Publishing (in) books vs the modern world

After a brief travel- and flu-induced hiatus two articles in the excellent Inside Higher Education on academic textbook pricing and challenges of university presses reminded me that I wanted to write a post on my own recent publication experiences – by way of promoting my published works ;). Being active on Twitter and writing a few blog posts now and then is part research, part creative writing exercise and part developing a professional identity around certain issues I feel strongly about, e.g. the ethnography of aid or the value of qualitative research. Two recent examples, a co-written chapter in an edited book and a journal article in a ‘fancy’ (i.e. with high impact) journal show the complexity of publishing research, and, more importantly for me, engaging in discussions about said research with a broader community.
As part of this (self-)reflective exercise I recently wanted to find out about the sales figures of a book I contributed a chapter to together with another colleague. Nothing exciting so far. The book is a typical academic collection of contributions that is sold for a incredibly high price, yet carries all the features of a ‘proper’ publication (i.e. one you include in your academic CV): it is a well-known academic publisher, the manuscript was professionally proof-read, there was some support from the publisher’s editorial team and it became part of their global distribution system that mainly caters to academic libraries around the Anglo-Saxon world. Still not very exciting. But the actually sales figures gave me some food for thought. For example I was simply curious to learn what a ranking like ‘#58 in Books > Society, Politics & Philosophy > Government & Politics > International Institutions > Nongovernmental Organisations (NGOs)' on Amazon.co.uk means in real numbers. I was not expecting any large numbers, of course, and when I got a message from the publisher they confirmed that 235 copies have been sold so far and that appears to be a relatively high number for a purely academic publication. And judging by the cover price (~ £56), it has generated around £14,000 for the publisher. Good for them...
The numerous hours of work that included reading a lot of theoretical literature, looking up and comparing quotes between German originals and official English translations (how did Weber ever come up with this stuff?!), because the co-author had written some parts in German that needed translation and discussing all these details with him by E-Mail or on the phone all seemed to be part of normal academic work. You do not get paid for it, you do it in your ‘spare time’ and you (or the editors respectively) do a lot of the administrative work publishers used to do. It is part of academic life and like many other cultural habits difficult to change. And even if I am in praise of libraries, I am fully aware that very, very few people will ever read our book chapter. And this is not just about vanity. After a few weeks of blogging and twittering more actively, you just get used to the instant feedback, the odd re-tweet and E-Mail with a short note of thanks, encouragement or critique. You also get used to the fact that more people are likely to read your blog per month than people will ever purchase the book. And besides the fact that the book chapter is longer, more complicated and engages with a lot of abstract theory, it seems odd to even expect feedback from ‘a reader’. The book is also not available in digital form, so there is no legal way to share book or chapter with others-especially those outside academia or far away from the nearest academic university library.
The second example is an academic article that was published almost exactly two years after I started to work on it.
Challenging the international peacebuilding evaluation discourse with qualitative methodologies is a short contribution to an interesting special issue of the journal entitled 'Evaluation in Contested Spaces'. But I have to admit that dealing with Elsevier was an interesting experience: Everything happened digital, quick turn-around time, excellent editorial feedback and an effort to make my work more accessible, i.e. for teaching purposes. Yet, in the end of the day the article is hidden behind a pay-wall. ‘Learning to share’ is an interesting article on open-access publishing and I have a feeling that although many complicated issues remain, some academic publishers are making an effort to show that there is a value added in their services. But there is still a long way to go before research becomes more accessible.

So what are some lessons I am taking home from this comparison?
  • Traditional academic publishing and its revenue model are still firmly in place. In exchange for an academic CV-able publication I (and many other contributors of the book) we basically helped to create some nice revenue (and most likely profit, too) for the publisher
  • Problems with scale and scope: A junior academic like myself can attract more readers (plus, at least equally important, more debates and feedback) through publications other than academic monographs and/or edited volumes, but the time-consuming and long publication process set by some publishers remains the major avenue for respectable academic publication
  • In ‘practical’ or more applied disciplines like peace research or development studies the traditional publication process almost automatically excludes feedback, interaction and the engagement with a broader audience, be they academics from the global South (Although I’m sure not more than 5 university library in Germany for example will be able to purchase a copy of the book) or practitioners
  • Quality control: There was feedback from the editors and a professional proof-reader and peer-review processes are important, but there is a powerful ‘transparency is the new objectivity’ argument: If I publish a blog under my name, I (and well-meaning colleagues) have an interest that I don’t publish complete nonsense and do engage in a respectful way with colleagues
In the end, publishing in traditional academic outlets will remain with us for a while, but more flexibility is needed when people assess the quality of speakers/writers and their work in the academic realm.

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