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.   

Three Thing Thursday: A Story, an Interview, and a Map

My grades were submitted on Monday, and I made the mistake of thinking that summer would begin now. Alas, the world had other plans with zoom meetings, deadlines, and an endless stream of emails from various administrative accounts across my university.

The good news is that despite the noise, there are plenty of fun things to keep my occupied this summer, and I thought that I’d share a few on an mid-May “Three Things Thursday”:

Thing the First

If you’re like me, you’ve already started to think about how to adapt your classes to another COVID-inflected semester in the fall. It seem highly likely that digital media are going to play a larger role in what you do in the classroom. 

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota chatted a bit with Sebastian Heath about his recent edited volume DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient MediterraneanYou can read the interview with Sebastian here. And you can download the a digital copy of the book, purchase it via Amazon, or from an independent bookstore

Another book that might help you think more broadly about teaching using digital approaches is Shawn Graham’s recently published Failing Gloriously and Other Essays. At a time when it is becoming more and more important that we act in a humane and understanding way toward our students and colleagues, Shawn’s book shines light on failure not as the prelude to triumph, but as a fundamental part of learning and empathy. We also had a long conversation with him that you can read here. You can download it for free here, buy it on Amazon here, or get a copy from an independent bookseller here.

Thing the Second

I’m pretty excited to have posted Shane Castle’s short story “Ursa” at the North Dakota Quarterly blog this morning. During my time as editor, it is one of my favorite stories. 

The thing that makes is so appealing is the ambiguity of it all. Is the story meant to be touching and heartfelt? Is it just an exercise in the absurd? Is it meant to be funny? All these things? 

There’s also something about the story that makes it feel appropriate for our current situation. The story reckons with the experience of coming out of hibernation, memories of our past, pre-COVID life, our efforts to stay connected over distance, and the awkwardness in how we engaged with others. In short, the story is so much of what unusual, non-commercial, and (broadly) experimental fiction can be. 

If you have a few minutes over lunch or while sipping an evening cocktail, give it a read.  

Thing the Third

The final thing this Thursday is a map prepared by a team led by my old buddy David Pettegrew. As I’ve mentioned on a previous Three Thing Thursday, he’s been leading an ambitious project, Digital Harrisburg, designed to create rich historical maps of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This past week, we released yet another update to the maps of Harrisburg’s “Old Eighth Ward” which was an African American neighborhood destroyed to produce the state capital area. Check out the interactive maps here

Needless to say, this project has inspired me to think more critically and dynamically about my own community and how constructing data-rich maps can help us understand our community in the past, but as importantly, in the present. 

NDQ 87.1/2 By the Numbers

I’ve been thinking a good bit about how what we write, publish, edit, and read reflects how we think about the world. Over the weekend, I read Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein’s Data Feminism (which will be “soon” be available open access here). They include in an appendix some statistics on how well their work fulfilled their goals of producing a diverse perspective on data science in keeping with the central theme of their work. They admit that in many cases they fell short of their goals, but this transparency allowed the authors to show their aspirations and come to terms with the limits of their field, their research, and their writing. I was deeply impressed.

I’ve been trying to do a similar thing with each issue of North Dakota Quarterly. We receive thousands of submissions each year and accept far less than 10% of them. This means that our editors exert a significant influence over the shape and character of the issue. At the same time, the world of creative writing and little magazines is a small one, and our contributors influence our readers and ultimately who submits to the Quarterly. In other words, what we publish exerts an influence on who submits and our pool of potential contributors.

Anyway, here’s what I posted today over on the NDQ blog: 

We’ve been thrilled to see that North Dakota Quarterly 87.1/2 has been downloaded over 770 times over the last few weeks! We hope that some of those downloaders like what they read and will consider becoming contributors, subscribers, or at very least regular visitors to our blog.

If you want to download our most recent issue, go here. No strings attached!

In the tradition of little magazines, our contributors tend to subscribe and our subscribers tend to contribute. This reciprocal relationship ensures that the Quarterly reflects our readers and gives our authors and editors an opportunity to create the kind of magazine that they want to read. Each issue, then sits at the intersection of our editors’ and contributors’ tastes. It also means that as editors we can move the needle on the character of NDQ which we also hope attracts new readers and subscribers.

Recent conversation among academic authors concerning the impact of  COVID-19 has given the relationship between readers and contributors in scholarly journals a new sense of urgency. According to reports from across disciplines, there’s been a steep decrease in the number of articles submitted by women to academic journals, or, alternately, there’s been a steep rise in the number of articles submitted by men. The argument is that with stay-at-home orders and the closing of most schools, women’s roles as care-givers in the family have increased, and this has cut into their research and writing time. Limited access to home work space, the increased burden of emotional labor as classes and colleagues deal with pandemic related stress, and the greater number of women who carry heavy teaching loads made all the heavier with the requirement to teach classes online likely also contributed to a decline in submission from women. The COVID-related social changes continue into the foreseeable future, the decline in submissions from women may have long-term significance especially if it’s multiplied by declining number of women who have the time to serve as peer-reviewers, participate actively on editorial boards, and other behind the scenes academic work that shapes the content and quality of scholarly journals.

Our submission data at NDQ can be a bit messy. For example, it’s not too unusual for authors to submit revised manuscripts resulting in multiple submissions by the same author over a period of time. Our poetry and non-fiction editors accept submissions over two designated reading periods per year meaning that some authors may hold their work and the date of submission may not represent the date of composition. Our poetry editor allows for up to 5 poems in a single submission which complicates acceptance rates, for example. Finally, each of our editors deals with their archive of submitted material differently.

Despite these vagaries, we can detect an uptick in submission since the start of the COVID period between March 15 and May 12, which was largely driven by a substantial increase in poetry submission. Fiction and non-fiction submissions appear to have remained relatively stable over the same period in 2019 and 2020.    

Because of differences in archiving practices, our best data comes from our Fiction submissions that remained relatively stable in number between 2019 and 2020. Between March 15 and May 2, 2019, 60% of the submissions came from authors with male names and 33% came from authors with female names. Over that same period in 2020, 70% of the submissions came from authors with male names and 25% from authors with female names. This suggests, with a bit of fuzziness, that there are hints of the larger trend of women submitting less during the “Time of COVID-19.”  Since we accept fiction, essays, and poetry often a year in advance of publication and because we sometimes accept more than we can publish in a single issue, we tend to blend material submitted over a long period of time. It may be that this will help mitigate the impact of any trend in submissions during the pandemic.

NDQ 87.1/2, our numbers reflect, to some extent, the character of our submissions. About 56% of our contributors have men’s names and 43% have women’s names. This more or less holds across all genres with the number of published pieces (poets often have more than one poem published) 53% by authors with men’s names and 47% from authors with women’s names. 

While the gender of our author’s names don’t come close to telling the whole story concerning the content of any volume of NDQ, it does give us one perspective on who reads and submits to the Quarterly. We could add that we published material from authors who live in 26 states and 8 foreign countries. We don’t collect data on the age, race, or background of our authors.  

It would be possible to perform a more subtle quantitative reading of the issue that could map topics, the gender, race, class, age, and ethnicity of characters, their sexual orientation, the identity of speakers, and other meaningful markers of diversity, but, at some point, the best way to understand the scope of our magazine and its contributors is to simply read an issue. I hope you’ll find something that speaks to you in it.

We also recognize, of course, that we still have work to do to create issues that reflect the diversity of creative voices in the world today. 

Have I mentioned that you can download it for free?

We’re also offering a discount on subscriptions with the coupon code on this page.

We’re always reading fiction, and will continue to read essays and poetry at least until the end of the month (and maybe longer in response to the chaos and confusion of the COVID-19 pandemic). It’s always free to submit to the Quarterly.

Work Force Housing, The Bakken, and Photos

Like many people, I’ve been at loose ends over the last 6 weeks or so. While I’ve been trying to remain disciplined, this hasn’t always worked out. This week, for example, I started to play around with the 10,000+ images that the North Dakota Man Camp Project collected over the last 7 years. I learned this morning that it was some kind of Digital humanities day, so maybe I can pretend that I planned to do this to celebrate, you know, the digital or the humanities or something.

I’ll admit that the more I’ve played with little projects like this, the more I’ve thought about starting a little press of my own to publish various vanity projects. For example a couple of years ago, I scanned and compiled a collection of letters written by Edward P. Robertson of Wesley College in Grand Forks, ND from 1935. You can download it here for free.

Along similar lines, I started to compile the documentary photographs that my colleagues and I took in the Bakken. The photos are all from a single camp, which we’ll call Man Camp 11.

Here’s the cover of the book that I mocked up. It’ll probably just be digital.

WFR CoverDraft 1

Most of the photographs are mine which accounts for their rather mediocre quality. In this mediocrity, however, I like to think that there’s a bit of authenticity. I switched after a couple of years from a 35 mm camera to a micro four thirds camera meaning my images changed proportion and requiring me to lay out my pages in a different way. 

MC11 DRAFT 1

MC11 DRAFT 2

I also started to play around with some of the video that Richard Rothaus captured during our time in the Bakken. I converted one of every 100 frames into a still, and I really like how they create a sense of motion.

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I then put them together on the page.

MC11 DRAFT 6

I’m also thinking about collating these photographs with some of the interviews we did.

MC11 DRAFT 7

Because it’s my book, I get to feature my truck:

MC11 DRAFT 3

There are some really great aerial photographs of the county taken almost every year from 2012-2018. I think these could be really great chapter header images. More than that, like the stills from the Richard Rothaus’s videos, these images show the passage of time.

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 31 42

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 32 55

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 33 53

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 34 35

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 35 21

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 36 05

ArcGIS  My Map 2020 04 30 07 36 56

Anyway, I’m not sure what exactly to do with this project other than to keep plugging away on it. There are some basic elements like page numbers that I’d like to incorporate, but haven’t really figured out how to do that in a way that I think looks cool. 

If any of my readers are publishers and interested in this kind of thing, drop me a line… 

Three Things Thursday

Thursday mornings have become exceedingly hectic with me teaching a class in old Montgomery Hall at 8 am and it also being the customary day for NDQ to post its weekly blog.

That being said, I always can find time for a few things on a Thursday morning.

Thing One

One of the coolest things about Montgomery Hall on the UND campus is its impressive vaulted plaster and wood framed ceiling. The vaulted ceiling stood two storeys about the dining room in the original configuration of Montgomery Hall and when this room became the main reading room on campus, it conveyed a certain monumentality to the space.

Final edits 01 13 2020 UND HABS Narrative Outline pdf  page 22 of 25 2020 02 06 11 14 39

Final edits 01 13 2020 UND HABS Narrative Outline pdf  page 22 of 25 2020 02 06 11 16 14

Today, the acoustic tiles obscure the ceiling and a floor level divides the open expanse of the reading room and the dining hall. It nevertheless peaks through in places.

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IMG 4644

Thing Two

For the first time in my teaching career, I’m assigning something that I wrote for a class. Needless to say, I’m nervous. When I first got to UND, the university was preparing to celebrate its 125thaversary (which they oddly called something like there quinquasexatecentennial or some such pretentious nonsense). At this time, a decree went out from the President of the university that all the world … or every department should update their history. I offered to write the history of our department and now, after years of sort of hiding from it, I’m asking students to download and read two chapters to understand the early history of our program.

You can read it here, if you’d like, and I think that the early history of history at UND is pretty interesting. It speaks not only to the emergence of history as a professional discipline outside of the major universities (Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ivy League) as well as the first efforts to study the history of the state of North Dakota in the early 20th century and the organization of archives and seminars on the history of the state. It also gives an idea of how professors negotiated their place among the small town bourgeois of Grand Forks.

Thing Three

I really want to talk about some projects and make some updates concerning The Digital Press, but nothing is quite ready to announce. For example, Kyle Conway’s edited volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018 is in page proofs.
Sebastian Heath’s DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean is almost through layout. Derek Counts, Erin Averett, and Kevin Gartski’s Visualizing Votive Practice: Exploring Limestone and Terracotta Sculpture from Athienou-Malloura through 3D Models is in final pre-production review and will go to the copy editor this spring. Rebecca Seifried and Deb Brown’s Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean is back from positive peer reviews and out to authors for revisions.

I’d love to announce a new collaboration with North Dakota Quarterly that involves two translated books which will appear under a new imprint (possibly something like the North Dakota Quarterly Press).

I’m also dying to talk about Sun Ra.

But nothing is ready to announce yet, but stay tuned. Stuff is in the works and I hope people will like it.

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.  

New Book Day! Epoiesen 3

It’s new book day over at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as the third installment of the Epoiesen Annual drops in a paginated-pdf and as a print-on-demand paper volume from Amazon

As readers of this blog know, Epoiesen is a digital journal published at Carleton University in Ottawa and edited by Shawn Graham. Three years ago, he asked whether my press might be interested in publishing a paginated and paper version of the journal. Without hesitation, I agreed and this is the third installment in that series. 

To my mind, this is the strongest Epoiesen annual yet. It features a series of interactive meditations on the Melian Dialogue touched off by a Twine game developed by Neville Morley, an album of assemblages concocted in Andrew Reinhard’s laboratory, an exploration of the concept of the “phrygital” from Digital Archaeology heavy-weights Ian Dawson and Paul Reilly and in the fantastic papercraft of Alyssa Loyless. Each of these contributes have compelling response (including one from me!) which challenge, expand, and critique the work. A concise introduction by Shawn Graham brings this work together and a reflexive commentary on a visually compelling Twitter essay by Katy Whitaker provides a nice anchor to the volume. The cover art from Jens Notroff makes the cover an essay.  

If you haven’t checked out Epoiesen you should. And, if you have a creative project or genre defying article that is lingering in your mind and looking good home, consider submitting to Epoiesen!  

To celebrate the appearance of Epoiesen 3 and Shawn’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays last month, he agreed to answer 7 questions about his work, failure, and future project. We’ve published this interview at The Digital Press blog.

Books by their Cover from the AIA/SCS Book Room

There was a day when I wandered the book room at the annual joint meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and Society for Classical Studies looking for the latest publication. These days, my shelves overflow with books that I don’t have time to read and grabbing the latest word in Late Antiquity or Mediterranean archaeology, while always exciting, is probably too ambitious for my current station in life.

Now, I tend to wander the book room on the look out for the snazziest book covers. There were some really great covers (and many of them were so distracting that I didn’t bother to look when the book was published, so some of these books are probably not new).

The first book that grabbed my eye was Andrew Miller’s new translation of Pindar’s Odes and Charles Martin’s translation of Euripides Media. As with most black covers, these are showing signs of handling, which is always unfortunate, but the stylized letters are just too great a design to not set against a matte black background. 

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I love when presses have a great design that extends easily over an entire series. University of Texas Press’s series The Oratory of Classical Greece uses a similarly restrained color palette  and consistent graphics and fonts to produce an appealing and recognizable identity.

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Bloomsbury’s Classical Languages series also produces a distinct and recognizable (and appealing) gaggle of books:

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I found myself stopped at the University of Chicago Press tables less because of their consistently interesting content and more because their little swarm of books on editing, writing, and publishing used bold colors and designs to show off their family relationship without using a template.

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Single books offer a less constrained design vocabulary and I’m always surprised by the range of designs that simply work to create an arresting and interesting cover. For example, I’ve often been caught looking at Owen P. Doonan’s Sinop Landscapes: Exploring Connection in a Black Sea Hinterland which appeared in 2004 (!). Maybe it’s understated design speaks to a slightly less crowded or graphically ambitious book market? Or maybe it just works?

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It goes without saying the use of a black and white photo and a black cover does nothing to hide its dated vibe, but in the right hands, a vintage aesthetic really can work. For example, I love the cover of Herodotus and the Question Why by Christopher Pelling from University of Texas Press. The use of blue and orange creates just enough chromostereopsis to make the book pop. Plus that color way is really hip these days (and to me, it evokes the vintage color of Gulf as seen in this watch and on this car.)

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Texas has long done cool stuff with vintage style covers. Deborah Lyons’s Dangerous Gifts (2012) almost always catches my eye even when surrounded by more recent titles.

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The cover of Laura Pfuntner’s book, Urbanism and Empire in Roman Sicily, is just great as well. I love the floor plans in the colored blocks. 

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As an aside, Texas also really did a nice job with the cover of Hanif Abdurraqib’s book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to the Tribe Called Quest even if the “This is a book by…” thing is a bit tired (where did this start? I remember it on the Black Keys’ album Brothers, but it must be from something else?).

Princeton has used a similarly paired down and graphically bold aesthetic for the cover of Walter Scheidel’s edited volume, The Science of Roman History, that came out last year. I like it.

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There’s something to be said for less minimalist covers too, of course. I love the cover to Frankenstein and Its Classics The Modern Prometheus from Antiquity to Science Fiction edited by Jesse Weiner, Benjamin Eldon Stevens, Brett M. Rogers from Bloomsbury.

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I’m guessing the same designer did the cover to Brett M. Rogers’s and Benjamin Eldon Stevens’s Once and Future Antiquities in Science Fiction and Fantasy

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The cover of the ISAW Monograph, An Oasis City edited by Roger S. Bagnall , Nicola Aravecchia , Raffaella Cribiore , Paola Davoli , Olaf E. Kaper and Susanna McFadden and published in conjunction with NYU Press combines business with black and white to create a cover that has caught my eye for several years now. 

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For more conventional covers, University of Wisconsin Press created a show stopper with their cover of Sarah Rous’s Reset in Stone.  The cover not only grabbed my attention but also made me stop and think about how the contrast between white marble and saturated blue skies create a kind of trope for Hellenism (and this led me to think about how these kinds of images are used and reused over time).

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I assume that the same designer produced the cover to Spear-Won Land: Sardis from the King’s Peace to the Peace of Apamea edited by Andrea M. Berlin and Paul J. Kosmin.

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Finally, the coolest cover that I saw last week had to be Thelma Thomas’s Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity. This book came out in 2016 in association with an exhibit at NYU’s ISAW. I had heard of the book and maybe even read a review of it, but for whatever reason hadn’t seen it in the paper. The cover is distractingly great. 

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Over the past few years, I’ve been struck by how hard it has become to find the time (or even a method) to keep atop the incredible output of books in archaeology, Classics, and ancient history. I’ve also heard more than one colleague mutter, usually in frustration more than anything, “everybody has a book these days,” and this certainly feels like it might be true. Despite the seemingly overwhelming output of publications, it’s nice to see presses committed to such amazing cover designs. It makes the numbing guilt of not being able to read everything that I want to read worth a trip throughs the book room! 

 

Five Thoughts from the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting

I spent two hectic days in Washington, DC on the weekend attending the AIA/SCS annual meeting. I try to go every other year and despite my griping about having to attend and my general feeling of being an impostor, I still very much view it as “my annual meeting.” In other words, the AIA feels like my disciplinary and institutional home.

 I attended a handful of panels at this years meeting and mostly knew what was going on (which was pretty good for me) and on uneventful flights home, I had six thoughts.

1. Legacy Data. I gave a paper in a panel on legacy data organized by Jon Frey and Fotini Kondyli. To my great surprise, the room was packed with an engaged and enthusiastic audience. The papers walked the intriguing line between the practical and the conceptual demonstrating not only the pressing need to discuss the challenging realities associated with working on legacy data and the potential for work on legacy data to inform the larger methodological and theoretical framework of archaeology. 

I left the panel realizing that most of the challenges that archaeologists encounter when dealing with legacy data are conceptually consistent with the challenges that archaeologists encounter in the field. They involve issues of context, classification, documentation, workflow, and historical and historiographical analysis. Perhaps this is why the panel attracted so much interest. You can read my paper here.

2. The Future of Publishing in the Humanities. I also attended a roundtable discussion on the future of publishing in the humanities with representatives of two presses, a pair of librarians, and a couple hybrid scholars who work between publishing, scholarship, and information science. 

Three things emerged from that discussion. First, the monolithic notion of “publishing a book” or “publishing an article,” belies a very diverse range of processes, possibilities, and publishers who range from very conventional academic presses to smaller “scholar-led” operations. Moreover, even among these groups, there are a range of different approaches and priorities for an author to consider. Second, a significant part of this diversity comes from the challenge of digital practices in both knowledge making and in its dissemination. Libraries, scholars, and publishers are all working hard to figure out how to distribute books across digital channels, preserve digital data, and support opportunities for scholars working not just on the bleeding edge of their fields, but close to the center of our hybrid analog-digital scholars practice. 

Finally, open access is coming and we don’t really understand how it will impact the landscape of scholarly publishing yet. My impression is that most presses do not have sustainable models for open access publishing and they don’t necessarily have models for the large scale dissemination of open access books, data sets, and content. The big change across the entire landscape of academic publishing is still on the horizon.

Here’s what I had planned to say in this panel

3. Survey Archaeology. About 10 years ago, I was up to my eyeballs in articles and papers on the analysis of survey data and, in particular, discussions of survey method. The methodological consequences of “third wave” siteless survey had outstripped, to some extent, our interpretative paradigms for understanding the data that we had produced in historically significant ways. It felt like survey archaeology might be at an impasse. Our desperate need to convince excavators that our work was rigorous, thoughtful, and sophisticated, had pushed us to develop the methodological context for our practices to the detriment of analysis.

This past meeting, it feels like that stage in survey archaeology has finally passed. None of the papers that discussed survey included an apologia nor did they drag the audience through a kind of pseudo-apologetic methodological digression designed to reassure the listen that this wasn’t just a bunch of students picking up random pottery in the countryside. Instead, the papers focused on the potential for survey to inform current debates concerning Romanization, rural land use, connectivity between places, and even seasonal patterns and taskscapes in countryside. Survey archaeology felt very grown up. 

4. Archaeology for the General Reader. This was an 8 am round table of very distinguished scholars who discuss their experiences writing for a general audience and receiving funding from an NEH Public Scholar Program Grant. The participants on the panel were gracious and open about their writing processes and their achievements. They did not waste time arguing for the value of this kind of work. 

At the same time, I struggled to understand how they envisioned a “general reader.” Over the course of the panel I began to realize that the general reader was not really a person, but rather a proxy useful to describe a work that could be marketed to a wide audience. The general reader is actually some who can and will buy these books. In fact, the model for most of the books seemed unapologetically commercial with their emphasis on characters, action, and authority. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not disputing necessarily the viability and even importance of this model of writing and publishing, but it causes me worries. First, it equates the general reader as a book buyer rather than a content consumer, and this seems out of step with the diverse ways in which most of us consumer knowledge across a wide range of media in our daily lives.

Second, this panel assumes that the general reader exists rather than is created by the way in which we market, structure, and distribute our works. While so much important scholarship today is focused on recognizing, creating, and elevating diversity in both the past and the present, this panel seemed to imagine its audience as somehow monolithic. As writers for a non-academic audiences, I was expecting a greater sensitivity toward the kinds of audiences that their works sought to reach and how their writing responded to the needs of groups or sought to produce new communities of readers.   

Most painfully for me was the dismissive attitude toward significant emerging forms of writing like creative non-fiction that seek to challenge how non-fiction works in crucial ways. Creative-non-fiction can encourage the reader to question the authority of the text, can open up new and important spaces to critique how knowledge is made, and push readers out of their emotional and intellectual comfort zones. Even if we limit our view of significant public scholarship to works that have engaged a broad audience, it is impossible to deny the impact of works like Natalie Zemon Davis’s Return of Martin Martin Guerre (1983), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), and Roxanne Gay’s Hunger (2017) (not to mention Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocmented (2016)). That the NEH Public Scholars Program was uninterested in publishing this kind of work seems more than just a missed opportunity. It appears to have conflated the existence of a general reader with the ability of compelling works both to speak to and create  communities. 

To be clear, I have no beef with the authors on the panel and their works —many of which I have read—are both good and, in the right light, compelling, but there is so much more to writing to a broad audiences than this panel presented.  

5. The Value of Conferences. As per usual there was discussion about the value of meetings like the AIA/SCS conference. It was great to see graduate students presenting their work — sometimes for the first time, to engage with mid-career scholars writing at the edge of their comfort zones to a supportive and critical audience, and to celebrate with the community the work and wisdom of senior scholars. It was also nice to see old friends and to meet folks from social media for the first time, face-to-face. I made plans with colleagues and discussed professional opportunities and challenges. 

At the same time, attending the conference was expensive and exhausting. As a scholar at a relatively poorly funded mid- to lower-tier university, it also felt decadent and there was the palpable sense from quite a number of attendees that these kinds of events were unwise and inefficient in the current culture of austerity. If nothing else the optics of events like these were not good because they not only made clear the racial, gender, and class inequalities at the core of our disciplines, but also created a venue for any number of cringe-worthy displays of public and professional power which seems increasingly Byzantine as our fields of study fight for survival in the changing landscape of higher education. I don’t really have an answer for whether the good that comes from these kinds of conferences continues to outweigh the bad, and I obviously realize that this kind of annual event is likely to continue into the future long after it has outlived its usefulness. I think, however, that attending the conference every couple years does push us to reflect on their continued value to our fields.

Finally, there’s this amazing advertisement from the SCS program. I spent a good bit of time admiring book covers in the exhibition hall, but none have created the buzz of this advertisement:

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The text on features a quote from Edith Hall: “I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal [TLS] to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre.” 

I’ve always considered Edith Hall, the Lester Bangs’ of Classics world, so it’s fitting that the quote from her review of Duban’s book evokes (obliquely) the rock critic’s famous liner notes for the Mekons’ album, The Mekons’ Story:

“The Mekons may now assume their proper place in the highest bowers in the hallowed halls of Rocque (co-leased by Wolfman Jack and Sid Bernstein). THEY ARE BETTER THAN THE BEATLES. They are better than Budgie and REO Speedwagon combined, they gave me $1500 for writing these notes. They come not to bury rock but to gourmandize it. All their Daddies are rich which is why they get to keep putting out this swill.”

I only wish that I had thought of this marketing strategy first.