Monday, June 27, 2011

The Singles Life

Academic publishing in the age of downloads

The following essay was published in the current regular weekly edition of History News Network

As anyone who has written a book knows, about half the battle involves conceptualizing a project broadly enough to have wide appeal, while narrow enough to be executed in a manageable amount of time and space. An American Studies scholar in the classic mold—which is to say one trained at the intersection of history and literature—I have typically done this by formulating an argument in terms of a general proposition and crafting a series of case studies that illustrate the point. My current project, for example, rests on the proposition that certain Hollywood actors have a historiographic vision embedded in their careers on the basis of the roles they’ve chosen. Clint Eastwood’s work has been essentially Jeffersonian (albeit ambivalently so). Daniel Day-Lewis dramatized the persistent significance of the frontier in American history, even when he played an urban gangster. Denzel Washington’s work circled around the trope of paternity, in what I consider a kind black republican fatherhood akin to white republican motherhood. And so on. The project has a set of overarching themes, among them a generational one: all my subjects came of age in the last third of the twentieth century amid a growing skepticism about institutions.
I consider it important that the book achieve a sense of cohesion in order to make the project compelling to a scholarly press. Without such stitching, my project would be a collection of essays. And essays are now the kiss of death almost everywhere in the publishing business, even university presses that were once their natural home. The prevailing wisdom is that nobody reads them.
In large measure, that’s because nobody buys them. Even cheap scholarly paperbacks cost $25, more than a new hardcover trade book.  University libraries and scholars themselves will spring for academic press titles (often at a publisher’s exhibit during a conference), though sales commonly run in the hundreds, not thousands. This sense of small scale, in turn, hobbles authors and publishers further, since they lack the muscle for promotion or even standard sales tactics like online discounting. Students in particular are highly sensitive to price, buying used books when they buy any at all. Textbooks may be impossible to live without. But a skipping homework in the form of scholarship: that saves money and time. It’s almost virtuous.
Students, of course, have come of age in a different media environment than their teachers have. For them, even compact disks are ancient history, and a stereo system should be no larger than a laptop. They get most of their information from websites, and it’s rare these days to get student essays whose citations consist of anything but URLs. They will pay for music, to the iTune of $1.29. As a result, the music industry has been shaken to its foundations.
The publishing industry is next. (In some precincts, it’s already wobbling.) Amazon’s Kindle has become for books what the iPod is to music, with other competitors rushing in as well. Electronic books have been on the scene for a few years now. They have become a major force in trade publishing—the New York Times bestseller list now regularly documents the large and growing proportion of e-books in total sales; at, e-books have overtaken print— but the phenomenon yet to hit academic publishing in a large-scale way. Open up a publication like The New York Review of Books, whose bread-and-butter is advertising by scholarly publishers, and all the titles listed have cloth and paper prices, not e-books.
There are still multiple fronts of resistance. To some extent, it comes from publishers, who have been slow and tentative to issue e-books. I’ve been surprised to the extent to which students themselves have dragged their heels. (Kids today can be so old-fashioned!) Scholars themselves are the biggest obstacle. Almost by definition, they love print—reading it, collecting it, even smelling it. Even those who have moved on to e-readers are often enmeshed in administrative machinery that’s easier to passively accept than revise. So every May and November, faculties commit, months in advance, to textbook adoptions for the coming semester to follow the strictures of the campus brick-and-mortar bookstore.
This will change. Publishers say, honestly, that consumers overestimate the savings that come from not having to print and warehouse books, and assert they will be unable to remain solvent if they lower prices much below what print books cost. But that assumes solvency in terms of the way they’re structured now—which isn’t working anyway, given used-book sales and other pressures. We’re going to have to re-imagine the economics of the scholarly enterprise, an imperative that’s likely to have cultural consequences. Not all of them will be bad.
At some point in the process of working on my new book, I found myself wondering: does this make sense as a book? Might it not make more sense as a set of five or six chapter-length e-books? Very often, instructors only use part of a book; in any case, they rarely assign the whole thing at once. If something like this caught on, I might tell my students in class that we’re going to discuss X tomorrow, and some of them could download it before they left the room. I made a pitch along these lines to a major university press, which reacted with respectful interest. It’s in their future, I was told. But not yet.
Around the same time, I received an offer from to publish one of my chapters as a Kindle Single. This series, which was launched earlier this year, consists of writing that’s longer than a typical article but shorter than a typical book. Singles are priced very cheaply—no more than $2.99 per title. On the advice of my editor, I priced mine at 99 cents. He explained that shoppers really do care about price, and that a higher sales ranking can become a positive feedback system. What sweetens the deal is that I get a 70% royalty rate (minus a small fee for wireless delivery on each copy). That’s about seven times better than I could ever hope for from a scholarly press.
Amazon also has another new program, Kindle Direct Publishing (kdp) that allows writers to publish work themselves with similarly attractive arrangements (though you only get 35% royalty if your book costs less than $3 or more than $9.99). This is a potentially excellent way for scholars to stay in circulation. I’m considering publishing some of my older work, like my out-of-print dissertation, in this format. I also seriously considered it for the remaining chapters of my work in progress (at the current time, Amazon will only publish one work by an author in the Singles format).
In the end, though, I’m still hoping to publish my work as a book in both print and e-book formats. This reflects my own cultural conservatism, along with a belief that I really am in the middle of producing something in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It also reflects my hope for legitimacy in the form of having my manuscript vetted by experts, a practice that has always been the hallmark of professional scholarship. Last but not least, there are credibility and resources—copyediting, design, promotion—that a good publisher affords. Publishers of all kinds are being buffeted these days by demands that can be unrealistic. But they’re too important to disappear. We just have to find new ways for them—and us—to work.