Anis Shivani on University Presses

My Washington College of Law colleague Robert Tsai points me to an interesting Huffington Post article  by Anis Shivani on new directions for university presses.  I have a somewhat more critical take on this, in the sense of an interest in the economic and business models driving the presses as they move in different directions.

For example, I wonder how falling costs of producing books and different and cheaper distribution models via Amazon interacts with a relative decline, at least among senior law professors, in the prestige of law review articles in favor of books.  I wonder about shifts in the hiring, promotion, tenure, and lateral process and ways in which that drives a cycle of academic production – at least among law professors – of crank out articles, repackage as book, start cycle again – but without it being clear to me, at least, that there is great value added in putting the articles between hard or soft covers.  We tell ourselves that we are pulling together a handful of articles into a unified book-y whole, but, well, I wonder how much it is simply driven by a combined shift in the prestige markers within our academic world and shifts downward in the cost of production, along with dissatisfaction with the student law review publishing model.

Is that a bad thing?  The sometimes assumed frivolity and waste of publishing in humanities, social science, and law – the purely critical story is not all there is to it, by any means.  I, for one, do look forward to a revival of the humanities as a source of meaning.  The availability of an increasing number of scholarly books at a much cheaper price than, well, Cambridge UP’s sticker-shocker numbers is a terrific thing.  It takes into account lower productions costs, the idea that university libraries are not the only places to find these books, and a host of other things.  That many of these books are deliberately aimed at a wider audience than the university library is a feature of many of these new business models; that will inevitably mean more popular titles.  It will inevitably mean a certain amount of wishful marketing … frankly unreadable academic tomes with exciting titles, cool covers, and misleading blurbs.  But I’m not convinced at all that these will crowd out traditional academic monographs.

Those are mostly questions I have within the world of academic law publishing, however, while Shivani’s post is on university presses more broadly.  It is worth reading in part just to get a sense of the ways in which presses are extending themselves, and also because it might give some readers a sense of where to turn to for particular varieties of books, and for authors among us to get a sense of what presses might be suitable for what ventures.

Speaking of blurbs, I’m somewhat surprised that as a marketing strategy, academic writers do not take a page from the marketing of that great work of 1990s fiction, A.A. Gils Sap Rising. Reviews were either wildly positive or wildly negative … so the publisher put them all on the back, including in alternation:

  • “He writes so brilliantly.”
  • “Extremely badly written, hideously and unamusingly obscene.”
  • “A clever, sexy story.”
  • “Frightful pile of garbage.”

And then it ended up with the laconic comment of the Times Literary Supplement (a venue for which I occasionally write, and for which this kind of plain, unadorned, Eric-Blair-would-approve-of-it prose makes me proud to be a TLS contributor):

  • “This is a dirty book.”

In academic writing, however, one is not looking for this exactly, it is slightly different.  What one wants in academia is not a collection of wildly for and wildly against.  Because academic writers are generally trapped – self-stranded, to be precise – in cul-de-sacs of like-minded academics, no one is much impressed by the log-rolling blurbs of one’s confreres.  But for a converse (or do I mean ‘obverse’?) reason, no one will be much impressed by the attacks of one’s enemies, either.  What one wants is what so much of contemporary academia is out to deny – except when it comes to what people say about one’s own academic work – viz., that I utterly disagree with it and indeed at some profound level think it deeply mistaken and even wrong, but alas I cannot deny the sheer intellectual power, unaparalleled learning and erudition, and brilliance heft of this work.

Endorsement from outside one’s epistemic community, in other words, on the basis of an ideal of neutral, objective quality that we long for, when it comes to our own stuff, but within academia don’t really accept.  We deny its validity – but then want its validation.