On Monographs, Libraries and Blogging: A Conversation with Duke University Press, Part One

duke chapelThis is part 1 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 interview I speak with Ken Wissoker (@kwissoker), editorial director of Duke University Press, one of the most well-known university presses for innovative books on global cultural theory. This first installment covers Ken’s thoughts about the relationship between the academic library and press at Duke, publishing your research online before you find a traditional publisher, and the future of the monograph.

AK: Hi Ken, thanks so much for speaking with us today. My first question is about the relationship between academic libraries and academic publishers. Some say that academic libraries are increasingly taking over the role of academic presses. Could you tell us what is the situation is like at Duke?

KW: Presses and libraries serve different functions. One entity gets money from the university to serve people who are at the university, and the other sells things that are essential to the goals of scholarship and the academy, but are by definition not profitable. Presses are somehow supposed to break even mostly on their own and are free to serve scholarship anywhere. Most of our authors and readers are not at Duke — we publish 120 books a year; probably only 4 or 5 of those authors teach at Duke, even though our publishing is in constant dialogue with scholars at Duke (who, of course, also make up our Board).

An academic library’s central obligation is to the people at that institution and the collections are usually tied to their needs. There will be some collections that attract scholars from around the globe, but those are usually proud exceptions. In contrast it is normal for presses to have specialties that don’t correspond to strengths at their base university. We can have a very strong list in Southeast Asia, without Duke being a strong Southeast Asian Studies center. The independent locations of presses and homes for scholarship in a field helps insure that it isn’t same people who are the only producers and the judges of work in a field.

So presses and libraries are made up of people with really different interests, and I think making the two entities go together really means understanding how to put those two interests together in an interesting way — which would probably be different with each institution. For example, the situation at UNC — with their library and Press — would be different from that at Duke.

AK: Is there any talk or discussion about Duke Press working with Duke Library?

KW: We do work together in different ways. For example, the director of the press sits on the library board and the director of the library sits on our board.  Our most active library connection is with Cornell, because we co-run a Mellon originated project called Project Euclid which takes all the big math journals except for one or two and bundles them together into a digital package for libraries. It includes everything from the Kyoto Journal of Mathematics to many small departmental journals and we do that as a big, cooperative enterprise with the Cornell library. With Duke’s library we meet pretty often and it’s a project-by-project effort to find places of cooperation.

AK: Kathleen Fitzpatrick has urged scholars to try to publish their work online in some form before actually putting together a book proposal and sending it to the press, like blogging a book project. How would you feel if an author came to you with such a project?

KW: I’d be generally pretty happy. This is a new version of older questions that come up about publishing earlier versions of one’s work. Like, “should I put my dissertation into ProQuest because then I’ll want to turn it into a book?” or, “how many articles can you publish in journals ahead of the book?”

None of these questions really gets at what makes a particular book have impact, which is really what makes it successful. These forms of early dissemination sometimes can help improve the book itself. They might or might not help book sales, but on the whole I think they generally do not hurt sales. But these forms of dissemination can help authors get early and invaluable input. This can take place in different ways. For example you could put up an article draft, like, “Here’s my article, which I’m planning to submit to X journal” as a way of getting a wider range of feedback than you would get from close colleagues.

Another productive form would be blogging your way toward a book. How about a writing exercise, where you’d try things like, “Okay, speed trial, let me try to write the first part of the introduction.” That would be fabulous, because people are often freer writers as bloggers. Authors wouldn’t be so tied to the research paper forms of writing, a style loved by neither publishers or readers. Most people would prefer to read something written in a more engaging fashion, and blogging the ideas first could help an author achieve that.

Blogging an idea, working it out online, benefiting from public discussion, receiving feedback and answers to queries, people contributing archives and ideas of what should be read—all of that I think is wonderful and will only improve the eventual book.

In the humanities, we tend to think of books as single-authored things, but they are all laboratory products, even if we don’t use those terms. There’s always a writing a group, there’s a reading group, there’s a group of people who gave feedback when you went to X place to give a talk, there’s somebody who came up to you after your presentation at an academic conference, and all those things contribute to what eventually comes out. And when reading someone’s acknowledgements, if you really knew how to parse the list, you get a sense of how everyone contributed to the final product. Being able to publish things online really scales up the laboratory idea in a really positive way.

AK: You spoke a little about how this is part of an older discussion (re: questions about putting dissertations on ProQuest and publishing chapters as journal articles), and that these two things don’t necessarily affect the sales of the book. Could you talk a little bit more about why you think that?

KW: For different reasons. The dissertation I think is usually three or four years and a lot of revisions away from the book. It’s a really different genre of writing. One of the things I often say about the dissertation is that the author’s committee — the people who are its whole reading audience — has agreed to read it before the scholar has even started writing it. That’s not a situation of writing one gets to be in very often.

The form in which a scholar writes the dissertation knowing that people have agreed to read it to the end is different than the form the same scholar uses to write their book, which no one has to read at all. So, even if the book has the same data, the same field work, the same archival experience, or the same interpretations, once that is arranged into a book argument it will be a different text. You would need a very positivist notion of fact discovery to think the ‘news’ is going to be given away by the dissertation being available. And of course, most people’s arguments change and grow in complexity through the years of working on the book manuscript.

It’s hard to find anybody, even the person on the authors’ own dissertation committee, who would rather read the dissertation than something that has been polished and re-written into a thoughtful book. That’s what I think about the ProQuest question.

The journal question is more complicated and depends on what kind of article it is. It’s generally fine to publish journal articles that are from a section of the book. An article based on an aspect of the argument helps establish the author’s reputation. The journal article may end up needing to be rewritten for the actual book, because the book will have different narrative needs. On the other hand, if you take your whole 400-page book and boil it down to your essential argument, a lot of people who want to teach your ideas will teach the article for free rather than teach the whole book. Giving the whole book away in an article definitely has impact on the sales of the book.

AK: Some presses have been moving away from the monograph to shorter books such as Stanford UP’s Stanford Briefs where a few chapters rather than entire books are being published. Some argue that this is a good move because books are often over-inflated to make the case for tenure and promotion committees. What do you think of this move?

KW: I think it’s complicated. We had a series back in the mid-90s that was all short books. That was based on bookstore demand, as the idea was, somebody who wasn’t an academic might read something that was 125 pages while they wouldn’t read the 300 page version.

Presses have been interested in having shorter forms — and having a variety of forms — for a long time. And with the digital, if you take out the production part, you should be able to accommodate a whole range of lengths, including much longer things than would fit into a book. We’ve just done a four-volume history of Iranian film. It’s in four volumes. But if were an electronic product, perhaps it wouldn’t really matter how long it was.

The “argument inflation” thing I don’t buy. That idea has a weird, circular logic, because it starts with an unspoken theory of inattention. People won’t read a longer thing because, what? They’re not as patient as they were ten years ago? Because reading on a Kindle is a different experience than reading in print? None of that actually makes any sense actually unless you believe that people’s ability to read a long form is decreasing.

The same project could work well at different lengths depending on the audience and the purpose. It might be written as a monograph or a theoretical intervention. For example, if you’re talking about a given topic — say, how oil companies made the transition to capitalism in post-socialist Eastern Europe, the people who work on that area or topic are going to want a huge amount of detail because it’s their field. But if you’re simply interested in post-socialism and transitions to capitalism you might want less. Then again, if you have a brilliant theory and you are the Arjun Appadurai of that topic, maybe you just need a 120-page book with minimal examples.

To go back to your question, the idea that people are putting in random crap to make a book longer for a tenure committee, that is a kind of cynicism that has no appeal to me. I just find that so dumb, so, who would do that, how would you do it, how would it be sustained through the review process?

I get reviews back all the time where reviewers tell me “This could be 10% shorter, this could be 33% shorter” because they can see it will make the book better. Reviewers are conscious of how much detail people want. And I don’t think a major difference in the length of a book is going to matter to a tenure committee; they’re more concerned if the book has changed the field.

Updated to add: Read part 2 here and part 3 here.

Image Credit: Prateek Jaipura

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