Sunday, April 22, 2012

Publishing Mordor-style

Academic publishing is at root a kind of scam.  The publishers get away with not paying academics (or paying them very little) because academics mostly need the publishing credits and the exposure which is vital to their academic survival, and they are (supposedly) earning a living by teaching.  This was the traditional model for the bulk of the twentieth century.  With regard to an academic journal, like Tolkien Studies, the editors make a contract with an academic publisher, who regularly brings out each new issue of the journal and deals with all aspects of printing and distributing.  Most of the time (and this is true for Tolkien Studies) the editors receive nothing other than some extra copies of the finished issues of their journal, donating time as well as personal costs while the publisher keeps all the profit (if any) or absorbs the loss (if any).     

This is the model upon which we at Tolkien Studies signed a contract with West Virginia University Press in December 2003.  Pat Connor was then the director West Virginia University Press, and he told us that it usually takes a new academic journal about five years to establish itself and pay its own way.  Just as volume 3 of Tolkien Studies was coming out in 2006, Pat told us we’d managed to do this in three years.  The trade offs with this kind of arrangement are easily understood.  We had a publisher to publish and distribute our work, and our audience of Tolkien readers and scholars had the opportunity to purchase their own copies of the journal and support it—or at least to use the journal in libraries that had purchased it. Not an ideal system, but the trade-offs made it work.

Other factors have grown up in recent years that complicate this scenario.  On the one hand, the bean-counters at universities have been putting the squeeze on university presses, not merely to break even, but to contribute to the fiscal bottom line of the university.  On the other hand, the rise of electronic publishing has brought about some major changes in the industry, and some of these changes are especially pernicious. These ill-effects are mostly seen in the adding of a new set of middle-men between the publisher and the reader—the firms that distribute “content”. These firms make their money in various ways—e.g., via attaching advertisements on the web, or by taking subscription fees. The people who get squeezed by this scenario are the creators of the “content”—the writers, editors, artists, musicians, etc. There is a fascinating book by Robert Levine that details this problem in all of its manifestations called FreeRide: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How theCulture Business Can Fight Back; unfortunately, despite the subtitle (which is slightly altered for its paperback edition) it doesn’t provide any feasible solutions. 

The way this problem arises in academic publishing is in the rise of subscription databases for which libraries have to fork up an annual fee just for access to large databases of various journals (and if a library doesn't pay the annual fee, it loses access to all of the back issues, which is not the case with printed volumes). The fees that are charged to libraries amount to extortion, and some small fraction of these fees are passed on to the original publishers of the various journals.  This problem has been getting an increasing amount of attention in the last year or two.  See:

“Library, Inc.” by Daniel Goldstein in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Many additional articles center their point around scientific journals, but journals in the humanities are under the same yoke. Some in the sciences have begun boycotts.  See: 

“Publishers Be Damned!” by Stephen Foley, in The Independent

So, how does this all relate to Tolkien Studies?  Well, Tolkien Studies was picked up by Project Muse, one of these subscription databases which can only be accessed at a member library—i.e., one that pays Project Muse a subscription fee. Project Muse in turn pays West Virginia University Press an annual fee based on usage of Tolkien Studies articles.  Though by contract West Virginia University Press is supposed to supply the editors of Tolkien Studies with an annual statement, the only time we actually got one was in November 2008.  Here we learned that West Virginia University Press was receiving a payment from Project Muse of nearly $20,000 for usage on volume 5 (2008), this income being completely separate from the usual subscriptions and expenses. 

The timing of this financial statement coincided with Pat Connor leaving West Virginia University Press.  A replacement took over as Director, with whom we had virtually no contact for a few years.  Gradually, however, we noticed changes.  After Tolkien Studies volume 6 came out, I received queries from a good number of people asking why it wasn’t available through Amazon, as each new volume had been in the past (sometimes in discounted form).  Eventually I was told after querying the Press that the higher ups had decided to eliminate ISBNs on the individual volumes and thus they could only be ordered directly from the Press (direct sales equals more money for the press).  The next year I learned that volume 6 had gone out of print (the only volume of Tolkien Studies to do so), and was told that for some reason the Press didn’t do as many copies as with the other volumes. 

As Book Review Editor for Tolkien Studies, I incurred additional expenses when mailing review copies to reviewers, and buying copies of some books to be reviewed because a number of publishers refused to supply review copies. (These expenses add up, especially when you mail books overseas.)  For the first several volumes, we editors split these costs among ourselves.  But as I learned that West Virginia University Press was receiving healthy payments from Project Muse, I checked with Pat Connor who told me that I could save my receipts and the Press would cover those costs. 

When I submitted my receipts (amounting to some $250) in early 2011, the new Director, however, proved difficult and stand-offish, refusing to reimburse me more than $100 and then refusing to have any further discussion of the matter.  It’s one thing to do all this work on Tolkien Studies for nothing, but it’s another to be treated like the lowliest orc, who must pay out of their own pocket for the privilege of being a slave, owing to the scorched-earth policies of the likes of Barad-dûr University Press.  In fact it’s really galling. The impasse dragged on for many months, with various turns and wrinkles that I needn’t go into here.

The end has been reached.  I have ceased all involvement with Tolkien Studies.  Things could have been otherwise, but under the new climate of Mordor-styled publishing, I don’t fit in.  Like the scientists in the articles referenced above, I must question the value of putting a institutional pay-wall between a scholarly journal and its audience. It certainly doesn’t help scholarship by diminishing access to a journal solely in order to fill the coffers of its publisher and distributor.  The old model is broken, and there needs to be a new one.  A fair one.