Publishing as An Ecosystem

This weekend, I read with a good bit of excitement Lars Fogelin’s short article in the SAA Archaeological Record, titled “What I Learned Writing an Irreverent Archaeological Theory Book and Giving it Away for Free.” Not to give away the punchline, but he learned that writing and even publishing an free, open access book isn’t really that hard. Moreover, there is a kind of freedom that comes with avoiding a traditional (or even non-traditional!) publisher and writing the book you want to write, in the way that you want to write it. 

His short article reminded me so much of the spirit that moved me, Kostis Kourelis, and Andrew Reinhard to publish Punk Archaeology in 2014, and judging by the citation, it seems like Fogelin recognized that kinship. I still feel pretty proud of that book, and, I can sense a similar pride throughout Fogelin’s open access book, An Unauthorized Companion To American Archaeological Theory. In fact, liked Fogelin’s book so much that I naively reached out to the author (whom I don’t know) and offered to publish the book with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota if he ever felt like releasing a revised edition or thought there was some value to a university press imprimatur or wanted it available in paper. He didn’t respond to my email [revision: actually, he reached out to me and he did respond, but I didn’t receive the email for some reason! So take the rest of this paragraph with a grain of salt!], and, now, after reading his piece in the SAA Archaeological Record, I understand why. First, he decided that no university press would publish his book, and I suppose it would be a bit awkward if a lightly revised version was published by a university press. More than that, though, the book was as much about preparing a free book as it was proposing a new model for publishing in the discipline. The ease with which he publishing this book allowed him to conclude that “much of the discussion about open-access publishing is overwrought.”

That assertion made me uncomfortable as an open access publisher, but not because I never had those exact same thoughts. On the one hand, it is easy to publish an open access book or even just a self-published book. Indeed, Amazon’s Kindle Direct print-on-demand service supports a wide range of self-published authors. Moreover, tenured folks like me and Fogelin have the luxury to experiment with alternative publishing models. Most of use have had a range of experiences with publishers to draw upon and we usually have developed social networks necessary to distribute our books. I still get excited when someone who I haven’t ever met (in person or virtually) cites the early work from The Digital Press like Punk Archaeology or Visions of Substance because it proves to me that these books escaped my personal and professional orbit. At the same time, I know when I write something (like, say, this blog) and Tweet or Facebookle it, there will be an audience. 

On the other hand, over the past few years, I’ve started to think more and more about the role of networks in archaeological practices and the place of publishers in the larger scheme of knowledge making. (I wrote something about that here.) If I was a bit more confident and thoughtful, I’d love to publish a follow up to Gavin Lucas’s recent book on writing in archaeology and show how editing, production, and distribution of archaeological publications also plays a key role in creating knowledge. To be clear, I’m not trying to challenge Fogelin’s proposed model as much as complicate it. I think his general idea of a far more decentralized academic publishing universe is a good one, and I have advocated for our discipline to recognize a wider range of books as making contributions to our discipline. This involves celebrating high quality self-published books, books from small presses, as well as more conventional publications. 

Part of how I’d complicate Fogelin’s perspective on open access publishing is by first pointing out that a book like his carries a good bit of surplus value (to use the old Marxist term rather loosely). For example, academia.edu as a platform harvests data from users who have to sign in to download the book. This user data which likely includes IP address, institutional affiliations, user interests, and the like, is then resold or repurposed to generate income for the service. By posting his book on academia.edu, he’s turning over some of the value of the book to that service. A more charitable reading would also note that academia.edu makes his work more visible by connecting it with other similar works based on metrics developed from collected user data. I’m using this example not to criticize Fogelin’s choice to host his book at academia.edu, but to show how his work creates value for other interests. It is safe to say that Fogelin decided to use academia.edu rather than, say, a hosted site at Reclaim Hosting, uploading his book to the Internet Archive, or any number of the academic hosting sites like Humanities Commons or Zenodo or at his institution’s repository and as a result, gave academia.edu some of the value of his book. 

If he had published his book with an open access press, it might be that this press also collects data from folks who download books. In fact, his proposal that the SAAs create a space on their site for open access and self-published work recognizes not only the value of the SAA name to attract users, but also books like Fogelin’s would attract users to the SAA site. This could be great for the SAAs especially if they don’t require membership to access content, but my experiences with ASOR, for example, and distributing a digitally enhanced version of my first book on their site, suggests that scholarly societies will want to find ways at very least to collect user data, if not monetize access. ASOR, for example, required individuals who wanted to download our book to provide their emails and to become a “friend of ASOR” (it’s also useful to note that the link for this download option is now broken; if you want it, you can grab it here). Moreover, the SAAs will also want to manage content in some way, I’d assume, to avoid books that violate their ethics policies, academic standards, and best (or at least good) practices. The notion that archaeologists can self police the site through open reviews strikes me – as a Mediterranean archaeologist – as optimistic verging on naive. In my field, unwarranted and unjustified bad reviews are used regularly in turf wars in the discipline. “Punching down” remains a nefarious practice all too visible at our academic meetings. That being said, Fogelin’s heart is in the right place and it demonstrates books like his could be used to promote the mission of the SAAs and vice versa. 

As a smart publisher once told me, “the front of the catalogue sells the back of the catalogue.” In other words, your most recent books bring attention to earlier books. There are variations on this as well: big name authors help sell less known authors, big books help sell small books, acclaim is contagious, and so on. The point is that a book like Fogelin’s, if it was published by an open access press, would draw attention to that press’s catalogue. Fogelin’s name, professional and social network, and the work’s widespread usefulness in upper level and graduate classes would make a press’s catalogue visible to a particularly appealing target audience. I know that when I read a book that I find useful or interesting, I often surf that publisher’s catalogue to see what else they have done. So, it’s not just a one way street.

At a recent meeting with the director of a sizable university press, she admitted that open access distribution did not seem to impact print sales. I’m not sure that this is the communis opinio, at least in public, but I do think that it shows how traditional print publishers are beginning to embrace open access works as complementary to print sales. As a result, if Fogelin had published his book with an accommodating academic publisher, it likely would have generated sales. His article reports that the book say over 700 downloads in the first month. This is pretty good and for a book like his with the potential for use in the classroom, one can imagine a steady, seasonal, download spike at the start of semester. Moreover, one could also imagine the possibility of a stead stream of seasonal sales. In my catalogue, I often see a little bump in sales for the Corinth Excavations Archaeological Manual in the fall and at the start of the summer field season. 

Let’s say Fogelin sent his book to an open access publisher who has a ratio of open access downloads to paper sales is about 20:1. It may be that over a few years the publisher sells something like 100 copies, perhaps mainly to libraries but also to some people who “love the smell of books” or just “love the feeling of a book in their hand.” Because the book is already formatted as a PDF, this would involve relatively little additional work. Moreover, because the book is available as a free download, the press is free to mark the book up a bit.

An aside: It’s worth noting that some books in my press’s catalogue, like Picking the President, for example, sell on Amazon at a steady clip long after downloads have declined reminding me that paper copies have their own network of sales and distribution that is independent from downloads and digital distributions. I expect there are quite a few people who have purchased copies of Picking the President but don’t know that it can be downloaded for free. At $8 a book this doesn’t trouble me much

Anyway, let’s say that a publisher charges $20 for the book and there is a $15 profit on each copy sold. That’s $1500 that the press could use for whatever they want. That money might go to marketing Fogelin’s volume more widely with an advertisement in, say, the SAA and EAA programs. Some of it might go to a snazzier cover (although I like the cover well enough). More importantly, though, that $1500 might go to supporting the open access publication of another book that won’t generate as much in sales. Maybe it’s a bilingual book of poetry by Maya speakers, maybe it’s a book that requires more technical aspects of production or can’t be sold in paper, or maybe it’s a first-time author who needs more attention in publishing and production. More importantly, $1500 would go a long way to supporting the work needed to administer peer review, which Fogelin rightly observes is “free” but only inasmuch as the reviewer is rarely compensated. As I have argued elsewhere, peer review does have a cost for the publisher. In other words, the surplus value of Fogelin’s work might ripple through the publishing ecosystem bringing benefit to other people’s works without losing anything of what made his book unique, useful, and open. By releasing it via academia.edu, he is, at worst, allowing that commercial enterprise to use his work for its own commercial ends, and, at best, leaving value for a press, for other scholars, for the discipline, and even for his own work on the table. 

Another aside: One of the more nefarious recent trends in higher education is the rather uncritical push for Open Educational Resources. Don’t get me wrong: I think textbook prices are too damn high, but I also think that the current push for OERs is a wolf dressed in a sheep’s clothing. The amount of money being pushed into OERs will not consistently produce books of the same quality as commercial textbooks. Moreover, textbooks make money for publishers and there surely is a sweet spot between exploitative pricing and free that would benefit publishers and students equally. To put this in perspective: the push for OERs is the only major initiative in higher education that is advocating for the superiority of the public sector over the private sector. Making textbooks free is reflects the devaluing of academic work as much as a genuine concern for the cost of education. At current funding levels, the quality of OER books will only rarely reach the level of commercial textbooks without massive amounts of largely uncompensated time from faculty. Is this how we want to make up for cuts to public support to higher education? 

To conclude this rambling post, I love the spirt of Fogelin’s piece and the quality and character of his book. I also respect his motives and perspective.

I also hope that this post complicates his ideas a bit by suggesting that rejecting the academic publishing ecosystem may not be the best way to fix it. Instead, we need to embrace more critically the role of publishing in the larger academic enterprise. Publishing and publishers play a key role in the knowledge making process and recognizing the way in which the publishing ecosystem functions allows us to make better decisions as consumer and producers of scholarship. I think that by recognizing the contribution of academic publishing to the network of knowledge making, we can approach purchasing a $60 monograph or advocate for open access publishing with a more critical perspective. As with any ecosystem, it’s easy enough to agree to control a weed or a predator and much harder to understand the consequences.  

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