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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Electra Press - Will Work For Whuffie, part II

Posted by John Holbo on 03/26/06 at 09:39 AM

I linked to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Big Idea post just before our book event. It probably got sorta buried. She has another post up.

We’re beginning, of course, from the assumption that academic publishing is in disarray and in need of new and workable solutions. One potential path toward a solution, and the focus of this meeting, is the formation of an electronic press.

That’s from the first post. From the newer post:

But given that one of our hopes is to spend this meeting thinking about what happens when academic writing becomes fully networked—and not least what kinds of conversations among scholars might spring up in the process—we thought we’d begin our discussions now, online.

The message of that newer post is pretty much: we’re serious, this thing is going to happen. I certainly hope to do my part.

Let’s start by asking the most basic question. Why is an electronic press an appropriate response to academic publishing in disarray? 

Well, because the academic reputation economy lags behind the technology curve. In some screwy inversion of the history of money, it’s hard to get people to believe in something not backed by solid paper. But what exactly is the form of the shift we are working for? Just: get over the paper fetish? Not that I wouldn’t be pleased enough with just that. But really it seems to me that the main point should be: get over the paper fetish in the right way. And the right way is: by embracing the potential of academic publishing to be a ‘gift culture’. 

This is a bit paradoxical, since it amounts to alleging that the last living medieval guild system can best preserve its integrity by evolving into what many people will dismiss as an absurd, vaguely libertarian whuffie-based futurist fantasy. But it is important to be clear about how much the logic of academia already fits this model: namely, academics already produce to boost their reputations rather than to get paid. (Because, of course, if their reputations are high they can get paid a salary.) I’m not going to make the argument here, but it seems to me the way for academic publishing to distinguish itself as an excellent form - in the age of google - is by becoming a bastion of ‘free culture’ in a way that google book won’t. We live in a world of Amazon ‘search inside’, but also of copyright extension and, in general, excessive I.P. enclosures. The groves of academe are well suited to be exemplary Creative Commons. But there is no guarantee they will be. So we should work for that. Of course, there is no danger google is going to render universities obsolete if this opportunity is missed. But universities - which are called that for a reason - were the original world wide webs. They should consider in what ways they can retain that distinction.

To repeat: the goal should not be electronic publishing, per se, but embodiment of what academic publishing culture should be like, given the potential of electronic publishing. The answer: a generous gift culture. We need an electronic press that embodies that. This might seem slighting of the sheer advantages of technology itself. But I think that’s coming, one way or the other.  What isn’t a foregone conclusion is the advent of a culture able to make the most of that technology. 

So that’s the goal. The practical problems seem to me, broadly, twofold. First, the objection will be made that it’s a big mistake to equate paper with expensive and electronic with free. University presses aren’t chopped liver. Editing and acquisition and ensuring that peer review is done responsibly, handling sales, rights and permissions, so forth, isn’t free. True. It seems to me the proper response is this. What has changed in publishing is not that somehow a manuscript can become a book, miraculously, without a significant investment of effort and expertise. What has changed is that there is no reason why the production units need to be quite as large and dedicated as university presses presently are. A few academics working together can review, edit, typeset, so forth. Although it’s not for me to say, my line of advocacy will be this: one thing the envisioned electronic press should do is provide a system through which academics can step up in this way, which amounts to a non-trivial extension of their present duties. But there are compensating advantages to encouraging this. I think our proposed electronic press should look to foster a federated union of small presses, in effect, run as co-ops by academics. They should have considerable mutual independence. But the union should allow a great deal of mutual aid and logistical support. There should be a sort of apprenticeship system, in which scholars are brought in, taught the ropes, then allowed to set up their own little publishing shops. Exactly how this should go is ... well, I don’t pretend to have the details worked out, although I am working on it. But one key ingredient is, I think: being a blessing to the existing academic presses in a couple ways. First, not eating their lunch but freeing them up to do what they do best - for example, telling the difference between books that will sell 200 and 1000 copies, and only firing up the machines for the latter. You disentangle university presses from any obligation to underwrite the production rituals of the tenure and review process, basically, if that proves economically unsustainable. Also, these proposed small presses should provide the large presses with valuable experimental data. These should be labs for bold forms and potentially unconventional content, on a small scale. The large presses are not so free to fail better. So let them wait and emulate our successes, if any. (Maybe you think I’m contradicting myself, suggesting that there will still be sales for the large presses if the whole thing has gone gift. I’m not opposed to authors making a buck, but the lines need to be drawn in the right places.)

The second point of concern is a strategic issue, regarding bold new publishing forms. I think its important to anchor these offerings with some very traditional stuff. Just plain old academic monographs, but born digital, set free under some version of CC, and backed by a pod [print on demand] option. The academic reputation economy is conservative, so along with bold new stuff we need some (formally) conservative stuff to bridge the gap. You bridge the gap to the new by offering old content in new forms, thereby legitimating the forms, thereby legitimating all the potential of the forms. This is, you might say, the ‘build a better slippery slope’ gambit. Another way to put it would be this: all a new electronic press has to do is establish its name - its legitimacy. Then it is allowed to give its stamp of approval to whatever it sees fit, however unconventional. Of course this won’t work if the product is bad, but if the product is good, then quality plus stamp of approval will trump the foot-dragging conservatism of the existing reputation economy. So our electronic press should devote itself to constructing a formally conservative protein sheath around the viral matter with which it intends to infect the system.

This sounds underhanded, but it’s ok for me to whisper this stuff to you, dear reader. Because, after all, traditional academic monographs are wonderful things. And few academics are knee-jerk resistant to new digital forms, if they have merit. Academics are merely waiting to be given a clear excuse to ratify new stuff under the somewhat hidebound terms of the ancient guild order. So our mission is not so much to win hearts and minds as it is to convince people that it is finally prudent to do various things that a critical mass of academics already take for granted is the right thing.

My first ‘Will Work For Whuffie’ post is here, in case you missed it way back in November.


There are lot of reasons to want a simple, widespread auto-formatting print-on-demand technology. I’ve proposed it as a way for getting internet political content to people who don’t use the internet but who do read. The so-called netroots only reaches the relatively thin slice of the electorate which spends time on the net.

It would also seem that a relatively idiot-proof auto-formatting feature could also do away with a lot of the busy work of academic publishing, though IIRC the Nielson-Haydens don’t completely agree. I think that **everything** should be published with some sort of POD technology.

Ultimately I see two prestige heirarchies fighting. The official heirarchy of major journals would be one, and the de facto heirarchy of actual hits would be another. You couldn’t take either at face value because if you did, journals would start putting in entertainment features and porn to get their hit counts up. (Though that wouldn’t be all bad, come to think of it.)

The actual functions of one of the arbiter journals could theoretically be performed purely by linkage to already-posted work—the “American Journal of -ology” would get readership even if it was nothing but a link-farm, if people came to rely on it as the best link-farm.  (Though I don’t really see this happening).

This method would also allow an indefinite number of sift-and-sort journals, including journals for tiny niche topics. (The bottom level journals, of course, would serve no validating function, but would just be a convenience for groups with a given interest.)

By John Emerson on 03/26/06 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Having just finished laying out a 400-page book, when I hear “idiot-proof auto-formatting”, I’m tempted to add “and a pony!”

But in publishing academic papers the formatting might be consistent enough (and issues like widows and orphans and hyphenation unimportant enough) for it to work. You could probably do it already with all those physics papers written in LaTeX. It’s getting all those humanities researchers to compose their papers in something equally simple and consistent that would be the tricky part. (You could just have them submit PDFs of whatever they’ve got, but you’d end up putting out something that looks like a photocopied course reader. Only worse.)

By David Moles on 03/27/06 at 04:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I’m in the process of futzing around with InDesign. I’m experimentally turning my diss. into a nice book, more or less just as self-teaching. It ain’t idiot-proof, to say the least. Haven’t worried about kerning so much such Rathergate. One possibility is to get a bunch of really nice MS-Word templates (well, as nice as anything in the fallen world of MS can be.) And then be relatively efficient at turning MS-Word manuscripts into pretty good InDesigned books. But this ain’t easy. The Future of the Book people have an open source authoring tool, Sophie, that they are hoping to debut soon. I hope it’s good.

By John Holbo on 03/27/06 at 05:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What you’d really need would be a single easily available, widely used, relatively idiotproof software which would format the authors work as they themselves used it, which also would be compatible with a singly e-a-w-u-r-i print-on-demand printer. To an extent this just transfer fprmatting to the author, but that happens anyway.

By John Emerson on 03/27/06 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

john said:
> What you’d really need would be a single easily available,
> widely used, relatively idiotproof software which would
> format the authors work as they themselves used it,
> which also would be compatible with a singly
> e-a-w-u-r-i print-on-demand printer.

i have had success developing such a system…

sorry, i can’t do anything about the pony, though.


By on 03/27/06 at 01:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Was that “I have developed a truly remarkable system, which this margin is too small to contain”?

By David Moles on 03/28/06 at 07:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, great article.

I have pretty much tried everything you’ve mentioned in the article, to the point of starting a nonprofit organization that attempted exactly what you’re suggesting. But it was a couple years back, and open source didn’t have the traction it has today.

To me the achilles heel of such a system is finding reviewers. It’s a difficult, thankless task, especially when a press is just starting up, but even prestigious journals have a tough time of it. I was doing all this pretty much on my own—assembling a committed bunch of scholars beforehand and dividing up the work might work better.

Good luck to you!

By Dave Munger on 03/28/06 at 07:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

david said:
> Was that “I have developed a truly remarkable system,
> which this margin is too small to contain”?

you funny.  :+)

actually, it was more along the lines of
“i think it will be a lot easier to move text
from its raw state to polished output than
people have experienced in the past, and
i will shortly have some good evidence to
that effect, so i suggest you concentrate
on all your other worry-points instead...”


p.s.  if anyone is in a big rush to see this
“truly remarkable system” i’ve developed,
click on my name below to e-mail me…

By on 04/03/06 at 03:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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