Tag Archives: books

Deans Care About Books

“Doesn’t Matt care about publishing books anymore?” That’s what an editor of a well-established humanities journal recently asked one of my press colleagues. The editor had just returned from a meeting with me, where she had expressed interest in publishing “curated” collections of articles from back issues of the journal. It struck me as a wonderful idea.


“Why make these print books?” I asked. “What do you mean?” she replied. I explained that the articles already existed in digital form in Project MUSE and could easily be collected there on the same page. Moreover, anyone working for a university press knows that most people read journal articles online, not in print. (Many institutions, in fact, only subscribe to the digital editions of scholarly journals.) Why not simply bundle the digital versions of the articles and publish them together online?

My explanation didn’t relieve her puzzlement. She explained that the editor of the collections and the authors of the articles wouldn’t get promotion and tenure credit if the collections were  published only online: “Deans care about books.”

This exchange reveals a troubling and unsustainable view, shared by scholars and deans, of the function of university presses in the world of scholarship. It has two elements. First, university presses have a responsibility to credentialize scholars. Second, presses discharge this responsibility by publishing scholarship in the form of print books.

For the sake of argument, I will leave the first assumption unquestioned. (For a compelling argument against the practice of deans relying on university presses to evaluate scholars, see Lindsay Waters’s Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship.) It’s the second that concerns me here. University presses largely accept their credentialing function in the scholarly world. The economic realities of publishing scholarship, however, lead most of them to reject the idea that print is the proper, much less the only, format for all scholarship that makes it through the review process. By clinging to this second idea—the idea that humanities and humanistic social science scholarship must take the form of a print book—scholars and deans threaten the future of university presses and erode their ability to evaluate and distribute high-quality scholarship.

The only sure ticket to tenure and promotion is having your scholarship published by a university press. The reason is that having a university press book on one’s CV serves a signaling function. It tells deans and fellow scholars that your work withstood the rigors of peer review and the evaluation by press editors and faculty boards. This, in turn, signals that your work is good, that, as a scholar, you do your job well. There’s an alignment here between the interests of university presses and the interests of university deans. The presses want to publish high- quality scholarship, and the deans want to employ and promote scholars who are good at their jobs. The process required to produce the first provides evidence for the second.

These interests align, however, only up to a point. The decisions that track the scholarly quality of a project—those involved in discharging the credentialing responsibility—are not the only decisions a press makes when it comes to publishing a project. The work of determining the quality of scholarship and signaling this quality is done when a press issues a contract for a project and stands behind the decision by publishing it. In between those two moments, a press must make many production decisions—about the size of a print run, whether a book should be sold print-on-demand, whether a book should be cloth or paperback, whether images should be in color—that have nothing to do with the project’s quality. These decisions are responsive to practical matters such as how much it will cost to produce the book, how many copies a press thinks it can sell, who the press thinks the audience is, or even (perhaps especially), how well the press gets along with Jeff Bezos. They’re about selling books, not evaluating them. (For a good illustration of the gap between sales and quality consider: the press that published Nietzsche for Dummies probably sold a lot of books.)

Chief among production decisions is the one about publication format, whether to publish a project in print (cloth or paperback) or digitally (or, more commonly, both). To see the significance of this decision, consider what would have happened had the editor followed the route I suggested and published her collections online. It would involve asking the digital publisher to put all of the (already copy edited, designed, typeset) selected articles on the same webpage with a new introduction by the editor. (Obviously it would be a more complicated than that, but you get my point.)

Compare this to what would happen if they were published in print. The articles would have to be downloaded and printed out. Then, production staff would scan the original articles to turn them into a manuscript. Copy editors, designers, printers, distributors, and all of the other people involved in producing these collections would then do their parts. All of this to make the content available in a format nobody seems to want so that somebody can put another line on her CV that will be credited by her dean. (Not all decisions about how to publish a work are like this one, of course. This case is unique in that the material already existed digitally. But the point is that, even in such a case, the push for print remains.)

In case it needs spelling out, the enormous difference between these two paths to publication corresponds to a much different price tag for the press. This is why, as I said at the outset, by clinging to the outdated notion that scholarship must be published in print deans and scholars hurt university presses. They tie the legitimate responsibility of determining and distributing quality scholarship to a costly, inefficient, inflexible, and unsustainable publishing model. By insisting that print is a necessary condition for scholarly quality, deans and scholars make it more difficult for university presses to stay in business, thereby making it more difficult for them to publish print books! At the same time, scholars insist on having their own work published in print while they increasingly engage the work of others online. And deans demand that scholars publish print books while not giving their libraries enough funds to buy them. So they insist on print and undermine the demand for it.

So, to answer the editor’s question: I do care about publishing books. Like all scholars and publishers, I love print books and deeply appreciate them as objects (as a quick glance at my office would confirm). I am not advocating for the end of print. But I also care about the future of scholarly publishing. In order to help secure a healthy future for both university presses and print books, scholars and deans must embrace the digital as a legitimate and credit-worthy format for quality scholarship.

Matthew McAdam is Humanities Editor at Johns Hopkins University Press.



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The internet killed books again

A few years ago I created a column called “deathwatch” (macabre, I know). Its goal was to track all of the real or imagined ways that we thought media could die. Sometimes it was about the strange ways that we personify technologies, sometimes about asking why media change makes us so uncomfortable.

The Quant & The Connoisseur logo

I don’t think I realized then that it is just a part of the culture, a necessary meme through which we make sense of things around us. As strange as it may sound, there is clearly something comforting about eulogizing media technology, like a warm blanket for the overconnected.

Consider the latest incarnations. First there was George Packer’s eloquent and almost wholly factless concern that Amazon is single-handedly ruining books in The New Yorker. Buying this idea—and its clear from the buzz that everyone did—rests on two basic premises. First, it ignores the fact that 200 million more books (meaning items, unique things) were sold this year than the year before and that since roughly the late seventeenth century there has been no appreciable decline in the output of reading material except in times of war, plague, or famine. Second, it depends on you believing that the big 6 publishers are good for books. These are the descendants of the same people about whom an eighteenth-century German satirist once said drank champagne from the skulls of authors. Now they are the last line of defense in the preservation of civilized discourse.

The second case came in a recent piece in The Guardian that lamented the decline of author advances for mid-list fiction. Rather than all books, it seems, the internet is particularly bad for “literature”—or at least the kind that is just OK, and from which people apparently have been making a living since the invention of copyright. It fits the broader narrative of the death of the middle these days. Along with the shrinking middle class we now have shrinking publishers’ mid-lists.

It should be pretty clear that both of these scenarios only make sense from the producers’ side, or I should say, certain producers. I’m sure it is a tough time to be a publisher or a mediocre author. For readers, on the other hand, it’s a great time. There is fantastic stuff coming out from niche publishers, like Tomas Espedal’s Against Art (Seagull Books), Merethe Lindstrøm’s Days in the History of Silence (Other Press), or Markus Werner’s Zündel’s Exit (Dalkey Archive Press). There are so many different ways to access books now and so many that used to be hard to get that aren’t. And despite popular opinion, university presses remain committed to producing thoughtful scholarship like Bernd Stiegler’s Traveling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel (Chicago) or the vanguard of ideas, as in this year’s prize-winning book by Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard). Good writing, as well as bad, doesn’t depend on machines. Dante didn’t need the printing press or copyright (though he did need his friend Boccaccio), and neither of those has protected us from the likes of Clive Cussler.

The real problem, as everybody knows, is not that the internet is ruining writing. It’s writing. There’s just too much of it. How writers and readers can build sustainable communities without being overwhelmed or lost remains an urgent task. Making sense of the traffic of ideas will inevitably require new finding aids and new tools to sift through all the material and create new social connections. Much as Ann Blair explained in her widely read study, Too Much to Know (Yale), about readers in the sixteenth century who invented all sorts of new tools and techniques to keep track of and organize the printing press’s output (indeces, tables, trees, lists), today we need a whole new range of sorting devices to help us access and find writing—so we can enjoy reading. It’s not that Amazon is killing books. It’s that they aren’t going far enough in facilitating our navigation of the digital deluge.

What I have come to realize is that fears of media change usually mean a threat to someone’s real or perceived authority. Mediation is about control—about who gets to say what to whom. Media change is about shifting that power dynamic. That’s why you usually hear it from the well-heeled. It’s a top-down concern, not bottom-up. Publishers have very nice offices, authors like Packer have very nice advances, and critics have over-indulged in their own charismatic pretenses. The internet continues to put all that in flux. And that is surely a good thing.

Andrew Piper is Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. His work explores the application of computational approaches to the study of literature and culture. He directs the Literary Topologies project and is the author most recently of Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. Andrew blogs at The Infernal Machine as The Quant & The Connoisseur. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @_akpiper.

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Who Should Professors Write For?

Two weeks ago Nicholas Kristof proved yet again that it isn’t news until The New York Times prints it. In his weekly column, Kristof lamented university professors’ self-imposed irrelevance:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

And the primary reason for the gap between scholars and this public that Kristof says they should be writing for: an academic culture “that glorifies arcane unintelligibility,” rewards hyper-specialization, and revels in jargon. Kristof was particularly perplexed that academics continued their cloistered ways when they

have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

The reactions from academics across disciplines was swift, mocking, and exasperated. It turns out that professors are writing for all kinds of audiences and in a variety of forms. (Check out these blogs, for instance, on political science, medieval book history, and current events for a taste.) And, in case you hadn’t heard, it’s rather difficult to place a piece in the New Yorker or The New York Times, Kristof’s idea of a public medium.

In addition to these responses by professors, a number of journalists who once aspired to become academics wrote about the frustrations that drove them to leave academia in pursuit of a broader audience. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo described a pivotal conversation with his faculty advisor, the historian Gordon S. Wood, at Brown:

Once when I was trying to figure out what I was doing I headed up to Wood’s office to discuss it with him. Wood was generous and kind and always encouraging to me but rather distant as an advisor. At one point in our conversation, he laid it on the line. “You need to decide whether you’ll be satisfied with writing for an audience of two or maybe three hundred people.”

Clearly, the correct answer to this was “yes.” And as Wood said it, then and now I have the sense he thought posing it in this way would get me back on track with a focus on the scholarly community we were a part of. But hearing it so starkly, in my mind my response was something more like, “Holy Crap, no way! That’s definitely nowhere near enough people. And worse yet, I know some of those people. And I definitely don’t want to write for them.”

So Marshall left the academy for a career in journalism to write about “the great issues of the day” and extricate himself from the intellectual and cultural constraints of thinking and writing as an academic. Marshall decided to leave the academy because the incentive structure–what gets you published, what gets you tenured, what gets you promoted–was “geared against engagement with the world outside of academics.” If a professor writes for a blog, publishes in a non-peer-reviewed journal (the New Yorker or The New York Times, for example) or gives a public lecture for the local historical society, she doesn’t get credit for any of it; that is, in the logic of academic advancement, those outward-facing engagements won’t help her life as an academic. Academics write for academics.

Another aspiring-academic-turned-journalist, Joshua Rothman at the New Yorker, expanded on this academic system that produces such bad writing and half-developed intellects and contrasted it to journalism. Both journalism and academia are undergoing broad transformations, but they’re going in different directions, according to Rothman. Cultural forces are pushing journalism toward populism and accessibility, as new digital technologies continue to lower the barriers for entry. Anybody can publish and everybody can be a journalist. And established journalists, and established media, have to work hard to make their voices heard amidst a cacophony of blogs, tweets, and web sites. In academia, however, these same forces of cultural and technological change are pushing the in the opposite direction, “toward insularity.”

As in journalism, good jobs are scarce—but, unlike in journalism, professors are their own audience. This means that, since the liberal-arts job market peaked, in the mid-seventies, the audience for academic work has been shrinking. Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets. Writing a first book, you may have in mind particular professors on a tenure committee; miss that mark and you may not have a job. Academics know which audiences—and, sometimes, which audience members—matter.

It won’t do any good, in short, to ask professors to become more populist. Academic writing and research may be knotty and strange, remote and insular, technical and specialized, forbidding and clannish—but that’s because academia has become that way, too. Today’s academic work, excellent though it may be, is the product of a shrinking system. It’s a tightly-packed, super-competitive jungle in there. [..] If academic writing is to become expansive again, academia will probably have to expand first.

The knotty insularity of academic writing is not new, however, and neither are the complaints about its irrelevance.  This is not just another nothing-new-under-the-sun observation, however. The sharp differences between scholarly and popular forms of writing first crystalized at another moment of technological change.

Between 1770 and 1800 in Germany, the number of printed titles increased 150 percent. Many intellectuals and scholars celebrated the increased availability of print as a promise of Enlightenment. More print, they reasoned, meant greater access to it and, thus, greater access to knowledge. Print would inform, cultivate, and enlighten. But, as print continued to expand, others began to doubt the promises of print. A lot of what was printed didn’t really look like knowledge. It looked more like re-circulated opinions or just plain nonsense. But this was just the question: in a world of easily accessible information, how could you tell what was real knowledge and what was junk? How could you filter out all the dross that modern print produced?

One solution was to start writing in a different language, one not so easily commodified and circulated. This was the route that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant chose.

Kant, a professor at the University of Königsberg in the furthest reaches of Prussia, was by no means a bestselling author, but he began his career writing relatively accessible texts in philosophy that were characterized by a free, open style, prone to imaginative digressions. But with the publication of his landmark Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, all that changed. The first reviewers wondered want had happened to the imminently readable Kant. They dismissed the Critique‘s obtuse, impenetrable language as a cover for bad thinking. It was “incomprehensible to the greatest part of the reading public”; it hovered “in the clouds.”  Another reviewer went even further and decried Kant’s technical, jargon-filled language as the real philosophical issue. True knowledge, as he put it, should be “popular,” true to experience, and accessible to a broad reading public.


Kant was not impressed. In the introduction to the second edition of the Critique, he confronted his critics by refuting their entire premise. Real philosophy didn’t need to be popular. In fact, the pursuit of popularity and a broad public was philosophy’s problem. Not only did he not regret writing the Critique in a more popular language, he wished he had written it in a more “armour-like” fashion. He wished that he had made it more impenetrable than it already was. But why? Why all the philosophical jargon and technical arguments? Why couldn’t Kant just write in clear, engaging prose?

For Kant, his contemporaries wrote in an easily accessible style not out of philosophical or ethical high-mindedness but out of a desire to sell books. They knew as well as he did that the modern print market had little patience for rigorous, complicated arguments. As the market had expanded over the course of the eighteenth century, so too had its audiences. It no longer catered to a few learned scholars but to an ever-expanding and increasingly diverse public interested more in opinions and memes, not original, complex ideas.

Kant chose to write in a self-consciously “scholastic” style, then, not only because he thought his subject required it, but because he wanted to distinguish his work from what he considered the mindless, commodified books of the popular press.

Kant’s dilemma crystalized the growing divide between scholarly and popular kinds of writing.   For many of Kant’s Enlightenment contemporaries, the technological change that the proliferation of print represented carried with it an obvious imperative: all knowledge should be shared broadly. But for others, such as Kant, the imperative to share and write for an ever-expanding public raised a number of concerns. First, just because there print was more widely available did not mean that everything that was printed was of good quality. There was a lot of junk, and as yet little sense as to how to filter through it all to find what was actually worth reading. Second, new knowledge meant more specialized knowledge. In order to advance knowledge, scholars had to dig deeper and make ever finer distinctions. All those arcane details that Kant’s critics dismissed as superfluous were necessary if Kant was going to move beyond his philosophical predecessors. Kant didn’t engage in complex, highly technical discussions of Leibniz’s concept of space or Hume’s skepticism for the hell of it.  Technical and narrowly focused arguments were the price he, or his readers, had to pay for new knowledge. And he rightly observed that this type of scholarly knowledge conflicted with the imperative to make knowledge widely available, to popularize it. And it certainly did not jibe with the demands of the modern print market.

In response to these two conflicting pressures, to advance knowledge and popularize it, Kant drew a sharp distinction between scholarly and popular knowledge. However technical his philosophy got, he always insisted that knowledge was ultimately practical and oriented towards the world. He simply thought that his critics had gotten it backwards. They demanded popularity on the front end, but Kant insisted that popularity was something that should only be pursued after the hard, rigorous work of the scholar had been finished. “Popularity,” he wrote, should never be the “beginning of science.” Knowledge should be shared more broadly, beyond the guild of scholars, only after it had been generated. If there were no actual knowledge, then there would be nothing to disseminate, nothing to popularize. Kant called the one scholastic knowledge and the other world knowledge.

Our own confusions about the proper language and audience for academics echo Kant’s sharp division between the popular and the scholarly. The problem with the academic system, however, is not simply its specialized, highly technical languages. In world of increasing complexity, knowledge is advanced through specialization and its technical forms. As knowledge becomes more complex, so too do the concepts and the languages we use to make explain it and expand upon it. Kant distinguished scholarly and popular work so that knowledge could advance, but he never considered scholarly work to be an end in itself. It was always oriented, if not subordinated, to a broader ends.

Kant embraced the distinction between the academic and popular audiences and writing as essential to a particular kind of thinking.  The question we might ask ourselves today is whether that simple dichotomy holds true in our digital moment. It may be that the newer media are dissolving the distinctions in surprising and productive ways.

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Read quickly, for tomorrow you die

Slate, the digital magazine of news and commentary, recently added a new feature to its articles. Beside most titles is an estimated reading time:

Slate list of articles with estimated time to read them

Slate‘s decision to estimate how long it will take to read an article is certainly an acknowledgment of our digital culture in which readers more often than not skim and scan, but rarely make it through an entire article. But, as Brett Beasley notesSlate is also acknowledging, however implicitly, our finitude.

Many thinkers and artists throughout history . . .have written and worked with a momento mori, or reminder of death, nearby. While we might pride ourselves on the nearly instantaneous speed with which we can deploy and make use of information online, in the end our time and our attention are finite, and we have to make difficult decisions about what is valuable enough to spend our time on. We each have our own electronic tools—Feedly, Reddit, Evernote, HootSuite—we use not just to gather up information, but to dispense with what isn’t valuable, like machetes we use to hack away at the digital jungle.

Constrained as we are by the limits of time and our bodies, we make decisions about what and how to read. Sometimes we read with great care and commitment, while other times we read with haste and detachment. Reading takes different shapes and forms, because when we read we do so as embodied creatures engaged in a unique activity that is always situated in a particular time and place. We always read somewhere and at some time.

And in moments like ours when we feel as though we are awash in so many words, we look for ways to cope, ways to manage and structure our reading through technologies of all kinds. Whereas today we have a panoply of digital technologies to make our reading lives more manageable, late eighteenth-century German readers, anxious about book floods and plagues, had different sorts of technologies for dealing with so much print. In his 1799 book on the Art of Reading Books, Adam Bergk advised his audience to treat reading like an exercise that required careful forethought and repetition. He recommended the best body postures for reading, as well as the different methods required for a novel or philosophy.

Our digital technologies may well outstrip the practices and norms that have been cultivated over centuries for reading printed texts, but we are gradually adapting older practices and norms for our digital age. And maybe we’ll even come up with some new ones.

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