Friday, April 05, 2013

The "Mellen Mess" and the changing role of publishers

Reading about the "Mellen Mess" -- the case of the publisher that is suing a librarian who criticized the quality of the houses's output -- I found the most interesting discussion to have taken place in the comments area of the original post (available via the Wayback Machine). One poster says:
On the other hand, I would say that few if any publishers do not publish a number of books that I would not buy.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
The first followers of Gutenberg were equal parts scholar, technician and businessman. There was never any question that producing print was a for-profit activity, and the same printers who turned out carefully edited classics also printed the first advertisements as well as a large number of indulgences to be sold to wealthy (but not well-behaved) Catholics. Well into the late 19th century, publishers were also printers, and often saw themselves as having a key role in scholarship and culture. The reputation of the publisher was what made the introduction of new, unknown authors possible.

Turin book fair, 2007
Although I am at my very core a "book person," I was unaware of the culture of publishers before visiting Europe and attending both bookstores and a few book fairs there. What struck me immediately was that the book covers represented the publisher more than the book itself. Near a university I found a bookstore that was entirely organized by publisher -- not by topic -- so that the only access other than "known item" was browsing by publisher.

 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.

Further Reading

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.