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Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
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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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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Ideas For Stuff That Would Be Good

Posted by John Holbo on 10/25/05 at 12:10 AM

Now that we have a fairly substantial and steady readership here at the Valve, I want to take the next step. What is it?

Let me start just with the blog itself. We need more authors, because some days the content lapses, even with our rather long roster. (Is it important to have a new post every day, or is feeling that way a disease of the blog-addled mind?) This much seems certain: it would be nice to offer more people the chance to participate. How should this be done? One possibility: hand out lots of invitations to make - say, seven posts at the Valve. A revolving door, with people getting some welcome exposure but not sticking around. I would like to make these offers to non-blogging profs, to initiate them into the medium, as well as to worthy bloggers. For example, nnyhav’s fine Nabokov blog. He has a nice Musil quote at the top right now:

Hardly anyone reads anymore today; everyone just uses the writer to work off his own excess on him, in some perverse fashion, whether by agreeing or disagreeing.

Think of the Valve as a much more efficient way of sluicing off this excess self, potentially. Perversity need not imply inefficiency, I should hope.

Another possibility: substantially expand the regular roster of authors, with the predictable result that lots more posts would get made. Many more posts a day than we’ve got now. What do people think would be an optimum mix of opportunity for new voices plus pleasant reading for visitors?

There are very general design/community-building questions to be considered. To what degree does a site like the Valve get better by getting bigger? I look at political sites like Kos and Redstate - Scoop-powered ... and I sort of doubt that’s what we’re looking for. The whole diary thing. Eh. But what do you think? I look at TPM Cafe and I have some doubts about the added value of trying to do it all under one roof. Is it much more than the sum of the (admittedly very fine) parts? I do like the BookClub angle. There is something to be said for having departments. Would people like a bigger humanities academic blog that was sort of like TPM Cafe, or would it just end up sort of bloated? Maybe bloated AND sort of hollow. 3,000 individual visits a day is where we’re at. And it’s very nice, and the point is I’d like to share the wealth. But it’s not obviously enough to fill a bunch of new rooms.

Let’s think about it functionally. We want to focus mostly (but not exclusively) on academic stuff in the humanities, with a special focus on literary studies. Cultural criticism. Philosophy. It would be nice to do two things: achieve somewhat less unsystematic coverage of the (admittedly vast) field; achieve more efficient and meritocratic aggregation of the good stuff out there. But how do you stage a permanent carnival in an orderly fashion? One possibility might be for us - me, all the other Valve authors, in judicious consultation with wise readers - to designate a number of areas we want covered; we promise to give good exposure in exchange for someone actually covering these areas well. Candidate areas would obviously include: review and discussion of recent journals and recent scholarly works. But other areas are certainly possible. The teaching carnivals some folks have been staging are really an example of this getting done already. Maybe the plan should be - for starters - to have a lot of things like that on a regular basis, and a rotation of organization duties. And doing a good job of archiving/tagging, so that these things actually become a handy permanent resource. In short, we become a hub without making the mistake of trying to suck all the content into ourselves, thereby becoming bloated. Any thoughts about this, or the general subject of possible site redesign/organizational improvement?

Now a bigger-ticket item. I’m going to the ALSC annual conference in a little over a week. One thing I’m going to do there is talk to people about what sorts of e-publishing offerings and expansions might complement the Valve. I know I want to sell the ALSC on becoming a sponsor for e-publishing. Exactly what it should look like, I’m less sure. Here is one idea I’ve had. I haven’t done anything to develop it, mind you. But tell me what you think: get grant money (I think I know where to look.) Use the money to PAY academic publishers (or any rights holders) to release copyrighted material - books - under a Creative Commons License. Probably it would be this one.

Now what would this mean?

The publishers (rights holders) retain copyright, under this arrangement; and the exclusive right to sell the material in question; but the license would allow for unlimited NON-COMMERCIAL distribution. For each such work released, we (meaning some entity associated with the Valve, sponsored by the ALSC) would also arrange for a very handsome online version to be created, and would stage a little review event - like the Theory’s Empire event - to draw some attention. A model for the release might be the NEA sponsorship of the web release of the interview archives of the Paris Review. (Click if you’ve never seen how nicely that’s been done.)

At somewhat greater length, it goes like this: with grant money, we pay publishers (rights holders) a fair price to make it worth their while to make the release. Fair is a word to be careful with, but the idea is that publishers aren’t being asked to lose money. Obviously release on the web will cut into sales (but probably not kill them outright.) You compensate them to that degree. A strong web-presence plus promotional event plus a small amount of money plus retained right to book sales seems like an OK combination. The best candidates for this treatment would presumably be older works - works that are out of print, or that have relatively low sales. Probably not new books and certainly not best sellers, or perennial sellers. (Unless someone gave us a much bigger grant than seems reasonable to expect.) We would be looking for good, interesting books that are not, in fact, significant earners for their publishers/rightsholders.

Under the Creative Commons license, anyone whatsoever could distribute the work, so long as they did so non-commercially. It truly would be a release into the wild, within the terms of the license. We wouldn’t be buying it for the Valve, or the ALSC, or anything like that. (Anyone wants to use a bit of the book in their coursepack. Great! No crummy forms to fill.) But the idea would be that, with an additional commitment to produce a fine, permanent e-home for the book - stage an event, so forth - we would be building a little online library. We would also be creating opportunities for scholarly publication. A book gets released. You participate in an ‘event’, by writing a critical discussion piece or review. This looks legit enough to go on your CV. We would also be doing what we can to set favorable precedents in favor of scholarly e-books. If old scholarly books are being put online in handsome ways, why not new books?

I also think it would be very nice to do some old fiction this way, not just scholarly works. Nor would there be a thing in the world wrong with making very handsome and scholarly online editions of works in the public domain but only available in vanilla plaintext from Gutenberg, or what have you. You could build your online library many ways.

Anticipated issues: who owns the electronic rights to older academic books? When did university presses start retaining these rights? Entering into partnerships with presses? Advantages?

Who has done this already? (Whose wheel am I reinventing?) What organizations, groups might want to partner up on something like this? Who might have grant money for innovative humanities publishing with an IT angle? (I’ve got a few names but I wouldn’t mind more.)

Estimates about costs and prices. The proposal doesn’t aim at profit, but feasibility hinges crucially on an economic proposition: namely, there must be books whose CC release could rationally be sold cheaply enough that grant money would be rationally spent purchasing them. Nor is making a nice e-edition without its costs. Overall: a potential granting organization would have to be impressed, rather than underwhelmed, by the possibility that x$ could be turned into y handsome, free online editions of academic books. This is where my plan is likeliest to go wrong, I fear, since my intuitions about book publishing are lavishly untutored. I would be grateful for any frank input readers could provide, up to and including estimates about how much low sale/backlist books are worth to publishers, in a strictly economic sense.

I hope it is obvious why the proposal has a certain charm. Books get distributed more widely and efficiently, in forms that may be more convenient to academics (searchable, all that good stuff.) Publishers aren’t hurt, and maybe helped a little. A source of extra profit. Books can still be sold. Plus, everyone involved gets to say they are giving things to the public. Which is true, and good. And academics have the satisfaction of working on projects that are beautiful and interesting and have some chance of reaching an interested audience.

Obviously this idea has no inherent connection to the Valve. But a nice shelf of online editions linked up to the Valve might be good for both. Nor is there any particular reason why the ALSC, rather than some other outfit, should back it. Nor have I discussed this at all seriously with anyone who might back it. I just happen to be associated with the ALSC and I’m hoping they’ll see the light. I’m making this post in the hopes of firming up my dreams a bit before actually proposing that some grant proposals be filled out.

I also have ideas for making the Valve the frontpage of an online humanities journal - a real, honest to gosh little magazine. But let’s put questions about that off for a later post.


But isn’t this just part of the fantasy that there’s something literary going on at The Valve?  Maybe if we can find some profs—note that the idea is to locate some non-blogging profs to contribute—it’ll be really neat.  But aren’t profs part of the problem?  I have a quote from Lionel Trilling at http://mthollywood.blogspot.com/2005/10/snobbery-and-class-last-night-i-ran.html that suggests the need to seem to “belong” is part of the boureois disease that novels are meant to diagnose.  But profs suffer from the “belonging” disease as much as anyone else.  (Why does The Valve operate in what appears to be an adjunct-free world?)

I suspect that blogging temps, if they’re just short-term versions of what you already have, will make no difference.

To quote the Trilling from Bruce’s post: “Snobbery is pride in status without pride in function. And it is an uneasy pride of status. It always asks, ‘Do I belong – do I really belong? And does he belong? And if I am observed talking to him, will it make me seem to belong or not to belong?’” Note the anxious use of ‘we’ in Bruce’s comment - ‘if we can find some profs’; this is such companionable counterpoint to his antagonistic denunciations. And so we witness the sad porcupine ballet of ressentiment, as Schopenhauer might say: drawn together for the sake of warmth, driven apart on account of our spines. If the man would only learn what irony is, his own nature would provide him with so many fresh sources of wonder and joy. Also, ‘boureois disease’ is a shocking lapse of good spelling and someone really ought to write an entire post about it. - the Management

By John Bruce on 10/25/05 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I definitely think we should extend some invitations pronto. Many of the regular commentors here would be great candidates to start.

The seven posts model sounds fine to me. Another model might be the Sepia Mutiny monthly guest-poster model—invite individuals on to write as much as they want for a month.

* * * *
I kind of like the idea for online editions, though I have some doubts about feasibility.

I’ve been interested in doing an annotated online edition of a novel called All About H. Hatterr, which has been out of print in the U.S. since 1986. It’s currently under copyright with McPherson. They might be willing to sell or loan the rights cheaply, since the market for a new edition has to be minuscule.

It would be a perfect book to annotate and e-publish collaboratively, because it’s full of references to obscure things like The Golden Ass, Everyman, Tristram Shandy, Yeats, and Swami Vivekananda—topics which only a few really esoteric souls have thorough mastery of.

I’ll be writing the company to see if they are amenable. (I might just go forward with the project on my own if no one else is interested.)

It might be that the model John is suggesting would be more workable with texts that are out of copyright in the U.S. (i.e., more than 100 years old). We could still request funding—perhaps to hire an editorial assistant to acquire old editions and scan them for us.

By Amardeep on 10/25/05 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that you should take any steps yet to break the site into departments, much less Scoop-style diaries.  Diaries are a good way to promote content that may arise unevenly from a widespread group of people.  But you don’t have that here: the regular commenters are a reasonably small group, most of whom are perfectly capable of writing a post when they want to write a post.  Departments would be good if you had groups of people who were actually interested in different topics, but I don’t think that you do.

What you do want is a seperate part of the site to handle the books.  It doesn’t really work to just put book reviews in as normal blog posts, even if you haven’t even progressed to book publishing.  What you want is something that has a list of all the books ever reviewed, with the name of each being a link to a list of all the blog posts reviewing that book.

I know almost nothing about book publishing, but it strikes me that if you put up the book files using LuLu (http://www.lulu.com), you could have free giveaway electronic copies and the potential for someone to print-on-demand a physical copy if they wanted one, which would produce some level of actual money that could go back to the author and/or the site.  Unfortunately, if I remember rightly, Lulu does distribution of electronic copies as PDF files, and PDF is the format of the devil.

By on 10/25/05 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you have a template very close to home: Crooked Timber works exceptionally well (from a user standpoint anyway. For all I know, Timberites are engaging in virtual fistacuffs behind the scenes). But it works, there is always something interesting happening there and if the Valve happened to do the same, but in a more lit crit oriented direction, with the same depth (perhaps by adding cross-disciplinary bloggers?) I wouldn’t mind.

By Keith on 10/25/05 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Keith, I don’t see any important difference between Crooked Timber and The Valve in terms of setup, and the minor differences that do exist favor The Valve.  Crooked Timber’s multi-disciplinarity tends to lead to events like people posting multiple links to the same beer ad and not seeing that other posters have already done it, because they don’t really read each other’s posts.  (And why they think that beer ads are post-worthy in the first place also eludes me to some degree.  They should get something like Making Light’s Particles/Sidelights links if they really want to do that a lot.) Crooked Timber’s site layout is also slightly inferior to The Valve’s, because they have a column on each side, squeezing the content down into a narrow central strip.

By on 10/25/05 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to say, I think The Valve’s current update frequency is pretty much ideal, or at least, with merits that will be lost by a transition to a more intense temp. Right now, the discussions around each entry get a lot of time to ripen, and each entry has a very substantial weight.
Usually the great advantage of Blogs over magazines- public discussion and comments over the articles - is balanced by a short life-span for each subject, and currently this is not he case in The Valve. I think it’s slow pace is a great asset.

By Peli Grietzer on 10/25/05 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let’s make John Bruce a regular contributor!  He can have a column: “Reviews of Books I Haven’t Read” or “Ad Hominem Rant of the Week”

By on 10/25/05 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the Valve should have a spinoff blog solely devoted to debates about Zizek.  (It’s gettin’ boring around here.  Where are the flames?)

By on 10/25/05 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Crooked Timber’s site layout is also slightly inferior to The Valve’s, because they have a column on each side, squeezing the content down into a narrow central strip.

I think that’s subjective. I find the narrow central strip more readable because there are fewer words per line.

By David Moles on 10/25/05 at 09:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s gettin’ boring around here.  Where are the flames?


By The Flame Eater on 10/25/05 at 09:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I got to chat about my pet notions with Cory Doctorow - mighty CC champion - when he was visiting Singapore. He mentioned Lulu as something that might be a good way of handling the production side. So thanks for reminding me to go look, which I just did. It looks very good. I think it would be possible for a small CO-OP of interested academics to set up a nice little publishing house, and let something like Lulu handle the hassle. I like the idea of being able to sell reasonable quality books so cheaply. However, Lulu wouldn’t go well with the arrangments with publishers I was suggesting above. Academic publishers wouldn’t appreciate their backlist migrating to Lulu. But making nice scholarly editions of public domain works, or pulling together nice little critical anthologies, might work great.

What do you have against PDF?

Anyone have any Lulu stories to tell? Googling, I am finding only satisfied customers.

By John Holbo on 10/26/05 at 12:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure whether my objections to PDF are really still current or not.  It used to be that PDF wasn’t searchable—that the letters were just part of an image rather than being encoded as letters.  I think that this is no longer the case if you create the PDF file in the right way.  And it used to be difficult to quote text from PDF; I remember that when selecting text from anything with more than one column, you’d always get the columns mixed together.  And the file size would be bloated and each page would take a while to load and scroll and so on.  Maybe Adobe has improved its PDF tools to the point where these things are no longer unavoidable.  The only competing widely used formats are either plain ASCII, which probably isn’t good enough if you want something that looks like a book, or Word.  I think that Word format no longer implies that you need Microsoft products; you can read Word files in OpenOffice.

My own minimal experience with LuLu has been with trying to make a book of my poetry (no better way to get a copy to the approximately 6 people who want one).  But I quickly discovered that you need to know something about how to put the files together.  I started in on page numbers, spines, margins, covers, and so on, and quickly gave up.  (It didn’t help that I also had pictures to embed).  I think you’d have to have someone who knew how to do this kind of thing, although it seems like something a motivated amateur could pick up.

Assuming that you have someone who knows how to put the PDF files together, LuLu seems ideal, since they will hold electronic copies of books for you and give them away for free if you want.  You don’t even pay for the bandwidth.  And if you set up the capability for physical books to be made and no one actually ever orders one, you don’t pay anything except perhaps $35 for an ISBN.

As for academic publishers not wanting their backlist going to LuLu, I don’t how it’s so different from putting the book under Creative Commons and letting people release it noncommercially.  Unless the publisher has print-on-demand capability, they aren’t going to be publishing any more, right?  If it’s really a book that they think they might ever have another print run of, you wouldn’t get them to put it under Creative Commons anyway.

By on 10/26/05 at 12:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Post frequency: seems good to me, but then I read via RSS, so I’d be happy even if months went between entries.

In lieu of regular authors, you could add a mechanism for anybody to submit an article, which would be published subject to editorial oversight. (How much is up to you: Scoop has a queue mechanism whereby all site members can vote; here, it might be better to only allow the regular contributors access. “One man, one vote” rule with an iron fist works too.)

More book events would be good. The books don’t even have to be new: something in the public domain, say. (It certainly makes it easier to get hold of a copy...) Fiction, even. Either way, I like the sustained attention that sort of thing promotes.

“What do you have against PDF?”

It killed my dog. Some better (better as in not wholly false) reasons are available in this article from Jakob Nielsen, “PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption”.

Seriously, publish in HTML. Electronic editions shouldn’t be dead-tree editions made available online—they come with none of the benefits of a physical copy and all of its drawbacks. HTML is the easiest way to get readable but also usable documents online. As a bonus, it makes it easy to direct-link to paragraphs you may be quoting, add an annotation system, or whatever else it is that people do with post-book hyptertextual objects. ;)

Do what Cory Doctorow did with his books, even, and let readers convert them to whatever formats they want (for obscure e-book hardware and the like). Then we can have as many formats as we like, even (!) Word and PDF.

By on 10/26/05 at 02:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Many thanks for your kind words regarding my efforts (and you’ve already provided the opportunity to guestpost in all but name; I’ll only quibble that Nabokov is one of many hobbyhorses), and for the attendant exposure. But opening this forum to “worthy bloggers” may dilute the Valve’s mission (whatever it turns out to be); expanding current Guest Authorship beyond Events to include nonbloggers interested in but uncommitted to this kind of interaction, whether among the professoriate or professionals who might be interested in a more specialised forum (e.g., James Wood, Clive James ... so maybe I’m dreamin’, but the ALSC affiliation may help). Aside from which I see little scope for immediate improvement in the Valve beyond more firmly establishing itself by continuing to offer what’s otherwise in limited supply (though the old idea of temporary Project Muse or JSTOR links would still be nice).

To bigger things: is grant funding the only way to pry digital (and other noncommercial, or even limited edition commercial) rights out of copyright holders otherwise without incentives to reissue the obscure, orphaned and/or out of print? Mightn’t charity and vanity publishing coincide in using ALSC as a medium for patronage of neglected culture, appending scholarly contextual apparatus alongside acknowledgment to the funder, serving all parties to the transaction? Just quietly thinking out loud ...

By nnyhav on 10/26/05 at 10:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment


The PDF format has indeed improved over the situation that you describe (I encountered very few of the problems that you mentioned in a summer where I was constantly having to use PDF documents).  One drawback is that one can only copy and paste text from a PDF using the full (expensive) version of Acrobat.  Now Word format is considered to be extremely bloated, with PDF being comparatively efficient.

My major worry about a project such as what you outline is that I’m not sure I see much of a future in electronic publishing for long works.  The average journal article is the only thing that I can see being productively switched to an online format, and that’s because it’s reasonable to print it off.  With something on the screen, people tend to be lazy readers—there are all kinds of psychological aspects in terms of expectations, perceived “seriousness” of online vs. print publications (tied up with permanence issues), etc.  A switch from the book to electronic publishing for really long texts would be a much more radical transition than from scroll to codex.

It might make more sense if it were a print-on-demand situation, but even after all these years, printing technology (at least what’s available to consumers) really, really sucks a lot.  Imagine the supreme frustration of starting to print an entire book, going to bed, and waking up to find 8000 pages of Wingdings.

By Adam Kotsko on 10/26/05 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve got lots against PDF myself, even if you’re nice enough to include HTML on the side to avoid horizontal scrolling and all that other crippling shit. How about the inability to change font size? And even when an Adobe Acrobat (TM) document allows for text copying, the formatting gets lost, and occasionally formatting is important. It’s rarely any harder, and much cheaper, more compact, and accessible to handle print formatting using HTML and CSS.

Norman David, I’m with you in my heart, but the “any format” business can be harder to talk rights-holders into. Stick to pure HTML with them keeping the copyright, and negotiations might be simplified.

By Ray Davis on 10/26/05 at 11:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Who among us has the CSS to reproduce the authentic print page in HTML? I have O’Reilly’s Guide and am not afraid to use it. Probably a template for this very thing exists. But what’s the incentive?

By Jonathan on 10/27/05 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Looking at Lulu more, I am quite astonished at the inexpense. For one thing, if you are not looking to make a profit, they don’t even take a cut. You could sell nice little bookstore quality 150 page paperback monographs for less than $8.

One possible model, then, would be to set up a little academic CO-OP press which basically commits to the following virtues. Every work released under CC. Every work available as a dirt cheap print-on-demand purchase (get an ISBN and get in on Amazon and all that; looks like that costs about $150 for the full package.) Every work is also available as the nicest HTML money can buy. Commit to attractive web design; last but not least, throw in a free PDF download and (why not?) vanilla plaintext option.

This addresses Adam’s reasonable point about how long works still need paper. I agree. But electronic works are more searchable and efficient in various ways. You want all formats supported for all the possible uses you might have as a reader and scholar.

A press like this definitely has a reason to exist. It could set good precedents for how academic publishing can be done: openly and inexpensively. I think it would be worth thinking whether such a thing can indeed be summoned into existence as a kind of publishing CO-OP. Figure out how peer reviewing and editing duties could be shared around. Some people would need to be paid (designers and such.) But try to get as much volunteer labor as possible. I think the simplest principle would be: if your project is accepted, you owe labor as a review and editor on other projects. (Details to be hammered out.)

And figure out what cool old public domain fiction we want to bring out, in thilling new critical editions.

By John Holbo on 10/27/05 at 12:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, it’s actually less than $8 plus shipping, and I seem to recall that their shipping within the U.S. is somewhat expensive—somewhere around $5.  Although perhaps selling through Amazon would get you better shipping rates.

By the way, please start referring to the possible CO-OP as a co-op.

By on 10/27/05 at 08:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you familiar with Trans-Mat?

By Jim Flannery on 10/28/05 at 02:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I heard the new Office version will have a good pdf viewer too.

By Jim Online on 11/08/05 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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