Thinking a Bit about Publishing and ASOR

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a bit about publishing and ASOR. I serve as editor of the Annual of ASOR (AASOR) which is the organization’s longest running book series. It stands alongside ASOR’s Archaeological Report Series (ARS) as the two book series published by ASOR. The ARS is currently looking for a new editor and once the new editor is named, we hope to have some conversations about how to distinguish the AASOR from ARS a bit more clearly.

Traditionally, the ARS features volumes dedicated to recent field work. For example, my survey on Cyprus, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, published in the ARS. For some historical reasons, the CAARI Monograph series also appears as part of the ARS. The AASOR, in contrast, tends to consist of the results of legacy excavations (variously defined), edited volumes, and festschrifts. The blurry division between the ARS’s role in publishing current field work and the AASOR’s role in publishing legacy projects is something that we’d do well to define more clearly. But the work of defining the purpose and scope of the AASOR is also an opportunity to think more clearly about ASOR’s priorities in academic publishing more broadly.

Instead of firing off a long email, I decided to write a blog post and see what people think before burdening my colleagues with my half-baked ideas. To be clear, these are just my musings and they don’t reflect anything official! 

It goes without saying that the landscape of academic publishing is changing very rapidly these days. At the same time, we are encountering rapid changes in the professional and academic landscape in our disciplines (e.g. rise of contingent faculty) and at our institutions (e.g. the decline of research libraries, reduction in research funding). As a result, it feels like this might be a good time to think critically and carefully about the needs of our authors (and prospective author), our readers, and our institutions.

First, I got to wondering what kind of books ASOR members want to and are expected to publish?

I know that the edited volumes are received a bit ambivalently by most academics these days. They can be easily derided as grab-bags of vaguely related content brought together mostly through common social ties or a shared desperation to expand one’s CV. I’ve heard more than one scholar boldly assert on social media that they will NEVER edit another edited volume again. Having worked in a few of these in my life as editor, contributor, and publisher, I can confirm that they’re often really difficult volumes to bring together, and, at least by some accounts, they have limited value for tenure and promotion committees. 

On the other hand, there must be a market for them because any walk around the ASOR or AIA book room shows that they continue to be published in large numbers by every publisher from Oxford and Cambridge to Eisenbrauns, Cotsen, Routledge, Oxbow, Bloomsbury, and so on. Indeed, AASOR and ARS have published their share of such books over the last five years. (Curiously University of Chicago Press, which is ASOR’s publishing partner for journals, doesn’t seem particularly keen on edited volumes, as far as I can discern.)

My sense is that edited volumes are popular among publishers, in part, because of the ability to disaggregate content, and this allows for the sale of single chapters to individuals who might not want to buy the entire book. The current vogue of “Handbooks” and “Companions” is a good example for how books that are effectively edited volumes can be disaggregated so that chapters can be sold to individuals at prices cheaper than the often-expensive entire volume but at prices higher than chapter’s share of the volume’s total price. 

It’s notable here that while AASOR often published edited volumes, JSTOR does not present its content in such a way that an individual could download or purchase one article from a volume.

Second, in the past, ASOR published monographs (1978-1981), dissertations (1975-1994), and books (1999-2005). You can get a sense for the range of ASOR book series here

I do wonder how our membership would see a kind of dissertation series (of the kind that existed years ago) or a book/monograph series? Would this fulfill a need in the field especially for early career scholars who might struggle to find a press for specialized research? Or would be redundant with what Eisenbrauns, Brill, Brepols, and various other specialized presses already offer? 

Third, I started to think a bit more about Eric Cline and his arguments for writing and publishing for a general audience.

My guess is that places like Princeton pay the bills with books like Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (2016). I was at an AIA panel last year and two of the panelists (Cline and Jodi Magness) were talking about writing for wider public audiences and their NEH Public Scholar grants. Their various publications intended for a general audience obviously overlapped with “ASOR Territory.” Moreover, it seems like many presses have figured out that these books make money. The various “short introductions,” “what everyone needs to know about,” “quintessence series,” “critical thinkers” all follow a similar template. They’re short (<40,000 words), they tend to be prepared for a general audience, and they tend not to feature much original research. They’re published as low-cost paperbacks and presumably meant to be sold at volume to individuals (and students) rather than libraries. These books are the opposite of the Oxford Handbook, Cambridge Companion, et c. series which are clearly designed mainly for libraries (including via digital subscription).

I wonder whether this is a game that ASOR would want to get into to generate revenue for ASOR and maybe for more “serious” publishing? Would this dovetail with what NEA is doing in terms of outreach?

Fourth, I’ve been looking at what Eidolon is doing with their course packets. These are digital bundles of largely repackaged content from Eidolon stitched together with some added commentary. They’re pretty nice if what you’re teaching happens to align neatly with what Eidolon has to offer.

It seems to me that ASOR has content – via BASOR, NEA, ARS, AASOR, Ancient Near East Today, and even LCP – and we have experts. I wonder whether there would be value to producing digital course packets that could be purchased (by students, presumably) for a relatively low cost (but at ideally, a relatively high volume). They could combine material which ASOR owns with commentary, new content, and maybe even digital gewgaws (photos, video, audio).

This would obviously require a more than just a casual operation to work, but it would be interesting to know if this would appeal to our audience.

In many ways, there is a single question behind all these suggestions: what would our members like and support both in terms of producing and purchasing content?

Along these lines, I can’t help but wonder about the following:

1. How will the growing number of precarious and non-tenure track ASOR scholars impact the landscape of academic publishing? What do these scholars need and want?

2. How will the rise in Open Access publishing shape both the expectations of our authors and our readers? How will the global nature of ASOR publishing impact our attitudes toward Open Access?

3. How will the growth of online teaching shape the kind of content that our members want and produce?

4. How will the market for academic books change as library funding declines and new strategies arise for institutional content management? How can we increase the number of individuals who buy ASOR books to compensate for a likely decline in institutional purchases?  

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