Infernal Machine   /   July 29, 2014

Deans Care About Books

Brianne Alcala

“Doesn’t Matt care about publishing books anymore?” That's what an editor of a well-established humanities journal recently asked one of my press colleagues. The editor had just returned from a meeting with me, where she had expressed interest in publishing “curated” collections of articles from back issues of the journal. It struck me as a wonderful idea.

“Why make these print books?” I asked. “What do you mean?” she replied. I explained that the articles already existed in digital form in Project MUSE and could easily be collected there on the same page. Moreover, anyone working for a university press knows that most people read journal articles online, not in print. (Many institutions, in fact, only subscribe to the digital editions of scholarly journals.) Why not simply bundle the digital versions of the articles and publish them together online?

My explanation didn’t relieve her puzzlement. She explained that the editor of the collections and the authors of the articles wouldn’t get promotion and tenure credit if the collections were  published only online: “Deans care about books.”

This exchange reveals a troubling and unsustainable view, shared by scholars and deans, of the function of university presses in the world of scholarship. It has two elements. First, university presses have a responsibility to credentialize scholars. Second, presses discharge this responsibility by publishing scholarship in the form of print books.

For the sake of argument, I will leave the first assumption unquestioned. (For a compelling argument against the practice of deans relying on university presses to evaluate scholars, see Lindsay Waters’s Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship.) It’s the second that concerns me here. University presses largely accept their credentialing function in the scholarly world. The economic realities of publishing scholarship, however, lead most of them to reject the idea that print is the proper, much less the only, format for all scholarship that makes it through the review process. By clinging to this second idea—the idea that humanities and humanistic social science scholarship must take the form of a print book—scholars and deans threaten the future of university presses and erode their ability to evaluate and distribute high-quality scholarship.

The only sure ticket to tenure and promotion is having your scholarship published by a university press. The reason is that having a university press book on one’s CV serves a signaling function. It tells deans and fellow scholars that your work withstood the rigors of peer review and the evaluation by press editors and faculty boards. This, in turn, signals that your work is good, that, as a scholar, you do your job well. There’s an alignment here between the interests of university presses and the interests of university deans. The presses want to publish high- quality scholarship, and the deans want to employ and promote scholars who are good at their jobs. The process required to produce the first provides evidence for the second.

These interests align, however, only up to a point. The decisions that track the scholarly quality of a project—those involved in discharging the credentialing responsibility—are not the only decisions a press makes when it comes to publishing a project. The work of determining the quality of scholarship and signaling this quality is done when a press issues a contract for a project and stands behind the decision by publishing it. In between those two moments, a press must make many production decisions—about the size of a print run, whether a book should be sold print-on-demand, whether a book should be cloth or paperback, whether images should be in color—that have nothing to do with the project’s quality. These decisions are responsive to practical matters such as how much it will cost to produce the book, how many copies a press thinks it can sell, who the press thinks the audience is, or even (perhaps especially), how well the press gets along with Jeff Bezos. They’re about selling books, not evaluating them. (For a good illustration of the gap between sales and quality consider: the press that published Nietzsche for Dummies probably sold a lot of books.)

Chief among production decisions is the one about publication format, whether to publish a project in print (cloth or paperback) or digitally (or, more commonly, both). To see the significance of this decision, consider what would have happened had the editor followed the route I suggested and published her collections online. It would involve asking the digital publisher to put all of the (already copy edited, designed, typeset) selected articles on the same webpage with a new introduction by the editor. (Obviously it would be a more complicated than that, but you get my point.)

Compare this to what would happen if they were published in print. The articles would have to be downloaded and printed out. Then, production staff would scan the original articles to turn them into a manuscript. Copy editors, designers, printers, distributors, and all of the other people involved in producing these collections would then do their parts. All of this to make the content available in a format nobody seems to want so that somebody can put another line on her CV that will be credited by her dean. (Not all decisions about how to publish a work are like this one, of course. This case is unique in that the material already existed digitally. But the point is that, even in such a case, the push for print remains.)

In case it needs spelling out, the enormous difference between these two paths to publication corresponds to a much different price tag for the press. This is why, as I said at the outset, by clinging to the outdated notion that scholarship must be published in print deans and scholars hurt university presses. They tie the legitimate responsibility of determining and distributing quality scholarship to a costly, inefficient, inflexible, and unsustainable publishing model. By insisting that print is a necessary condition for scholarly quality, deans and scholars make it more difficult for university presses to stay in business, thereby making it more difficult for them to publish print books! At the same time, scholars insist on having their own work published in print while they increasingly engage the work of others online. And deans demand that scholars publish print books while not giving their libraries enough funds to buy them. So they insist on print and undermine the demand for it.

So, to answer the editor’s question: I do care about publishing books. Like all scholars and publishers, I love print books and deeply appreciate them as objects (as a quick glance at my office would confirm). I am not advocating for the end of print. But I also care about the future of scholarly publishing. In order to help secure a healthy future for both university presses and print books, scholars and deans must embrace the digital as a legitimate and credit-worthy format for quality scholarship.

Matthew McAdam is Humanities Editor at Johns Hopkins University Press.