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Mellon Foundation Funded Initiatives

23rd September 2010

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Today, Cornell University welcomes FUP Editorial Director, Helen Tartar, to talk about two Mellon Foundation funded initiatives—The Modern Language Initiative (MLI) and The American Literatures Initiative (ALI).

Here is a preview of her presentation:

It’s possible to be short and sweet in saying what the Modern Language Initiative (MLI) and the American Literatures Initiative (ALI) are about: They are about providing subsidy and publicity for first books in what the Mellon Foundation euphemistically calls “underserved” areas of scholarship.
I’ll spend maybe twenty minutes here at the outset saying what the initiatives are, then segue into some related questions concerning humanities publishing today. I hope we’ll spend most of our time together in questions and discussion of what you might want to know about publishing, or what you might be thinking about publishing and the study of languages and literatures today.

Both these Mellon initiatives are the result of a call from the Mellon Foundation for proposals to support publication in under-served fields. The Mellon required that the proposals be collaborative—they had to come from a group of presses rather than from one press alone—and the Mellon, as I have said, has limited the money provided to the publication of first books. The MLI and the ALI are only two of the initiatives that have been funded. There are also initiatives in South Asian studies, Slavic studies, ethnomusicology, and early American history, though this is not an exhaustive list.

One of the most distinctive things about this program is its request for collaboration. The initial letter of invitation expressed the hope that collaboration might enable presses to pool resources and therefore make them permanently able to afford books they are now avoiding on the excuse that, given the decline in library sales, the books don’t sell well enough. This hope may be based on a mistaken analogy—in one of the write-ups about the financial system after the financial crash of a couple of years ago, I read that banks had similarly been collaborating to bail each other out. But banks deal in that famously universal equivalent, money, whereas university presses are nonprofit organizations that pool a variety of sets of expertise needed in the making of books–from judging submissions to copyediting, design, and the various tasks of marketing—which are possessed by specific individuals and are not convertible into one another. Also, presses already exist on a spectrum from what is absolutely discrete to each press to what many presses share in common.

Topping the pole of what is discrete to each press is the editorial process, which still, at least at the smaller houses, is an ongoing individual relation between author and acquiring editor. Actually, one could start the pole of discreteness further back, in the very writing of a book, an individual author facing an inscriptive technology, nowadays usually a computer. While it’s possible to co-author a book in the humanities, the various attempts to introduce into the humanities collaborative work like that in the sciences have not been, so far as I know, a notable success. And the ones I know of are aimed at producing computer websites and the ilk rather than books. An author has to face what is sometimes a lonely task of writing; an editor has to face what is sometimes an exhausting process of sorting through and answering the deluge of unsolicited submissions that come in each year, and what is often the exhilarating process of seeking for talent, of meeting and wooing authors. The editor’s task is to create the press’s “profile”—what it delivers to the university less in terms of profit than in terms of prestige.

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