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. Continue reading

An Exercise in Strategery: Innovation & Academic Publishing, Part 3

So this is going to be an exercise in speculative strategic planning, of trying to guess what people want, at what times, under what conditions, and how we, as publishers, can satisfy these demands.

Now, this might be a bit rough—I wouldn’t recommend starting any businesses off of this or anything—and is very much me thinking out loud, more trying to think through a few issues and obstacles rather than create something I could pitch to investors or the provost.

I’m also going to take the point of view of someone primarily trying to find a viable way of publishing minigraphs in both print and electronic formats. While there are other interesting, and perhaps viable, formats for distributing academic content—ereader and tablet/mobile device applications, for instance—minigraphs have a pedigree and a sort of familiarity to our core audience that more novel media might not. If even trying to publish short books on a significant scale, rather than mostly long books on a slightly smaller scale, is a radical idea, one likely to encounter resistance and without an established place in the academy, then who knows what trying to find acceptance for these more radical formats might involve. This is a bit of a “if this works, we can try something a bit more adventurous next” exercise, a potentially workable first solution to a very real problem. Continue reading

Meet the Minigraph: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 2

That nobody much likes reading academic books isn’t exactly a shock. Study after study after really good summary has shown that about 40% of books acquired by academic libraries will never be checked out within ten years. Most people only need to read a chapter or two, and, as someone who regularly tries to read academic books as if they were books, a chapter or two is about as much of an academic book as you actually want to read. Even those that involve people getting married at crossbowpoint or seduced and abandoned by double-dealing barons can turn into poorly written and dreary forced marches.

Monographs are long. They’re expensive. They’re on on obscure topics. They’re badly written. They take forever to publish. They take in too many topics, as opposed to the one you need. They force you to spend 300 pages on something that would be better served by 100. They’re like my blog posts, but somehow worse.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this, of course. I’m not even the only one who would really like there to be a solution. A possible answer (or, more likely, part of the answer), and one that really excites me, is the short-form monograph, or “minigraph.” Continue reading

Serving (at least!) Two Masters: Innovation & University Publishing, Part 1

Sometimes, the blogfodder arrives all at once—and if you’re lucky, it arrives during the Press’s slow summer season. Wouldn’t you know it, but I’ve been very lucky indeed.

University presses everywhere, I’ve been told, are in crisis. Revenues are declining, nobody is reading our books, libraries are spending more of their shrinking budgets on science/technology/engineering/medical (STEM) journals than humanities/social science (HSS) books, print is dead, the tenure track is dead, and the university’s catering services didn’t provide enough coffee to your last editorial committee meeting. And the fact of the matter is, almost all of those are true (except for the last one—we order extra!), or, in the case of the death of print, are at least “common knowledge.”

Not everyone buys this crisis—or, at the very least, buys that it necessarily means the death of the university press. Continue reading

Rather than writing…it’s Hegeltime

Yes, I know I’ve been bad about writing lately. No, it’s not just because I’ve been busy (though that’s part of it), much as I’d like to blame it on that; mostly, it’s because I keep starting posts and then deleting them (there’s a really good one on philosophy, bicycling, and unfriendly motorists who pass inches away from you to make a point that just needs me to find the right words that aren’t too inflammatory that I must have redrafted four times by now, and have been thinking about since a ride in November), and, well, I’ve been reading Hegel.

Yes, Hegel. Why? Because I can. Continue reading

Book Advice from a Nonexistent Bookstore

Now that Newman Books is closed, DC doesn’t have a really good philosophy/theology bookshop. Okay, granted, Newman’s selection could be pretty spotty at times,* and Kramerbooks can be surprisingly good,** but that’s beside the point for those of us who want our critical Latin editions of Ockham and Scotus, 5 different translations of Augustine, more stuff on the Reformation than most stores devote to religion, or a whole section on Aquinas. We want our bookstore, complete with people who know a critical edition from a public domain Latin version. It’s something you just can’t get from Amazon—well, along with the feeling you get from not sending money to Satan’s minions—and will be sorely missed.

But. But! I’m gonna give you the next best thing: a series of lists (what is this, Buzzfeed?) of books worth reading on any number of philosophical*** topics, complete with caveats, explanations, and my own opinions, which are completely right and you should never question ever because they’re right. Some of these are syllabi for imagined courses I’ll never get to teach, but have always wanted to—a few of them I’ve been developing since reading Plato’s Republic, scarily enough—while others are just “look, don’t read bad translations like I did, try these instead.” It’s advice I’d give to hypothetical customers or students, written up in a big ol’ binder at the front of the store that you could whack me over the head with when you disagreed with something I said.

You don’t get the binder, but you do get my opinions. Sorry ’bout that. Continue reading

High Art, Good Art, & Bad Ideas

Context, if you want it: a recent article in The Stone, the NYT’s philosophy blog that Brian Leiter likes to mock. The position, if you want it: some forms of art/music/etc. are superior to others, with classical music, for instance, being superior to pop music.

My views, if you want them: sure, there’s good art and bad art. There’s also a whole lot of complications that philosophers of art, especially those who think you can make simple divisions between high culture (the kind academics like and participate in) and low culture (the kind they look down on, or study in “studies” departments) with impunity. Continue reading

What’s the Great Scholastic Novel?

Yes, another aside at the beginning of a post, but, thanks to a very nice reference from The Smithy, home of other fans of John Duns the Subtle, ye olde humble blogge’s visitor counter’s pretty much exploded. Seriously, I’ve gotten almost as many people visiting in the last three days as I’ve ever gotten in a month around here. Thanks for visiting, y’alls!

Why aren’t there any great novels written from a Scholastic viewpoint? For that matter, how many truly great works of literature that weren’t written by Dante can those of you who don’t study the middle ages name that explicitly follow a Scholastic worldview? Heck, what about the great Stoic novel? Sure, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations aren’t poorly written at all, but really, what great play, poem, or book follows a Stoic worldview, rather than explicitly espousing one?* It seems that you can’t be an existentialist without writing novels (Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir were all pretty dang good novelists), and postmodern nihilism, especially of the “there is no truth—which should really scare you” postwar variety, produced any number of temporally disjointed and bone-crushingly dense black comedies. The Greek aristocratic ideal gave us some of the greatest epic poetry and drama the world has ever known, while postwar Japanese novelists infuse their works with Zen Buddhism’s unique wabi-sabi aesthetic, and Romanticism and German Idealism gave us a flood of great poetry. Heck, even Puritanism has produced great novels—according to at least one argument I’ve read, all of them.** So where’s the great stuff involving the nuances of virtue ethics, natural ends, and hylomorphism? Continue reading

Philosopher Shaming!

Time for some philosopher shaming.  Things I actually and truly believe, but know I probably shouldn’t:

  • There is no way we can have anything worth calling knowledge of objective scientific truths.  This shouldn’t bother us, though.
  • We can have knowledge of moral truths.  It may be that it’s not that hard to know what they are, even; it’s just that, since they make inconvenient demands of us, we choose to act like we don’t know them.
  • I studied Thomas Aquinas mostly because I thought he was respectable and Blaise Pascal wasn’t.
  • I really, really dislike reading Aquinas, and I don’t think burnout explains all of why.
  • Thomas Hobbes is nowhere near as shocking, modern, or cool as Marsilius of Padua once you understand the latter’s philosophical context.  Seriously, writing a work in the middle ages without a lengthy discussion of human nature or happiness?  If that doesn’t start ringing all sorts of alarm bells, you evidently didn’t spend way too much time studying Scholastic political philosophy.
  • Basically, Kant was right.
  • John Duns Scotus may just be the most brilliant person who wrote during the 12oo’s.  That’s saying a lot.
  • Realizing I’ve always had sympathies with French continental philosophy was . . . well, I still feel kinda dirty about it.  Also that I should have saved it for 11 October.
  • I sometimes read feminist philosophy just for the great titles.
  • The more Aristotle I read, the more I’m convinced he’s the third most overrated philosopher ever.  One and two are Berkley and Lacan, by the way.
  • On Tuesdays, I think David K. Lewis was right.

Book Design and Philosophy

Last week, our press kinda cleaned up at the Washington Book Publishers’ annual design and effectiveness awards.  Three of our books won prizes,* two of which were first place awards.  Seeing as we compete in the most competitive category here in DC,** that’s no small feat.

Kudos to our people.  They do good schtuff.

We’ve already dealt with good/bad/ugly covers, but what makes the body and text of a philosophy book well-designed—or, more to the point, what are the unique challenges that philosophy books pose to designers, and what are the best ways to address them? Continue reading

Beating Our Audience to the Punch: Emeriti and Publishing

The conundrum: we academic publishers want to use ebooks and/or print-on-demand for our titles that would otherwise be removed from print and remaindered, but the technology isn’t yet ready and our audience sees these as signs of the Apocalypse.

Really, how do you get a 78-year-old emeritus professor who misses his typewriter to embrace ebooks? Continue reading