Unlocking the Commons: Tim Carmody, NDQ, Amazon, and the Digital Press

There is a ton of tech writing on the internet these days and some of it is really good. None is better, I think than Tim Carmody who wrote really great pieces for The Verge and Wired back in the day, and now partners with one of the original bloggers, Jason Kottke, to produce a regular newsletter called Noticing that blends content from Kottke.org and the rest of the web. He also has a Ph.D. in Comparative literature from Penn.

What’s more interesting to me lately is his interest in the economics of good writing on the web. As a writer, editor, and a publisher, I have long relaxed in the relatively luxury of academia which has given me the security to do creative work — whether through my professional writing, my blog, my editorial role at North Dakota Quarterly, or my work as publisher at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota — without having to get too far into the weeds of funding and finance. At the same time, I do realize that if these projects are going to have a life beyond my own energies and attention, some kind of sustainable model will have to exist to support them.

Carmody has proposed and developed a model that he calls “unlocking the commons.” It is predicated on the idea that a project – like his new newsletter on Amazon – needs a certain amount of support to exist. Carmody is a freelance writer and, from what I gather, he earns his income from his writing. At the same time, Carmody is aware that locking content behind a paywall or the like makes it difficult to demonstrate the value of the content and difficult for supporters and authors to share their work. In fact, it actually reduces the impact of any content produced by making it less visible and less likely to influence a larger community. In this way, Carmody is following arguments long held by the open access community who see the value of creative work not in its narrow and immediate monetary value realized through subscribers, but in its expansive potential to inspire and influence a wide range of audiences. By unlocking the commons, subscriber support allows Carmody to develop his ideas, write, and produce his work, and once it is supported, the work is available freely to anyone who wants to read it. He and Jason Kottke modeled this approach with Kottke.org’s membership program, which apparently worked.

For his new newsletter on Amazon, the threshold for unlocking the commons and making supporting Carmody to produce one newsletter per week was 200 subscribers at $5 per month. If he manages 400 subscribers at $5 per month, he’ll write two articles per week. You can subscribe and support the newsletter here.

This project is interesting to me for two reasons.

First, NDQ has a money problem. Right now, it’s not existential, but it is limiting. We have a great publishing partner in the University of Nebraska Press, and moving forward, they will handle subscriptions and most production for the Quarterly. The goal is that as we rebuild our subscriber base, we can break even for UNP and, then, with a little help from our community, generate some revenue. In the meantime, we rely on three sources of revenue: a small endowment that provides us with enough to copy edit the journal, a funding “backstop” provided by donors and income generated by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, and surplus energy provided by our editors and editorial board. This is enough to keep our head above water and to survive the occasional emergency, but isn’t really enough to innovate in a sustainable way. 

Recently, several editorial board members suggested that we install a reading fee for submissions. Other members of the editorial board pushed back arguing that the submitters and contributors MAKE the journal and they shouldn’t be charged for that privilege. While I’m not entirely convinced by this argument, I share its broad sentiment that submissions should remain free as a way to encourage the widest possible range of potential contributors. Moreover, ideologically, there’s something democratic about allowing anyone to contribute and, practically, I think even a modest reading fee might discourage contributions from marginal writers especially in the global south.

What if instead of a reading fee, we included a link to a Patreon or Memberful account or created a formal NDQ newsletter using Substack subscription. To be clear, these wouldn’t be subscriptions in a formal sense — that is money provided in exchange for a product — but they’d unlock the commons and make more of the same creative content that typifies NDQ. More than that, the synergy between a funded newsletter and the regular publication of NDQ will be complementary. After all, the print version of NDQ is what makes us NDQ.

The second interest that I have in Carmody’s new project is that we built The Digital Press, in part, on Amazon’s print-on-demand infrastructure. Whether we like it or not, the world still loves paper books, and the ability to distribute our paper books from the nearly global Amazon marketplace is a massive advantage to a small press like ours.

At the same time, we realize that using Amazon is problematic. First, it limits our reach to small book sellers in the region who have not really warmed to Amazon’s direct sales to retailers. Second, Amazon’s labor practices and corporate culture are in many ways antithetical to the values that we have at The Digital Press. Thirdly, our relationship with Amazon’s production system, platform, and marketplace is completely outside of our control. Of course, as our catalogue expands, we will likely have other opportunities to partner with distributors, but at present, we’re stuck with Amazon whether we like it or not.

Carmody’s regular columns exploring Amazon as a company will offer us insights into both the present and future of the current distribution model for The Digital Press. 

Public Domain Day at North Dakota Quarterly

On January 1st, the public domain saw the first large-scale infusion of works since 1998. Any work published before 1924, now is in the U.S. public domain. This is an almost unprecedented catalogue of books, journals, films, and music has entered the public realm. This means that these works have been freed from almost all restrictions on how we use, distribute, contort, convolute, remix, and enjoy these works. Duke Law School offers helpful explanation of what this means. The HathiTrust has collected an overwhelming catalogue of digitized material that entered the public domain this year, and you can access the full texts here.

IMG 3510

This has an impact on us here at North Dakota Quarterly. While we have no reason to believe that we ever renewed copyright on any of our early works, we also have almost no idea what the agreements were between the Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota (as it was then known) and our authors. In effect, these issues were orphans and would require a time consuming and expensive search for their status for someone to be sure that they were free of copyright entanglements.

In 2017, we took a little risk and released the digital versions of these works on the HathiTrust under a Creative Commons By-Attribution, No Derivative license, figuring that we, at least, have the right to distribute the entire volume. Unfortunately, the no derivative aspect of the license made it difficult for anyone to repackage, rearrange, or remix this volume. As this work has now entered the public domain, they are now free of those constraints!

Lest one think that this is just some dusty back catalogue of a little magazine, for folks interested in the history of North Dakota and of the University of North Dakota, volume 13 (1923) of NDQ is a relatively untapped resource. Issue 13.4 is dedicated entirely to the history of UND, with articles written by various faculty luminaries of the “early days” including John Gillette, Vernon Squires, Earle Babcock, and the well-known financier and class of ‘03, John Hancock. Issue 13.3 focuses on the history of the state of North Dakota with articles dedicated to the pioneer physician, the North Dakota bar, politics, banking, religion, and, of course, farming. Issues 1 and 2 were more general issues with articles by faculty and local scholars, and with ample overlap with the themes of the last two issue of the year. 

In short, this volume is among the most important volumes of NDQ’s early history or “first series,” and while it bares only scant resemblance to the journal of the 21st century, it speaks to the fundamental role that the Quarterly played is sketching out the “first draft” (to use a colleagues helpful expression) of the history of the state and the University. In this way, NDQ reflected the interests of its primary audience, people in the small, but growing body of intellectuals, academics, and professionals in North Dakota who sought to create institutions to support their priorities in the world.

Today, I like to think that NDQ continues in that tradition, albeit with a wider audience, and, in terms of topics and genres, a more expansive view on how to shape our world. I’m just now starting to think about what to do with the newly released volume of NDQ, but the great thing about the public domain, is that it’s not up to just us here at NDQ!  Anyone can go and do something neat with it, and let us know what they did!

Getting the Brand Back Together

I really dislike the concept of branding. In particular, I dislike the idea that brands have value and that there is a responsibility to the value inherent in a brand particularly in the humanities. Over the past few years, I’ve been confronted by a number of individuals who view the brand as major part of their responsibility toward public humanities institutions. To my mind, the investment in the brand – whether financial, intellectual, strategic, or emotional – has produced a kind of conservatism.  While I’d never suggest that these individuals valued the brand above content, there is a tendency to use the concept of the brand and its definitions as a way to create barriers to collaboration or even prioritize risk taking because, in the end, social and historical capital that has accumulated around the brand matters.  

At the same time, as I take on the role of editor of North Dakota Quarterly and sit in an office surrounded by 85 years of the journal and am incredibly aware of the history and legacy of the publication. As we move from being self published to being published by University of Nebraska Press, we have a chance to refresh our cover and interior design. I intentionally asked that we try to evoke some of the design elements during the Quarterly’s heyday under Bob Lewis in the late-1990s and early-21st century. (This is a nice example of it). Despite liking some of our more adventurous approaches to layout – including columns and a volume designed “Tête-bêche” – I got into my head that a more consistent approach might make the journal easier to understand and consume… in other words, ugh, branding.


I also really liked the cover of our recent issue (84.1/2) dedicated to Transnationalism with it’s full width image and was pleased that UNP looked at that cover as a possible template for future NDQs. We need to find a cover image that has the same appeal as Marc-Antoine Frébutte’s “Waiting for the Train,” but I think that’s possible. UNP also played a bit with the NDQ logo while keeping its iconic Davida font. Here’s one example of what they’ve shared:

NDQ Cover Sample

Before I knew it, I was thinking about BRANDING and what was important to preserve in NDQ’s identity so that our readers and contributors recognize that despite the changes, we are going to maintain as much of the traditional NDQ identity as possible. I still don’t like branding or the idea of investing in the brand, but I suppose in this case it has a function of reassuring our audience that the core values of the Quarterly will remain intact. 




I still hate branding, though.

Three Things Thursday: Epoiesen, The Bakken, and NDQ Supplements

It’s the end of the semester and that means a time to look back, but also to look ahead to the break and beyond to various little projects on my slate for the next couple months (and beyond!).

While I have a good many odds and ends of my own to wrap up in the near future – including a peer review, an article draft, and the first words of a new book – I’m also looking forward to doing some work with projects from The Digital Press. 

Here’s what’s going on in that department. 

1. Epoiesen 2. Last year, I had the privilege of publishing a paper version of the first volume of Shawn Graham (and co.)’s journal Epoiesen. I thought of it as the Epoiesen annual and it is a total gem of a volume. (Download it here or buy it for $10 here). Over the next month or so, we’ll complete layout of Epoiesen 2 which will include this brilliant comic, Sympathy for the Devil, by H. Laurel Rowe.  It’ll also push us to continue to explore the relationship between print media and digital media in how we think about academic and artistic content and to consider the work of mediation to be part of the creative engagement with the content as well as the field of publishing archaeology and art in a digital/analogue hybrid world. We already have a great piece of art for the cover of the volume thanks to Katherine Cook

2. Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018. Kyle Conway and an impressive gaggle of scholars are working in this project right now. It is a republication of the 1958 Williston Report, a relatively obscure, but nevertheless significant report on the impact of the first Bakken oil boom on communities, the economy, and infrastructure across western North Dakota. The book itself will interleave chapters from the Williston Report and updated chapter from a range of authors on related topics recontextualized in light of the 21st century boom.

3. North Dakota Quarterly Supplement 2. I’ve started to think a bit more seriously about the North Dakota Quarterly supplement series. 2018 saw the publication of a small poetry collection call Snichimal Vayuchil as the first NDQ supplement. For 2019, we’ll have another small volume of translated Maya poetry thanks to Paul Worley connections in the region and tireless energies. This should appear in early 2019 as NDQ Supplement 2. 

This past week, I received an email from an author inquiring whether I might be interested in publishing a collection of short stores. This got me thinking about whether I should formalize the NDQ Supplement series as annual volumes that either expand or focuses in some way what the Quarterly already does. I’m sketching a plan out in my head that could include collections of stories, essays, poems, or even complete novels or non-fiction works that are available in a range of different (and varying) formats from open access to more limited, print-on-demand formats. 

Hopefully, I’ll be able to share more on all these projects over the next few weeks as I get some momentum. I can’t promise that any of them will be available for the holiday season, but there’s always a chance a few of those industrious elves can help me get more done than I expect!

Almost Done with North Dakota Quarterly Volume 85

One of the great pleasures of this fall semester has been serving as editor of North Dakota Quarterly. The first volume that will appear under my supervisions will be volume 85. It’ll also be the first volume produced in collaboration with University of Nebraska Press and featuring a new poetry editor, Paul Worley, a new art editor, Ryan Stander, and a new non-fiction editor Sheila Liming. Moreover, there has been a bit of hiatus in publishing NDQ (although to be fair, it’ll be less than 18 months) and for a time, we suspended subscriptions.

That all being said, SUBSCRIBE NOW!

Err… cough…

It seems appropriate that I write an editor’s note introducing the new volume. In fact, I was looking forward to doing this until… I discovered that it was really hard to do. My rhetorically elaborate and awesomely clever editor’s note almost instantly devolved when I tried to write it. 

In its place is this short note, which I actually think works, even if I wanted to say more.

Editors Note

For almost a century, North Dakota Quarterly has stood as a monument on the North Plains. Started at the turn of the century and anticipating the Little Magazine movement, the Quarterly has remained committed to publishing the best fiction, poetry, and essays submitted by its diverse contributors. At the same time, the tastes, interests, and opinions of it editors have shaped the journal. Bob Lewis produced regular volumes dedicated to Ernest Hemingway. Sharon Carson produced a volume that reflected her interest in transnationalism. Robert Wilkins term as editor saw regular contributions on the history of the state and region.

The first volume of North Dakota Quarterly under my editorship seeks to continue in this tradition while also following the lead of my extraordinary fiction editor, Gilad Elbom, poetry editor, Paul Worley, art editor, Ryan Stander, non fiction editor, Sheila Liming, and the editorial board. Past editors Sharon Carson and Kate Sweney, university attorney, Jason Jenkins, and copy-editor Andrea Herbst also offered steady hands to guide my work as editor and helped the Quarterly navigate some exciting challenges —  from finding new storage for 20,000 back issues, to a new office, a new publisher, and new funding structure.

The group of editors and our determined and patient contributors have brought together fiction and poetry for a single volume in the calendar year 2018. At my suggestion and with the help of the editorial board, we also collected also brought together a special section of art, poetry, and essays on the humanities in the age of austerity. Over the past three years, the Quarterly directly encountered the impact of fiscal austerity on higher education and humanities funding in North Dakota, and it seemed fitting for these challenges to manifest in the page of the journal itself.

Volume 85 also marks another major change for the Quarterly. Starting with this volume, we will be published by University of Nebraska Press and this partnership will change the working of the journal in exciting ways. Already, we have made it possible to subscribe and submit to North Dakota Quarterly online. We have redoubled our efforts to produce weekly content on our website. We also look forward to new opportunities to increase the visibility and reach of NDQ among creative writers, discerning readers, and our longstanding national audience.

We hope that you enjoy volume 85 (2018) of the Quarterly and look forward to continuing to share exceptional content with you.

Veterans Day, the Great War, and Free Speech

It’s Veterans Day and we’re also recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

In keeping with this, I figured I should send you along to the North Dakota Quarterly page to check out the first volume in our Reprint Series: The University of North Dakota and the Great War. It features articles from 1916, 1917, and 1919 including Wesley R. Johnson’s remarkable “War Experience of a University Student as a Dough Boy” published in 1919.

Und and the great war

To this remarkable account, we can add the results of some research by a University of North Dakota student, Sawyer Flynn, who transcribed a pair of remarkable poems written by Horace Shidler to honor his fallen friend Harold Holden Sayre. These poems were discovered during the Wesley College Documentation Project as Sayre’s father donated Sayre Hall to Wesley College (and later renamed the hall in memory of his late son).

The poems and Sawyer’s research speak for themselves.  

Finally, if you’re in Grand Forks, come down to Half Brothers Brewing from 6-8 pm to an event hosted by UND’s Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. Tonights event is titled Sports, Speech, and Justice: A Community Conversation. It features Eric Burin and a panel of luminaries pulled from the pages of his latest edited volume, Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century America. More importantly, it provides a space for a conversation about free speech, justice, and patriotism in 21st century America, and this feels like a good way to recognize the sacrifices of veterans.

Be sure to check out Jason Reid’s feature article on African American Veterans over at the Undefeated which quotes Eric’s book!

Subscribe to North Dakota Quarterly!

Yesterday, a nice little story on North Dakota Quarterly in the University of North Dakota’s official news feed, UND TodayGo read it!

Print is not dead  UND Today 2018 11 07 06 45 43

The main goal of this article is not so much to celebrate the re-appearance of NDQ, but to announce that we selling subscriptions! One of the great challenges facing NDQ in the past was getting an online subscription platform up and running at UND. Our partnership with the University of Nebraska Press has solved this problem and you can now subscribe to the Quarterly by going here

By subscribing you’ll get an amazing collection of fiction, poetry, and essays in two double issues of NDQ per year. More than that, you’ll be investing in the public arts and humanities and making it possible for NDQ to continue for years to come and show the world and the campus community that literary journals are sustainable investments.  Subscribe!


Two quick notes of congratulations this morning. 

First, to Sharon Carson, Gayatri Devi, and Cigdem Pala for their special issue of North Dakota Quarterly on Transnationalism (volume 84.1/2) being recognized as a notable issue by the 2018 Best American Essays editors. Special recognition goes to Sharon Carson, Shawn Boyd, and Kate Sweney, who shepherded Volume 84.1/2 through production.  You can read excerpts from the volume here and I’ll do what I can over the next few weeks to make the entire volume available.


Second, to Shawn Graham and his team for their ODATE project which received the 2019 award for Excellence in Digital Archaeology from the Archaeological Institute of America. I know that the ODATE digital archaeology textbook is still in beta, but here’s a link to it.

Shawn is among the most remarkable practitioners of digital archaeology and I have been privileged to collaborate with him on one of his other great projects, Epoiesen, which we publish an annual print version with The Digital Press

Davida Font and NDQ

One of the most enduring and perhaps endearing characteristics of North Dakota Quarterly has been its use of Davida font in its iconic logo “NDQ”:




The fonts used on the NDQ title page and masthead have not changed frequently. The first series of the journal used an attractive old style serifed font featuring a “Q” with an absolutely fantastic (but not overwrought) tail.

1933  Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library | HathiTrust D 2018 10 10 05 49 25

The Quarterly had a hiatus between 1932 and 1956 and when it reappeared, it subtly marked this hiatus by changing its masthead. From 1956-1967, the North Dakota Quarterly cover featured the Romantic Bodoni font. The use of the Bodoni Condensed on the masthead on the inside page of journal was a nice allusion to the journal’s hiatus. Bodoni Condensed was introduced in 1933 as a useful addition to the American Type Founders extensive line-up of Bodoni style fonts. 

North Dakota quarterly v 25 no 1 1957  Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library | HathiTrust Digital Library 2018 10 10 05 58 21

North Dakota quarterly v 24 no 2 1956  Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library | HathiTrust Digital Library 2018 10 10 05 48 14

North Dakota quarterly v 29 35 1961 1967  Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library | HathiTrust Digital Library 2018 10 10 05 47 06

When Robert Wilkins took over as editor of the Quarterly in 1968, he introduced the now iconic NDQ logo in Davida font.  Davida was designed by Louis Minott and introduced in 1965. The font had some currency in the late 1960s and early 1970s, appearing in a wide range of contexts. It was pretty popular for album cover art, appearing on Neil Diamond’s single “Solitary Man/Cherry Cherry” (1970) and the T. Rex single “By the Light of the Magical Moon” (1970) as well as on James Brown’s 1970 album Ain’t it Funky. In the publishing world, it appeared on the cover of the 1971 edition of Silvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and the cover of the revised 1971 edition of The Country Code in the U.K.  I wasn’t able to find the exact precedent that inspired Robert Wilkins to use this font, but there are enough funky, literary, and rustic examples to demonstrate that Davida was in the air.

A few months ago I floated the idea of changing up our logo, and even floated a few ideas. None of them met with any unconditional enthusiasm, and now I’m thinking that maybe keeping the Davida NDQ logo is just a good thing. I mean, if it’s good enough for The Godfather of Soul and The Country Code, maybe it’s just fine for NDQ.  

NDQuarterlyLogos 01

Three Things Wednesday: Fake News, Grass Kings, and NDQ

This week has ended up being a bit more hectic than I wanted, but it’s a good kind of hectic — a dry hectic, and when better for a good kind of hectic than the weeks running into the start of the academic year. So, today will just be three quick things that are hanging about my head as I gain momentum heading into the new semester.

1. Scale-Up and “Fake News.” One of the things that I’ll miss this fall (and this year) is teaching in UND’s large “Scale-Up” style classroom. I’m starting to work on ways to scale-down my large History 101 survey classes from 150-180 students to closer to 40 or 50 students. At the same time, I’m starting to think a little about how recent concerns about “fake news” could offer an interesting critical foil to how we think about the past. This could be further fueled by the reissue of James Loewen’s modern classical Lies My Teacher Told Me this fall.

There seems increasingly to be two views of the past: one is true and the other is fake. Anyone who knows anything about studying history realizes, of course, that our reading of the past is rarely (I’d contend never) black and white, and always shades of grey. This realization, however, isn’t really the problem. The problem is how do we arrange our shades of grey into a coherent image of the past. Any given issue might be fake or true, but the onus on the critic should always be oriented toward the relationship between a given point (or points) and our larger image of the past. 

Approaching the past in this way does two things. First, it shifts the conversation from authority (i.e. we know this thing because we trust this person) to argument (i.e. we know this thing because it makes sense). And, secondly, it emphasizes the causal relationship between events in the past and perspectives from the present. We’re constantly aware as historians how our own view of the past requires cohesion that is grounded in present understanding. Historians (and archaeologists) know this, of course, but I think that we sometimes forget to teach this to our students. 

2. Grass Kings. My buddy Kostis Kourelis sent my a copy of Matt Kindt’s and Tyler Jenkins’s graphic novel Grass Kings (2018) this past week. I’ve only started it, but one thing stands out to me. The plot revolves around the tension between the denizens of an autonomy trailer park kingdom (the Grass Kingdom) and the nearby town of Cargill. So far, the book has been a meditation on what it means to be free and what day-to-day conveniences are worth sacrificing for freedom.

The most striking thing to me about the book, though, is that the Grass Kingdom consists largely of refitted trailers, RVs, and at least one houseboat (as well as some old houses). This setting should be familiar to anyone interested in near future science fiction: William Gibson’s The Peripheral is set in and about an elaborately modified Mercedes RV and a heavily insulated 1970s airstream camper. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) similarly sets part of the action in “the stacks” which is a landscape of old RVs and trailers stacked in metal frames.

This view of the future has eerie echoes of some of the conversations and experiences that I had on the North Dakota Man Camp Project. The rows of RVs set up on the North Dakotan prairie represented relative freedom for the residents especially compared to the more corporate “work force housing facilities” because they could live more as they pleased enjoying company, beers, and opportunities for self expression. They also could up and leave moving their dwelling and possessions with them if greener pastures presented themselves. On the other hand, life in the cold prairie winter in an small RV designed for short-term summer excursions seems like quite a sacrifice compared to the comforts offered by housing designed for more long-term or even permanent occupation.

What is clear is that in the near future (and perhaps today) housing and freedom are intimately related.    

3. Moving NDQ. I got the email last night and it would appear this week is moving week for North Dakota Quarterly. Over the past few months things have been slowly churning forward with NDQ as we move to a new publisher, prepare volume 85 for publication, and issue 86.1 (2019). The wolf closest to the sled these days is moving NDQ to a new office down the hall from our current digs in historic Merrifield Hall on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota. The new offices are a bit smaller, but we hope to put them to good use with a pretty vigorous publication schedule planned and a revived internship program in collaboration with UND’s program in writing and editing. 

As I’ve quipped on the Twitters, most of my responsibilities at NDQ editor involve putting books in boxes and taking them out! But sometimes, I do get to celebrate the successes of our authors (and by extension, our editors)