On the other hand, I would say that few if any publishers do not publish a number of books that I would not buy.To which Dale Askey replies:
The fact is, however, that libraries have to be able to trust presses to turn out good titles, or our work becomes impossible given the sheer global output of scholarship... libraries lack enough qualified subject expertise to make such judgments at the necessarily granular level, and the trend here is not encouraging. Subject librarianship is dismissed as a relic of a past age, and we now talk about “patron-driven” acquisition as if it were the Holy Grail. Having spent a brief but wonderful portion of my career as a focused subject librarian for an area where I have expertise, I know the benefit of reading substantive reviews and making intelligent choices about individual titles, but even that library no longer has the funds (or perhaps just lacks the will to commit the funds) for such esoteric enterprises.What I think we see here is evidence of a substantial change in what it means to be a publisher in this age of "everyone can be a publisher." First, a little history.
|Turin book fair, 2007|
|Turin book fair, 2007|
By my own observation, by the 1950's the role of the publisher in the US was subordinated to the book, preferably a best-seller. We could all name key books (Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), but I doubt if many of us could name the publishing house that issued them.
As Epstein and Schiffrin explain (see Further Reading), the purchase of publishing houses in the late 20th century by companies with a primary interest in profits, unhindered with cultural concerns, has made the publishing house no more than another business. From scholar-printer-businessman, only the latter role remains. If "best-selling" is your idea of quality, then these publishers can be considered consistent and trustworthy. If you are looking for greater cultural pursuits, you will probably be disappointed.
While that describes popular publishing, scholarly publishing has retained the publisher reputation... at least until very recently. While there still are known scholarly publishers whose output can be trusted sight un-seen (as Askey explains), there are many new entrants to this business area whose primary goal is income, not scholarship itself. This seems to be following a similar path to that of popular publishing, but with a twist: scholars must publish. The real culprit in this story is the "publish or perish" culture of academia. It matters not that there is no audience for a scholar's work; in fact, being actually read is rather icing on the cake. The main thing is that a scholar must get his or her work produced by someone acting as a publisher. It is therefore unremarkable that publishers have come on the scene to address this market.
The big "however" here is that while author fees may cover the cost (plus profit) of publishing an open access article, printed books still need to have some sales. Throughout the history of publishing, vanity books have been known as money-losers,* and some publishers have contracted with the authors to buy back any un-sold copies. This is more than an un-tenured faculty member can afford, however, so the business of publishing books by academics is one that wise investors would avoid.
The upshot of the story here is that we've gotten ourselves into an untenable position between the pressure to publish and the actual market for published works. Something has to give, and it has to give at both ends of the equation.
The next step, then, is improving the social media that the academic community uses so that the "post publication peer review" becomes the filter for quality and importance.
* I ran into a great rant by a 19th c. Italian publisher about vanity publishing while doing research on Natale Battezzati. I unfortunately didn't mark it, but if I find it again I will link it here.
Epstein, Jason. Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Schiffrin, André. The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read. London: Verso, 2000.