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Publishing in the Humanities Today: Part II

8th December 2009

Last week, we brought you Part I of Helen Tartar’s Northwestern lecture on the state of humanities publishing. Here is Part II:

There are presses—e.g., Longman’s or other large textbook houses—that do make considerable profit off humanities publishing. But they are not publishing new knowledge—rather, they are drawing direction from dozens of scholarly books that probably barely broke even, even though they paved the way and laid out the approaches for, say, a literature reader in feminist or ethnic studies. Longman expects to sell 80,000 copies each year, I was once told, of its main poetry textbook—but I was also told that, as the audience for this anthology, they look no higher than community colleges in Texas.  Not a vantage point compatible with the prestige that it is increasing the role of a university press to foster.

I prefer to look at the act of offering an object for sale—of adopting the commodity form as a vehicle for purposes perhaps a little different from those usually associated with it—as a form of opening, a kind of justification of the necessary exclusionism of a university.  A university cannot open its doors indiscriminately to all comers: a teacher simply cannot teach all the students who might potentially want to take her class (and who might just drop in and out were they not constrained by the selectivity of admissions). But for an amount of money that is, after all, not very large, by buying a university-press book any person can, by reading it, participate in what the sorting processes of that university have determined represents the best in intellectual life. Beyond this lies the notions of the “imagined communities” created by print culture in the founding of nations and at least in Western Europe believed to be part of modern democracy.

So what about this object, the academic book, deemed to represent the best in intellectual life and to have some role in public national culture? What about it, especially as it also still represents the link, for better or for worse, between the university press and its original mission of publishing academic work: the role of university-press publications in tenure and promotion? Once, at the MLA, a young scholar commented to me that she was starting to ask what sort of discipline she had landed in, such that one’s job interview takes place in a hotel room. I don’t think enough people ask, in a positive sense, what sorts of disciplines we have when a person is asked to write a book—of a certain sort, in a certain publishing environment—in order to keep the job she managed to land through that hotel-room interview.

I know it’s not a popular thing to say, but I think a tenure book is a truly remarkable expectation—and a remarkable achievement. To create new knowledge is a big enough demand, but to do so in a product whose scope of several hundred pages demands years of scholarship and synthesis—the de-creation and re-creation of entire worlds—is an imaginative work of integration on a truly massive scale. It also requires that a scholar become an author, someone who signs an oeuvre in the public space, someone who speaks toward a largely unknown audience from a position that risks being assigned all sorts of personal responsibility. And—distinctively in the U.S. context—it demands that a professor take up writing as a discipline of ongoing revision and improvement in dialogue with other people.

Part of the publishing imaginary, part of what people at university presses think they are doing, is adding value to a book: not just by choosing it, constellating it in a list, giving it a handsome cover, and marketing it, but by having some influence on how it conveys what it conveys. In this, U.S. publishing is different even from Britain, and markedly different from Europe. Here a scholar’s work is seldom published exactly as its author happened originally to write it. Instead, the author, especially the junior author, is expected, after undertaking a revision of the dissertation to make it a “book,” to make further revisions designed to achieve writerly grace and organizational coherence in response to the “gatekeepers” to the process of publication: most importantly, the outside readers, sometimes the acquiring editor; and, on the level of line-by-line detail, the copyeditor.

The first step in this process—apart from those already taken in the process of writing a dissertation for a particular advisor in a community of academic colleagues—is to catch the sympathetic attention of an acquiring editor, an individual whose job it is to locate talent, be an advocate for the book, and stand in for a structural necessity in human communication that Judith Butler has beautifully phrased in this way: “If I am trying to give an account of myself, it is always to someone, to one whom I presume to receive my words in some way, although I do not and cannot know always in what way. In fact, the one who is positioned as the receiver may not be receiving at all, may be engaged in something that cannot under any circumstances be called ‘receiving,’ doing nothing more for me than establishing a certain site, a position, a structural place where the relation to a possible reception is articulated.” We can come back to this quote in discussion if you would like, since there is much to say about it.  

Once the book has an editor’s eye, she must arrange further negotiations. I say that an editor can decide to reject a book but not to accept it—the latter requires the collaboration of a whole array of other people. The first tier of those are the outside scholarly readers. Their written reports have two purposes. The first is to serve as the formal grounds for the press’s decision about whether or not to accept the book. This decision, in the vast majority of university presses, is made by an editorial board comprising rotating members of the parent university’s faculty in relevant disciplines. The editorial board reads the reports, not the books themselves—so that the decision will be based on the opinions of experts in the author’s own field, though in a discussion among scholars from several fields.  The second purpose is to help improve the work by offering suggestions. Most U.S. readers take the second task very seriously, and a press usually asks the author either to incorporate those suggestions or to state in a formal response why he thinks they are not a good idea. 

The decision to publish a scholarly book is the decision to award its author the labor of a whole team of skilled people, whose labor will not be signed, as the book is by its author, but will give it the fetishistic aura of the commodity that Marx talks about. By this I refer to how the variations in human skill make a object almost magical, since it exceeds (pace Microsoft) what one could do by oneself, with one’s own skills. Here I wish we had a whole hour to go into the philosophy, phenomenology, and history of the book. But since I said I would venture some comments about electronic media, let me simply refer you, for the first two, to Jean-Luc Nancy, On the Commerce of Thinking: Of Books and Bookstores (Fordham, 2009) and Fordham’s forthcoming Around the Book: Systems and Literacy, by Henry Sussman.


Stay tuned for Part III of the lecture tomorrow!