Valedictory Presidential Talk
Director, Pennsylvania State University Press
The theme of my talk last year was the need for thinking systematically if universities are to figure out a way forward with scholarly communication that makes sense for all the players involved—students, faculty, libraries, presses, and administrators. Too often in recent years proposals have been put forward under the guise of being solutions to problems in the system when they actually represent only the interests of one or another sector of higher education, and the inevitable result is the exacerbation of tensions and imbalances and the creation of new problems somewhere else in the system. I gave as examples afflicting the system currently the “one size fits all” mentality that often is evidenced in proposals for open access and the self-defeating nature of the way revised dissertations are treated in different parts of the system by libraries, presses, and tenure-and-promotion committees. These problems remain acute today, and in the open-access debate we see the same mentality manifesting itself in the proliferating proposals and mandates for an author’s addendum to publishing contracts, most recently at Harvard.
This year I’d like to emphasize a complementary theme: self-help. In a way, this is a term that can be used to summarize what AAUP’s mission is all about. What is perhaps most distinctive about AAUP as a trade association is the work that is done by volunteers from presses serving on its Board of Directors and a host of committees. Let me pause here to thank all those who ably served on those committees during the past year and especially their chairs: Mike Bieker, Jane Bunker, Holly Carver, Philip Cercone, Steve Cohn, Alan Harvey, Roger Hubbs, Mahinder Kingra, Will Powers, Clydette Wantland, Vicky Wells. Would they all please stand and accept a round of applause? Their work, of course, would not be nearly as effective without the able support of the AAUP Central Office staff, whom I would ask to stand now and accept our thanks also. I think every president of this association comes away from the experience realizing how important this spirit of cooperation is to the achievements of the AAUP. As a drummer about to play again in a couple of weeks for a limited engagement with a classic rock band, I am reminded of that Beatles classic “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which became a theme of Woodstock also just about 40 years ago when Joe Cocker sang a different version of it there, as memorialized in the documentary about that defining moment of the sixties. An association president also realizes how important is the support that comes from his or her spouse, and here I offer my special thanks to my wife Robin for her indulgence of my taking on this role so close to my retirement (in exchange, I might add, for her getting to decide where we retire—”somewhere warm near water” has been her refrain).
Examples from the past of self-help include the pioneering efforts of presses, led by Princeton’s Herbert Bailey, to wean publishers away from dependency on acidic paper and to adopt more environmental friendly practices, which are continued today by our Eco Task Force led by Julie Fauci, now a subcommittee of our Design and Production Committee. Another is the initiative that the Johns Hopkins University Press under Jack Goellner began in 1995 in cooperation with the university library to help presses too small to afford the requisite capital investment themselves to make the transition to electronic publishing of journals. Michael Jensen, then at Hopkins, and Penn State’s former journals manager Sue Lewis whom Hopkins had hired were the original co-directors of this venture, which we all know today as Project Muse. Still another, even more recent, was the initiative launched soon after 9/11 to create what has become the very successful Books for Understanding, which I am proud to have made a contribution to getting off the ground and which Brenna McLaughlin has done such a terrific job implementing.
Many of you by now have heard of another project I started just a couple of months ago in response to the cutbacks by newspapers of book reviews. It began with a symposium held at Penn State last October about the future of arts coverage in newspapers, and I gave a presentation on the sad state of current book reviewing, which had become a topic of concern once again in the wake of the Atlanta Journal Constitution‘s firing of its longtime and much respected book review editor, which many of us participated in protesting. All of you publicists in this room are well aware of how high the odds are against getting your presses’ trade-discounted books, let alone any others, reviewed in the major media like the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, and the competition is fierce for review coverage in even more specialized general media like the Atlantic, the Chronicle Review, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. Yet our presses continue to put out a wealth of books that have the potential to interest people well beyond the academy who, unfortunately, are unlikely ever to find out that these books even exist. So, for all the success that some presses have had in gaining more shelf space for their books in retail bookstores including the chains, inevitably most of these books will come back to their presses as returns because people just do not know they are on the shelves unless they happen to be inveterate browsers who discover them by accident.
The publisher of the Centre Daily Times who participated in this symposium bemoaned the loss of book coverage just as everyone else did, but said that the economics of the business these days simply does not allow his newspaper to pay a staff person to be a book review editor any longer. The CDT makes do with reviews picked up from the Associated Press and other syndicated sources including the McClatchey chain to which the CDT now belongs. But reviews written by strangers of books selected for review by someone located elsewhere are a poor substitute for a well-run local book review operation. The last straw, for me, came with a review of a book about the state of local public libraries. It would have been a great deal more interesting to our local population had the review been written by one of our fine local public librarians, instead of someone from the state of Texas whose name meant nothing to anyone here.
About this same time, InsideHigherEd ran a piece by Scott McLemee (November 21) about a column that the Austin American-Statesman had begun to run regularly about books from academic presses written by a former philosophy graduate student from the University of Texas named Roger Gathman. The article quoted Gathman as follows about the rationale behind this column: “‘Running articles about books,’ he said, ‘is never going to make money. It’s a loss leader. But it gets people to pay attention. You have to give them something they can’t find on television.’ For newspapers to survive, he said, ‘the people making decisions have to realize that it is in their interest to encourage reading. They have to start thinking about the need to generate an audience. At that level, it makes no sense for all of your cultural coverage to point to activities that don’t involve reading'” (http://insidehighered.com/views/2007/11/21/mclemee). I shared this article with the CDT’s publisher after complaining about the lost opportunity to have the book on local libraries reviewed by a local librarian, and then a little while later I wrote a review of a book by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker titled The Great Risk Shift, which Oxford had published as a trade book in mid-2006 and then reissued in an expanded and revised paperback edition in December 2007. This is a book I wanted more people to know about, as its message had a great deal to do with issues current in the election campaign (the paperback bears a strong endorsement from Senator John Edwards). Having done OUP a favor by evaluating a proposal for a new reference work about publishing contracts by Wiley general counsel Roy Kaufman (which every press should buy), I used the honorarium to get six copies of the paperback, five of which I sent off with a note to Robin’s and my five children, all young adults who need to know about this “great risk shift” in thinking about their own futures, and the sixth of which I used to do my review for the CDT. That review appeared in mid-April.
I was given the green light by the CDT’s publisher to launch this effort to run a local book review program with myself serving initially as editor “with a little help from my friends.” I announced this in an e-mail message to press directors on April 13. The CDT assigned its city editor to work with me on submission of the reviews. I then started looking through all the Spring and Fall 2008 catalogues from presses that I already had on hand and began sending out requests for reviews to people in the local community. To give myself a little more flexibility, I negotiated with the CDT city editor to allow the definition of “local” to extend to faculty at all 20 Penn State campuses around the state (a few of whom write columns for the CDT regularly anyway) and to encompass people who grew up in the community and may not be here now but still have family and other roots in the State College area.
To date, I have had book review assignments accepted by over 40 people, most from Penn State so far but including several people from different walks of life in the area as well. And the people from Penn State are not all just faculty: I have the men’s soccer coach, for example, reviewing a new book from Temple on that sport as played in the U.S., the library’s chief development officer reviewing a book on gift-giving just out from Indiana, and the director of the Center for the Performing Arts reviewing a new biography of actress Mary Martin published by Oklahoma. I have had very few people turn me down, mostly because of complicated schedules they have, and the reaction from those I have approached, even those who couldn’t take on the assignment now, has been uniformly positive, indeed enthusiastic. Philosopher Dennis Schmidt, who is reviewing Yi-Fu Tuan’s Human Goodness from Wisconsin, said of the initiative: “Thank you for coming up with it. Even small town newspapers in Europe still keep book reviews alive—always by members of the community. I’ve been reviewed there and written for them. It plays such an important role in the sense that a community is culturally curious beyond itself. So, congratulations on this.” Poet and English professor Robin Becker, who is reviewing Northwestern’s book about a young female Jewish poet caught in the turmoil of the Holocaust, wrote to ask if the students in her graduate seminar on book reviewing could participate in this venture. Pulitzer Prize winning historian Mark Neely, who is reviewing Gary Gallagher’s new book from North Carolina about how the Civil War is portrayed by Hollywood and other popular media, remarked: “I agree that reviews in the press are needed. I do not know how many books I have purchased and read because of the general reviews in the NYT, but it is a number that would have earned me bonus certificates at Barnes and Noble.” And, speaking of Barnes and Noble, I have recently arranged with the Penn State Bookstore, which is managed by B&N, to stock books reviewed by local people in the CDT with a special display featuring the review once published.
So, as well as more exposure, these books may actually get some sales here on site, thus benefiting our local bookstore and the University, which gets a share of the profits. Furthermore, I am suggesting to the CDT that the reviews might be syndicated to other McClatchey newspapers, and I already have told all the reviewers that, as owners of the copyright in their reviews, they are welcome to rework them as reviews for scholarly journals if they wish. So there may be a multiplier effect that will prove to spread the word about these books well beyond the confines of the CDT’s 30,000 subscribers in central Pennsylvania (plus the free circulation the CDT gets to 40,000 students on campus through an arrangement the University has with the newspaper).
I recommend this as a model to the rest of you, partly out of self-interest, because as long as I am the book review editor, I cannot in good conscience have our own Press’s books included in this program. But if other presses begin similar programs in their towns with their local papers, I’ll be happy to send review copies of any books from our list they want to consider. There is no waste in this process either: no review copy is requested before an assignment has been accepted. You are guaranteed a review if you send me a review copy. Beyond the simple expansion of exposure of university press books to a wider public, such a program has additional benefits. Another motivation for my launching this project came from my participation in a seminar this past year titled “A Capacity to Sustain Democracy” under the auspices of Penn State’s Laboratory for Public Scholarship and Democracy. It brought together 35 faculty, administrators, and community leaders (among them Nancy Kranich, past president of the American Library Association) devoted to exploring ways to promote civic engagement through the curriculum and beyond. My book-review program is a natural extension of a general project of civic engagement, which has the further advantage of helping break down the walls between town and gown in our community. Based on the enthusiasm already evident from those involved as reviewers, I can confidently predict that this will result in immeasurable good will generated among faculty toward the Press and a real step forward inour community outreach efforts. This is a win-win situation in every way I can imagine.
It takes no genius to come up with an idea like this. Nor was it anything more than my initial inspiration that got Books for Understanding off the ground. When you think about it, these are such obvious things to do that, if I hadn’t thought them up, someone else surely would have sooner or later. But this is the whole point I am trying to make: there are plenty of ideas like these that we can experiment with at relatively little cost to help us create a better and more hospitable environment for the publishing we do. Right now I am excited about the various experiments that various presses including ours are pursuing to break down the “digital divide” between book and journal content by making more book content more widely accessible in electronic form and, we may hope, encourage the interlinking of the two, which ultimately will serve scholarship’s needs best. Come to the panel on “Taking Books Online” tomorrow afternoon and hear several of us talk about these experiments. The more such experiments, the sooner we will all have hard data about what works and what doesn’t, and the better able we will be to engage in informed discussions about the future of open access as it pertains to books, not just journals.
Our fates are in our own hands. We cannot expect our universities to bail us out whenever changes in the marketplace take place or advances in scholarly communication produce new challenges. We need to think proactively, not just reactively, be ahead of the eight ball, not always behind it. And we can do this successively, if we put our minds to it, “with a little help from our friends,” whether those friends be administrators, faculty, librarians, foundations, or just our colleagues at other presses and in the AAUP Central Office.