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Publishing in the Humanities Today: Part V

11th December 2009

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Without further ado, the fifth and final installment of Helen Tartar’s lecture on humanities publishing:

I have been saying for decades that, while the subsidy required by scholarly publishing most importantly subsidizes academic scholarship, in fact it also subsidizes other important things, namely, the technics and traditions associated with the book. These new electronic possibilities give a new meaning to that. They don’t attempt to replace the printed book, but build on it to provide models and uses beyond the print form. Yet they don’t pay for themselves.

            One very positive development in the last couple of years is a series of five-year projects funded by the Mellon Foundation and designed to help presses publish, in ordinary paper format, first books in what the call for applications called emerging or “underserved” fields, the latter being, if I interpret it correctly, a euphemism for important academic fields that publishers have been dropping on the excuse that the books don’t sell well enough.

            The two grants in which Fordham is involved are the Modern Language Initiative (MLI, also involving the University of California Press FlashPoints series, the University of Pennsylvania Press, the University Press of Virginia, and the University of Washington Press) and the American Literatures Initiative (ALI, headed by New York University Press and also involving Rutgers, Temple, and Virginia). There is also a Mellon grant for Slavic studies to Northwestern University Press, Wisconsin, and Pittsburgh. In that consortium, Northwestern has chosen to specialize in literature, and you should certainly be aware of that.

            The Modern Language Initiative, which Fordham heads, attempts to synchronize its aims with the report of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, and thus to take as its topic the study, as written up in English, of language as such and linguistic and cultural competence, rather than any focus on a single language and its area. Richard Sieburth nicely catches this in a blurb he has given us for our MLA handout: “What is exciting about this initiative is its Benjaminian emphasis on the ‘languageness’ not just of literature, but of that larger field of signs we call culture. Rather than approach the question of ‘foreign’ languages on a quota basis, this is a project that encourages the exploration of the spaces in between and among the various ways we all word our worlds.” There is a presupposition against work on Russian for this initiative, because the Mellon didn’t want to fund two competing venues and the Slavic grant had already been funded. But work in Slavic might also fit if it had a linguistic focus and a comparative dimension and did not, for whatever reason, fit the specifically Slavic grant.

The MLI funds four first books per press, and the ALI five first books per press, each year for five years. Editorial acquisitions procedures are completely standard and independent for each press—you can find press statements and contact persons on the respective websites at www.modernlanguageinitiative.org and www.americanliteratures.org. The collaborative portion, which is required by the grant, kicks in once a book goes into production—all books go through a freelance managing editor and typesetter up to the point of printing and binding, thus ensuring low cost and high standards (the freelance managing editor, a former colleague of mine, has been specializing in literary studies and literary theory for nearly a decade) and freeing the consortium presses from the internal costs of handling these books at those stages. Wonderfully enough, the grants include a recognition that marketing—often overlooked when it comes to subsidizing publication—is an integral part of what it means to publish a book, and there are funds for joint marketing of all books in the MLI and ALI programs.

            As I stand here in front of you, the most important thing about these grants is that they enable me to end with rays of hope in what has in recent years become a pretty gloomy scenario for authors of first scholarly books in the modern languages.  In the larger picture, though, I think what may most important is that these grants offer funding for books, as developed and published primarily in paper format, by university presses—recognizing all the necessary costs and skills that this involves. This is word that ought to get around, and that I hope you will help me get around, also to administrations. Books are not going to stay entirely the same, but they are not going to go away, either.  They are a societal good, and they deserve support.

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