Publishing in Philosophy: Its Health or Lack Thereof

An unexamined book exhibit makes any trip to the annual Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association not worth the trouble—particularly in a December when heavy snow led to multiple cancelled sessions. So philosophers who reached Boston’s Marriott and Westin Copley Place last week did their traditional rigorous reconnoitering of booths, an easier task this year given the drop in exhibitors.

A sign at one empty stall announced, “George Leaman from Philosophy Documentation Center will not be attending the meeting because of weather.” Since the widely-liked Mr. Leaman is a virtual sine qua non of any APA division meeting, it was almost as if  “logic” or “reasoning” had been blocked from attending by foul weather. But he wasn’t alone. Some other presses advertised as coming in the APA Bulletin, such as longtime regulars Indiana and Cornell, decided to pass this year.

Did philosophy publishing look healthy nonetheless? Hard to say, but it certainly looked to be moving in a direction already familiar from recent years: fewer monographs, more textbooks, more reference books, more secondary treatments on (and “companions” to) illustrious thinkers, continued proliferation of “Philosophy and Pop Culture” titles (e.g., Rowman and Littlefield’s forthcoming Dr. Seuss and Philosophy: Oh, The Thinks You Can Think! edited by Jacob M. Held) and a new growth of books that focus on important individual texts, such as The Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and On Certainty, by Andrew Hamilton.

“We’re very interested in continuing to publish scholarship,” said Andrew Beck, Routledge’s philosophy editor for the United States. “We’re certainly not abandoning that area of our program. But we want to do more books geared up and down the curriculum, and to the undergraduate level. As you can see here, the companions, they’re written for undergraduates, though they’re very comprehensive publications.”

Acknowledging trends in the field, Beck added, “I wouldn’t say this is true just of Routledge.  A lot of presses have looked at the bottom line and felt rightly or wrongly that they can make more money in the textbook market.”

Don’t philosophy professors usually resist textbooks more than other humanists, preferring to assign primary texts or piece together readings themselves?

Beck saw one reason for a shift: “There are more professors teaching out of their specific areas of specialization, in which case they’ll rely on a textbook much more than they would if teaching in their AOS [area of specialization]. Because hiring is down—you have more people doubling up and teaching a wider area of subjects.”

With sales of monographs to libraries also down, Beck explained, publication of more studies of individual philosophers and historically important philosophical texts makes sense because “a professor will frequently throw those onto the syllabus as optional reading.” General interest on the part of readers in those types of books also drive their acquisition. “Plenty of educated people are still intimidated by philosophy,” said Beck,” and understandably so….In philosophy, probably more than in any other subject, if someone’s coming in from the outside, they kind of need a guide, a Sherpa, to help them out.” It also comforts philosophy publishers, Beck observed,  that the discipline’s canon is quite stable (some might say ossified). Not much likelihood, he agreed, that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason will go out of favor next year.

At the Oxford University Press booth—along with that of chief rival, Cambridge University Press,  always one of the most bustling at an APA thanks to scholars trying to nail down generous convention discounts—executive editor and philosophy editor Peter Ohlin described Oxford’s philosophy publishing program as “pretty healthy,” with  “robust” sales, giving some of the credit to the size of the house and its prestige within the field.

“When libraries cut back,” he said, “ they tend not to cut back on OUP books, but on other presses.”

Ohlin acknowledged that Oxford has expanded in the non-monograph area to a degree, such as with its Oxford Handbook series. The house even ranks, he thinks, as the third or fourth largest publisher of philosophy textbooks. He agreed with Beck that it’s “logical”  for the textbook market in philosophy to expand “if you have more adjunct or junior people having larger teaching loads.”  Philosophy textbooks, he explained, are mainly targeted to an “Intro” market, with a secondary market for ethics textbooks. Then demand falls off.

“It also depends on the school that you’re at,” Ohlin said. “The better schools tend to assign just the primary sources. Lesser schools or big state schools do rely more on textbooks, anthologies and the like.” He also understands why Routledge and Wiley-Blackwell publish series with books focused on particular thinkers. He sees them as aimed toward “upper-level seminars and graduate students who want to get up to speed on a figure that they don’t know much about.”

Publishing lots of philosophy monographs, by  comparison, remains a challenge.

“It takes a fair amount of investment with limited financial return,” Ohlin said. “If you’re a for-profit commercial publisher, it’s not necessarily the best way to earn the 10 percent on the bottom line or whatever you’re trying to make. It’s fundamentally a library market for monographs—90-95 percent.” Printings of philosophy monographs, which at one time could be around 1,200, are now often 500 to 600, with 400 being about as low as it gets.

Oxford nonetheless, said Ohlin, “took a different tack” from some other publishers, “which is to become the best philosophy monograph publisher in the world. It’s actually been paying off for us. We’ve found ways to cut our costs in producing them, our prices have gone up slightly, and the libraries are buying them.” Cost-cutting moves include increased use of print-on-demand and short-run printers to produce books in lower quantities. The house has also developed “Oxford Scholarship Online,” from which purchasers can buy “the whole content from the site outright” or “subscribe to it and get new stuff every year. Our monographs feed into that site. Part of the reason that we continue to want to publish monographs is to transition into that online world.”

When asked about philosophy publishing beyond Oxford’s own operation, Ohlin was less sanguine.

“I think it’s shrinking, primarily because of the cuts in library budgets. I mean, looking at the exhibit hall here at the APA—it’s partly due to the snowstorm—it’s been dwindling over the years. Some publishers have gotten out of philosophy altogether.”

The downsizing surprises him a bit, because “at least at OUP, people say that if you publish a monograph in literary studies, it’s practically impossible to sell more than a couple of hundred copies. While in philosophy, it’s assumed that you would sell five to six hundred of an equivalent type of book.” Explanation?  “Philosophers read more broadly.”

One thing never changes in publishing, whether it’s philosophy or any other area: the joy of snaring a big book—big in importance rather than size or price—by a star. “The biggest excitement for me,” said Ohlin, “is in publishing Saul Kripke’s first collection of articles that he’s ever put together. That will be coming out probably in the Fall of 2011: Collected Papers, Volume One.” Ohlin expects it to be “a major event,” adding, “People have been waiting for new work from Kripke for a long time, and this will be his first official book, I think, in 30 years.”

In another 30 years, one suspects that sort of excitement will remain. No editor is likely to ask, when a major philosopher offers  important new work, “Would you consider doing a textbook instead?”—Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large

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