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Partners in Scholarship: A Historian’s View of Trends in Scholarly Publishing

Writing can be agonizing, but it can also be deeply rewarding. Historians get immense satisfaction when an idea finally crystallizes into a book. Although publication proves essential to many academic careers, much more is at stake. Publishing new work, whether as a book or its digital equivalent, is one way historians make a contribution to scholarship and participate in intellectual debate. COVID-19 has made us rethink our teaching, our research, and even our daily household routines. We can anticipate that the pandemic will similarly disrupt publishing. Because university presses and scholarly publishing remain critical parts of academic life, and because publishing a first (and second) book remains critical to the advancement of many academic historians’ careers, these uncertainties are extremely worrying.

I am not sure that my experiences with publishers were or are typical. I never had, for instance, an advance contract, nor, for that matter, did I have an advocate or mentor who introduced me to a press. With the exception of a commissioned volume, I never really worked with a press or an editor in the crafting of a manuscript, and even then the contact was relatively slight. So despite having published five books, I am neither hooked into the publishing world nor able to draw on close relationships with editors and agents. Over the past few months, I have found myself wondering how the pandemic will influence this industry that is so deeply enmeshed with my own career. What does the future of academic publishing look like for historians? What consequences will these changes have for historians just starting their careers?

Changes to scholarly publishing are not unique to this era or only the result of COVID-19. Scholarly publishing is an industry, and like many industries, it went through a tremendous period of growth and transformation from the 1960s to the 1980s. I have no personal experience of what it was like to publish academic work in the 1960s or 1970s, though I understand from my senior colleagues that the era was characterized by the recognition that one would publish a book sometime, even if not before tenure, and therefore the pressure to publish was less. In the 1980s, when I began my academic career, there existed an expectation that a newly minted PhD would publish a book, and many presses seemed willing (if not exactly eager) to publish first books, even in fields without an obvious public or classroom audience. During that same period, press closures or vast reductions in the support of universities for their presses had important consequences for the field. Fewer presses publishing fewer scholars meant that anxiety levels about publication rose considerably. Some, like Robert Coover writing in theNew York Times, even predicted the “end of the book.” 

Presses continued to publish, of course, but by the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century, presses seemed to become more worried about their bottom line, more aggressive about tilting toward books that had “a broad readership,” and less willing to consider books that came in over the transom. At the same time, the admonition to “publish or perish” pressed on all academic historians, even at institutions where a historian’s primary responsibility (and time commitment) focused on teaching. And it has remained so. 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History