New Realities for Academic Presses in Trying Economic Times

Presented at the Research Network Forum, Conference on College Composition and Communication San Francisco, March 11, 2009

Abstract

Scholarly presses may be in peril due to diminishing markets, tight budgets, and over-reliance on the monograph as the signifier of scholar achievement, but individuals and organizations in rhetoric and composition can take specific action to ensure that scholarly presses not only survive momentary crises but also thrive in the years ahead. In turn, presses themselves also need to adapt to the changing needs of the multiple constituencies they serve and the new technologies that enable the democratization of peer review, production, distribution, and delivery.

I’m grateful to Brad Lucas, editor of Composition Studies, and Risa Gorelick—long-time supporter and backbone of these Research Network Forums, for inviting me to say a few words to you today in this, a living example of what Kenneth Burke may have had in mind when he spoke of the unending conversation of history into which we are borne.  Imagine you enter a parlor, he wrote. You’ve come late. People are having a heated discussion about this and that. However, everyone arrives as you do, so no one is qualified to retrace all the steps that have come before. You listen for a while, then you put in your oar. People come to your defense or align themselves against you (The Philosophy of Literary Form 110-11).

With that, let me jump right in to the fray.

About Parlor Press

Parlor Press is an independent publisher and distributor of scholarly and trade books in print and digital formats. It was founded in 2002 to address the need for an alternative scholarly, academic press attentive to emergent ideas and forms while maintaining the highest possible standards of quality, credibility, and integrity. Our primary and simple goal is to publish outstanding writing in a variety of subjects and thus to disseminate knowledge about writing and rhetoric as widely as possible and to ensure that this educational mission is met with style and grace. 

As I hope some of you still know, I am a Professor of English at Purdue in my day job, with a specialization in rhetoric and composition, like so many of you. That means that Parlor Press’s goals have naturally been closely aligned with my own interests as a teacher and researcher. I think, like many of you probably do also, that people everywhere ought to know what we know (that it’s rhetoric all the way down, for instance!) and that students can indeed be taught to write well. You may not have known before, but I hope you do know also that Parlor Press gets its name from that Burkeian parlor I mentioned at the start. This parlor—and Parlor Press, I hope—is a place where interesting and smart discussions come to the fore, where people speak (parler means “to speak,” after all) and listen, where the dialogue and debate—the parliamentary—are in play. In the end, this is what all of our university presses want more than anything. It is easy to be lulled into thinking that they want more than anything to sell books and make money so that they can sell even more books. On the contrary, the ideal of most university presses is to disseminate knowledge, with uncompromising concern for quality and currency. Only secondarily—and in more recent times—has it become necessary for presses to worry about the pedigrees of authors and the marketability of books (the other kind of currency). As John B. Thompson points out in his encyclopedic Books in the Digital Age, the golden age of university press publishing may have ended in the mid-1970s.

Since then, most academic presses have had to pay closer attention to the bottom line as they fight against budget cuts and reallocations, or—as our session today puts it—“trying economic times.” We have to pay especially close attention now because, I’m afraid, the situation for many presses may be much more dire than many realize. When I was the editor of the Rhetorical Philosophy and Theory book series with SIU Press, I witnessed sales to libraries drop precipitously. In the late 1990s, you could count on 500 to 750 or more copies sold to libraries right out of the gate. That average dropped to 100 or so almost overnight, due in part to the rise of the journal conglomerates, ridiculous price gouging, and the attendant strain on library budgets. There are a number of other financial threats aside from dwindling sales, such as the outrageously high cost of exhibiting books and journals at conferences like this one.  In some cases, our own organizations are complicit. I receive dozens of invitations each year to buy table space at even small conferences for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

Our tough economic times have exacerbated this downward trend, which I believe will continue to threaten all of our presses in the years ahead. As this situation unfolds, the pressure on young scholars to publish books  continues to mount, in spite of MLA’s efforts to expose the crisis in scholarly publishing and to reject the monograph as the gold standard for promotion. At the same time, as our numbers increase and academic fields splinter into countless subspecialties, fewer and fewer people have time to read the major books published in their field. John Thompson calls this the “twigging” effect (177).  He also cites the troubling practice of tenure committees to abdicate their responsibilities to evaluate scholarship themselves and grant it to the presses without question, often merely on the basis of reputation or, more indirectly, the success of the university’s football team. No one would admit that, of course, but if you knew how many times I have answered questions about Parlor Press’s pedigree, you might be surprised. (Thankfully, almost a dozen authors have earned tenure primarily on the basis of their Parlor Press books, which is gratifying.)

What Now?

If all this sounds dour, I apologize. I’m actually much more optimistic—even excited—about the future of scholarly publishing in rhet/comp than this sounds. Why else would I start Parlor Press right at the time when most would say “bad idea, Dave.” I have a great and very busy day job at Purdue, so I certainly didn’t need more work.

Some of you may not know that Parlor Press is independent and not explicitly tied to any university, although we do have many ongoing collaborative projects with universities around the world. The Press is managed entirely by scholars and specialists in their respective fields, presently covering fourteen book series. The series editors and I manage everything from initial peer review through production, distribution, and marketing. We have no staff and no outside funding sources (not even the salary from my day job). It is all built on the sweat equity of enormously generous and wise series editors who believe with me that we can make a difference and that, if left to our own devices and free of all bureaucratic machinery, we might just find a way out of this mess.

People have asked me a lot recently how Parlor Press is doing during this recession. Well, the good news is that our funding hasn’t been cut or threatened, if only because we have none to begin with (the glass is half full, I guess). And there really isn’t any bad news at all. Sales of our books have risen steadily—from almost none to a number respectable enough to keep everything running smoothly and to maintain, as they say, our growth mode. In only six and a half years, we have published 70 books and can now count more than 300 Parlor Press authors. There are another 75 books under contract. This year, we will publish 20 or more books, 75 percent of which will be in our field. We have just launched two new series and have plans for growth into new areas, such as multimedia writing and other hybrid forms of print, visual, aural, and haptic media that will take advantage of new digital printing, publishing, and dissemination technologies. We have also made certain that our peer review process is rigorous and that development is collaborative. Publication decisions are made by peers in the field and no one else.

Parlor Press is a phenomenon made possible by what Chris Anderson in The Long Tail called the “democratization of production.” It is also much easier to innovate when you’ve gone rogue. We have leveraged new digital printing and publishing technologies while also developing a sustainable model for managing all aspects of scholarly publishing efficiently and productively. (People ask me about sustainability all the time, but we’re in year seven now, which makes me wonder what the threshold for sustainability might be.) The Parlor Press model takes advantage of, among other things, digital printing technologies (such as print-on-demand) and powerful communication technologies like Drupal for collaboration, content management, and production in a network of distributed responsibility. Scholars, organizations, and institutions with a clear stake in creative and scholarly research have managed to pool limited resources. We are in rhet/comp, after all. We’re used to building grand designs from nothing but hard work.

What This Freedom Makes Possible

I’d like to mention a few examples of what this freedom makes possible. In a publishing partnership with Mike Palmquist and the WAC Clearinghouse at Colorado State University—we created the first open-access book publishing project in our field (or any, perhaps) to offer free ebooks with a print option, the Reference Guides to Rhetoric and Composition series edited by CCCC program chair Charles Bazerman.  Since then, Parlor Press has published a number of Creative Commons -licensed books in electronic and print formats, including the first book in rhetoric and composition ever published under such a license, John Logie’s Peers, Pirates, and Persuasion. Mike and I are now working on the new Perspectives on Writing series that will also publish books under a CC license with a print option. The print versions of these “free” books have sold every bit as well as our print-only books, if not better. Finally, some of you may have noticed the recent announcement for Writing Spaces: Readings for Writers, a series created by Charlie Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky that will includes CC-licensed books jointly published by Parlor Press and the WAC Clearinghouse. (See writingspaces.org.)

What You Can Do

I want to conclude with a list of some things you can do to help us ensure that scholarly publishing in rhetoric and composition thrives. Here are some steps that I’ve cobbled together from experience, friends, and fellow publishers, people like Lisa Bayer (Marketing Director, University of Illinois Press), Karl Kageff (Editor-in-Chief, Southern Illinois University Press), and Jonathan Haupt (Assistant Director for Sales and Marketing, University of South Carolina Press). (I am proud to say that all of these fine people are former students of mine from SIU-Carbondale and are scholars in their own right in rhetoric and composition.)

  1. Take a little bit of time to learn about the scholarly presses in your field and especially the ones who publish in your specialty. Visit their websites and meet the publisher and editors at conferences like these. Learn what they do. Subscribe to their RSS feeds.  Your knowledge will spread to others.
  2. Read the work of your colleagues, either by buying their books or asking your library to acquire them.
  3. Encourage your associations and libraries to partner with scholarly presses  (rather than only mega-presses and journal conglomerates) when publishing journals and books and other digital projects. If you’re an editor, ask a scholarly press if they’re interested in helping you publish your journal.
  4. Buy and assign books from scholarly presses in your courses, which means taking the time to find out what they have published lately and what’s coming down the pike.
  5. Support the concept of intellectual property and author rights by discouraging the pirating of copyrighted books.  
  6. If you enjoy a press’s free e-books, buy a printed one now and then, too.
  7. Request that your university / college library purchase specific titles that you believe are important to your field and your research. Ask your library to put the press on its “buy list” with library book buyers so that all new titles get ordered automatically. Forward all flyers from publishers (either that you receive in the mail or that you download from the Web) to library acquisitions and ask them to buy it.
  8. Support university presses in financial and non-financial ways by encouraging your own university to support the combined mission of publishing both to advance knowledge and faculty careers.
  9. Give scholarly books to your friends as gifts.
  10. Become a friend of your favorite university press. Donate money to a UP in tribute of your favorite scholar in the field on the occasion of his/her birthday.
  11. Talk up your favorite or local scholarly press in conversations with colleagues and people in your community.
  12. Do the research needed to find classic or cutting edge work by terrific scholars and/or public intellectuals in your field. You don’t always have to look outside of our field to find excellent writing.  Become a repeat adopter, over years, of one or more scholarly books. As an engaged teacher, you will accomplish two things. You will enliven your students and you will help create the perennial bestsellers that university presses count on to survive.
  13. If you are involved in planning a conference, treat the presses as colleagues in a common pursuit, not as simply “vendors.” (As co-chair of Computers and Writing 2010 at Purdue, I can announce today that all presses wanting to exhibit at the conference will have a free pass and be encouraged to participate in the intellectual play of the conference. (My friends and colleagues Tony Silva and Paul Matsuda have practiced this for a number of years with the annual Second Language Symposium, much to their credit.)
  14. Review scholarly books in journals. If our journals published reviews as frequently as Composition Studies or Rhetoric Review, we’d be set.
  15. Volunteer to help a press in some way with your time. Also, don’t be afraid to barter. Since much of “publishing” is made up of gratis academic labor, you can help a great deal and reap some benefit, if only free books.
  16. Write letters to university administrators or others who might need to know how much you appreciate the work of the press or an editor. Be an independent lobbyist, in other words. Parlor Press has a number of great people who do this for us, and it’s very important (and appreciated, believe me).

Conclusion

I could go on (there’s so much to do!), but let me close by quoting Burke again:  “[T]he discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, and you must depart.  And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress ” (The Philosophy of Literary Form 111).

Works Cited

Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action.  1941. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

Thompson, John B.  Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

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New Realities for Academic Presses in Trying Economic Times by David Blakesley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.