Why a book?

22Mar10

I’ve just finished the fifth and final day of the marathon Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in LA, and it was by far one of the best large-scale conferences I’ve ever been to. I attended no bad panels, and only a couple of weak papers – which is pretty rare! Either I got really lucky, my standards have dropped, or the quality of the conference was strong (let’s be generous and assume the third). And there were an equal number of panels I’d like to have attended, but for the overlapping times, various meetings and extended conversations, and the inconvenient need to eat and rest.

I presented twice at the conference. I gave a multimedia version of my essay on the pilot of Veronica Mars – the essay is available here, but I’ll have to do a fair amount of tweaking and tinkering to get the multimedia version online. The panel I put together on Poetics of Pilots with Chris Becker, Sean O’Sullivan, and Greg Smith was excellent, with many overlapping ideas (and many new terms).

My other presentation was a workshop on Digital Publishing which was well attended and led to an excellent wide-ranging discussion. Jennifer Porst and John Bridge discussed the origins and ongoing process of running the online journal Mediascape (which recently published a roundtable on genre that I participated in, if you’re so inclined). Eric Faden laid his strategy of scholarship via video essays, and what it means logistically and intellectually.

My presentation was entitled “Why a Book?” I prefaced it by warning that it was a public declaration of confusion, as I iterated the various reasons why I might want to publish my project on television narrative in either a book form or as a digital monograph. Below the fold, I’ll walk through my thoughts, and hope that anyone with ideas can help me chart a course. One caveat – the decision on how and where to publish a project is very specific to the individual’s goals, contexts, and comfort levels. I would never claim that as a generalization, publishing a book is a bad idea, but for me at this time and for this project, I’m not so sure.

So this project has been in the works since 2004, when I first started writing the first article on “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” published in The Velvet Light Trap in 2006. Since then I’ve written and published a lot on the topic, compiled on the project’s page here. The content has been widely presented and read, and I feel like I’m fairly established as a “go to guy” for TV narrative studies.

But it feels incomplete without a book in hand, as most humanities disciplines view a monograph as the proper and expected culmination of a research project. This assumed outcome has been established through decades of precedent, and has served many scholars well (including me, twice). But given the crisis in academic publishing and the possibilities of digital formats, it seems appropriate to step back and really ask “Why a Book?” Here are the reasons I came up with, and their rebuttals.

Books can be sold, and thus there is a financial incentive to publish.
Certainly it’s nice to get royalty checks for something you spent years working on. But except for textbooks (like this one!) or the rare crossover trade book, the actual return is scant. In fact, on an hourly basis, it is usually much more lucrative to read a manuscript for a press than to write one.

The book medium is the most effective way to convey and present ideas.
This is certainly true for many ideas and topics, and the long tradition of the book means that we have a lot of precedents and norms to follow. But for scholars of media that include moving images and sound, books often fall short, requiring many words to capture the effect of watching and/or listening to the object of study. With the additional possibilities of using creative editing and other production techniques to create other forms of critical commentary (as Eric Faden discussed), clearly the book has limits for some media studies projects.

Another limit of the book is its linearity – I’ve been working on this project for six years and still lack a clear sense of how it should be structured in a linear throughline. I can imagine a number of different ways to present and navigate the ideas, but a book forces you to choose one order and structure (at least as a default, as readers can choose to navigate however they like). A digital monograph enables alternate forms of structure and navigation – and even various ways to publish a book serially, offer variable versions, and revise on the fly. I may not choose to embrace all of these possibilities, but it’s nice to have options.

The academic publishing process improves scholarship through review and editing.
This can be true, and is often quite true of books that are published by academic presses. But we can separate the review and editing functions from the process of publishing a book. An academic press can work with an author to publish a digital monograph – and I’ve talked to some who are looking to do just that. Additionally, the review and editing process as it’s currently practiced can also lead to excellent manuscripts getting shelved due to marketing issues, copyright permissions, or wrongheaded and/or spiteful blind reviewers, as well as creating major delays for timely topics even in the best of circumstances. See Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s online version of her book Planned Obsolescence for much more on these and many other aspects of the academic publishing enterprise.

Books are the best way to ensure broad readership and dissemination.
One of my biggest hesitations of writing a digital monograph is that there are people who might refuse to read a long work on a screen. I believe that this attitude will dissipate as reading platforms improve and the option to read on paper becomes more rare in the wake of major shifts in publishing. But the only way to get people to read a digital monograph is to write something that people want to read.

As for dissemination, academic books are not a particularly effective way of getting ideas out there in the digital age. I can post an essay on this blog and track its readership – and some of my most highly-trafficked posts are my long essays on The Wire and Lost. The same essays have been published in books (a year or two after writing) them, and they have been far less widely distributed via print. On my blog, I can link to them when I refer to them (as can other people). And I can know that anybody with an internet connection can access them. Academic books are typically expensive and hard to find outside of academic libraries or online bookstores. And while a press can do a good job of marketing a title, they could do the same for a digital monograph.

Books are more permanent and long-lasting than digital forms.
This is probably my biggest concern. I have a shelf full of amazing Voyager CD-ROM titles from the early 1990s that I’d love to look at again, but they haven’t worked on contemporary computers for years. The presses I’ve talked to see this question of long-term access and sustainability for digital titles as a huge question mark, but just because there’s not an answer yet doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try formats and then hope to port them as systems change. Waiting for the perfect solution to future problems leads to paralysis.

Books are what “count” in the academy.
This is probably the number one issue impacting most academics. While we don’t directly make much money by publishing most books, faculty careers (at least in the humanities) are typically made by publishing books, leading to hiring, tenure, promotion, pay raises, recognition, and reputation. And while most of us do research for various reasons of curiosity, passion, and the noble aims of furthering education and knowledge, nearly all of us need to get paid and seek professional stability and recognition.

But per one of the great lessons of cultural studies, context is everything. And I’m fortunate to be well-contextualized. I have a great job with tenure, with sufficient traditional scholarship to get adequate raises, recognition, and reputation. So there’s no real personal risk for me to try an experimental way to publish my work in a non-traditional form. And if we imagine that such risky innovations are going to need to happen, then I feel some responsibility to leverage my privileged context and personal interests in digital publishing into taking a risk.

So if there are ample reasons not to pursue a book, why “not a book”? There’s a lot to gain by having it work. While the content of my television narrative project might have a little relevance within my tiny academic corner of media studies regardless of how I publish it, the form of my project could have a much greater and broader impact. If a digital monograph is successful in setting a precedent in how to convey long-form ideas in a new medium, or (more likely) fails in interesting ways that can teach lessons for future experiments, then it would be well worth my time. And if it sets a precedent by having an established academic try something new that junior scholars, tenure committees, and publishers can reference to prove the acceptability of this type of work, that would be huge, as it’s only through such precedents that innovations become accepted.

So that’s my thought process as to why I think I should publish “not a book.” But I really want to hear ideas about rationales I haven’t mentioned, thoughts about what you’d want from a digital monograph, and what types of innovations would feel worthwhile.

Update: a quick reciprocal link – fellow Wisconsin-minded blogger/scholar Kristin Thompson posted a nice discussion of the merits of book and/or blog writing today as well. Clearly something is in the air…



6 Responses to “Why a book?”

  1. Sorry I missed your panels — and especially the workshop. I think the idea of developing new forms of presentation of scholarly work is an important one.

    In response to the particular points you raise here: the problem that “Books are what ‘count’ in the academy” is a big one. I really think that academic standards regarding stuff like what counts as a publication, what counts for tenure/promotion, etc, really have to change. But institutional change in academia is very difficult to accomplish, and even in the best case it moves much more slowly than the technology does.

    The biggest problem for creating work in online/multimedia/non-book forms has to do with copyright. Fair-use is restricted much more severely for audio and video than it is for prose. When I give a talk about a movie, I can get away with showing clips from the work I am discussing (everybody does it). But embedding clips online in a discussion of a movie is much more problematic from a legal standpoint.

    Also, I think there is a question of platform. I am one of those who, as you mention above, finds it a bit fatiguing to read long texts (even accompanied by multimedia portions that could not be inserted into a physical book) online. On the other hand, I have no problem reading books on the Kindle. But of course, the Kindle is still limited to black-and-white, and is pretty much text-opnly (even still images never render well on it). So I think that really being able to present scholarship in non-book forms is still difficult. Presumably the iPad is a step in the right direction media-wise, although its closed & proprietary nature is a big problem.

  2. Nice post, a number of thoughts.

    1. I’m glad you published this here as I was following the conference from home via twitter, and the nuggets of your talk I took away from the tweets was basically, “@jmittell says don’t write a book.” I appreciate the nuance with which you present your own creative process; much as I love what twitter is doing for our little scholarly community, there is still the major limitation of brevity. I wish more of the conference work was being published like this.

    2. One of the limitations of a book is its length. Many books are longer than they need to be because you can’t publish 60 pages and get the rewards you get from publishing a book. And more and more I realize how unusual it is to read a book, especially a scholarly one, the way it seems “normal” to do, by beginning at the start and going non-stop till the end. The way we use books suggests it might be better to spend more of our energy on briefer pieces. E.g., people are always looking for items to assign students that are briefer than a book. Some people’s research might lend itself to the production of perhaps half a dozen modest-size publications clustered around a certain area or agenda. Even “long-form” works are made up of shorter portions. So when considering “not a book” I think a big part of the consideration must be considering “not a long-form manuscript” whether we’re talking about dead trees or pixels. Modular form is a good idea here — pieces that are not intended to be read in a single order.

    3. Re book as a path to “professional stability and recognition”: someone in my shoes (no tenure) is much less likely to pursue unconventional formats. But someone who does impressive work in a novel online format stands to benefit in the form of reputation for doing cutting-edge stuff, for trailblazing the digital future, etc. It’s a shame that scholars who already have a fair bit of security as you mention get an advantage here. This reminds me of the conversations about academic blogging from a few years ago. People said don’t blog before tenure (and many people still probably think this is the smart thing), but if you held off on blogging you might miss all kinds of benefits. It’s still a challenge to find ways of bringing the benefits of digital scholarly media to grad students and junior faculty without risking the negative judgment of old-fashioned types on hiring and tenure committees. This remains a huge issue when considering the future of scholarly publishing, etc., which is what Shaviro is talking about re institutional change.

    4. What do I want from a digital manuscript? All the stuff you can do on the web that you can’t do on the printed page: links, basically unlimited illustrations, embedded video and audio, comments, etc. I notice though that many academics writing for online publication aren’t great at working to make the most of the affordances of the web. Writing for online publication shouldn’t just be writing that’s published online — it should be written in a way that makes the most of the medium.

  3. 3 Jeff Jones

    Very producer-centric, little of which I necessarily disagree with (though I do think you might rethink this one: “Books are more permanent and long-lasting than digital forms”). But I am having a hard time getting past the audience issue–the fact that books are, for better or worse, increasingly anathema to my undergraduate students. Unless we are writing for scholars and graduate students, do books really make sense anymore? Maybe it is a platform or access issue, but I think it runs deeper than that.


  1. 1 Complex Television: Come Discuss My Next Book! « Just TV
  2. 2 Complex TV Launches! « Just TV
  3. 3 Blurbing and Peer Review | Just TV

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