Publishing without Publishers

Tomorrow, I’ll release the second book published by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, and like with Punk Archaeology, I’ll beg my friends  and associates on social media to circulate a link to the release page far and wide.

The book, Visions of Substance: 3D Imagining in Mediterranean Archaeology, is a perfect primer for a class on digital archaeology and several courses are already using the blog posts that make up the main content of this book. The book includes expanded versions of these posts which received extra editing, formatting, and processing into PDF format. They’ll also appear as a real paper and ink book by the end of the month on Amazon.

<The rest of this blog post is poorly thought out, but I’m posting it anyway.>

As the cost of scholarly publications has gone through the roof over the last decade. My library, for what I can tell, subscribes to no publications where and I am likely to publish and my share of the annual book budget would not pay for a copy of my book on our work at the Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus. To be clear, the presses that publish these works are, generally speaking, ethical and responsive to their scholarly communities (rather than say committed to maximum profitability or more responsive to investors or the market). I wonder whether the real answer to this is a change in scholarly expectations for academic publishing and the start of war of attrition led by scholars (and their academic and publishing allies) taking over the publishing process. 

Of course, wresting control of the publication process from traditional publishers involve compromises, and having just completed laying out and editing a book on my own and publishing a book with a respected academic publisher, I can attest to several different economies and issues at play. First, editing a book with a traditional publisher was a tedious and time consuming process. The number of times my co-authors and I went through the manuscript both as red-line proofs and as page proofs (literally) crushed my mind. By the end of the process, I was no longer able to even understand the text in front of me, much less make critical decisions. Of course, this was a weakness of myself as an author more than the process which was designed to ensure that no mistakes made it through into the final version of the manuscript. By the time the book was ready for the printers, I could safely say that any mistakes were our responsibility as authors, but the layout, editing, and revising process was so time consuming that much of our research was no longer cutting edge or current. Instead, it was done.

Next, I got to think about the expenses involved in this form of academic publishing. The cost of copy editing, layout, printing, and distribution. There is no doubt that advertising, marketing, professionally designed book covers, and nice fonts all cost money. I’m also genuinely curious to understand how perfectionist quality academic publishing adds to the expense of scholarly books (even when published by non-profit presses) both for authors (in the form of subvention and time committed to the publication process (and away from the generative work of research)), for the press, and ultimately for the consumer. 

Approaching academic publishing by bringing together like minded academics and producing books as a collective (in collaboration, of course, with experienced publishers who see the value in our cause) not going to eliminate all the challenges that publishers and editors are trained to resolve. Laying out a book and copy editing it with collaborators and contributors can be tedious (if at times moderately entertaining) process, and not being a professional publisher or editor undoubtedly led to more mistakes and infelicities of design. At the same time, I felt like I controlled more aspects of the publication process including the right to distribute the book for free. The tools necessary to design and publish a digital or paper book are now readily available to anyone with even a modicum of computer skills. Most academics have enough editing skill to contribute to editorial work. Finally, (and probably most controversially) most academic publications do not need to current level of scrutiny that they endure. 

As I think more and more about the future of academic publishing, I think that academic publishing collectives must be the way forward. 

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