Monday, February 13, 2006

Publishing without reading 

Thomas Benton:
'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,' said Samuel Johnson. And I think most professors should accept the truth of that observation, at least in our present time.

You have probably heard the saying, 'Promotion committees don't read books. They weigh them.' As a result, too many of the books published by university presses serve no purpose besides credentialing professors. But for at least 30 years, since the academic job market collapsed in the early 1970s, the relentless drumbeat of the profession has been 'publish, publish, publish,' as if we were rowing a Roman trireme. Never mind whether anyone is willing to plunk down cold, hard cash for your mandatory brilliance.

It doesn't surprise me that editors at university presses rarely respond to e-mail messages. The average inquiry from an aspiring academic author probably merits little more respect than the daily spam e-mails pushing cheap Viagra. And yet the unsolicited proposals keep coming, even as the university press budgets shrink to microscopic proportions of their former selves until they vanish out of the known universe into the world of -- I don't know -- anti-matter publishing. It surprises me that we don't hear about academic editors going postal from time to time.

As Lindsey Waters, an editor of Harvard University Press, has long argued, the current system of faculty promotion -- basically outsourcing evaluation to university press editors -- can no longer support itself without big infusions of cash that are not forthcoming, probably ever.

It's time for most us -- and I am thinking in particular of younger academics -- to abandon the genteel pose of being aloof from the sordid marketplace. We should stop acting as if we were monks, destined for a lifetime of cloistered self--denial. Or romantic poets who die penniless and forgotten in their own time, but whose genius and poignant suffering will, one day, move the world to tears.

If we are going to avoid being blockheads, we are going to have to start writing books that more people will want to buy as something besides remainders.

Source. H/T: reader jw, and thanks, because I've got a brutal head cold that makes looking at this screen quite painful right now.