Some Publishing Notes from a Small Press

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a bit about open access and scholar led publishing. None of my thoughts are developed or even really interesting enough for a full fledged blog post, but I decided that I should write some of them down as a little list.

1. Agility and the Small Press. I have been working on one of those “sudden projects” over the last week that dropped into my lap almost completely formed, but needing a publisher. Because I have a very crowded fall schedule that involves not only my own research and teaching, but at least two other books that are deep into production.

It’s been really fun working quickly on this book project, which I’ve blogged about here, partly because with a sense of urgency comes a kind of collegiality that I’ve missed because I’m not doing fieldwork this summer, and partly because the project is really cool (and I promise more on this over the next week or so!). It has also reminded me that very small presses can be particularly agile because we don’t have the same complex production workflows that larger presses depend upon to keep multiple books moving forward simultaneously. In effect, my workflow is always just-in-time, even for projects that have a predictable publishing trajectory.

Of course, this agility has its own social costs and reflects the rather contingent character of labor that supports the smallest presses. My access to surplus time, both in my own life, among my collaborators, and from elsewhere in the publishing infrastructure (e.g. copy editors, printers, et c.) has its own social consequences and reflects, in part, the precarious nature of academic and creative work.

Despite these affordances (or perhaps because of them), books developed quickly can be quite successful. The most popular book in The Digital Press catalogue remains Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College which came together in less than six weeks.  

2. Publishing and Race. Over the last few years, the “syllabus” has emerged as one of the standard responses of academics to a crisis. I jokingly call this almost knee jerk reaction to everything from hurricanes to the recent pandemic, removal of monuments, immigration reform, health care, and BLM as “I’ve got a reading list for that.” 

At their best, these often crowd-sourced (or at least academic, crowd-sourced) reading lists are thoughtful and expansive. Recent popular reading lists on race circulating on social media, however, nudged me to think a bit about how they reflect certain aspects of structural racism. Google 

This most striking thing to me is that most of the books on these reading lists are published by large presses whose catalogues consist largely of books by white authors. Moreover, publishing as an industry is largely white with only about 5% of those working in publishing identifying as black. In academic publishing, it’s worth noting that none of the presses currently members of the American Association of University Presses are based at a HBCU.  Since AAUP member presses represent most of the major academic publishers in the Anglophone world, a black academic requiring a book to receive tenure would almost inevitably have to publish with a university press based at a majority white institution likely run by a largely white staff with a catalogue of white authors. 

What’s interesting, though, is that black publishers do exist. Until 2011, for example, Howard University Press published works focused largely on black and African American culture, history, and society. When it closed, some of its catalogue was to be acquired by Paul Coates’s Black Classic Press (it’s unclear whether this played out). A quick Google search will reveal quite a few other black and minority run presses in the US alone, but very few books by these presses have appeared on various academic BLM focused reading lists.

One wonders as the structure of academic publishing is changing rapidly whether this situation will change over the next few decades. The emerging role of the open access movement, new forms of scholar-led publishing, and print-on-demand and digital technology creates opportunities for historically underrepresented groups to create publishers, practices, and series that reflect their communities and communicate their contributions to a wider audience.    

3. OA Journals. Last week, a colleague asked me whether I had any thoughts about how to fund an open access journal that had reached the end of its initial grant. It got me thinking about sustainable models in OA journal publishing and the shift from journals supported by subscriptions to those funded through article processing charges and fees (APCs). 

In the sciences, this shift follows the logic that researchers often with large grants and at larger, research oriented schools have the resources to fund the publication of their results and to make them available for free to scholars at less well-resourced institutions. For the humanities and social sciences, of course, this doesn’t really work as well. High quality research regularly comes from institutions that lack the resources of major research universities or that privilege teaching over research. Open access journals with high APCs will likely struggle to attract publications from researchers in the humanities and social sciences that do not have high levels of institutional support to say nothing of scholars working outside the academy or graduate students. The potential impact of this model on open access publishing, of course, known and troubling. 

What I was wondering lately is whether any open access journals have pursued approaches to open access publishing that seek to combine subscriptions with open access publishing? A number of presses have started to release open access books in paper first and then digitally later allowing the press to earn some income from book sales, which tend to largely occur within a year of a book’s release, while still making the book available open access for classroom use, for example. 

Would it be possible for a journal to have a trigger, for example, that releases a volume’s open access content when it reaches, say, 100 or 200 subscribers? This would ensure that the journal would have an adequate income to publish (let’s say that each subscription cost $80-$100). Moreover, since many journal subscriptions are bundled into larger packages which are sold to institutions, one could imagine an open access journal being combined with more traditional journal subscription packages to generate some additional sustainable income. Finally, an OA journal could implement variable or even voluntary APCs which would create another revenue stream. When certain funding or subscriber levels are reached, the journal content would become open. 

Maybe journals already employ this kind of hybrid approach, but I’m not aware of them. 

4. OA and OER. Finally, I’m going to apply for a small stipend to develop two new classes that use Open Educational Resources at the introductory level (Western Civilization I and World History I). Both classes will do more than just use an open access textbook, but will bake the ideas of open access publishing into the work of the class.

In particular, the classes will encourage students to understand critically their role as “prosumers” in 21st century society. I’ve written about this recently in Sebastian Heath’s edited volume DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. The goal of the class is to have students dissect, reorganized, and expand the two open access textbooks with an eye toward making them more useful, sophisticated, and responsive to the needs of their particular class and their particular interests. 

Using open access books gives students an opportunity to understand how the next generation of open educational resources is more than just swapping out an expensive textbook for a free version, but a framework both fully parallel with recent moves toward active learning and consistent with larger crowd-sources projects such as Wikipedia, which when realized in their best forms, create dynamic and democratic spaces for sharing of resources and analysis. As our students increasingly contribute to and consumer content from commercial ventures from Facebook and Twitter to Tiktok and Instagram, presenting an opportunity to engage with “prosumer” practices in a more traditional and critical environment will allow them to recognize the limits and potential of open, social, and crowd based knowledge making.   

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