Time to crush the hopes and dreams of many a publishing pundit: just because it’s in an electronic format doesn’t mean it’s cheap to produce—or that you can/should skip the publisher and go straight to dissemination. This one will probably hack off half my twitter feed—it aims straight at the core of at least a few of the assumptions behind open access publishing—but the assumption that publishing houses do nothing but slap someone’s text on paper is wronger than a wrong thing that’s wrong.
Of course, the big reason why is that most publishers have absolutely nothing to do with printing, at least, not directly. Like just about everything else people think an editor or publisher does,* this is outsourced to someone in another state. A small press like ours could never even begin to afford the massive amount of space, staff, and equipment needed to print books, even for the generally small runs we do. While we may select the printer for an individual title and give them instructions, the actual craft of making a book isn’t something we have anything to do with.
And no, printing on paper isn’t free. Yes, there is a certain cost for paper, book cloth, ink, and labor. The thing is, though, that’s not where most of the costs in publishing your book come from—which means that, even if we were to eliminate all production costs, your book still wouldn’t be free. There are still the eight people at the press with their advanced degrees who need to eat, along with the cadre of interns who have to . . . well, do whatever it is that interns do. True, some of these people, especially at a larger press, won’t have anything to do with your particular book, but there will be a set of them, from the acquisitions editor and his interns to the marketing manager and her assistant, who shepherd your book through its life, from birth to . . . um, marriage?*
So why not just skip the process, cut out the middleman, and put your completed manuscript out on the Internet in PDF format for all to read, letting the marketplace of ideas decide its value post hoc rather than rely on the odd and expensive process of peer review? Short answer: not only is your manuscript not ready for public viewing yet, no matter how good you think it is, but manuscripts and PDF’s are not books. No, not even e-books. Sure, the intern doesn’t reject many manuscripts for being bad, but peer reviewers do (which sucks), as does the editorial committee (which sucks more). Everyone who has spent any time in academia or academic publishing has stories of what happens when an author sees the anonymous peer reviews of their Precious and Brilliant Manuscript. Some take the criticism and suggestions in stride and improve their style and argument. Some get pouty and run off to another press in a huff, one that will appreciate their unique brilliance. Others take the time to trash the reviewer, making it extremely clear that whoever dared question their argument or make suggestions is clearly of inferior intelligence and probably a young fashion-following whippersnapper to boot. If you’re an editor of any stripe, you don’t even get the cover of anonymity. Authors don’t always like to hear that their manuscript needs work, sometimes very serious work. Of course, those of us reading these manuscripts can very clearly see that it needs a good going over by an independent eye and some rather significant changes made to the body of the work to take it from manuscript or dissertation to full-blown scholarly book.
This is the first important service publishers provide: we save authors from themselves. Yes, academics are bright people, but Trust Me On This One, lots of them can’t write their ways out of paper bags, and very few indeed know jack diddly about how to turn a manuscript into something fit for public distribution. That’s okay, though—academics shouldn’t have to know how to be a good publisher of their own works, since someone at a publishing house will. However, if we replace peer review with the marketplace of ideas, suddenly everyone is forced to be a peer reviewer, and not even getting the stipend and/or books as a bribe to do it. There’s a big difference between what gets submitted and what gets published after peer review. Chapters get added, halves of books get spun off into separate projects, whole lines of argument change, someone actually hires a freelance copy editor to go over that hellaciously bad prose . . . Honestly, the idea that academic discourse and publishing ought to stop at the unpolished pre-review stage before going straight to promulgation is counterproductive—who really wants to work with all that unrefined dross?—and a bit naïve. Much as many academics like to think that, having written lots of things and made lots of arguments, they’re good at writing and arguing, anyone who’s read manuscripts for review* knows otherwise.
The other thing presses do that often gets overlooked is marketing. No, your book will not sell itself on its own merits. No, it is not dishonest to make sure people know it exists. Quite frankly, if nobody knows about your book, we wasted our time publishing it, and, to some extent, you wasted yours writing it. If we took a risk publishing your book, staking our financial solvency and reputation on it, then we want everyone to find out about it, especially those people who would be interested in whatever geeky-but-cool subject you worked on. Having your book widely read serves not only you, but also scholarship in your area (remember, we wouldn’t publish it if our peer reviewers didn’t think it was a good book that added something to the field), and, quite frankly, us. Our reputation is helped by having your polished and refined work in people’s hands and bibliographies; if our reputation grows, you and your book look better. Put your manuscript on the unmoderated Internet, and you get 4chan as your peer, and 7,396 plagiarized essays on Plato’s Republic coming up before your book. Publishers have people who make sure that solid works of scholarship make their way to scholars, rather than dying in the wastes of cyberspace.
So all these things that publishers do that have nothing to do with putting ink on paper. Yes, even ebooks will incur these costs. What you don’t hear about is that typesetting and layout for ebooks isn’t exactly cheap and easy. Sure you don’t have to pay for paper and such, but ebook conversion is a major pain in the butt—each ereader uses its own format, they each have a unique screen size that must be respected, and let’s not even go into the copyright issues involved. If you ever want to hear a good whinge, go chat up a medium-sized academic publisher’s ebook conversion overseer. Oh, and when has it ever been free for anyone to store large amounts of data on a server that saw regular downloads? Suddenly, the free ebook lunch isn’t free any longer.
Which is not to say that there aren’t issues with publishing, especially academic journals, being too @#$% expensive for individuals and libraries to access. It’s just that putting things on the Internet and hoping for God to sort the dead isn’t a viable solution.