with only print rights happens often; it isn't an adequate solution. It would be best if presses ensured that all images in their books arrive with digital reproduction rights secured.

2. Institutions that hold the rights to images need to think more about what is at stake in reproduction of these images: isn't the best policy to grant wide access and increase knowledge? Images should not be considered a revenue stream, especially when the institution is a not-for-profit. Digital reproduction rights should be comparable in price to print ones (though in all honesty, print rights should not be so exorbitant either).

3. Authors are the ones who are put on the spot for securing and paying for permission to reproduce images. This is not a good system, especially when authors make very little money from their scholarly works. Permissions fees should be absorbed by the press a production cost.

4. Long live instantly accessible simultaneous digital editions of books.

Eileen Joy said...

As the co-director [with Nicola Masciandaro] of the newly-launced punctum books, I mainly want to echo Jeffrey's sentiments here [both in his original post and the comments below it], and also add this response to Anonymous who worries [with good reasons, I imagine] about how universities will give *credit* to faculty for digital publications, and I have a couple [maybe more] things to say about that:

1. not all institutions are the same, and increasingly, colleges and universities ate giving plenty of credit for digital publications: they are NOT parsing out how a printed book is different from a digital book and then according so many points for each, respectively. At my university, we recently re-wrote our promotion and tenure guidelines within the College of Arts & Sciences: one general set of guidelines for the whole College and then departmental guidelines that would attend, obviously, to unique aspects of each field and and discipline, publishing- and productivity-wise. In my department, where I chaired the committee to re-write our guidelines, we decided to add language that:

a. co-authored & co-edited books, as well as editions and translations and things like that, count as much as monographs: a book is a book [ultimately what matters when we judge our colleague's work is not: what kind of an print-animal is this? but rather: is it any good? does it have impact? is it significant? make an important contribution to a field? etc.

b. digital and print publications: whether book reviews, essays, full-length articles, or books count exactly the same as print publications

c. digital products that are not articles or books, per se -- i.e., databases, digital editions, digital corpuses, long-term machine reading-type projects, pedagogical tools, etc. -- will be accorded different guidelines and may also count as "books" and in different phases of their instantiation through the addition of major components and production of "results" + impact/usage

2. it doesn't matter if a book is in print or digital [or both: punctum is interested in the multi-model where books are available as downloadable .pdfs, for free, and for a small fee, also as print editions, Kindle editions, and other mobile formats: iPad, Nook, etc.]. What matters is: who is the publisher, which is to say, the scholarly "platform" [do they have smart, important people on their Board, do they have good editorial oversight, a rigorous review process, a record of publishing important, creative, field-changing, innovative, etc. books? Id est: quality quality quality and NOT: print or digital, which is like reducing the whole question of the quality and significance of scholarship to a matter of something like size, like: we've always published monographs as 6X9 print editions, and now someone is saying, how about 5X8 editions, they're more portable and cheaper, and someone else says: no no no, it's always been 6X9 and needs to stay that way ... just because. Really?

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


3. can we please stop using fear-based models as arguments against open access and digital publishing initiatives? As in: if your college won't give you credit for a digital book, then stay away from them? Yes, there are going to be some "hold out" institutions that, for a little while, are going to hang onto tenure & promotion guidelines that privilege the traditional *print* monograph, but I see the lease on that way of thinking & judging as having a very short lifespan. You can only stem the tide so much of this type of innovation. And seriously, can a university really say, with a straight face, your book just published as an e-book by the University of Michigan, in partnership with Open Humanities Press [which has people on its Board like Alain Badiou, Bruno Latour, Jonathan Culler, J. Hillis Miller, Katherine Hayles, etc.], does not count as much as a print monograph? Really? Really?

4. Here's a little secret: we can have everything, if we would just stop either: asking for it and/or waiting for it, and start doing it ourselves in creative partnership with university presses, commercial and independent presses, and technology experts, and scholars, and students. We have have presses that still produce print editions that are also available in a variety of online, downloadable, and mobile/e-reader formats. We can, at the same time, INCREASE the opportunities available to ALL scholars, at all ranks, plus students and independent writers/scholars, to publish their work and make it available to the broadest possible audiences both within and outside of the university proper. We can therefore also broaden the horizons of what IT IS POSSIBLE TO SAY in an academic book, what it is possible to do, etc. We can allow more room for risk-taking, for creativity, for wild experimentation. We can then also multiply and thicken the possibilities for a greater well-being for a greater number of persons who desire to write, and to have an audience, or at the very least, tangible products connected to their thought and work. And, when we have to, and if we do it right, it can be profitable, as well as affordable, and we can make the case, easily, to university administrators: not only do these "books" count, but they will help to change the future of intellectual life and what might be possible in that life for a greater number of people. You don't ask permission to do this: you just do it.

That's my 2 cents this morning.

Twitchdoctor said...

I'm still processing a lot of what Eileen said. I read it early this morning and was glad that I did because it made me feel inspired all day.

But perhaps we should be pushing this idea of digital editions even further? Isn't the can of worms here a much bigger one? The discussion here has been confined pretty closely to the role of scholarly presses. But the real revolution here, surely, is the fact that there is virtually no barrier to entry to self-publishing and (more importantly) self-promoting your own work anymore.

If we're really interested in getting our work distributed as widely as possible, in as timely a fashion as possible, in as many different formats as possible, and write different kinds of books (I'm thinking about Jeffrey's earlier post about terminology and clarification). . . if we want all that, why do we need to wait for scholarly presses to make our digital editions for us?

Or, more to the point, why do we need scholarly presses any more?

Eileen Joy said...


a quick [set of ] answer[s] to your question: because you don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because what we need now are creative and forward-looking *partnerships" within and across and beyond the university. Because we don't need to kick scholarly presses to the curb when they represent such a long history of wisdom regarding publishing practices and the development of intellectual life/lives/fields. Because, yes, as this point, we can [and should, and always *could*] do anything we like, but I'm a big believer in utilizing multiple resources and also extending intellectual and other goods to as many sectors as possible. And because, at the end of the day, digital publishing isn't as "free" or as "easy" as some people think, and traditional academic presses have all sorts of expertise to offer.

Having said that, punctum books is completely independent and plans to stay that way. We say we are *para*-academic, but I'm also always on the lookout for creative partnerships with commercial presses, independent artists, university entities, etc. I think we live in very interesting times, but the "freedom" that some associate with digital and e-publishing is not as "free" as everyone thinks it is. We just need a better awareness of that fact, and then, a lot of optimism, a lot of hard work, and some courageousness.

Anonymous said...

Aren't scholarly presses doing this already?

I am being a bit of hermit at th emoment so may be wrong about details(and have not read every word here, so maybe somebody has already said this or I have misunderstood the original post) but I have a strong suspicion that when my monograph is published by *UP it will be in both digital and hardback forms.

A collection i edited for CUP over a decade ago went quickly into ebooks - and then after that went into paperback.

Steve Mentz said...

Thanks to Eileen for inspiring morning coffee. The open-ness of this technological moment, and the publicizing power of the social networking platforms we're all using for "fun" (right?) really does enable lots of new things to happen. I do wonder a bit about the artfully concealed status of "profitable" w/i your list of things the new multi-platform punctum-style publication system. Really? I tend to think, a la Jeffrey's first post, that we mostly do this stuff for love, for the pleasures of circulating in an active conversation, and for reasons of tenure & promotion, etc. (I very much like your publication guidelines.) I'm with you on collaborating with UPs & other publishing institutions, but I wonder if the different relationships inside & outside the academy to the profit imperative will make those relationships difficult.

Eileen Joy said...


thanks for noticing that I said "profitable." I'm currently in discussions with 3 other scholars to start a new journal in OOO studies, and one thing that keeps coming up in the discussions is: what's so great about open-acess, digital publishing is that it doesn't cost anything! But it does cost something; it most certainly does cost something--at the very least, if you want your e-book press or your e-journal to have any sort of longevity and impact, and also if you want to provide, through that initiative, real benefits to others [not just the authors], such as grad. students who may want to serve as an editorial asst. on the journal and thereby gain invaluable skills-type experience which may enable them to get a job or a slot in a grad. program elsewhere. And so on and so forth.

E-publishing is not *free*. Is it cheaper and potentially faster and more accessible and potentially more radically democratizing than traditional print publishing? Hell yes. But not *free*. Labor, even when "donated" and "gifted" costs something [a scholar who decides to edit a new e-journal will *not* be doing something else, like writing a book, or playing with her dog as often, in order to be able to do so]. Server space costs money. Someone puts in the labor for the print-on-demand and e-reader versions [services such as Lulu and CreateSpace], and those will have to be paid for, and why not with a little $$ left over that goes to the press or publisher to then be funneled back into certain production and what I call "stimulation" costs: to pay graphic designers to design beautiful issue and book covers, to create positions for GA's to help with production tasks, to do some creative marketing, to purchase special fonts, Adobe software, training for yourself and your students on that software, etc.?

As academics, we do what we do for love/desire, of course, but I think we can also be savvy financial managers of our own "products," and in partnership with commercial as well as non-profit academic and para-academic entities [like a gallery, for example, or a collective of artists]. What I'm really talking about is aiming for being self-sustaining. And that requires some money, and there's no shame or harm in that. Many academics don't like to talk or think about money [except to worry over getting more of it from whatever sources they can tap into in order to secure time to write, to travel for research and the dissemination of research results, etc.], but I used to work in accounting and finance and business management, and to me, it's like: we need to think about this more. We're smart, creative people. We can do this. We can look at and even grasp and remold the bigger picture, and we do it not just for ourselves, but in order to create the spaces and breathing-room and necessary *outlets* for the greatest amount of production possible of the greatest number of ideas. There is no more virtuous work in my mind in the academy at present, and it isn't free.

Steve Mentz said...

Eileen: I like the second cup of afternoon coffee even more. I agree we need to put a clear public value on our labor, even the "fun" parts. I too find that thinking about these things draws me back to a pre-academic career, in my case a stint in general interest ("adult trade") book publishing. Sometimes open-access sounds as if it wants to destroy commercial operations. As in most cases, I think a hybrid model might work better. Also -- it's important to play with your dog often. Otherwise they bite.

Anonymous said...


1. It's true that not all institutions are the same. But it's not particularly easy to switch institutions, especially in small fields, nor is this the kind of issue that tends to be uppermost when people are thinking about job market, uprooting family, the two-body problem, etc. So if your institution has made it clear they're going to pay lip service to change but not consider it seriously, that's kind of what you're stuck with, for a while at least. And what can you do to move elsewhere? Well, probably produce work that many other institutions will recognize as worthwhile. Even then, it becomes risky to undertake work that may not be valued according to its intellectual contribution because of where it appeared.

3. "And seriously, can a university really say, with a straight face, your book just published as an e-book by the University of Michigan, in partnership with Open Humanities Press, does not count as much as a print monograph? Really? Really?"

Yes, I can. But then I've seen people not get tenure here with monographs at presses that have earned tenure elsewhere. (And I'm not at a fancy-schmancy Ivy or Ivy-like place.) The reaction is fear-based, but you see a tenure case go south in recent memory and you become coldly pragmatic about what will serve you well and what won't.

Same goes, by the way, for fellowships -- some are expansive and open. But if you're coming out of your PhD, you don't know where your room and board will come from, you don't, in fact, even have a visa to stay in the same country without work, and you start to notice that a number of fellowships (albeit international ones) will not even consider chapters in edited books as publications, then you have to be comfortable with a great deal more risk to do the work you want to do.

I should add that I don't think this is the way it *should* be. In fact, it upsets me how unidirectional hiring practices, the awarding of fellowships, and tenuring can be. And if these desirables were only about prestige, that would be one thing. But once it's about living with your spouse, feeding your baby, or simply having the time to do the substantive research and writing you want to do, they become important. So while I do not support these structures of power, I think they need to be part of the conversation, and are not so easily brushed away by everyone.

Eileen Joy said...

Anonymous: I thank you for your further elaborations here, which I would never quibble with: they speak to pragmatic realism, after all. I can only say that I am working very hard to change the landscape of what is possible and to increase opportunities for viable lives/jobs/places within and outside of the academy relative to a so-called intellectual life.

Anonymous said...

Eileen: I know!

I guess what I would find interesting is greater discussion of what pressure points need to be pressed in order to effect change. (Or to effect it broadly.) Who are the people who need to model new kinds of publishing, are they willing to do so, and to what extent will it affect their own goals (the mid-career promotion or fellowship). What are the institutions that need to change/adapt their standards for tenure in a way that will cause other institutions to emulate?

Anonymous said...

What are some thoughts on the future of publication (roles in publishing)?