Publishing as a signal for historical quality?

I should probably clarify a point I was indirectly making in my previous post. It’s been on my mind for several years as I study the historiography of a Great Captain and national hero, and as I pay attention to what types of works get published, what early modern textbooks are available from various presses, what types of history positions get filled, what types of historical topics dominate conferences, and what assumptions are being made when we debate issues like open access, making history more popular, and embargoing dissertations.

I find myself increasingly concerned, as an Associate Professor with tenure at a teaching university, with what publishing market pressures seem to be doing to academic history. (I may well be imagining a ‘golden age’ of academic history). Academic publishing and academic history seem, increasingly to me, to be working on quite different assumptions. As I hinted at in the last post, I’m particularly concerned about what this disconnect means for early modern European history. What does it mean for that whole notion that “you are only a good historian if you publish a book”? If there’s very little market for early modern titles (or diplomatic history, or…), as there seems to be, this presumably means that few presses will publish early modern monographs, as seems to be the case. So does that mean early modernists aren’t particularly good historians because they can’t get their work published with more than a handful of publishers? For those early modern works that will be published, will publishers insist that they be much broader in scope, inevitably taking young scholars beyond their expertise, possibly to their detriment when it comes time for other scholars to review the book? (I know of one case where a work on 20th century American history, addressing a topic ten-times more popular than any early modern topic, had to tack on a final chapter to turn it into contemporary history – I find that appalling, and disturbing if it’s part of a broader tendency.)

What impact do these market forces have on what early modernists can publish? Monographs are seen as the measure of a tenure-worthy historian, at least at research universities. And monographs are facing significant market challenges as their academic customer base dwindles. So how does that combination impact early modern faculty on the tenure-track? Do we historians really want, as the AHA seems to insist, to define our discipline by what the publishing industry considers salable, especially when that market has radically changed over the past few decades? Should market forces in publishing, forces that increasingly require presses to sell their books to a popular market (since purchases from academic libraries and academics are declining), a market that isn’t particularly interested in early modern history generally, be determining tenure status at research universities? Is that a good measure of scholarly worth? Do we even know what book publication is really measuring anymore?

More disconcerting to me is the question of how this affects the type of early modern history that is written. How much dumbing down and stretching of topics is acceptable to get that early modern monograph published? Methodologically, how do we reconcile the need to provide representative evidence with the publishing preference for the telling anecdote and straightforward story? What is hiding behind that scholar’s anecdote – a mountain of data or nothing but suppositions and assumptions? How many more books do we need from established scholars and university presses that are a mile wide and an inch deep? How many more surveys of a period do we need when we don’t have the detailed case studies to justify their sweeping generalizations? How many more syntheses do we need based on a handful of non-random case studies and a few easily-accessible published sources? Do we publish these types of works because we historians are interested in such broad topics, or because we know those types of proposals are more likely to be published, or because a press approaches us with such a book idea because it will sell better than the alternative?

How do we square the demand for published monographs with the widespread academic disdain of popularized history? Are monographs being significantly shaped (deformed?) by popular market pressures the publishers are under, and which they pass on to the author? Market pressures that don’t necessarily align with how academic historians see themselves? The most “pure” monographs would seem to be those published by a press like Brill, which allows the author to publish in as much detail as they want, but at a hefty price tag. Is that good or bad?

As usual, I have more questions than answers. But I keep wondering whether reconciling what publishers want and what ‘academic history’ wants is sustainable. Maybe I’m missing something?

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4 responses to “Publishing as a signal for historical quality?”

  1. Gary says :

    “How many more surveys of a period do we need when we don’t have the detailed case studies to justify their sweeping generalizations?”

    This seems to me to be key. As a fan of operational history, I think there is a lot of work left to be done in the study of World War II, especially on the Eastern Front. The opening/rediscovery of German documents at NARA or Soviet documents in Russia has rendered many older books obsolete or, at best, inadequate. Independent researchers have taken up the slack to some degree, but many of their efforts seems wasted on yet another book about Kursk or the American Civil War, while significant issues such as the role of logistics or how did the Germans manage to hold off the Red Army for so long go untouched.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    Uhm, Gary? The Red Army kicked the Axis out in two campaigns. The Germans called their Kursk offensive off on 16/07/43. The Red Army reached its pause line on the Vistula on 19/08/44. That is not holding the Red Army off for a long time. That’s a rout. This whole “Nazi supermen are our superiors” thing is an issue in broad social terms and specifically for the study of military history.

    In a more substantive way, I’m going to humbly suggest that the publishing problem is a little unreal. Worried about libraries not buying books? How about grocery stores not staffing their Western Union terminals? (Let’s hear it for anecdata!) That is, people have lost faith in their business models across the economy. That means not investing money, because returns are not expected to justify the expense.

    That is perhaps more true of a publicly held private sector company than for a state university, but it holds broadly true. “Demand” is a somewhat mysterious entity, but as I understand the multiplier effect, it means that demand across a whole range of goods and services leverages itself. When the economy does well, everyone does well. When it is anemic, no business model seems safe.

    The remedy to be sough in academic publishing, then, is the same as the remedy to be sought everywhere: rising incomes in a growing economy. As for the reason that we don’t have that: yes, I think it’s about demographics.

    • Gary says :

      It’s all relative, Erik. Imagine if the roles were reversed and the Germans outnumbered the Soviets by 2:1 in manpower, 5:1 in tanks, and 10:1 in aircraft and artillery tubes, plus had a higher degree of mechanization, no fuel problems, etc. You don’t have to believe that the Germans were supermen to be interested in how they managed to hold on for as long as they did.

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