Anatomy of an Unpublished Chapter

02Jun10

The following post is only tangentially about television, being about the state of academic publishing as seen through the lens of one essay of mine (which happens to be about the television show Veronica Mars). So if you read this blog primarily for television thoughts and are not interested in the politics of academic publishing in the digital age, you might not want to click through…

When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, I got very little mentoring on the mechanics of academic publishing. Basically, our mandate was to try to publish essays in well-regarded journals, anthologies with reputable editors, and eventually turn our dissertations into books. I learned a lot about the editorial process as an editor on the graduate student-run journal The Velvet Light Trap, but I never got any advice about the nitty-gritty of publishing contracts until quite late in my graduate career. I was a participant in a national seminar for doctoral candidates, where I got the chance to work with a few senior faculty for a long weekend.

One of these faculty members – let’s call him Mentor X – told a few of us over beers one night about his strategy in dealing with publishing contracts. Typically, once an article has been accepted, you get a contract from the press (often via email now) to sign and return. These contracts are generally fairly boilerplate, and structured around a set of imbalances – the author agrees to give over all rights (including copyright) to the publisher for no remuneration aside from a free copy of the journal or anthology. Mentor X said that he objected to forfeiting his copyright, and would regularly ignore the contract for as long as he could. Eventually the publisher would demand that the contract be signed, at which point he would send back an amended contract that retained copyright in his name, while granting the press the exclusive right to print the article in journal form. Because the production process would generally be so far along, presses would typically acquiesce with minimal protest.

This strategy has been in the back of my mind for years – in my early days as a junior faculty, it would be too risky to play a game of chicken with a press, as the credential of publishing an article or book chapter would be too valuable to risk. Likewise, I did not insist that I retain copyright for my first book, allowing Routledge to copyright it in the press’s name. In recent years, I have more actively advocated for retaining copyright, both because the risk decreased as each individual publication became less important as my CV grew, but also because issues of copyright and open access became more vital within my teaching, reading, and the larger academic community. Since then, I’ve regularly made two requests of presses in publishing articles: that I retain copyright in my name, and that I be allowed to post a pre-publication draft on this blog. I’ve never had any real resistance from presses… until now.

A few years ago I proposed writing an essay about the Veronica Mars pilot for an edited collection about the series. After a number of delays – both from me and in the editorial process – I finally finished the essay and it was accepted into the anthology by editors Sue Turnbull and Rhonda Wilcox. The book was set to be published by McFarland, and this past winter the final edits were complete and I was asked to sign the contract for my chapter. I made my standard requests, asking for copyright in my name and that the already-posted blog version be exempted from the press’s exclusive rights. McFarland refused my requests, and also refused to communicate directly with me, channeling all interactions with the editors and thus creating an awkward situation for the two editors who were trying to advocate for both their book and their authors. McFarland specifically required that I remove the blog version of the essay from the internet (as if that could be done!) for two years after the book comes out.

Since the press refused to negotiate on my requests, I was forced to either sign their standard-issue contract, containing restrictions and terms that I disagreed with, or pull my piece out of an anthology that I wanted to be in. I chose the latter with some regret, primarily because I appreciated the feedback I’d received from the editors and wanted to help them publish a book with a strong line-up of essays. The actual benefit I would have gained by placing the essay in the book was minimal – getting another line on my CV adds little to my career or compensation, and I will certainly use a good bit of the essay in my ongoing not-a-book on television narrative. My priority is to get to my work read, not published, and the blog version of the essay has been viewed (if not read) over 2,000 times according to my blog stats – I have no doubt that more people will read it here than would have ever seen it as part of the anthology (yes, academic publishing has miniscule circulation numbers).

What was most frustrating is how this process speaks to the structural problems and conflicting perspectives within academic publishing, a topic I hope that graduate students today a better aware of than I was. Academic presses in the humanities are certainly not highly-profitable ventures – to stay afloat, commercial presses like McFarland publish books with low production costs, little-to-no authorial compensation, and sell to a contracting market of academic libraries. They claimed that having a draft of my essay freely available online would depress demand for the book, making it less likely for libraries to purchase the volume. To me that speaks to a very limited conception of publishing today – whenever I publish a book chapter that I’ve posted previous on my blog, I link to the Amazon page for the book. The link for the volume Reading LOST has been clicked over 100 times – while certainly not all of these resulted in sales, I cannot imagine that the net effect of having my essay more widely known and accessible, with a promotional link to the book, would be to curtail sales. There are many examples of authors seeing strong sales despite making their work available for free online. McFarland’s mindset of restricted access – and seeming inability to adapt to pressures toward open access and flexible models of distribution – seems to be a relic that will hopefully disappear soon in the face of authors pushing back.

And I believe that this push-back needs to happen in public. In writing this post, I want to help shine a light on the typically obscured processes of academic publishing, and encourage other scholars to resist signing a contract without considering the implications and requesting revisions as needed. I also think people should publicly discuss which presses are open and accommodating to author rights – in my own experience, I’d praise Oxford UP, MIT Press, NYU Press, and I.B. Tauris – and which ones are restrictive and inflexible. I’ve talked with a few colleagues about starting a website for authors to post anonymous (but authenticated) reviews of presses from the perspective of authors, but the logistics and time it would take have proved too daunting as of yet. But for those of us with secure academic positions, and the bully pulpit of a blog, we should do what Mentor X did for me over a decade ago, but more broadly and publicly.

Just to be clear, I encourage readers and libraries to order Investigating Veronica Mars once it is released, as I believe the editors put together a good volume – I wouldn’t want to put pressure on a press on the retail side if it means reducing access to scholarship. But we can put pressure via the supply side, refusing to provide the often uncompensated labor of authorship to presses who are not willing to meet reasonable requests, or even have the decency to engage in a conversation. So while I’d never encourage my library to boycott McFarland titles, I won’t be publishing with them until they change their policies. And I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with presses around these issues, and see suggestions on what else academics can do to make publishing better serve our interests.

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21 Responses to “Anatomy of an Unpublished Chapter”

  1. What an interesting, honest, and direct post. You write, “My priority is to get to my work read, not published…” While I’d like to say that this is my goal as well, it’s just not that simple, is it? At least not for VAPs (like me), adjuncts, grad students, and any other non-tenure track people out there…

    • 100% true – from where I sit on the other side of tenure, priorities shift. I do hope that as tendencies & priorities change in publishing for people who can afford to take risks, say no, etc., it helps non-tenured scholars to have their rights strengthened and choices validated.

    • Actually, I think adjunct faculty (and by extension non-tenure-track full-time teachers) are in pretty much the same situation as Jason (well, not in terms of reputation or income but :) [And I'm clearly talking adjunct not as a stepping stone to better things but as a career non-choice so to speak.]

      Anyway, Jason and I’ve talked about this before where he and I have weirdly gotten to a similar place where publications seem like the thing we must do (because years if not decades of academic indoctrination are hard to escape) but when thinking about it, we really do not.

      Oddly enough, I agree 100% with Jason on the fact that we should share our musings and academic thoughts and scholarship online and freely even as I’ve become more rather than less protective of ideas. or, rather, I’ve learned that thoughts that get posted in the woods may indeed not make a sound, and I’m beginning to want to publish my ideas simply to have them be out there and be seen and read and discussed.

      I’m not sure what the best way is, but (*obligatory plug for TWC*) I think our model of CC copyright and Open Access while at the same time retaining peer review and quality control may be a way to walk the fine line between published works hiding behind library password protection and book costs on the one hand and lingering on the unread fringes of an ever increasing information surplus online…

      • Definitely Open Access journals & CC licenses are ideal. I’m to the point that I have no interest publishing in a traditional closed access print journal, and thus journals like TWC or Particip@tions are much better for allowing broad audiences to read the work (especially under-employed scholars who may have erratic library access). I still like the model of the edited anthology, so ideally presses and editors can push for open-access variants or online mirrors of anthologies (like with the excellent First Person anthology for MIT Press).

      • 5 Mark S

        I find it interesting that you suggest that once a certain level of experience is reached within a university structure (or a certain level of superiority in the hierarchy, perhaps), that publications are not necessarily needed.

        I’m still viewing the “employed-side” of colleges/universities from the outside, and it may be very different in different locales, but I believe that locally, funding for each department is very dependent on the PBRF – the Performance-based Research Fund. Basically, it is the academic’s responsibility to publish as much as they can in as well-regarded a publication as possible, as otherwise the departmental funding falls.

        I’m not sure that I have 100% understood this correctly, but from having talked to a few people, this model seems to be similar in NZ, Australia and the UK…

      • Mark – I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t matter whether I publish, but single book chapters make little difference (especially as I’m also publishing other things regularly). The performance-based model you mention might adhere in other countries, but not in most US contexts – I teach at a liberal arts college where departmental budgets are certainly not directly tied to research outcomes. The result, for me at least, is that I have flexibility to be innovative in where and what I publish without the pressure to accumulate quantity of publications.

  2. Ah, McFarland! I have published three books with them. I love them because they let me do what I want, for I am a mad control freak. (I do all my own copyediting and production work.) And they are a crucially important press in the SF market, filling an important niche.

    They are indeed a stickler for the paperwork. They may be far more amenable to thinking outside the box on a solely authored book; were I the editor of your volume, I would have told you the copyright terms up front and if you didn’t agree, you wouldn’t have signed on; it’s much easier (MUCH MUCH EASIER) to have all the essays in a volume under the same copyright. It’s really evil to pull out at the last minute like that, and I feel for all the parties involved. Editing books is hard; the attrition from interest to receipt to revision is probably 20%, and every essay is precious.

    McFarland has granted me permission, for the two edited volumes I’ve done with them, to print full text of abstracts. This is one reason I require abstracts to be included in the books I edit: they can be freeee! on the Internet, full text searchable, and everyone can figure out if they actually want to read the essay. I have no idea why journals in the humanities in particular haven’t figured this one out and put them up on their Web sites, but journals are big with the closed content also.

    I just don’t get it. Why do people think that something being available for free will cut into sales? There is so much evidence to the contrary.

    On a perhaps related note, I am thinking about writing a short textbook and making it available as Kindle (for, like, $2.99), POD, and probably some other sources I haven’t thought about yet, and seeing how it does, so I would control the entire writing, production, and publishing process. I’ve read many sources that say that even if something is available for free, people will pay a minimal amount for sheer convenience. The trick is to monetize it.

    • Agreed that ideally all the rights should be clarified and negotiated upfront, but such matters typically come through late in the process. Glad to hear that McFarland’s strengths match certain needs!

      As for the idea of self-publishing via eBooks, I think it’s totally feasible, especially if your goal is readership and perhaps “monetization” over institutional credit for a refereed publication. And if you come up with an effective model, the impact might be greater in terms of form rather than content.

  3. 9 Mark S

    As a grad student who knows he is going to have to look at publishing something within the next year or so, I found this post fascinating.

    I fully support the idea of putting together some sort of list of which publishing houses are prepared to be flexible with regards to contracts and which are not. Not at all for any sort of boycott purposes, but just so that younger academic hopefuls such as myself have some idea of with whom we might have better hopes of reaching an amicable arrangement.

    • The problem with such a list is that it would only tell you what they did for one person in one situation. Witness the differences between Karen and Jason’s experiences with McFarland. My experience is that presses operate very differently depending upon who they’re dealing with and how excited they are about the project (and sometimes who the individual is with whom you’re dealing). Which isn’t to say something like this wouldn’t be helpful, since it could still show a range of what’s possible and what’s isn’t, but all reports would need to be read with a really large grain of salt.

      The key advice I’d give to anyone is to talk to everyone you know who has published. These stories can always be better contextualized when you know the teller, his or her idiosyncracies, and the quality of his or her work. And not just about copyright, of course.

      • Agreed that any system like this would be a collection of anecdotes rather than a definitive take on a press. Yet that’s what happens now through the far more idiosyncratic method of networking (albeit with the context that Jonathan alludes to, which helps but also limits access to the information). Ideally, you’d have a robust enough site to gather many individual perspectives on a press such that they start to point to a pattern – or that one unusual comment becomes clearly marked as an outlier. I wouldn’t want a blacklist / whitelist situation, but rather a range of perspectives (think Amazon reviews).

        A problem with the current system of word-of-mouth is that publishers are rarely held accountable for how they treat their authors, as faculty/grad students often need the publications more than the press needs authors. If the system were more transparent, at least authors could weigh the factors more in choosing where to submit and could raise concerns like the ones I encountered earlier in the process.

  4. Fascinating story; thanks for sharing it (and naming some names along the way!).

    I totally agree that the tangled knot of publications and academic careers has to be addressed, and that more public awareness (and maybe shaming) of the issues and problems would be a key place to start. However, as Karen and Jonathan point out, so much of this relationship is ad hoc, depending on all sorts of factors. There are different assumptions and standards at publishers, within fields, in tenure & promotion criteria, in different countries and academic systems, etc. There are also differences within publishers, as I (and many other Wiley-Blackwell authors) have recently discovered, as corporate directives clash with editors’ ideas and relationships with authors and fields.

    We need to develop greater clarity about these issues moving forward. Do we still want publishers? If so, then we need to figure out how to help them survive and evolve while still securing our individual copyrights. If we don’t want publishers any more, than we need to quickly develop alternative models of peer review. There are intriguing developments on both of these fronts these days, but I’m not certain we’ve really worked out the differences between them. Ideally, we should be work for a system that keeps publishing (as a general practice) viable, while loosening its hold on academic careers.

    • As someone employed in the publishing industry, I have to say that trusting authors with copyright is really a bad idea. Most won’t know to use CC or to release copyright altogether, and they tend to just drop off the face of the planet. As an *author,* I personally would prefer to retain copyright so I could release it after 10 or 15 years.

      I am marginally sympathetic to the publishers, because I work for them and I see what tragic messes authors cause behind the scenes. At least if publishers hold copyright, they can, on a wholesale level, repurpose material (create an e-book edition, for example).

      This post on io9 really spoke to me: what if authors could, on an individual level, withhold their stuff and lock it down? Because that is what will happen if publishers release their deathlike grip. At least their restrictive behavior has resulted in some form of conformity that permits later reuse.

      http://io9.com/5501426/5-ways-the-google-book-settlement-will-change-the-future-of-reading

      I would advocate for transparency. Jason’s mentor was actually being really evil by having an opinion about copyright and withholding it until the last minute. I would say he was acting in bad faith, not engaging in clever negotiating tactics.

      We’re not all Lawrence Lessig and can get an awesome, prestigious publisher to publish books available for free on the Internet and with CC licenses, but if you want that to be part of the future, authors need to start advocating for themselves up front and not playing little mind games behind the scenes. It’s unprofessional and not good for anybody.

      I really do think that if you develop a relationship with a publisher and want to try a new model of publishing, they might be amenable. Then you might get something awesome like O’Reilly’s model:

      http://creativecommons.org/projects/founderscopyright/oreilly

      I’m advocating for partnerships with established publishers to push them into a new era, because publishers are currently an entrenched mode of dissemination and quality control, and because publications play a crucial role in tenure and promotion in the academic world. But academic publishers are the tools of others: academics, not publishers, write and vet the content. We just have to figure out how to wield that tool.

  5. Interesting post, Jason. And it led me to check the copyright on TELEVISION AND AMERICAN CULTURE. I was quite surprised to see that Oxford UP allowed you to retain copyright on it!

    I think I expected that a book primarily designed as a textbook (rather than a scholarly monograph) would always have the copyright held by the publisher. But the more I think about it, the more I have to wonder why that would be the case. It’s not like publishers of your book or my own textbook were responsible for creating the illustrations (or, of course, the text).

    I wish I’d read your post 17 years ago when I was negotiating the contract for the first edition of TELEVISION: CRITICAL METHODS AND APPLICATIONS. If I had thought then to retain the copyright I would not have had to go through the hassle of forcing the original publisher (Wadsworth) to OFFICIALLY declare it out of print months after they had stopped printing/marketing it. I was able, eventually, to get the copyright back and then to sell the book to another publisher, but, again, I didn’t think to hold onto that copyright when I signed with Erlbaum!

  6. Are you familiar with SHERPA/RoMEO? http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/ It lets you look up journals (and publishers) to find out what their status on open access publishing it.

    Thanks for fighting the good fight.


  1. 1 Digital Culture Links: June 3rd 2010 « Tama Leaver dot Net
  2. 2 My Copyfight | PomeRantz
  3. 3 When is a Publication Not a Publication? « Just TV
  4. 4 Birthday Blogging « Just TV
  5. 5 An idea for open access self-declaration « Just TV
  6. 6 Complex TV: Beginnings « Just TV

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