The Aesthetics of Publishing

There are a lot of reasons to dislike academic publishing if you are trying to write philosophy or any kind of theoretical or scholarly work. Nonetheless, it’s still the best way to disseminate work with high standards of rigorous research, intellectual accountability, and meaningful communication. A couple of the usual reasons people give for disliking the publishing industry in general are that it is too slow and, more to the point, too elitist, whereas self-publishing platforms work more efficiently and give the author more creative control. That’s far from the whole story. It fails to mention the aesthetics…and the lunchmeat.

Mainstream academic publishers, especially university presses, can be extremely slow compared with the dubiously quick pace with which self-publishing and print-on-demand (POD) platforms press out books and journals. Slowness is particularly annoying if you are trying to publish something on current events or trends. If you’re in a hurry, then self-publishing/POD platforms seem appealing. However, there are two problems here. First, if you’re writing something that is only relevant immediately, you should reconsider if it’s really worth publishing at all. Not all writings are worth publishing. If your writing is worth publishing, and you need it published immediately, the fastest way to go is to put it online. Why bother self-publishing when you can just make a pdf and share it through social media? If speed was really an issue, you wouldn’t waste time with any publishing platform. If you’re just writing to have written, an online essay counts just as much as a self-published essay. If you’re writing to produce something worth reading, try working with a publisher.

The complaint about the slowness of academic publishers uses slowness as a metonym for elitism. Why are they so slow? Slowness happens with many people reviewing and editing your work, making it fit with contemporary academic standards of communicability, originality, and relevance. That might sound elitist, like established scholars and professional editors are controlling your radical creativity and stifling your novelty. You might say, “Publishers are part of the system, the dominant paradigm, the Matrix, but my writing is critiquing the system and doing something new, so I shouldn’t let the ‘man’ tell me how to write; I’m going to self-publish.” There are a few things wrong with the accusation of elitism.

First, publishers are interested in selling books more than controlling the production of knowledge. Even academic presses with the highest standards and toughest guidelines are interested in selling books, which means they are very interested in seeing originality and creativity, which have a lot of market appeal. If a publisher doesn’t want to publish your work, it might be because what seems groundbreaking to you and your friends is actually not that groundbreaking; it’s not because the rest of the literate world is suppressing something they just don’t ‘get,’ rather, it might be because you and your friends just don’t understand the rest of the literate world.

Second, the authors on self-publishing/POD platforms are the real elitists in this equation. Self-publishing is individualistic, promoting the narcissistic elitism of the authorial ego—the author who thinks that authors (and not communities) make books. It is the elitism of the creative thinker who knows better than the vast community involved in academic publishing, saying “I don’t want to contaminate my brilliance with the diluted and deluded intelligence of mainstream academia.” You might want to make as much money as possible from your writing, keeping it all for yourself and not distributing it through a whole network of editors, designers, etc. I understand the desire for better royalties, but that’s not the way to do it. That’s like producing your own album because you don’t want to pay a producer. That sounds like a bad idea, unless of course you are an expert producer. If you’re doing it for the money, don’t. We scholars make money like musicians. It’s about live performance (teaching, workshops, tutoring), not sales from albums/books. If you’re self-publishing for the autonomy, that’s a narcissistic mistake.

One of the saddest things about POD platforms isn’t the lack of peer-review and copy-editing (although that lack is definitely a problem), it’s the aesthetics. It’s the shoddy carpentry, the lack of design. Covers, paper quality, fonts, margins, binding…everything seems a little off. Maybe you are a super-genius too advanced to get a contract with academic publishers, and maybe you’re so perfect that peer-reviewers and copy-editors are just stumbling blocks on your highway to the Truth. Nonetheless, it’s probably still worth trying to work with a publishing team anyway, if only for the sake of design: the craft of book-making, producing something worth reading. I’m frequently reminded of a comment from Ian Bogost.

Sure, self-publishing puts more apparent control in the hands of an author, but the reality of print-on-demand (POD) printing and eBooks is one of far less design control than was ever possible in offset printing. Books can be designed. POD books just get uploaded and pressed out. They are the lunchmeats of publishing. (“The Aesthetics of Philosophical Carpentry”)

2 responses to “The Aesthetics of Publishing

  • Adam Robbert

    There’s some great commentary in here, Sam. The post reminds me of a quote from the indomitable and litigious Strunk and White:

    “‘But,’ you may ask, ‘what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?’ Answer: then be one. But do not forget that what may seem like pioneering may be merely evasion, or laziness—the disinclination to submit to discipline. Writing good standard English is no cinch, and before you have managed it you will have encountered enough rough country to satisfy even the most adventurous spirit.”

    I’m glad you brought up Bogost, too. I kept thinking about him throughout the post. Somewhere he makes a distinction between self-distributing and self-publishing. We might think we’re self-publishing when we post something online, but really we’re just self-distributing, since publishing requires production, editing, design, and review. A helpful observation.

    • sam

      Thanks, Adam. Great quote! With elemental style as usual. The self-distributing/self-publishing distinction is useful. There are very few real self-publishers in that sense. William Blake comes to mind.

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