The Future Of Philosophy Publishing

The Future Of Philosophy Publishing July 29, 2009

Fascinating speculations from Graham Harman:

Until very recently, the mere act of getting a book published was difficult enough that it carried a certain automatic prestige, provided that you weren’t publishing with some obvious fly-by-night sort of firm or a known vanity press. But of course there was and is still a certain hierarchy among the academic publishers– to open certain doors, you have needed to go with one of the “blue blood” university presses.

All of these factors are now being swept away. I know a few people who haven’t even started graduate school yet who have just landed book deals in philosophy. This is made possible by the sudden emergence of guerrilla-type presses that can afford to gamble in the way that low-budget early recording companies like Sun and Stax were able to gamble. That isn’t possible for publishers who still have gigantic physical overhead costs; they need to be a bit more cautious. If you’re an academic publisher who has a nice big office with 15 employees, it’s simply too financially risky to publish books by high-risk newcomers who haven’t earned their academic driver’s licenses yet. But if the name of your game is risk, then that’s precisely your strategy– find promising youngsters with great ideas and take a gamble on them.

The inevitable dissemination, decrease in price, and increase in quality of Kindle-type devices will also further erode the uniqueness of books and the achievement of having published books. In not too many years we will have reached the point where literally anyone can publish a philosophy book in electronic form in a matter of minutes, even without the least trace of official academic credentials. I don’t bemoan this at all– the great era of 17th century philosophy was dominated by non-professors, and the same thing could easily happen again. As far as publishing is concerned, what it means is that all publishing is destined to become vanity publishing. (Alberto Toscano recently pointed this out to me.) You’ll just post a homemade book on line, and maybe people will download it and read it, and maybe you’ll pick up some influence.

But this means that it will no longer be publishers who vet submissions to make sure that no half-baked work hits the shelves. In the future, the half-baked, crankish, or sloppy stuff will be published just as easily as the good stuff. It will be a consensus of the community of readers that decides what is good and what is not, and the blogosphere is perhaps pioneering this new form of social quality control.

What we’re going to see is an explosion in the number and rapidity of books being published. The mere fact of being published will no longer be impressive, as it was when the presses were often stern gatekeepers. It will all boil down to how much reputation and readership you have, again similar to the blogosphere today. If you have an especial liking for a particular blogger, not only won’t you care about their c.v., in many cases you might not even think about it, whereas it always comes to mind immediately when assessing someone’s status in the university system.

My own wonder is how long there will be a need for the formalities of the journal system and long form books at all in philosophy when communication and debate of ideas can happen on a daily, real time basis across the internet instead.  The speed of debate would mean a decreased incubation and vetting time for ideas  before they get their first presentation of course.  Blogging is not peer reviewed and so blog posts or other forums for instant debate would not be of certified quality in advance.  But on the other hand in the open fluid conversation of the internet every “article” or “posting” would come with a comments section with all the challenges of other philosophers and links to other articles right there.  So, while ideas hit the net without a pre-vetting, they also come with a variety of incisive challenges right with them.

In peer reviewed situations as they currently stand you get the validation that a couple of reviewers have approved of the standards of quality but you don’t get the criticisms or praise along with the piece like blogging formats or articles with comments sections presently give you.  And this method of writing and criticizing seems to me natural for philosophy the way it is not for other fields.  In any field in which experiments are done, you need to go do your experiments and then come back with your results and publish them distinct from the process of working them out.  But philosophy research is aided by the constant dialogue between philosophers.

There is nothing but institutional inertia and the standard means of assessing academic productivity and worth which presently stops philosophers from chucking attention to writing for journals and monographs and instead jumping on the internet presenting their newest ideas and hashing them out in daily debates across blogs and advancing their discussions at a vastly accelerated pace and with an incredibly higher amount of cross-pollination.

Unless I’m missing something (and I admit to not being well-versed in all the ins and outs of academic publishing and academic assessment of scholarly activity).

See Professor Harman’s gracious efforts to criticize the above speculations in this post on his blog and my further thoughts in reply to him here.

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