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Publishing in the Humanities Today: Part I

2nd December 2009

Helen Tartar, Editorial Director of Fordham Press, gave a talk at Northwestern University on November 18 titled “Publishing in the Humanities Today.” In the upcoming days, we are going to present the full lecture in excerpts.

Here is the first excerpt, outlining the past, present, and future for university press publishing:

The saying goes that, when Harvard University was considering giving Vladimir Nabokov tenure in its literature faculty, Roman Jakobson commented, “You don’t hire an elephant to teach zoology.” For me to presume to give you an account of the “state of publishing” that would aspire to scientific verity or falsifiability would be like the elephant trying to lecture on zoology. What I can offer you is something in the genre of testimony—how university press publishing in the humanities looks today, from my standpoint and out of my personal experience. Though I am speaking only for myself, I have been pleasantly surprised, especially recently, to find considerable similarities between what I say and the remarks of other humanities editors on panels and in round-table discussions.

Let me start with a few basic comments about the situation of a university press, especially with reference to humanities scholarship and tenure. Since it’s a topic very much in the air these days, I’ll then venture a few comments about media change and computers. I’ll be able then to conclude on a more positive note than when I spoke at Northwestern two years ago, because of good news for younger scholars in the language departments in the form of grant programs newly sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. Since all this is a lot to cover, I’ll have to be rather speculative and sketchy. But I hope to leave time in the question period for us either to go even further out on speculative limbs or to get down to highly pragmatic detail, whichever you might wish.

To put it quite simply, American university presses were created so that university professors could publish their research, although sometimes presses could use reminding of that today. I believe that Cornell and Johns Hopkins claim the earliest dates of establishment, in 1869 and 1878, respectively. Fordham University Press was established in 1907, a year before Yale, in 1908. These dates correspond roughly to the introduction into the United States of the model of the German research university, with its assumption that knowledge is a matter of progress rather than mere replication and its requirement that university professors be researchers and producers of new knowledge, rather than merely teachers. There is nothing necessary or eternal about this institutional formation—I believe Harvard and Yale were founded in the seventeenth century primarily to teach ministers, and until well after the Civil War the role of the university was so much a matter of reproduction that Charles Hodge, opponent of the Transcendentalists, could boast that, in his fifty years of teaching at the Princeton Theological Seminary, not a single new or original idea had ever been broached there. Significantly, Hodge died in 1878, the year Johns Hopkins University Press was founded. And one need not, unfortunately, reach into the past for models different from the research university—today the rise of the “for profit” university and the replacement of tenure-track jobs by adjuncts are only some of the increasing threats to that institution.

When university presses were formed, at times they piggybacked onto organizations and resources that already existed to provide some of the skills and processes needed to produce a book. Specifically, some presses, such as Stanford, grew out of the printing plant of the university. This means that the press owned all the means for producing books—indeed, had employees for that purpose, right down to those with the skills to cut the dies for stamping spines.             All that ended in the seventies, just before I entered publishing, depriving presses of a source of potential income outside of books (namely, that from the sale of  printing itself) and forcing them into dependence on outside suppliers. This was the universities’ initial response to the development of computer typesetting: rather than invest an estimated $3 million or so in new equipment, almost all who had printing plants decided to “outsource” the functions of typesetting, printing, and binding.

In consequence of this and other forces, during my years in publishing, the university press has become more and more “virtual”—meaning that more and more emphasis is placed on its least material aspects, above all editorial choice, the constellation of a list, and the creation of prestige, both for authors because of how they are published and who they are published with, and for the parent university. I would even include design and marketing here, because they are part of the image a press presents. Back in the mid-eighties, I didn’t know any other editor who was saying “the press is the diplomatic service of the university” (a phrase coined, at least when I heard it, by the media theorist Friedrich Kittler). But in the last few years I have been hearing it, or variations, more and more often.

This has gone hand in hand with increasing competiveness in the field of academic knowledge itself. In part this is due to the ceaseless contraction of university funding in the wake of the Cold War, but it might in fact also have something to do with an increase in knowledge itelf. I suspect a humanities scholars just does need to know more today than in the sixties—more about other fields, more about theory, more about the historical shifts we have recently been undergoing, such as globalization, the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the resurgence of religion. At university presses, there is great competition as presses vie with each other for important authors and authors strive to get their names attached to the most important lists. Gone are the days (which in some places may have lasted through the seventies) when it was simply the assumption that the university press existed primarily to publish the work of its home faculty, and especially assistant professors—and when it often had subsidy money available for that specific purpose.

Competiton at university presses is thus also fueled by a phenomenon that I believe dates from the nineties—the idea that a book, especially a tenure book, is somehow more prestigious if it is not published by the author’s home press. That leaves no press with an inherent mission to publish it, or funds earmarked for that purpose. This may have encouraged “free rider” behavior at some presses, which slash or refuse altogether academic work in the humanities, or adopt a policy of “no first books,” even as their parent institutions are demanding more and more book publications from junior faculty in the very fields those presses are cutting.

An importantly problematic element in the press imaginary behind such behavior is the notion of market and the fact that, though the press’s most important traffic is in the virtual profits of prestige and reputation, it sees itself as a publisher in a field vaguely the same as that occupied by anyone else who makes and offers for sale the object “book.” This notion of market is, of course, a wedge for “business models” whereby the value of something can be judged by the number of copies it sells, and the fact that money changes hands can also be used to to demand something nearly impossible for a publisher of academic books—that more money come in that is spent providing the goods and services needed to produce a scholarly book. (It may be different for European houses like Brill, which publish many more books per year and at vastly higher prices.) After all, a press operates economically in a manner that neoliberal economics seems to have relegated scornfully to such places as Shenzhen—it uses the labor of skilled workers to make objects that are then offered for sale, almost always via middlemen. Even if one doesn’t reject outright this model of manufacture for, well, good old-fashioned usury, although in new electronic modalities, the academic book (and probably the book pure and simple) is not an efficient commodity if what one is thinking about is making profits.

There are important reasons, nonetheless, that academic books have taken the form of commodities offered in a public form, and I will get to a few of these in a minute. But the market model based on selling the most copies (and there are other market models) just doesn’t work for academic work. In the creation of knowledge, one must allow for trial and error. One cannot choose to publish only those books that will mke major contributions, any more than one can choose in advance to fund only those scientific experiments that will make paradigm-busting breakthroughs, because in the creation of knowledge (1) you simply cannot know in advance with absolute certainty which those will be, and (2) they cannot come to being in isolation but must build upon half-starts, semi-failures, attempts in which a good new idea wouldn’t quite mesh with the old material until the next generation or, equally productively, attempts that may lie dormant until the next generation’s dominent idea has waned and someone returns to them and suddently realizes what has not been accounted for, what paths left untaken.

Check back for more of the lecture on Monday, December 7th!