On Open Access, #AltAc and the Future of the Academic Press: A Conversation with Duke University Press, Part Three

openaccessThis is part 3 (the final part) of the ninth interview in a series, Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing, by Adeline Koh. Each article in this series features an interview with an academic publisher, press or journal editor on how their organization is changing in response to the digital world. The series has featured interviews with Anvil Academic, Stanford Highwire Press, NYU Press, MIT Press and the Penn State University Press.

In this third and final installation of the interview, I speak with Ken Wissoker (@kwissoker), editorial director of Duke University Press, about open access publishing, the future of the academic press, and alternative academic careers.

AK: Let’s talk about open access publishing. Does your press have a policy regarding open access? Are you trying to move towards that in terms of your journals or your books?

KW: We don’t have an overall policy. From early on, we were happy to give a number of books Creative Commons licenses when people asked. We’re supportive of many open access goals, but we also have to try to break even as a press. I might just be the wrong person to be asking. It’s not been central to my job, though I have ideas about it.

AK: Could you talk about these ideas?

KW: What I’d like is a situation where publishing can be sustainable and there can be open access at the same time. It’s genuinely hard to figure out how to make that happen. There’s a very smart woman, Frances Pinter, who’s been working on a kind of Kickstarter for academic books that would involve libraries. It’s called Knowledge Unlatched.

It’s still in development, but at least in her original conception, a press would nominate a book to be in the program. If enough libraries said, “oh we’ll kick in for this,” the press would make it available open access in a flat pdf form. The press would still be free to sell the paper book. They would also be free to sell a more useful e-pub version, or some excerpts, or a deluxe, enhanced e-version that might include more add-in multimedia.

AK: That’s a great idea.

KW: I think so. The press would get their basic costs covered out of the money collected from the libraries. They are able to sell something on top of it, but the book is available in a plain version for people who want it open access. When Pinter explains this she always says there’s the plain ice cream, and you agree to make the ice cream free. Then you have your ice cream cone, the paper book, or a more flexible e-pub book. Then you have the ice cream sundae with lots of extras.

To me that’s a great model because it’s sustaining for everybody. It takes care of the desire of authors and scholars to have openness, it gives libraries a kind of choosing function, and it gives presses the incentive to choose the best projects.

I deeply dislike the kind of publishing that depends on pricing books at $100 or $150 apiece. Thankfully, we don’t do that at Duke. It’s a cynical calculation of how to make money that doesn’t give a particular book the chance to break out of it’s niche. But beyond that there isn’t really any incentive for the press to nurture and shape a great book. There’s just an assumption that if X press publishes it, enough libraries will buy it, whatever it is.

What I love about the ice cream model is that it allows for more experimentation, and offers the potential for innovation. It allows presses to take a chance on something, as the basic costs would be covered. And if the project takes off the press can still do something innovative with it, such as add on a multimedia project.

AK: So are you saying that this model might result in presses creating better products than at large for-profit firms like Taylor & Francis, where everything is priced to ensure that the press will recoup its costs?

KW: Well yes and no. To produce a profit at Taylor & Francis means making other kinds of choices. That’s why you see many commercial presses such as Sage, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley Blackwell making readers, textbooks, library reference books–companions to things that no one has really asked for. It’s a different kind of profit-making creativity.

But at a university press, you’re always thinking, “which are the books that are going to carry the day?” as you are trying to break even. Different presses solve that problem in different ways. Some state university presses might do that with nature guides, or books about the state that will sell to people who aren’t academics. But every press is really happy when they publish a book that increases their academic reputation in a particular area and that actually sells.

One thing to note–a press’s influence in a field and its sales don’t always mesh. Any press can tell you that they have books that won prizes in a given field but that didn’t sell at all. So the press may be an intellectual influence in the field but this might not correspond to any commercial influence. But there are books that do both — influence the field and sell well — such as Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism.

AK: Why do some books win prizes but not sell well?

KW: It often has to do with how people use books in a particular field. Do people teach the kind of books they are expected to write? Do they teach textbooks, a few classic texts, or do they teach the latest scholarship in the field? In anthropology and history, scholars frequently teach exemplary scholarship produced by their peers. In literary criticism, people teach the original novels, poetry, and plays, but you don’t always get people teaching books on literary criticism, except in some graduate seminars. There’s a major discontinuity between what people write and what people teach (though note the Jameson and Halberstam examples I’ve just mentioned). In French history, an area that almost never sells well, prize-winning books might be only rarely taught to undergraduates. But in anthropology, some of these prize-winning books, if written the right way, will be taught all the time.

It’s also the case that a book can be influential in a field, but not teachable, or not teachable as a whole. That doesn’t make it less important or prize-worthy, just less financially sustainable.

AK: Hmm. In light of this, what do you think is the future of the university press?

KW: That’s a really big question. It’s hard to answer because it’s connected to the possible futures of the academy as a whole ecology. What do we think that will be like a decade or two from now? It’s easy — if dystopic — to imagine a huge MOOC-like thing where instead of a lot of universities students attend and are in residence at, there are five or ten MOOCs students chose from at home.  Maybe traditional universities will be like independent bookstores, progressively driven from business by some Amazon-like enterprise.

You could also imagine a library-less future where everything is in one electronic library of America. Or one where people publish their own writing on the web and do the work that’s now done by presses themselves (or hire someone to do it). The more you expect a future of many colleges and universities, with research requirements for promotion and tenure, the more necessary university presses will be. That doesn’t mean anyone will figure out how to fund them!

Maybe in the future, instead of jobs like mine where trusted editors are choosing what to publish, there will be trusted curators compiling playlists of work already published on the web. But then the question is what will substitute for the review process.

Part of the genuine difficulty envisioning the future is that it’s like moving from one city to another. When you leave, you think of all the things you are leaving behind, “When I leave Chicago, I’m going to miss this, this, this, and this.” Then you move to a new place and find that in fact those cherished things aren’t there. But eventually those things recede and you begin to see the valuable characteristics of the new place, which might not be the ones you anticipated.

This is comparable to the difficulty of the academic publishing moment. It’s easy for me to tell you the university press functions that I would be sorry to lose. For my part, I’d miss the selector function; the ability to promote scholars I really believe in, to help their careers and give an institutional basis for their work; the way the review process actually improves their work; the value of having people who are skilled and knowledgeable in marketing, able to get a books reviewed not just findable by discovery. I’d miss genius book designers who have honed their skills over hundreds of books and can still think creatively about each one.

All those functions seem really valuable to me, but can I imagine a whole different arrangement where other new things came to be that were valuable and some of those present functions were lost? Absolutely.

At the same time, in moving toward whatever is next, I hope we don’t adopt a blind optimism that things will turn out well without carefully weighing the value of what we have. Moving to the next stage isn’t always a progressive narrative. We have enough examples of changes in universities or capitalism or state care for citizens around us to know that many things which are promised as better futures are really motivated by someone else’s profit.

What I love about my job is this ability to really champion scholarship I think is important. By shepherding it out into the world, I’m helping authors get tenure or promoted, often when the value of their project might not yet be widely recognized at their university or in their field. Presses serve as a semi-independent places of recognition and certification, helping new scholarship and points of view flourish, even when they are ahead of others in their field. That is something that I am very attached to and worry about being lost with too much consolidation.

But overall — to return to your question — predicting the future of university presses depends whether your vision of the future is a more consolidated vision–where there’s a MOOC out of Harvard, a MOOC out of Stanford, and five commercial MOOCs and everything’s all together–or if you have a vision where everything is open and distributed, with a million different producers, and scholars are navigating their way through academic work the way they do Etsy or Pinterest. And, we could end up with more digital tools, but an underlying structure more like what we have now.

AK: Alternative academic careers (or #altac) is a topic which is being discussed quite often. One possible #altac career is going into publishing, scholarly publishing, or scholarly editing. Given all these changes in the field, if you were talking to graduate students who were entertaining these possibilities, what would you advise them to do?

KW: I would advise them to get experience in publishing or whatever field they were looking at and find out if they really loved it.

AK: How would they get experience?

KW: Interning, taking a part-time position, or working at a press for a few years. In the interest of realism, I would advise those considering the shift that few in publishing earn what the academy pays most tenure-track professors. There also isn’t the academic calendar one has as a scholar. Publishing is a year-round office job. You have to really love it. And you also need to have a different point of view. You can have a very good sense of what’s the best thing in a discipline, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a good publisher. You have to be able develop and inhabit a publishing logic, and think in both frames at the same time. The other thing I’ve told people for a long time is that there are just not that many academic publishing jobs compared to academic jobs– even with the bad job market in most fields.

AK: Is trade publishing any better or worse?

KW: Trade publishing would just be different. You’d have to be more dedicated to wanting to make money. And you do tend to move around more often, switch about from job to job, in trade publishing.

I’m proud to say that we have three people with PhDs in a department of nine at the Duke press (none of them are me). Publishing is great, but you should know what you’re getting into if you decide to go for it. I would also hope that an individual thinks of it as a positive move, rather than a move out of frustration or the assumption that awful things are going to happen so they better get out of the academy now.

I do think that #altac is important. The sort of textured and critical thinking academics do is needed in a lot of different places. The more alt-ac people who became IT intellectuals, or publishers, or journalists, or something else, the better. But make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.

AK: A final question. Could you say a little bit more what you meant when you said, “The way of thinking about the field as a publisher would be different than if you were a professor”?

KW: Remember when you said, “why do some books win the prize and are the best book in the field and they never sell?” As a publisher you’d have to be thinking, “oh, this is a field where the prize-winners never sell. What do we do about that?” The answer could be that it is part of our mission is to have prize winners, and this is a field where we have a really great list. Some other books will have to sell more so we can keep publishing these.

Or you could think, “you know, we tried this field, we’ve done the best work in the field and it’s not going that well,” or “this person is brilliant, but their writing is horrible,” or “the author plays a really important role in the ecology of the field, but this book doesn’t hang together.” You have to be able to think about their work in a different way than you would as a scholar. A press has to sell the books, and while that’s helped by “every time I go hear a talk, I leave impressed” or “everybody thinks they’re the hot-shot thinker,” neither is sufficient. It’s certainly not sufficient to really like the author (though it helps). An editor needs a map of a field to be a good academic publisher; to know who’s who and to have a sense of where things are going. When a publisher identifies an author, their book may not come out for 3 or 4 years, so signing up the book is always future-oriented. I’m making a bet on where a given field or a theoretical question will go and what kind of intervention a given book will make in that landscape. That’s different than the kinds of judgments faculty might make in hiring and different than the kinds of judgments a scholar would make putting together a panel for a conference. It’s also different than the kind of judgments one would make editing a journal issue. Editors have to inhabit the difference between academic value and publishing value and make something creative with it, It doesn’t mean abandoning the things you know, but using them in a new way.

AK: Thanks so much for speaking with us Ken.

KW: You’re welcome. Thank you!

Read Part One of the interview, where I speak with Ken about the relationship between the academic library and press at Duke, publishing your research online before you find a traditional publisher, and experimentation in publication lengths.

Read Part Two here, where I speak with Ken about digital innovations Duke University Press is experimenting with for its new publications and about traditional forms of peer review.

Image Credit: Gideon Burton on Flickr

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