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. 


  1. Very sorry to hear this, Douglas. I wish I could say I was surprised.

    These links might be pertinent:

    Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers on the problems of existing models for academic publishing:

    An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education lays out some parallel issues here:

  2. Sad news, and appreciation for all you have done for TS - Orcs everywhere I guess.

  3. Sorry to hear this, Doug. How unprofessional of WVU -- and how chintzy, not to reimburse postage! This disrespect for the people who provide the content is going to come back to bite academic publishers -- I'm seeing encouraging rumblings. Mythlore remains stubbornly independent, for which I'm glad.

    1. Alas, I signed in properly and all and it listed me as unknown. Janet Brennan Croft, editor of Mythlore.

  4. I am very sad to hear this but things have been coming to a head for many years now. Quite obviously it is time to look for other options and if there are none implement them yourselves. Thank you very much for your great work!

    Best Wishes,

    Marcel Bülles

  5. What a regrettable loss for the journal! A screed is threatening to tumble out, so I'd better just leave it at that. You deserve better, Doug. Sheesh.

  6. Thanks Doug for all your hard work on TS. That is very unfortunate.

  7. Wow, I am almost speechless. I am very sorry that you have had to deal with this, Doug, and sad for the loss to the Tolkien community that this will inevitably cause.

    Best regards,

  8. I am one of those who regularly accessed and greatly enjoyed TS through Project Muse, thanks to my membership of the Royal Library in The Hague (Netherlands). I am very sad to read this.

  9. Alf, Saranna, Janet, Marcel, Jason, Josh, and Doug: I appreciate the kind words. I'm content with leaving the journal. There are other things to do, from the backlog and on the horizon ahead. Best to all, Doug

  10. Let me add another perspective, pointed out to me, from the Harvard Library:

    "We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.

    "Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75M. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20% of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10% of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget...."

    Full story at:

  11. Very sorry to hear this, Doug. And just as sorry to hear about the state of academic publishing. I'm confident you will continue to devote your time to worthwhile projects, including those from which you will (hopefully) find more appreciation and personal satisfaction.

  12. Very sorry to hear this Doug. I am afraid I am only very aware of many of the practices you describe.

    I have just ordered my copy of Evangeline Walton's collection of fantasy short stories you recently edited - I do hope that via Nodens Books ( you will continue to make available some of the great, neglected, works of fantasy and share your wealth of scholarly knowledge on the history and evolution of the fantasy genre.

    All the best,

    Dimitra Fimi

  13. Douglas

    I real real shame - as an amateur Tolkien scholar I can not tell you how important Tolkien Studies is to the research work I am doing and it is one of the key works I look forward to reading - your work on it has been very much appreciated and I hope this all works out.

    Best, Andy

  14. Doug: I have been fighting this culture in academia for years; may be finally making a dent. There may be a new development that you would be interested in; we can talk at Kalamazoo. Brad

    Dr. Brad Eden
    Dean of Library Services
    Valparaiso University

  15. J.Z., Adam, Dimitra, Andrew, Brad: Thanks for the comments. I had long known the situation with academic journals was a mess, but until the last year I didn't realize how overrun it is by greed and exploitation. It's been eye-opening to see how prevalent this problem is. A number of people have sent me URLs for current stories, and one in yesterday's The Guardian follows-up on the statement by the Harvard Library:

    1. Here's a quote from the article:

      Robert Darnton, director of Harvard Library told the Guardian: "I hope that other universities will take similar action. We all face the same paradox. We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.

      "The system is absurd, and it is inflicting terrible damage on libraries. One year's subscription to The Journal of Comparative Neurology costs the same as 300 monographs. We simply cannot go on paying the increase in subscription prices. In the long run, the answer will be open-access journal publishing, but we need concerted effort to reach that goal."

  16. Have you taken a look at Amazon's direct publishing options? I know the publishers make Amazon out to be the evil empire bent on cornering the market so that they will then be able to gouge artists and consumers with cruel prices... but that's basically arguing, 'if you let Amazon win then some day they will be as bad as we are!' Maybe yes, maybe no... but RIGHT NOW Amazon offers very flexible options for how much the readers get charged and your corresponding profits.

    If Amazon eventually become as predatory as current publishers you can bet that something else will pop up to take their place. Personally, I think that's unlikely because Amazon's business model has always been to maximize distribution efficiency to reduce costs, use razor thin profit margins on each transaction, and then move huge amounts of material. They've crushed plenty of competitors already and haven't changed this winning formula (also used by Walmart), so I don't see why they would shoot themselves in the foot by overcharging and allowing a competitor to undercut them the same way they've been doing to everyone else.

  17. It seems almost futile to say it, but I, too, am very sorry to hear this.

    I've had the pleasure of reviewing the last couple of issues for Mallorn, and I agree with Andy about the value of Tolkien Studies for us amateur scholars (or students) of Tolkien's work, and the thorough review section is an important aspect of this worth: getting an overview of what is being published without having to buy all of it yourself is essential when working on a tight budget.

    I'm reminded also of Prof. Drout's description of his problems getting the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia out:

  18. Don't know what to say other than "wow" and that it is their great loss. Things really do seem to be coming to a head, so maybe we can hope that it might change in the near future. I'm not sure what a new system will look like, but there definitely needs to be one. There is another scam in academia, albeit fortunately not one we deal with in the Tolkien group at Kalamazoo; at an increasing number of conferences I've been to people show up, give their paper to an audience of maybe 5 people, and then leave to go shopping or vacation for the rest of the days, many times at the expense of their department (and if not taking the entire conference as a business expense on their taxes) and being able to say they attended the conference and gave a conference paper. That's just one of many reasons why the filled rooms at this year's Tolkien at Kalamazoo sessions are so heartwarming to me - what we are taking part in is true academic (in the positive not corporate sense of the word) discourse.

    Kris Larsen

  19. Mr. Anderson,
    I have taught English, mostly remedial, at a California Community College for twenty-five years full-time. Thank you for two things: this article, which makes me glad I did not submit any article to Tolkien Studies; and The Annotated Hobbit, which has been invaluable to me in teaching Science Fiction-Fantasy class at Los Angeles Pierce College, in Woodland Hills, California.

  20. Open access is indeed the only resolution to the scholarly publishing problem: it removes publishers altogether from the system. As things stand, they provide essentially nothing but the right to use a specific high-reputation title for the journal or conference. All money flows toward them, either as actual cash from the users, or as free labor from the authors and editors, making them pure rentiers. It must be acknowledged, though, that a pure open-access system would be worse for unfunded/independent scholars; there would be no source of money at all for things like distributing books for review. (Although if scholarly books became open-access as well, that problem would go away.)