Alex Reid wrote an excellent rejoinder against academic book publishing last week. The post was inspired by a discussion at the recent Computers and Writing conference about traditional publishing versus blogging and other forms of digital publishing. It’s an old, perhaps even a boring topic at this point, so Alex turns the subject back on itself: most scholarly monograph book sales, he reminds us, are measured in the low hundreds. In the face of this fact, Alex asks the incisive question,
why do we keep writing books that no one wants to buy or read?!?
And he answers it too: “because academic books are not written to be read; they are written to get tenure.” I fear it’s even worse than that, for tenure at least counts as an external goal, even if an idiotic sole reason to publish anything. The more general (and even worse) answer is, academic books are not written to be read; they are written to have been written. That’s true for other sorts of scholarly writing too, journal articles and the like. It’s what I’ve previously called write-only publishing or vampire publishing.
In his post, Alex proposes some solutions, including massively co-authored books written in a single voice. Even though I’m participating in such a project right now, it’s certainly not the sole answer. A better prompt is the one on which Alex ends: “how can I communicate with the world?”
In the comments, Benjamin Robertson poses a number of questions to Alex, among them a concern about equating sales with success. Alex backpedaled a bit in response, but I’d stand by his original point: hyperspecialization be damned, we shouldn’t be striving to write books that will only appeal to a couple hundred people. Scholarly books shouldn’t have to be bestsellers, but they’d better damn well try to speak to a broader audience than just a scholar’s immediate colleagues. Moreover, scholars have a responsibility to act as public servants to a degree, no matter if their institutions are public or private. We ought to think in public. We ought to be expanding our spheres of influence and inspiration with every page we write. We ought to be trying to influence the world, not just the blinkered group that goes to our favorite conference. And that principle ought to hold no matter your topic of interest, be it Proust or videogames or human factors engineering or the medieval chanson de geste. No matter your field, it can be done, and people do it all the time. They’re called “good books.”
On that note, Robertson also poses a question to me in the comments on Alex’s post:
And Ian, it’s somewhat funny to me that you agree with everything in this post and then announce on Twitter that your page proofs have arrived from Minnesota [for my forthcoming book How to Do Things with Videogames -ib]. Can you say something about your apparent jadedness with this system and you continued participation in it? No need to justify, as many of us feel similarly, but yours seems to be both a hyper-jadedness and a hyper-participation.
And the answer is really simple. I am not jaded about books, not even scholarly books, not even scholarly presses! I love books, writing, reading, and publishing them. I’m jaded about useless, narrowly-focused, terribly written, obtuse, turgid, bullshit books that scholars seek to vampire publish. I’m jaded about academics who believe they have a right to live in insular, esoteric, closed-minded echo chambery country clubs. And worse, I’m jaded about those who endorse vampire publishing as a desirable and even a rightful privilege of a scholarly life. Tick the boxes, publish the books, get tenure, all without leaving the comfort of your ivory tower office!
The reason there is no irony in my simultaneous support of Alex’s position and my continued participation in scholarly publishing is quite simple: people actually want to read my books. They buy them, both in print and electronic format. And I’ve tried very hard as an author to learn how to write better and better books, books that speak to a broader audience without compromising my scholarly connections, books that really ought to exist as books. Imagine that!