An Education for Academic Writers, Part II: Money vs. Honor

Academic books are expensive. Everybody knows this. I’ve often joked that I’m the reason your textbooks cost so much. People may laugh, but they also believe it.

It’s not true, of course.

For starters, I’m a frikkin’ intern.* I’m the reason your textbooks are so cheap. More importantly, though, is the cruel bargain we’ve all struck between the need for prestige and our love of money.

Here’s the bare and brutal fact of the matter: the books your career will be based on, the ones by which you will be judged, will not sell. Our marketing and publicity people can sell water to the drowning and Spam to vegans, but they can’t create markets that just don’t exist for your book. If you have any interest in an academic career these days, your first book will have to be of this type—a serious contribution to some part of your field, rather than, say, a textbook or a book with trade potential.** If it’s any consolation to you when you see your joke of a royalty check, we aren’t making money off of these books either.

What we are getting out of these books, however, is the same thing you are—prestige. These books are “loss leaders” for the both of us—things that, while we’d be happy to break even on our investment, the money isn’t the point. Far and away the best explanation of this concept has already been written by one of America’s best bartenders, and I highly suggest you take a moment to learn and digest everything he has to say.***

We publish your book for the same reason you wrote it. It boosts our reputation just as it boosts yours—and, if it boosts our reputation, it reflects well on our sponsoring institutions. Trust us, the university loves it when they can put out press releases about our books. Anything we can do to make them look good keeps us in their good graces. To a lesser degree, it also helps if we can get their professors or overseers**** in print; whatever helps the members of the university can and will be appropriated to help the university itself.

So Zappa’s the only one who’s only in it for the money? Well, not quite. See, there are those textbooks and trade books that we love to publish, and those can make the both of us cash. Since we’re no longer catering to libraries and your friends, we can actually do a decent print run—say, at least five times larger than what your last monograph got—and cut the price by at least half, especially if we put it in paperback. For those of you who do philosophy of mathematics (and thus can’t do arithmetic), that means we make lots more money on those. Take the audience for your last monograph and multiply it by the number of students you can force to buy your book for the class you’re teaching, and that should give you some idea of how much greater the audience is for textbooks. They do about as much for our academic reputation as they do for yours, but making money off of our books sure helps keep our cash-strapped sponsoring institutions off our backs!

So why am I writing all this, especially since I’m pretty sure I’ve said it all before? It’s because people still, despite all evidence to the contrary, think that their academic books will make them actual money.

If It Advances Your Career, You Will Not Make Money From It.

No, really. Read that sentence again. You will make no money off a scholarly book. I won’t make you print it out and nail it to the wall like I did last time, since it’s more a bit of sad news rather than a blast of cold water that should, quite frankly, make you give up on academia (and become a publisher instead!), but it’s something you should know up front.

This is the implicit and barely stated bargain we all made when we entered academia, or publishing, or the arts, or social advocacy, or anything that gives you a chance to do (or even oversee!) meaningful work that could potentially change the world. There’s a very long post in this (Trust Me), but the fact is that you must choose between contributing directly to your field and changing how humanity thinks about and interacts with the world and an indirect contribution that is essentially parasitic, even if benignly parasitic, upon the labors of other scholars but might make you some money along the way. Very, very rare are those who can have it both ways; while some (e.g. Richard Dawkins and Noam Chomsky) may seem to have worked the system in their favor, I’m not sure they’re really much known for what they got published in journals at this point. If you’re going to even glimpse the levers that could potentially lead to real world-historical revolution on the order of the Protestant Reformation, you can’t be trusted with the means to grease their rusty joints and give ’em a good hard yank.

So we accept the bargain, our names signed in blood on the dotted line next to the X. You get your pick: make a small (but potentially great) direct contribution to your field that will keep you on the tenure track, or make a contribution to spreading your field a little and making a bit of money (though, again, potentially a lot of both) that will get a sidelong look from anyone with the power to further your career. We get the same choice: enhance our reputation and keep ourselves from being shut down by the Powers that Be as a useless drain of resources and office space, or make the money we need to keep those same Powers from deciding they can’t afford to keep us around any longer, no matter how great our boost to their reputation. It’s a fine line we all walk, balancing conflicting values to get a working system. We all have to build our prestige, spread our discipline to those who want to learn, make our daily bread, and keep The Man off our backs.

Even the publishers aren’t free from this. We can’t change the laws that bind us all.

*Seriously, don’t get me started on this one. Forget doing things above an intern’s responsibility, I do things above an editorial assistant’s responsibility, as I was reminded today when the contract I negotiated with an Italian publisher arrived today at the office, addressed to me. I think I should at least get to keep the Poste Italiane stamps off the envelope…
**There are some people, like D.M. Armstrong and his Opinionated Introductions on universals and the mind-body problem, and, well, Thomas Aquinas and the Summa Theologiae, who can write textbooks that make significant and regularly cited contributions to their field—but you’re probably not Armstrong or Thomas. If you’re the former, thanks for reading, love your work, big fan, even if you’re kinda wrong. Can you sign my book, please? If you’re the latter… um… uhh… Oro pro nobis? Quid vos haec legetur? And can you rewrite that so it makes grammatical sense?
***And yes, I mean everything, especially the delicious parts.
****Every press has people it answers to; every nonprofit one has lots of them. Boards of directors, advisory councils, think tanks, ideological interest groups, political parties, funding agencies, governments, NGO’s, religious bodies, academic institutions, shareholders—hack them off and you’re shut down, but keep them happy (or even published!) and you get to live another day. Sometimes you have to rush the publication of a book your sponsor wants—but this isn’t nearly as nepotistic as it sounds. Chances are, the people who sponsor you are very, very similar to the people who read what you put out, so their demands for you to put something out are usually met with “please, anywhere but the briar patch!” protests.
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One thought on “An Education for Academic Writers, Part II: Money vs. Honor

  1. Pingback: Serving (at least!) Two Masters: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 1 | Intentio Lectoris

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