¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 It’s become pretty much a truism in much of the humanities today that scholarly publishing, and in particular the system of university presses that produces the academic monograph, is broken. What to do about that brokenness, however, is a topic of much debate.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I want to be clear at the outset that I’m not representing all sides of this debate. Instead, what I’m presenting here is a condensation of a series of polemics about the future of scholarly publishing that I’ve written over the last year or so, and a few brief glimpses of some experiments that might shed some light on directions for sustainable academic publishing futures. One of these experiments is, of course, my own: MediaCommons, a scholarly publishing network in media studies that I’m currently developing in conjunction with my co-coordinating editor, Avi Santo, and Bob Stein, the director of the Institute for the Future of the Book. Many of these thoughts are very much in process and MediaCommons is in some sense the laboratory in which we’re working these ideas out.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 (I should also note that for readers already working in digital media, much of this will sound like preaching to the choir. Much of what I’m advocating here is directly aimed at the traditional humanities; we’re far, far behind the sciences in grappling with these issues of making scholarly publishing sustainable, and we desperately need to catch up.)
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The MediaCommons experiment began for me with my own direct experience of the crisis in scholarly publishing: in December 2003, almost exactly 72 hours after I’d found out that the Cabinet at Pomona College had voted to grant me tenure, I received an email message from the editor of the scholarly press that had had my book manuscript under review for the previous ten months. It was not a good message: the press was declining to publish the book. This note, as encouraging as rejections can ever be, stressed to me that the fault, if fault there were, lay not with the manuscript but with the climate; the press had received two enthusiastically positive readers’ reports, and the editor was likewise supportive of the project. The marketing guys, however, overruled him on the editorial board, declaring the book “a bad financial risk in the current economy.”
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This particular cause for rejection prompted two immediate responses: one most clearly articulated by my mother, who said “they were planning on making money off of your book?”, in a tone making it clear that she was astonished that they would even think it possible. And second, from my colleague Matt Kirschenbaum at the University of Maryland, whose scholarly work is focused on digital textuality, who said that he could not understand why I could not simply take the manuscript and the two positive readers’ reports and put the whole thing online, where it would likely garner a readership both wider and larger than the same manuscript in print would. He went on to indicate that, of course, he knew precisely why I wouldn’t do such a thing:
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 “In fact,” he wrote, “I completely understand why that’s not realistic, and I’m not seriously advocating it. Nor am I suggesting that we all become our own online publishers, at least not unless that’s part of a continuum of different options. But the point is, the system’s broken and it’s time we got busy fixing it. What ought to count is peer review and scholarly merit, not the physical form in which the text is ultimately delivered” (Kirschenbaum 12.16.03).
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 These two conversations forced me to stop thinking about scholarly publishing as a system that would simply bring my work into being, and instead approach it as the object of that work, thinking seriously about both the financial models and the material forms through which scholarship might best circulate. I began, in early 2004, to discuss in a fairly vague way the possibility of founding an all-electronic scholarly press, but the idea didn’t take hold until relatively recently.