When is a Publication Not a Publication?
August was quite a month for me personally, precluding any blogging here – moving to Germany and adjusting to life abroad has been my primary occupation (as documented on our family blog). I’m not acclimated enough to understand German television sufficiently to blog about it (although I did learn the word Schnabeltier from my kids watching Phineas und Ferb here). I’m watching little English-language television, as it’s the summer lull – not surprisingly, both Breaking Bad and Louie are fantastic, but I want to wait until each plays out their full season before writing about them, and I have little to say about Torchwood: Miracle Day besides “meh.”
I do have some publishing news to share soon, with a really exciting edited collection I’m working on, but it’s not ready to go public yet. But I do have another publishing anecdote to relay in the name of professional transparency that’s neither exciting nor news, but speaks to some interesting facets of the state of academic publishing today, and raises some good questions about why we do things the way we do them.
Backstory: in March 2010, I was invited by a trio of scholars (whom I did not know) to contribute to an anthology about Mad Men, with the clear angle that I would be writing as a television scholar who did not particularly like the show. In corresponding with them, they were supportive of me writing about my dislike and my attempt to watch season 1 to understand and hopefully appreciate the show’s appeal. I delivered a draft of the essay in early July, and got a lot of editorial feedback that pushed the revision toward a more formally academic, less personal “bloggy” style to suit their volume. I sent in the revision at the end of the month, and also posted the piece here on my blog.
The resulting post, “On Disliking Mad Men,” has since become the most read item I’ve ever posted, with 8,400 views and counting (which is nothing special for the internet, but certainly a much larger readership than most academic essays get in a year), and 10x the number of comments I ever get here. It has been linked to by many other blogs, and inspired a lengthy and probably even more widely-read discussion at Ian Bogost’s blog. Throughout the excitement of getting a piece so widely discussed, I felt some ambivalence – the essay is far from my best work, as I found myself contorting to find an appropriate balance between bloggy snark and formal academic prose, and seek out the way to criticize something I truly dislike without judging the many people I respect (and otherwise share a taste culture with) who love the show. In working with the volume’s editors, I always maintained that it was an experimental piece rather than polished fully-realized work, but as a blog post, I remain disappointed that there are many people who have only read that single essay of mine here, rather than exploring writing that I feel is more representative (and higher quality) work. In fact, I’ve told a friend that sometimes I wish I could unpublish the piece!
Fast forward to the present, and I sort-of got my wish: this week, I received an email from one of the book’s editors, informing me that my essay would need to be cut from the volume as it goes forward to press. The reasons given were interesting –
motivated first by length issues, the press demanded that some essays be removed from the volume. (This is fairly typical for an academic book as the print medium’s physical form can create increased costs, but ideally such matters are stipulated in the contractual stage so that the press and editors share a target length upfront.) [UPDATE: I got a clarifying email from an editor saying that the length issue was not coming from the press to cut costs, but rather because the reviewers felt the volume was too long for readers. I’ve left my original comments in strikethrough just so the comments below make sense.] In trying to select which essays should be eliminated, the anonymous reviewers felt that “the volume as a whole was too critical and not enough ‘fun,'” and thus my piece (among others) was cut in the hope of making a more uniform “pro-Mad Men” book that the press believed would sell read better, despite the editors’ advocacy to retain all of the pieces. (In my experience, if a press wants to shorten a book or eliminate a piece, no amount of authorial advocacy will work if there’s a reviewer who endorses the move.) [UPDATE: Again, I misread the editor’s original comment – the goal was not sales as much as uniformity of address. The reviewers wanted the book to be less negative for tone issues, not to build sales.]
I find this news more interesting than disappointing. As I mentioned, I’m not bubbling with pride about this essay, so having it absent from a book is no great loss. There’s no real professional downside for me, as it’s not like getting another book chapter published will make a significant difference in my future promotion or salary decisions. (For those who don’t know the economics of academic publishing, the only compensation I would have gotten for having my essay included is a free copy of the book, so there’s no real financial loss.) And the piece has already been read and discussed much more broadly than it would have had it solely been published in an academic print volume which will certainly not generate 8,000+ readers in a year. (And yes, there is some strange irony in the press striving to make the book more popular by cutting a chapter that already had proven to be quite well-known, and based on a number of questions I’ve fielded, is how many people know about the forthcoming volume!)
The interesting part is what it tells us about the state of academic publishing. The thing that “counts” as a line on a CV is slow-moving and comparatively hard to access, while that which clearly is getting broadly read and cited is viewed as an optional hobby. Formal publications do systematize peer review and thus that is supposed to make a publication “count,” but while the editors gave me some excellent feedback, it seems like the official reviewers were judging the book on merits of “fun” and celebratory analysis more than typical standards of rigor. (I’ll grant that perhaps the reviewers blasted my essay’s rhetorical incoherence and tortured self-reflection, as it probably deserves, and the editors were just sparing me by focusing on the less personal pragmatic issues in their explanation.) And clearly presses make publication decisions based on marketability and cost, not just scholarly merit. But peer review is not only available via formal publication, as I think the dozens of comments on my post can be viewed as a form of review – many are quite critical, but do more than complain that I’m not fun enough!
So what is this essay now? Unlike my piece on the Veronica Mars pilot, which I pulled from a book due to the press’s open-access restrictions and will be reborn as part of my book on television narrative, my piece on Mad Men is an orphan who was bred for a very specific purpose – it’s kind-of like a custom-made monogrammed outfit that got returned because it was no longer fashionable, and thus will not sell in the outlet mall. The essay would never had been written had I not been asked to contribute – and I likely would have just kept my dislike of Mad Men simmering to myself, so that might have been preferable! While it may inform my book’s chapter on evaluation and narrative complexity, I have no desire to revisit the topic to make it part of the larger project, nor does it make any sense to submit it to a journal, as it’s clearly designed to be read in dialog with other essays on Mad Men.
I guess it will live on as a blog post, rather than blogged-draft of a forthcoming essay. But it’s also not a blog post, as I wrote (and rewrote) it in a non-bloggy voice aimed for a more exclusively academic audience, so its awkwardly contorted – or as one of my commenters wrote in all-caps, CONSTIPATED – style is left to linger in a neither here-nor-there state. And unlike nearly everything else on this blog, it’s been edited by other people, with feedback incorporated into the process rather than just my thoughts and voice – perhaps those edits are for the better, but they clearly took it in a direction away from this blog rather than toward its final resting place. But I’ve chosen to not unpublish it, if only to allow the interesting discussion to remain accessible. And hopefully, a few of the dozens of readers who still click on it each week stick around to read some of my less constipated writing.
Filed under: Academia, Media Studies, Meta-blogging, Publishing | 10 Comments
Tags: Mad Men
random thoughts from media scholar Jason Mittell
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