More on Publishing and Presses

I recently posted about the prestige of different publishers, and the vast difference that makes in the academic world. If you are an academic and you publish with a famous university press, that is wonderful for your career. If you go with a vanity press, that can sink your career. That division of presses also matters in defining whether a particular issue is part of mainstream debate, or way off on the disreputable fringe.

The problem in all this, though, is that some presses are very strong and reputable within particular fields, but that fact need not be known to university authorities. I can imagine a junior professor trying to argue to a department head or dean that a title with such a firm should be counted as equal in prestige to a leading university press, and struggling to make the case. Please understand, that would not be a fair situation, but I could see it happening.

Let me take a specific example. I am currently using a book that came out from Inter-Varsity Press some fifteen years ago. It is a really excellent piece of work, scholarly and well written, and IVP is a very strong and well known publisher from the evangelical point of view. Hence my surprise, recently, when I tried unsuccessfully to find a copy in the very large and wide-ranging library at Penn State University. They had other works by this author, but not that particular title. Like many major university libraries, Penn State has standing orders with certain mainstream publishers, and acquires pretty much everything they put out. That principle does not extend to well known evangelical presses like IVP, Eerdmans, Baker, Thomas Nelson, and so on. The more library budgets shrink, the harder they cut back on any presses they don’t see as absolutely core and necessary.

In itself, that decision is not disastrous for me, because if I want a copy of the book in question I can get it through inter-library loan. But the underlying attitude demands attention. These libraries are assuming that the presses in question are not fully respectable houses for academic work, they are partisan or denominational, and therefore they do not demand the same credibility as even minor university presses.

Unfortunately, the same attitude can extend to the university authorities who make decisions about tenure and promotion. That comment does not of course apply to Christian-based colleges, but it certainly can in secular institutions, especially those that define themselves as research universities. I have heard remarks from secular minded colleagues (not at Baylor!) that demonstrate serious hostility not just to religious presses, but even to presses based at religious universities. There is a lot of anti-religious sentiment out there.

That attitude is beyond absurd when you consider just how many absolutely top class authors publish in those religious outlets. In the realms of Biblical studies, theology, or Christian history (among others), these presses put out some of the most important work out there, and they also, incidentally  tend to sell far more books than university presses. In terms of the prestige of the publisher, I personally would have not a second’s hesitation about publishing with such firms. On the other hand, I am not up for tenure or promotion at a secular university, and never will be again. If I was, I would want to be sure that my superiors were entirely on board with my choice of presses.

In case you think that comment is a whine about secular institutions discriminating against religious presses, let me take an example from a completely different part of the forest. Some years ago, I had a colleague who was thinking of submitting a manuscript to Prometheus Books, an atheist/secularist label that produces some excellent titles, and attracts visible, well known authors. I don’t agree with everything they put out (no surprise there), but I recognize that these are really worthwhile contributions to debate, and I often have cause to cite Prometheus titles in my own work. This is (again) a credible, respectable press that puts out good work. But as with IVP or Eerdmans, junior scholars might potentially raise hackles by publishing there instead of at better-known university presses. That is not a comment on the nature of any of those presses, for which I have nothing but praise, but on the character of possible academic prejudices in these matters. In the Prometheus case, the hostility would not be to the ideology involved, but to what they see as its perceived status in the academic pecking order.

At a conference, I once met a doctoral student in Buddhism, whose mentor was a well known scholar in that discipline. The student’s dissertation seemed excellent, but when I asked him what he planned to do with it, he said that his mentor was putting him in touch with a popular-market oriented Buddhist/New Agey press. Now that’s a professional dilemma for me. Should I tell him outright that by taking that route, he was ensuring that the resulting book would never do him any good in the tenure and promotion process, and might do active harm? That in a a sense, he would be wasting his years of arduous dissertation work? Should I tell him that his mentor was, in this instance, a raving idiot? I tried to say as much as I could, as subtly as I could, but I have no idea if the message went through. As I did not know the mentor personally, I could not speak to him directly.

The mentor, of course, meant no harm. He knew that he himself could quite properly publish in that outlet, so why should his pupil not do so also, and make a bit of money in the process? But here is the takeaway: in these matters, very different standards apply for junior and senior scholars, for beginners and veterans.

One other gray area is worth mentioning. Everyone knows about “pay to publish” vanity presses, which are the kiss of death for anyone seeking a respectable career in writing and publishing. But what about subventions?

Let me explain that word. Assume that I have written an academic book, which has got rave reviews from first class scholars, and been accepted by a prime university press. Unfortunately, the book will be expensive to produce, especially if it has illustrations. Color illustrations can push the price up through the roof. The press asks if I can secure support to help finance production, and my university kindly agrees to kick in a couple of thousand dollars, and that is a subvention. Some publishers now openly demand such subsidies as a condition of publication. Just to take a typical example of how the system works, you can see the policy on these matters at the University of Iowa. It is sane and reasonable, and acknowledges the grim realities of the publishing world. It might also be the only way that junior faculty can actually publish and get tenure.

So everyone is happy. But, um, if I was pushing the definition, what is the difference between that practice and “paying to publish”? I have known colleagues who are deeply unhappy about such practices, which are almost obligatory in some areas, such as art history. That opposition has declined in the past few years, but debate still continues.

Anyway, my basic point remains. If you want an academic career, pay due attention to publishing decisions, and always seek out the best advice you can.



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