I participated in a… Well, I don’t really know what it was. It was called “Five College Publishing Day” and it offered panel discussions related to academic publishing. It was described as beginning with “a roundtable discussion with editors, agents, and authors who will share their perspectives on the rapidly changing world of publishing today, followed by four sessions on different areas of publishing and writing.”

Organized primarily by the UMass Office of Faculty Development with support from Amherst College Press and other members of the Five Colleges, it brought together a range of professionals from academic presses, but also a literary agency and a non-profit independent press.

I’ve had little connection to academic publishing. As an NTT faculty member, my rewards are disconnected from publishing so it’s not something I’ve pursued professionally. I did, at one point, explore trying to translate the books by Kalle Kniivila into English and contacted two academic presses to see if they would be interested, but both declined.

In the past year, I’ve started working with Water Dragon Publishing and spent a fair amount of time exploring the current publishing market. And I was somewhat surprised to discover how utterly disconnected from Academic Publishing that world is. They call it “trade publishing” and they seem to wrinkle up their noses when they say it.

It was pretty clear that, as a non-tenure-track faculty member, I was in the wrong place. People said things like:

Where do you find the time for this? That’s when the luxury of tenure really matters.

Pawan Dhingra — Amherst College Press

and

A second book is an immense amount of work. Your first is a bit easier because you’re really just revising your doctoral work.

Olufumi Vaughan — Amherst College Press

and

We invite you onto the marketing team as a VIP member — especially for your second book because that’s the book you want to write rather than what you need to write.

Maura Roessner — University of California Press

I asked a couple of questions, both of which seemed to leave the panelists flat-footed.

There is now burgeoning world of publishing opportunities: academic and trade publishing, but also the independent and small presses that exist on a spectrum down to self-publishing. How you make the calculus on how much time spend exploring this spectrum versus making a choice to situate your work?

This question left them bewildered. I got a range of replies that were utterly disconnected from my experience in publishing. One said “Figure our your authorial identity!” Another said, “Within one’s discipline, it’s pretty clear who your peers care about.” Another said, “Schedule time to explore the space. Find ‘comp titles’.”

The responses to my second question were even funnier.

There’s a lot of discussion right now about digital media offering broader kinds of genre publication (e.g. Kindle Unlimited, Project Vella, etc.): not just novels, but novellas, novelettes, and serial publication. How do you see the market moving?

Nobody actually touched the question. One panelist wrinkled up her nose, “Fiction? We mostly don’t do fiction, but don’t dismiss university presses that may be trying to build a home for trade because they’re trying to diversify their portfolios.”

So, it was a pretty weird event from my perspective as some looking in at academic publishing from the outside. But it helped me understand the role of the academic press. To get tenure, faculty (in some disciplines) need to publish books. And the books they need to publish are mostly not books that would be profitable in the trade publishing business. So universities and non-profits subsidize this publication.

Which is not to dismiss the scholarly significance of these publications. But as someone looking at publishing from the other side, it’s pretty wild.

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