Build It and…Will They Come?: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 4

The university thinks we’ve got a good thing going, and is going to let us go ahead with this new project? Now it’s time for the hard part.

Finding authors willing to produce new and innovative books is going to be tricky, as I mentioned before. Given the enormous role that the traditional monograph plays in HSS tenure and promotion decisions, it’s unlikely that junior or mid-career faculty are going to want to risk their future employment prospects on an unproven medium. If they aren’t sure that publishing minigraphs counts in some significant way to their next step on the career ladder, they’re not going to make an effort that could jeopardize their future. Nor, to be quite frank, should they.

Until the minigraph becomes established as a format and faculty on hiring and tenure committees understand what it is, what it is not, and how it relates to more established formats (do three minigraphs equal one book? Are two or three articles equal to one minigraph? Can any number of publications, in whatever format, ever substitute for a monograph?), the minigraph is unlikely to make much headway among faculty who might be on the job market or tenure clock. It might be an innovative format, it might fit their projects perfectly, but if only monographs get you jobs, then it’s only monographs you’ll write.

So we’ll have to look to senior faculty to establish the format and determine its meaning in the hiring process. Now, contrary to popular belief (and my own sometimes frustration), senior faculty aren’t always hidebound conservatives who would give up tweed and sherry before embracing change or challenging the status quo. Some of them can be, sure, but for every silverback who refuses to get an Internet connection or email address to send you his WordPerfect files, there’s another one who thinks that The System could use a good shakeup and, now that she never has to answer to another tenure committee ever again, she might just be in a good position to Start Something.

It’s a rare senior faculty member who has made it through decades of schooling and research without developing a few side projects, or interesting asides, or other good and worthy ideas that aren’t quite right for a monograph. Some small pet project they’ve been doing on the side, some recurring theme that keeps popping up in their research, or just an interesting idea that they’ve played with, but could never figure out how to turn it into a full-blown book. An academic life is filled with these master’s thesis length ideas and projects, ideas that will take some exposition and argumentation, but aren’t full-blown projects taking many years to produce. They’re not bad ideas or projects to be sure, nor shallow ones, just projects that don’t have a place in the current ecosystem.

So they get squashed. Or forgotten. Or padded and bloated into unneeded books. Or trimmed beyond recognition for journal articles. It’s a sad fate for good ideas, one that could have been avoided if there were just some niche that they could occupy.

Thus, we start with senior faculty. Of course, this would—purely by happenstance, mind you—have the interesting side effect of us ending up with minigraphs mostly by senior faculty, many of whom will have made a name for themselves in their fields. It’s also pretty likely that, if we’ve aligned our mission with that of our sponsoring university, many of these senior people we’ll be talking to will be well-known university faculty—again, purely by happenstance—and might be Forces to be Reckoned With within the university administration…and, because we’re actively looking to publish their work, they’ll be well disposed towards us. Heck, some of them might have important administrative roles as well. Now, I’m not suggesting we accept book proposals from the provost and university president simply to flatter them, but there are times where our interests and those of the university align. In those rare cases, the gift horse has all its teeth—please, take it!

Hopefully, a bit of their glow will rub off onto us, making our venture look like more than just “book lite,” and, we hope, those books would be “befitting a senior figure good” as well as simply short. Do this right, and we’ve got lots of well-known people who have had good experiences with their books being published quickly and efficiently, and now understand the role this new format can play in the broader scholarly ecosystem; do it poorly, and we’ve started off our new venture by hacking off  the most important and influential people in a few fields.

Of course, we’re not the only ones doing this—indeed, doing it well. As I already mentioned, most minigraphs currently being published are written by senior faculty. The trick is, I think, to make it clear that this is more than just a sideline, a dumping ground for incomplete books or short introductory texts, but rather a viable format that will have a unique place in the future scholarly ecosystem. We’re not doing inchoate ideas that should have been monographs, nor Very Short Introductions knockoffs, though there might be potential for classroom use and the trade nonfiction market. We’re doing Serious Scholarship, just in a more useful, better written, and more user-friendly form.

The other trick will be to capitalize on the expanding role of the minigraph, to introduce it to junior scholars as soon as it’s feasible, to sell them on the idea of short form publishing as part of their publishing record. While this is something that will only become possible (beyond the occasional submission here or there) once we’ve introduced the people with power over their careers to the role this new form can play in scholarly life and advancement, it’s here that the minigraph has real potential. On my reading of how things are playing out, and the opinions of faculty members revealed in the above-cited surveys, it seems that the current crop of younger academics are the ones most open, at least in principle, to embracing new and more useful publishing formats. It’s also worth mentioning that, beyond the fact that junior academics eventually become senior ones (corrupting the youth of Athens gets you Xenophon and Plato, right?), bringing mid-career and junior faculty on board will help to normalize short-form monographs, changing them from the exception to part of the rules.

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, this format used to be more common in the English-speaking world, and still is elsewhere, especially in the DACH (Deutscher Sprachraum? Deutschewelle?), where there are publishers and publishing collectives entirely devoted to this format. There’s no reason why we couldn’t make it part of Anglophone scholarly discourse.

And, for early career folk in particular, the speed with which a minigraph can be written and published is a huge advantage. I absolutely hate it when I have to remind a reviewer again that their promised review is overdue when I know that the author of the manuscript is on the tenure clock. For these authors, time is of the essence; they have to publish a certain amount of material before a certain date or the careers for which they have sacrificed so much are over. For a nervous author who needs just one more thing to move from “precarious” to “safe” when playing Tenure Roulette, or for the harried adjuncts and contingent faculty who make up an increasing majority of today’s academy and might need just that extra more-than-an-article to score the job that comes with health insurance, a multi-semester contract, and no longer being locked out of your office, a minigraph with a three to five month publication schedule might be just the thing to tip the scales in their favor.

What’s more, I’m wondering if minigraphs aren’t the natural format for revised dissertations, given some of the problems new authors typically have revising their usually excellent dissertations into fully fledged books. It’s rare that dissertations we invite for review have problems with scholarship, other than, say, missing some scholarship their Eminent Advisors didn’t keep up with. What is more common, more damning, and much harder to revise away is the dissertationvoice—the lack of coherence between sections, the bloat caused by having to appease committee members, the obscene amounts of background information included to show the committee that the author knew all that background. While there are exceptions, even the most erudite dissertations rarely revise easily. However, by imposing a good, sound prune, we might be able to force a reconceptualization of the project from unhappy written-by-committee clunker to a sleek and focused work of magisterial scholarship. I’d be willing to say that most excellent dissertations would revise or rewrite better into one or two coherent and focused minigraphs than the bloated and timid monographs they try to be.

All the above is even more true if the dissertation is “X in the work of A and F: a reconceptualization according to J principles, considered from standpoint D.” The number of dissertation titles that sound like unhappy mash-ups of whatever someone’s committee members were interested in is amazing. I’m thinking that the two completely different topics every dissertation seems to be required by law to be about would each be best served on their own, rather than kept together. In this case, the divorce will be better for the printed or digital kids, though it might get a bit messy along the way.

One final consideration, perhaps most applicable to existing publishers spinning off a new imprint or side project: why not just take existing monographs, trim the fat, and turn them into more accessible and better selling minigraphs? Milk that backlist, baby! Why bother with the convoluted, risky, and, if we’re being realistic, really difficult long-term strategy of soliciting new minigraphs and very gradually mainstreaming them? Just use what you already have!

There is something to be said for that, actually, and not just because I’ve got a book with my name on it coming out soon that’s a sort of repackaging of backlist material for a new audience. If you can edit and trim a book down for a broader or different group of people—an impenetrable tome or series into something that can actually be used as a classroom text—then you can potentially leverage the same material into two different segments of your market, one of which will boost your reputation, the other your sales. There is, of course, some risk of competing with yourself if you’re not careful—there has to be a clear and obvious difference between the two, as well as an equally clear and obvious reason (or set of reasons) why someone would choose to buy one over the other—but, with some careful editing and understanding of what each potential reader wants, you can get a minigraph for “free” without having to solicit and acquire new material. Oh, and play your cards right with the editorial committee and argue that it’s already been peer reviewed once before, and you can cut out one more time-consuming and sometimes costly step.

But, as always, there are the risks—and the lack of rewards. Condense enough books and your audience will begin to think you mercenary—and wonder what kind of bloated monographs you’ve been accepting that can be trimmed without ill effect. You also run the risk of alienating authors who say they thought about each and every word they wrote in that book (and, perhaps scarily, actually did), and aren’t going to take too kindly to you even suggesting that something else entirely could be successfully extracted from their Life’s Work. There’s also the very real risk of ending up with two monographs, one of which is short and shallow, both of which compete with each other due to improper market targeting, and neither of which sell.

However, in my opinion, what you miss out on most are the unique opportunities presented by purpose-written minigraphs and the potential to, over the long term, potentially expand the range of formats you as a publisher have to work with. I don’t just mean the admittedly optimistic—but, I think, possible—scenario above where short-form works gain traction in the scholarly ecosystem. I’ve already mentioned a couple cases where trying to force a potentially promising new idea into an existing paradigm, like a minigraph imprint into an existing rigid university press structure or open access for HSS disciplines into the current STEMcentric model, can severely curtail the potential growth and usefulness of the new venture. Why view minigraphs as “book lite,” saddling them with all the problems of monographs but none of the advantages?

We can have spry, well-written, and broadly useful minigraphs, but only if we start off trying to make them spry, well-written, and broadly useful. Sometimes, no amount of pruning will save a monograph. Sometimes, any amount of pruning will kill one.

So there is a place for them in the ecosystem, but we’ll have to build it, not find it. While I think Joseph Esposito’s notion that minigraphs are bound to certain formats (mostly electronic, mostly old content based) because the existing publishing environment doesn’t yet have a niche that would accommodate something “new” like them, I think this point is very debatable. Maybe it’s just that we have to make the niche, find a way to leverage the potential of new technologies that allow for discoverability, explain to academics how minigraphs can work for them, and show booksellers and libraries how to make use of these new materials.

There’s a fair bit of potential here, but it doesn’t fit exactly into our existing models. However, to return to where we first began back in post #1 of this series (yes, I know, all the way back there!), what started this whole thought experiment is that the existing way of doing things has to change. What we’ve been doing isn’t going to work forever, and our current paradigm is going to shift—indeed, is already shifting. This is our chance to make sure the shift takes place on terms favorable to both us and our audience, introducing a new way of doing things that satisfies the needs of university publishers, the academy, and the community of ideas. The fact that some good thing doesn’t fit our old models shouldn’t scare us. If anything, it should thrill us.

There is an opportunity here waiting for us, if only we can find the way to step away from the status quo and grasp it.

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2 thoughts on “Build It and…Will They Come?: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 4

  1. Pingback: An Exercise in Strategery: Innovation & Academic Publishing, Part 3 | Intentio Lectoris

  2. Pingback: Innovation & University Publishing | Intentio Lectoris

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