Keeping the Gates

Academic Publishing in the Age of On-Demand and Electronic Distribution

Publishing is a difficult business; however, academic publishing seems even more problematic, primarily because it lacks the market incentive of the large, for-profit publishing houses. Not that making money should be the chief goal of an academic press; yet, it does make life a little easier if one can occasionally put out a bestseller.

The problem for most publishers, whether academic or not, is that even if you have a quality product there is no guarantee it will sell. The timing may not be right for the topic. Other books may take precedence when it comes to doling out money from a limited marketing budget. As most authors will tell you, marketing is largely left up to them—unless they already have a track record of sales. So, most books will not get very much press unless the author pushes the product.

Unfortunately, self-help books, salaciousness, and fringe-thinking, sell best in our society, and most committed academics cannot use these tactics with a good conscience, or without sacrificing their academic reputation. However, that does not mean that the “ivory tower” cannot produce books accessible to the general public, maybe with help from the English department.

The academy must accept that the old model of picking and choosing winners from amongst a myriad of up and coming scholars, and then printing 500 very expensive copies of these monographs to sell only to libraries, is a model that needs to give way to the modern technology of on-demand and electronic publishing. The academy should also not bemoan this change but take the bull by the horns, making this new system of production and distribution work for them. If we do not, public intellectual debate will continue to obey a type of Gresham’s Law, where bad ideas and thinking crowd out the good.

In short, the academic community has a responsibility to become once again the primary gatekeepers of knowledge, a responsibility that has been abrogated and left largely to unmediated bloggers of varying competence. This is one of the chief complaints laid out in Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (2007). Although this might seem a self-serving argument that favors members of the cognoscenti, it is about more than just income and prestige for the few. It is about the role academics and experts play in keeping the public debate honest and focused.

The popular idea that any one person’s opinion is just as good as the next guy’s might be right when we are talking about a restaurant review on Yelp! It is not true, though, if we are talking about physics, medicine, chemistry, or any other highly specialized knowledgebase. There is still a need for expertise to keep us all on the intellectual straight and narrow. That is why the intellectual community, primarily in the form of university faculty, should use its peer-review process to expand its influence over what is being published in the on-demand and electronic market.

My idea at its core is simple: universities should provide peer-review services for a cut of an author’s royalties. The way this would be done is that each university would set up a peer-review committee. That committee would take in both solicited and unsolicited manuscripts choosing those they thought worthy of peer-review. These manuscripts would be assigned to the appropriate academics for review as part of their existing service contract. Once these manuscripts are reviewed, edited, and approved they would be published under the auspices of the university’s imprint through an on-demand service like Lulu, CreateSpace, or some other service. They could also be offered as eBooks.

Not every book would be published. Some authors would still be rejected, but rejection would not be based on a lack of resources. It would primarily come down to the university’s unwillingness to sanction with its imprint the author’s work.

 What would be the benefit of adopting this method over the old?

  1. The cost of actually printing the book would be greatly reduced, and due to this decreased cost more authors could get their peer-reviewed work on the market
  2. Universities unable to operate their own printing press or unable to afford the services of a traditional printer could still have a publisher’s imprint, which could potentially bring prestige and revenue to the university
  3. Monographs do not necessarily have to be on a topic of current interest because on-demand publishing allows a work to be manufactured and distributed when the topic is of interest to the general public, or academics
  4. University faculty can be more fully utilized outside the classroom, especially in tasks that pertain to their own branch of research interest, and they might have a better chance at publication themselves (faculty members would have to seek an imprint other than their own university to avoid the appearance of impropriety, but the present barrier to publication would be greatly reduced overall)

Beyond the reasons above, universities might again exert a little more influence over public intellectual debates by publishing more accessible works which would be thoroughly vetted by specialists from various academic fields. They could do this and still allow academics to continue writing narrow, esoteric monographs for their fellow researchers at less cost to the university and the purchasing public, including libraries.

I have not worked out all the details of this proposal, and there are clearly other costs and benefits that have to be weighed here. For example, one cost of this program might be the possibility that some universities would not be as circumspect as others. However, reputations, once earned or lost, would answer some of these concerns. Some might also point out that the more prestigious universities would be at an advantage if this program were adopted, but it is not certain that places like Princeton and Harvard would want to trade on their names in the open market. They are just as likely to maintain their elite publishing privileges by maintaining legacy production and distribution practices. What is more likely is that many more university publishing imprints would equalize things, hopefully without sacrificing quality of authorship and research.

Regardless of the consequences the broad academic community may have an opportunity to utilize these new techniques of publication and distribution to build up a large catalogue of trusted titles that the general public can choose from, titles that will allow us to again insert ourselves into the public dialogue on a variety of topics. Who knows? We might even make a little money to support our gate keeping duties!

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