Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Introduction: Obsolescence

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.

— Clay Shirky, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In many cases, traditions last not because they are excellent, but because influential people are averse to change and because of the sheer burdens of transition to a better state.

— Cass Sunstein, Infotopia

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 6 The text you are now reading, whether on a screen or in a printed version, began its gestation some years ago in a series of explorations into the notion of obsolescence, which culminated in my being asked to address the term as part of a workshop organized by the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students, entitled “Keywords for a Digital Profession,” at the December 2007 Modern Language Association conference. However jaded and dispiriting the grad students’ choice of “obsolescence” as a keyword describing their own futures might appear, the decision to assign me this keyword was entirely appropriate. My work has circled the notion of obsolescence for quite a while, focusing on the concept as a catch-all for a multiplicity of conditions, each of which demands different kinds of analysis and response. As I said at the MLA, we too often fall into a conventional association of obsolescence with the death of this or that cultural form, a linkage that needs to be broken, or at least complicated, if the academy is going to take full stock of its role in contemporary culture and its means of producing and disseminating knowledge. For instance, the obsolescence that I focused on in my first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, is not, or at least not primarily, material in nature; after all, neither the novel in particular, nor the book more broadly, nor print in general is “dead.” My argument in The Anxiety of Obsolescence is, rather, that claims about the obsolescence of cultural forms often say more about those doing the claiming than they do about the object of the claim. In fact, agonized claims of the death of technologies like print and genres like the novel sometimes function to re-create an elite cadre of cultural producers and consumers, ostensibly operating on the margins of contemporary culture and profiting from their claims of marginality by creating a sense that their values, once part of a utopian mainstream and now apparently waning, must be protected. One might here think of the oft-cited reports published by the National Endowment for the Arts, Reading at Risk (2004) and To Read or Not to Read (2007); each of these reports, like numerous other such expressions of anxiety about the ostensible decline of reading (a decline that comes to seem inevitable, of course, given the narrowness with which “reading” is defined), works rhetorically to create a kind of cultural wildlife preserve within which the apparently obsolete can flourish.[1] My argument in The Anxiety of Obsolescence thus suggests that obsolescence may be, in this case at least, less a material state than a political project, one aimed at intervening in contemporary culture, perhaps with the intent of shoring up a waning hierarchy.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I’m beginning this new project by discussing my last project in no small part because of what happened once the manuscript was finished. Naively, I’d assumed that publishing a book that makes the argument that the book isn’t dead wouldn’t be that hard, that publishers might have some stake in ensuring that such an argument got into circulation. What I hadn’t counted on, though, as I worked on the revisions prior to submitting the manuscript for review, was the effect that the state of the economy would have on my ability to get that argument into print. In December 2003, almost exactly 72 hours after I’d found out that my college’s cabinet had taken its final vote to grant me tenure, I received an email message from the editor of the scholarly press that had had the manuscript under review for the previous ten months. The news was not good: the press was declining to publish the book. The note, as encouraging as a rejection can ever be, stressed that in so far as fault could be attributed, it lay not with the manuscript but with the climate; the press had received two enthusiastically positive readers’ reports, and the editor was supportive of the project. The marketing department, however, overruled him on the editorial board, declaring that the book posed “too much financial risk… to pursue in the current economy.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This particular cause for rejection prompted two immediate responses, one of which was most clearly articulated by my mother, who said, “they were planning on making money off of your book?” The fact is, they were – not much, perhaps, but that the press involved needed the book to make money, at least enough to return its costs, and that it doubted it would, highlights one of the most significant problems facing academic publishing today: an insupportable economic model.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 2 To backtrack for a second: that there is a problem in the first place is something about which I hope, by this point, anyone reading this doesn’t really need to be convinced; Googling “crisis in scholarly publishing” in November 2008 produced about 176,000 results, and organizations including the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), publishers such as Lindsay Waters and Bill Germano, scholars including Cathy Davidson and John Willinsky, and, perhaps most famously, past MLA president Stephen Greenblatt have been warning us for years that something’s got to give. So of course the evidence for this crisis, and for the financial issues that rest at its heart, extends far beyond my own individual, anecdotal case.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 4 Though the notion of a crisis in scholarly publishing was first aired well over a decade ago (one might see Sanford Thatcher’s 1995 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “The Crisis in Scholarly Communication”), things suddenly got much, much worse after the first dot-com bubble burst in 2000. During this dramatic turn in the stock market, when numerous university endowments went into free fall (a moment that, in retrospect, seems like mere foreshadowing), two academic units whose budgets took among the hardest hits were university presses and university libraries. And the cuts in funding for libraries represented a further budget cut for presses, as numerous libraries, already straining under the exponentially rising costs of journals, especially in the sciences, managed the cutbacks by reducing the number of monographs they purchased. The result for library users was perhaps only a slightly longer wait to obtain any book they needed, as libraries increasingly turned to consortial arrangements for collection-sharing, but the result for presses was devastating. Imagine: for a university press of the caliber of, say, Harvard’s, the expectation for decades had been that they could count on every library in the University of California system buying a copy of each title they published. Since 2000, however, the rule was increasingly that one library in the system would buy that title.[2] And the same has happened with every such system around the country, such that, as Jennifer Crewe has noted, sales of monographs to libraries are less than one-third of what they used to be.[3] So library cutbacks have resulted in vastly reduced sales for university presses, at precisely the moment when severe cutbacks in the percentage of university press budgets subsidized by their institution have made those presses dependent on income from sales for their survival. (The average university press, as we’ll see, receives well under 10% – usually closer to 5% – of its annual budget from its institution. And one can only imagine what will happen to that figure in the current economic climate.) The result, of course, is that press after press has reduced the number of titles that it publishes, and that marketing concerns have come at times, and of necessity, to outweigh scholarly merit in making publication decisions.

  • It’s also important to note that the January 2009 followup report, “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,” has gotten virtually no media attention; while the NEA is, unsurprisingly, quick to take the increase it finds in adult literary reading as evidence of the impact of the previous reports and of the success of programs created in their wake, this followup also explicitly includes “online” literary reading in its assessment, which neither earlier report had done.
  • And this well prior to the budget slashing produced by the 2008-09 collapse of the California economy.
  • Crewe, “Scholarly Publishing” 27.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/introduction/