As my post yesterday probably suggested, I’m thinking a good bit about the practice and theory of academic publishing these days. In particular, I’m interested in how digital media shapes workflow, logistics, and the character of both archaeological and more broadly academic knowledge making. My work with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota Quarterly have increasingly become central to this research in ways that I had not anticipated.
So this little update today is both an effort to get my thoughts in order about how publishing and editing really works and to keep people interested in both NDQ and The Digital Press in the loop on what’s been going on with these projects.
1. Proposals. Recently I’ve received a couple of pretty exciting proposals to review and we’ve been able to give some pretty positive feedback to the proposers. There has been some pretty interesting recent conversation about book proposals in the field of ClassicsandClassical Archaeology (co-authored by a pair of Digital Press authors!). This got me thinking about the current way that publishers acquire manuscripts and the role of publishers, editors, and authors. I’ve resisted producing a standard questionnaire for prospective authors and, instead, have asked my individuals proposing to The Digital Press to produce “a 3-5 page document that outlines the book’s content, as well as its length, format, audience, relationship to existing publications. It’s also helpful to present the qualifications of the authors (or contributors) and a prospective timeline.” I’m not sure that this slightly more free-form proposal process necessarily produces better proposals, but I like to think that it introduces the relationship between press and the authors as more familiar and a bit less structured by a set of fixed expectations that dictate the value of a project.
2. From Proposal to Manuscript. In particular, I’ve thought a good bit about the liminal zone between when a proposal is accepted and a manuscript is delivered. As an author currently navigating that zone with my own book, I can attest to the feeling of being unmoored and adrift, but still in the harbor. There’s an expectation that the book “will happen” but at the same time, the anxieties of producing something that the publisher, reviewers, and community finds valuable.
This is a pretty stressful place and judging by conversations with my colleagues, I recognize that any number of book projects find themselves smashed against the shoals long before the final manuscript can be delivered. I wonder whether the structural division between the publisher and the author have something to do with this ambivalent space. I’ve marveled at the generosity, for example, of my editors at North Dakota Quarterly who often work closely with authors during the revision process for articles and stories and feel extraordinary gratitude toward Paul Mullins and Chris Matthews at Historical Archaeology who shepherded my first effort to write an article on North American archaeology through the revision and publication process. My hope is that my press can be aware of the risks of the post-proposal, pre-manuscript experience and work – somehow – to make it easier to navigate.
3. Peer Review. One of the most exciting things at present is that The Digital Press has three books currently circulating for peer review: two books and one edited volume. All three works represent significant investment on the parts of two authors and the editor as well as the press. As a result, peer review is less about whether the piece should be accepted or rejects, but rather how we can work to improve the manuscript to make into the strongest book possible for the author and the publisher. The reviews continue to be anonymous (or at least the reviewers are not known to the authors), but the review process becomes a chance to develop, improve, and nuance the manuscript.
4. Workflow. I’m completely invested in a publishing workflow these days, particularly for North Dakota Quarterly. The movement of an accepted manuscript through the pre-production process is neither completely automated or completely person. The accepted manuscript hits my desk, goes out to my copy editor (at least for non-fiction and poetry, our fiction editor handles his own copy editing as part of the revision process). While manuscripts are out at copy editing, I produce publication agreements – by hand – for each contribution. This can take a few hours. When I get the copy edited manuscripts back, I return them with a publication agreement to authors and for a short (<50 word) bio and the mailing address for their author copy of the Quarterly. With any luck, I get both of those documents, but in about 30% of the cases, I don’t. I have to ask (again and again) for a bio, negotiate challenges associated with signing a digital document, and beg for mailing addresses to send author’s copies.
Because we won’t run a piece without a contract and a bio, I can’t finalize the order of the issue. The entire issue gets sent to our publisher, University of Nebraska Press, with all the finalized author agreements. They do layout and then return the proofs to me to circulate back to my authors for final approval. I compile any edits on the proofs and return it to the publisher. Then the volume goes to print.
The process of publishing involves constantly reinforcing the roles of publisher and author through our separate roles and the different timelines in which our work proceeds. The biggest challenge for me, for example, is managing the rapid progress from final manuscripts to final proofs. The different times of engagement and expectations complicate and humanize the workflow. Authors have delays associated with travel, internet and email access, challenging editing issues, and the need to arrange the content in the issue in a way that makes sense. It goes without saying that a small number of contributions take the most time.
5. Sales and Subscriptions. I’m incredibly fortunately to have a bit of cushion for both The Digital Press and NDQ. It’s not enough to allow me to ignore sales and subscriptions, but it means that they aren’t a daily worry. That being said, I’m excited whenever The Digital Press makes a sale (or two) or ticks over a particular benchmark for the number of downloads. Right now, for example, we’re chasing 500 downloads for Eric Burin’s Protesting on Bended Knee, and we’re doing all we can to maintain a steady stream of sales. The goal there is one book per day.
With NDQ, we simply have to have subscribers. The subscribers will fund production, and with any luck, will eventually generate revenue that will help the Quarterly expand and innovate. We’re coordinating some email blasts, a subscription drive (particularly to ensure that folks who have historically subscribed to the journal renew their subscriptions, and also looking to some other ways to generate revenue.
Yesterday, I thought a bit about how the commercialization of digital creative content can become exploitative, but how it is also a strategy toward sustainability in a world with fewer resources for the humanities and more and more competition. Considering new models for publishing that combine new ways to work with authors, contributors, and publishers might be the way toward a more sustainable future.