Saturday, April 02, 2005

Lagniappe: New Group (Lit) Blog, The Valve

I tried to send this a few days ago, but Blogger was being a bit fussy. It is still a new group blog (grog?):

A new group blog, The Valve, revives the tradition of the small literary magazine. Founding editor John Holbo writes about this tradition, connecting to Lionel Trilling, and talks about the state of academic publishing; here’s a snippet:

Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University Press presents some numbers, which provide perspective. Average production cost of a university-press title: $25,000. Total number of copies of each title purchased by all university libraries in bygone days: 1,000. Number of copies of each title sold to all libraries in current crisis days: 200.A book that sells very well (say, 500 copies) might recoup: $10,000-$12,000. Average loss on average university-press title: $10,000+.Cost of subscription to run-of-the-mill scientific journal: $20,000. It's like a parody of a MasterCard commercial, but all of the "priceless" punch lines are so painfully obvious there's no reason to bother finishing the joke.

The upshot: university presses, once institutions of gentlemanly loss in the service of niche scholarship, have been forced to reorient themselves toward the bottom line. Scholarly criteria—most notably the process of peer review, whereby potential titles are sent out to experts in the field for vetting purposes—have ceded to market criteria. So the whole affair, especially the spending of lavish amounts of money on corporate-funded science journals, underlines the general fear about the steady encroachment of commercial interests into the sanctum of the university.

And there's a flipside: university presses are simply putting out too many titles. The number of scholarly monographs (book-length treatments of one subject, as opposed to collections or anthologies)in MLA-related fields in the year 2000 was twice what it was in1989, though by most accounts the achievements of scholarship in that time have probably not doubled. This is where the publishing crisis and the tenure crisis bleed together. Most schools require one book for tenure, which usually means one book within the first five or six years out of grad school—the same years that assistant professors have the biggest teaching loads and the smallest salaries (not to mention that they're often new parents, as Charlie[the subject of the article] is). To fulfill this book requirement, most young professors go one of two routes: they either rewrite their dissertations for publication, or they puff up one substantial journal article with some bibliographical essays and call it a book. But a dissertation is a dissertation and an article is an article and neither is a book, so their publication waters down the whole field and leads right back to the publishing crisis outlined above.

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