books · nonbooks · publishing

Alt scholarly publishers, university presses, nonbooks, and books

A big source of confusion when talking about the current state of scholarly publishing is the tendency to conflate “scholarly publishing” and “university presses” – and, relatedly, “written academic content” and “books from university presses.” I’ve already discussed the distinction between commercial scholarly publishers and not-for-profit university presses. But there’s lots more to the landscape – library publishers, digital humanities outfits, service publishers, etc. – which Amanda Clay Powers helpfully labels “alt scholarly publishers.”

What if we (with exceptions, of course, like Forerunners) make conventional books the purview of university presses, encourage alt scholarly publishers to disseminate scholarship that doesn’t fit the high-investment “university press book” model, and have a productive debate about how that line is drawn? I suspect there’s material that currently moves on the comparatively slow, expensive university press track that would benefit from being made available faster, with fewer bells and whistles, and presumably OA. The grant-driven digital model at alt publishers seems especially suited to these projects.

By the same token the book, while hardly a static artifact, has proved to be enormously durable – and expensive. We should preserve and cultivate the university-based infrastructure that makes conventional scholarly books possible and resist the (frankly neoliberal) reasoning that devalues more specialized books and the investments, in skills and money, necessary to publish them. As products of a high-skilled, labor-intensive process, these books will carry a sticker price, albeit one made at least somewhat more affordable thanks to modest university subsidies. It’s the system we have, it works pretty well for many kinds of books, and as the recent experiences at Missouri and Akron show, it has plenty of defenders.

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All this comes down, at a certain level, to labor. University presses have people who are good at things like cultivating a list’s reputation and working with sales reps and book review editors. Why assign those employees to gray literature, data sets, or books in fields that don’t seem to reward full-blown books? On the flip side, why invest in training librarians, digital humanists, and others with “hard” skills in the sorts of things it takes publishers many years to develop a feel for?

One of the advantages of the current landscape is that there are lots of options with different sorts of specialization. We should celebrate that diversity by respecting what the various nodes do best (while always encouraging collaboration) instead of assuming more traditional nodes will be disrupted into something else. At university presses – even smaller and public ones – that tends to be full-on books, mostly in the humanities and social sciences. The point isn’t to reify “the book,” but to value and, ultimately, protect it.

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