Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Nathan HollierNathan's blog

Dr Nathan Hollier is Director of Monash University Publishing.

 

 


24/11/2015

The University Press in Australia … Which way forward?

This is a slightly edited version of a paper I gave at the Small Press Network conference on 20 November 2015.

In asking which is the best way forward for university presses in Australia it is worth reflecting for a moment on what the purpose, the raison d’être, of the university press, is. Perhaps the classic formulation comes from Daniel Coit Gilman, founder of the oldest continuously operating university press in the world, Johns Hopkins University Press, writing in 1878: ‘It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures – but far and wide’.

As Peter Givler writes in 2002, commercial publishing in the late nineteenth century, ‘as it is today, was a highly competitive business. Gilman and others rightly understood that costs were too high and markets were too small to attract a publisher hoping for financial profit … If the aspiration of the university was to create new knowledge, the university would also have to assume the responsibility for disseminating it’.1

So university publishing was born from an awareness that private business within a relatively freely operating or unregulated market was not going to meet the university’s desire to build knowledge within society, to develop a readership for works which in the broadest sense might be termed ‘educational’. (The same holds true, though obviously within a pre-industrial context, for the world’s oldest university press – Cambridge – established by a form of royal charter from Henry VIII in 1534.)

In Australia, essentially the same awareness informed the establishment of university publishing: MUP in 1922, UWAP in 1935, UQP in 1948, UNSWP in 1962, SUP in 1964, ANUP in 1965 and Deakin Uni Press in 1979. MUP’s first commercial publication was Myra Willard’s The History of the White Australia Policy (1923), which was published largely at the author’s own expense.2

In the 1980s and 90s, however, senior managers at ANU and Sydney University decided to close their presses down, no doubt for a variety of reasons but with financial considerations being foremost among these.3

ANUP was sold to Pergamon in 1984. SUP was sold to OUP in 1987. Deakin University Press was wound up in 2000. Other Australian university presses, such as Central Queensland University Press and Charles Darwin University Press, came and went during this period.

In late 2002 Louise Adler was brought in as the new CEO of MUP with an explicitly more commercial agenda, in part to try to ensure the financial self-sustainability of that press.4

Also around this time, however, new university presses were being established or re-established in Australian university libraries at Sydney (2003), ANU (2003), and Monash (2003), with the University of Adelaide University Press also launching, in 2009. There was the University Press of Australia as well, a collaboration between Swinburne, Curtin and Newcastle universities, some time after that, though after the person employed to run that press left it has not gotten off the ground.

The library-based presses, following on from some initiatives overseas but also on various measures ‘leading the way’ were all established with the intention of using newly developing digital technology to cost-effectively publish scholarly works that, it was felt, were being less commonly provided for within a now highly commercialised academic publishing environment. The library-based presses all had and have an interest in electronic open-access publishing. Where presses traditionally see themselves as adding value to works written by authors, a lot of the terminology from library-based publishers has reflected a sense that they can ‘free up’ authors from commercial and other ‘constraints’ that traditional publishers put on them.

Precisely why the then Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, decided in 2010 to set up a Book Industry Strategy Group to seek advice on the impact of digitisation on the book supply chain, is an interesting historical and biographical question, that I don’t have the answer to, but it did feel at that time that there were new and exciting and potentially socially transformative changes happening within the industry, an industry which, after all, was at the cutting edge of wider developments in digital technology.

The central recommendation coming out of the BISG, in relation to university-press publishing, was for the formation of a National university press network, which would facilitate a publication subsidies scheme, marketing and distribution infrastructure, and production infrastructure, at a cost to the federal government of $10 million over two years.

The proposal was sponsored by MUP, UNSWP, UWAP and UQP. It didn’t have the support of the library-based presses. In general terms, it can be said, whereas these library presses saw the new digital conditions as enabling, the more commercially focused presses saw them as constraining.

The $10m investment from government was asked for on the basis that books remained ‘the most influential form’ of publication in ‘many of the social sciences and most of the humanities’; many higher-degree theses remained unpublished; research in specialist fields was commercially unviable; there was only a ‘declining and small’ number of university presses; library monograph budgets were decreasing; and the infrastructure investment would make these presses more competitive internationally and benefit the wider industry and society.

After the then federal government’s rejection of almost all of the recommendations of the BISG, including the recommendation that it help to underwrite a National university press network, it established the Book Industry Collaborative Council (BICC). The BICC would report to Greg Combet as Minister for Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.

I was a member of the BICC and its scholarly book publishing expert reference group (ERG). The recommendations coming out of that ERG (in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election, unfortunately) were that stakeholders across the sector create a forum for ongoing policy discussion with the federal government; continue to explore collaborating in obtaining publishing infrastructure of benefit to the sector as a whole; seek clearer and better funding support for publication from government and research funding bodies; and remove any policies from stakeholder bodies that discriminate against publishers or publications based on format rather than content quality.

These recommendations were I think more reflective of where discussion was and is at within the Australian scholarly book publishing eco-system as a whole, including in the sense that there is not general agreement on whether there should be more public funding for university-press book publishing or even on whether these are ‘good times’ or ‘bad times’ for such publishing. Speaking at the tenth anniversary event for ANU E Press last year, at which it was announced that the press would go back to being ‘ANU Press’, ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young praised the achievements of this press over that ten years, one of which, he said, was finding a sustainable business model.

Monash University Publishing was launched as an imprint in 2010. It grew out of Monash University ePress, which was established in 2003 and published its first works in 2005. The ePress primarily published journals. We still publish the journal History Australia, though that relationship is about to end and our main focus is on monographs. We publish between 20 and 25 books a year. There is no requirement on us from the University to publish Monash authors. All of our books are professionally distributed and marketed into the retail sector around the world.

On any formal measure, then, in spite of being housed in a university library we are as commercial in our operations as any other publisher, with the caveats that we require our publications to go through a scholarly refereeing process and we retain an interest in and commitment to electronic, open-access publishing (where legal and commercial imperatives allow). Like many university presses we try to publish enough books that move in the trade for us to be able to carry the various titles that don’t.

We have resisted going down the road of seeking to become effectively a commercial publisher but, equally, have resisted the model of being a ‘service provider’ for our host university and its authors.5 Our model, in other words, is closely reflective of the original reasons, to do with social mission and market failure, that underpinned the establishment of university presses in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries.

Is that sustainable within an environment of disruptive digital technology and necessary fiscal conservatism?

One cannot be sure, but I think it is, for four main reasons: i) there is no product that has emerged on the horizon that appears likely to replace the book, that does what it does; ii) the essence of publishing is cultural and aesthetic: publishing relevant, attractive books is a pathway to success; iii) as my friend John Byron, who chaired the BICC scholarly book publishing ERG and is a regular commentator on higher education, said to me recently, universities are ultimately concerned with prestige, more than they are concerned with money (perhaps because, I speculate, in the higher-education market, prestige and money are inseparable in the longer term), and, in the words of Patrick H. Alexander, of the Pennsylvania State University Press and Libraries, ‘presses uniquely convey the overall scholarly integrity and quality of a university’;6 and finally iv) because our sales performance to date suggests that we can continue to become more profitable.

Total (net) retail + ecart sales Jan–Dec, 2012–2015
Graph shows a notable increase in sales 2015 over, compared to 2014, 2013 and 2012

Taking account of new series we’re putting in place, I’m optimistic about our chances for significant, continuing sales and revenue growth.

To conclude, it is not clear to me that changes in the publishing industry or the social and technological environment in which it exists have necessitated the abandonment of the broad, traditional goal of the university press. Those of us working within these presses can continue to seek to fulfil that goal in spite of the very real challenges we face, especially if we realise that the most fundamental challenges we face are not those of economics or technology but of persuading others of the value of what we do.

Notes

1.     Peter Givler, ‘University Press Publishing in the United States’, in Richard E. Abel and Lyman W. Newman, eds, Scholarly Publishing: Books, Journals, Publishers and Libraries in the Twentieth Century, Wiley, 2002.

2.     Frank Thompson, ‘Case Study: University Presses’, in Craig Munro and Robyn Sheahan-Bright, eds, Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946–2005, UQP, St Lucia, 2006, pp.328–336. See Thompson, ‘Case Study’.

3.     See Thompson, ‘Case Study’.

4.     ‘The new-look MUP will still be subsidised, but will have a much sharper commercial edge … Adler will become an entrepreneur, getting out and about and meeting the people with the intellectual capital.’ Jane Sullivan, ‘Ideas Made Real’, The Age (Saturday Extra), 9 Nov 2002, p.7.

5.     ANU’s publishing imprint is ‘run to provide a service rather than to generate income’. Lucy Neave, ‘A Recent History of Australian Scholarly Publishing in the Humanities and Social Sciences’, in Lucy Neave, et al, Arts of Publication: Scholarly Publishing in Australia and Beyond, ASP, Melbourne, 2007, p.49.

6.     Patrick H. Alexander, ‘Publisher-Library Relations: What Assets Does a University Press Bring to the Partnership?’, Against the Grain 20:6, 2008, p.44. http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2606&context=atg.

 

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01/09/2015

The Truth about Publishing

A little while back, while looking for a particular book on the shelves here in the Matheson Library, where Monash University Publishing is housed, my eye was caught by another title: The Truth about Publishing by Stanley Unwin.

The Truth about Publishing by Stanley Unwin

Perhaps it was the confidence of this declamation, combined with the recognisable name of the author, that made me pick it up. ‘Publishers are not necessarily either philanthropists or rogues’, it began. ‘As a working hypothesis, regard them as ordinary human beings trying to earn their living at an unusually difficult occupation’. There’s a man who knows what’s what, I thought. Or something like that. Fundamentally, the truth of this observation, and the value of making it, I think remain. And finding that this book dated to 1926 in its original version, with this ‘extensively revised’ seventh edition being published in 1960, by which time there existed American, German, Spanish, Swedish, French, Danish, Dutch, Czech, Portuguese, Turkish, Indonesian, Hindi, Italian and Japanese editions, I was intrigued to read on. How many of Unwin’s truths remain true? Are there truths that he was able or willing to utter, after a lifetime in publishing, all those years ago, that have now been forgotten, or that for commercial or other reasons can no longer be said publicly? Just how much has the publishing busineStanley Unwin'sss changed? And can we learn from older ways of doing things?

As these opening lines, and the book’s title, suggest, the point of Unwin’s book is to dispel certain misconceptions about publishing and to say what really exists and how things actually work, from the particular point of view of the publisher (and to be precise, taking account of Unwin’s unrelentingly masculine idiom, the male publisher), though Unwin doesn’t acknowledge this. Sir Stanley, a founder of George Allen & Unwin, a past President of the International Publishers Association at the time of writing, and past President of the Publishers Association of Great Britain, was ostensibly writing ‘to give information to those outside the trade, and particularly to all devoted to literature, whether as writers or readers’ but, I would suggest, was perhaps ultimately writing, however consciously, for other publishers and himself.

Particular point of view or not – and leaving aside the question of the extent to which the book may finally be considered an apologia – the continuing relevance of much what Unwin had to say was apparent. ‘It is easy to become a publisher’, he relates in a ‘Preface to authors’, ‘but difficult to remain one; the mortality in infancy is higher than in any other trade or profession’. Is this any less true now than then? The same could be asked of his advice for authors:

Remember that it is in your work that the publisher is primarily interested. Let your manuscript therefore be your ambassador and do not mar its chances by insisting upon a quite unnecessary interview …
Your manuscript may be a masterpiece, but do not suggest that to the publisher, because many of the most hopeless manuscripts that have come his way have probably been so described by their authors …
Your manuscript is your baby, maybe your only child, but the publisher finds a dozen or so new babies on his doorstep every morning and has several thousand older children over-running his warehouse and his entire establishment, all of them calling simultaneously for his undivided attention. With the best will in the world, therefore, there is a definite limit to the time he can spend on yours.

Salutary, if also a little pre-emptive of possibly legitimate criticism. Unwin does acknowledge elsewhere the need to try to keep authors informed of the progress of their works, recalling the author WB Maxwell’s pained reference to the publisher’s ‘awful silence’, though also noting in turn: ‘The trouble is that if you begin to give information to some authors, there is no end to the correspondence explaining the information and why you gave it’.

He goes on to observe ‘The most stable firms are usually those which have a strong back list of publications with a continuous and profitable sale and who therefore have no need to gamble to secure new business’. Still the case, probably, in spite of the blockbuster phenomenon, and Unwin later advises prospective publishers that purchasing an existing publishing house, no matter how impoverished, is often preferable to starting anew, because the backlist revenue this existing brand can provide may at least sustain the operation while it is being strengthened.

A profitable backlist, of course, is easier referred to than realised.

Railway bookstalls may today not carry a very glamorous commercial aura (where they still exist), but if we interpose airport booksellers for these, Unwin’s advice to authors is again instructive: ‘The railway bookstall proprietors, who see all the new books, know better than anyone else what they can and cannot sell, and if they decide against yours, the chances are at least a hundred to one upon them being right’.

Towards the end of his Preface, which contains still more useful insights that I won’t take time to relate, Unwin makes a more philosophical, if also practical, point: ‘The growing commercialization of literature—inevitable though it may be—does not tend to promote more harmonious relations between authors and publishers. It is based on the assumption that manuscripts and books are mere commodities; dead, not living things. Such an assumption ignores the peculiar and indeed parental relationship of the author to his work, the realization of which is the beginning of wisdom in a publisher.’

Was there ever a time when an older generation of literary publishers did not lament the commercialisation of literature? Nonetheless Unwin’s point that books are or at least can be living things, socially, things which affect the feelings, beliefs and actions of individuals and societies, going beyond the commercial realm in their impact and, for that reason, existing in only a quasi-commercial (or monetarily measurable) space of the economy, is I think one that is well made and well worth remembering.

As Unwin goes on to elaborate throughout his book, the nature of the publishing business is that it is not just a business: ‘The control of a publishing business gives unique opportunities for self-expression … The feeling that one may be building with permanent materials, the knowledge that one’s name is associated with books that enshrine profound thought and the triumphs of the creative imagination add a fascination to the best publishing’. This explains a large part of its undoubtedly enduring appeal (the number of applicants for our Production Assistant role advertised a few weeks ago – 137 – being just the latest evidence of this) as well as, for better or worse, its often precarious nature: publishing quality books is risky and not generally very profitable but is a necessary thing for publishers and nations to do, for both commercial and social reasons: ‘Publishing has rewards to offer far greater than money … but your day’s work will never be done, and it is possible that the better work you do, the less monetary reward you will receive’.

Unwin clearly sees himself as a cultural ambassador for Britain, imparting the best British ideas and values where possible throughout the world, via the book, which he argues is the best means possible for this inculcatory role. He recalls fondly, and obviously approvingly, a scheme in which the British government worked with the National Book Council to facilitate the importing of British books into parts of Eastern Europe by accepting any book returns from bookshops in these territories for use as gifts to foreign dignitaries.

One of the historically revealing parts of the book is that in which Unwin relates his enthusiastic confidence in the growth of English-language book markets in various countries where, even now, these hopes have not been or are only starting to be fulfilled: China, ‘a market with enormous possibilities’, Brazil, ‘a market of special and ever-growing importance’, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, and India: ‘a market of outstanding importance … The English translation of a work written in one of the many vernacular languages, other than Hindi, may easily achieve a larger circulation in India than the original version, whose sales is necessarily limited to the comparatively few who can understand it’. One cannot help reading Unwin’s account with a strong sense of opportunities lost through the unfortunate manoeuvrings of colonial and despotic politics of various kinds in the years after he wrote.

But for all his positivity about the possibilities of publishing, Unwin is at pains to stress also that for a publisher ‘a curious and unusual combination of qualifications’ is required, including knowledge of many different areas of detail and technique associated with books’ assessment, editing, production, distribution, marketing and selling, and the legal environment in which these take place, particularly as this environment pertains to contracts, copyright and libel. Again, much of what Unwin has to say here seems to me both accurate and worth repeating now:

The number of people who consider themselves fully qualified for the post of publisher’s reader is unlimited. The number of those really competent to fulfil that function is extraordinarily small … [The job] ‘is governed by technical and commercial, as well as literary considerations’ …

There is often a ‘right price’ for a book, and in such cases publication at any other figure would spell failure …

[T]o let the desire to publish at a given price determine the number to be printed, instead of the probable demand, is both a snare and a delusion. The amateur publisher constantly makes this mistake and even the most wary publisher is occasionally led into it …

[E]xcept in the case of ‘series’ where a prescribed style has to be followed, each book should be regarded as having an individuality of its own …

[In matters of libel] the onus should surely be upon the author to show that the libel was unintentional …

Either a printer is a book printer or he is not a book printer; the commercial printer who has occasionally printed a book (probably a local directory of a glorified catalogue) is a person to be avoided …

Authors who are specially insistent upon publishers exercising the greatest possible activity in pushing their books seem often to grudge the time necessary for the process …

It can truthfully be said in more senses than one that a publisher cannot spend his time more profitably than in the company of booksellers …
The importance, actual and potential, of the work of public librarians and their influence are alike immense. It is impossible to assess how much they have done to spread a knowledge and love of books …

The more reviews on the day of publication, or within a week thereafter, the better for the book …

It is truly said that the best way to start the sale of a book is to get it talked about by the right people …

The danger inherent in giving the benefit of the doubt to every book in which you are personally interested has perpetually to be guarded against …

He observes further, equally usefully, that the publisher has a capacity to interest others in a book through a carefully selected personal approach; booksellers cannot (or I think he means ‘should not’) ask for bigger discounts and lower prices in the same breath (‘cry for the moon’, as he puts it); sales have a way of dropping off suddenly, just after you’ve done a reprint; when it comes to price, and price reductions, customers always like to think they’re getting a discount, even if they’re paying the proper price; people will buy books at an event whereas they wouldn’t just an hour or so later; blurbs are ‘most difficult to write’ (‘To be read, the paragraphs must be brief; to attract the newspaper editor they must, if possible, have news value; to be of service to booksellers and librarians they must give an adequate description of the contents of the book: possibly indicate the author’s qualifications for writing it’); advertising needs to be targeted to those genuinely interested, it being otherwise of limited value; reviews are the biggest influence on sales, with advertising appearing on his list as the ninth most important element; publishers very commonly deceive themselves as to the value of their stock, being emotionally unable to do the writing down that is required; specialising in particular publishing areas is beneficial (once you have established your expertise in an area, ‘most of the other good books on the subject are likely to come your way’); and ‘In publishing particularly, the different parts of the business need to know what the other is doing and how their own activities affect those other parts … A policy of water-tight compartments is fatal in a publisher’s office’.

Where Unwin goes deepest into matters of operational detail, his book is most obviously dated and we can see most clearly the extent to which the publishing business has changed and ponder the bases of that trajectory, some being more obvious than others. In the early 1960s there were more newspapers reviewing books; booksellers received lower percentages, and generally on firm sale (Unwin complains about the retailers’ percentages rising recently to thirty-three and one third percent); while Unwin’s worries about people borrowing books from their friends rather than buying them haven’t disappeared altogether, they seem of a much smaller magnitude today (replaced I suppose by larger, digitally inspired copyright concerns); the ‘numerous and highly technical processes, such as paper-making, block-making, printing, and binding, which are employed in the making of a book’ have obviously changed a lot:

Since 1950 there have been many technical developments affecting book production which must in the long run make for speed and economy. Notably, there has been the introduction of various machines for photo-composition, replacing metal-type composition for the impressions on which intaglio and lithographic printing depends. Typewriter composing machines for the same purpose have appeared. In Linotype, teletypesetting reduces composition to almost typewriting simplicity and even makes possible setting by remote radio control …

Printers held stock for the publisher and had only just started charging for doing so. Binding was still usually done by binding firms, not by printers. It was common to print and then leave the printed copies not bound until demand determined. The turnaround time for printing was eighteen weeks. Most sales reps were employees of the publishers and there was a lot more physical sales repping, of course. The digital revolution was germinating in a few minds and laboratories at this time but as far as members of the publishing industry were aware, digital technology as we know it didn’t exist (Unwin’s ‘economy’ of having ‘printed cards and printed form letters’ to save on ‘unnecessary repetitive clerical labour’ points inadvertently to the automation of systematised tasks that computer languages such as XML have enabled).

In Australia and New Zealand, but not in other parts of the world, UK publishers would sell exclusive sales rights to particular bookshops: ‘the granting of the monopoly of the sale’. Various countries had ‘currency difficulties’, i.e. retail customers couldn’t get the required currency to purchase books in (if I understood correctly).

Unwin thought that paperbacks were a ‘valuable adjunct to [but] not usually a substitute for, the conventional cloth-bound book.’ And he noted with exasperation that the ‘sale or return’ method of increasing sales (as opposed to firm sale) ‘has been tried over and over again with disastrous effects … [O]n balance the movement is away from … that basis, and an increasing proportion of the books sold are … supplied “firm purchase”’. These were obviously two (actually interrelated) expectations that were way off the mark, but stepping back into Unwin’s shoes, via his explication of the industry and its dynamics in his experience, it is easy to understand why he thought as he did: consumers had not yet demonstrated themselves to be willing to purchase paperback books in sufficient numbers or at sufficiently high prices to make the focus on paperback publishing sufficiently profitable for most publishers to be able to scale back their cloth-bound publishing (sufficiently) and accept sale-or-return terms. The increased attractiveness of paperbacks as print technology developed and the more general development of a consumerist, disposable-product culture, may have contributed to this growth in demand and, understandably, been very hard for anyone to foresee. (The best economic minds of the 1940s, Stuart Macintyre reminds us in his new history of postwar reconstruction, thought the primary problem at the end of the Second World War would be renewed economic stagnation!)

As Unwin stresses the need for sufficient managerial mastery of the technical dimensions of publishing, he emphasises also, in further comments that have lost none of their relevance, that sound business principles must be followed, careful planning put into practice, and a spirit of entrepreneurialism developed and maintained. Interestingly, he believes that it is when these principles, practical plans and entrepreneurial spirit are coordinated across the publishing industry as a whole that the industry as a whole does best. He is full of admiration for the German and Northern European industries in this regard, and here his assessments appear to have been well founded, with Germany continuing to play a major role in global book trade, including via the Frankfurt Book Fair, still the largest event of its kind in the world, and with the nations of Scandinavia maintaining book industries that are the envy of the rest of the world, not to mention exporting a disproportionately high number of global bestsellers, from Larsson to Knausgård and beyond.

As a member of the former Australian federal government’s Book Industry Collaborative Council (2012–2013), which followed on from the Book Industry Strategy Group (BISG, 2010–2011), I was in the room when representatives of the industry from across the supply chain agreed to the formation of a body to advance the industry as a whole. If felt like an historic moment though at the same time a little surreal. Was it really going to happen? For reasons political, personal, managerial, economic and logistic (to raise only those I can think of), it hasn’t. Instead the current federal government has announced the creation of a National Book Council, along with cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts, with details on what the Book Council will do remaining sparse.

In industry, as in society, effective change requires organisation, and that is an enduring challenge.

First published by Overland, 07/07/2015

21/05/2015

Travels with Robert Dessaix

As a publisher, rather than a scholar, you have more freedom to read where your interests take you, which is of course a good and a bad thing: liberating but precluding genuine expertise in any particular intellectual area. Democracy requires generalist knowledge and broad understanding, as capitalism requires technical expertise, so I like to think I’m still being, at least, a good citizen.

A few years back I had some correspondence with Robert Dessaix, when at our author John Burbidge’s suggestion I approached Robert to ask if he’d write a foreword for John’s biography of Gerry Glaskin.

I’d read a few essays by Robert and been impressed by his cultured multilinguality on a French TV program broadcast on one of the Sunday afternoon arts programs they used to run on the ABC, but hadn’t read any of his books, and it was with a little trepidation that I approached him as, in my early years of association with Overland magazine we’d tended to think of him as part of the elitist cultural ‘opposition’ and I couldn’t remember for certain if anything critical of his work had appeared in print there and, if it had, how closely I’d been connected with that.

Anyway Robert was very kind when I approached him and the piece he wrote for John’s biography Dare Me! was I thought seriously evocative and enjoyable. So on a hot weekend at the end of the working year, with a sleeping baby strapped to my stomach, I deftly purchased his Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev from a bookstore in Fitzroy, and have found that it’s a work that has stayed with me, as they say.

Why? There’s a lingering sense of enjoyment from having spent so much time in the ‘company’ of a learned and insightful, intelligently reflective and humorously critical-minded person. I also especially liked that the book demonstrated how literature matters; how it is more than simply art or entertainment (not that those things are ever truly simple) and helps to shape our experience of life: what we see and understand and how we feel about these. In this case, Dessaix has been helped to his mature understanding of love by his ‘friend’ – in T.S. Eliot’s literary terms – Ivan Turgenev.

At one point in the 1960s, during a research trip to Russia, Dessaix read virtually everything Turgenev ever wrote, though as a young man: ‘You want Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, you want Anna Karenina and War and Peace … a symphony, not a sonata’. Now, ‘At the other end of my life, naturally enough, I read with an ear for sensibilities of a quite different kind … The idea of sitting quietly beside one of (Turgenev’s) dreamy ponds, or even in one of his musty drawing-rooms, eavesdropping on rambling conversations about all the things that really matter  in life … fills me with deep pleasure’.

Twilight of Love is an account of Dessaix’s following in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century footsteps of Turgenev, one summer ten years or so ago, in Baden-Baden, Germany, in France, and then in Russia.

In Baden-Baden Dessaix relates that what he finds fascinating about Turgenev is ‘the richness of his – and his characters’ – vocabulary for every permutation of desire, passion, frustration, anger, grief and joy’. ‘Does it matter whether I call myself “infatuated” or “smitten”?’ he asks. In some senses, he argues, it does. Most importantly, ‘Knowing all these words … allows us to turn the ordinariness of our everyday lives into something, if not extraordinary, then at least poetic’. And this poetic quality of life is especially appealing now, in an age when ‘poetry, like flirtation, matters less than fulfilment and seduction, when the purpose of conversation and human interaction generally is largely reduced to communication and some or other form of functioning.’

Dessaix reasons that ‘If I could find the right word for what Turgenev felt’ in his enduring yet, so far as we know, sexually unrequited passion for Pauline Viardot-Garcia, the famous mezzo-soprano, ‘perhaps the love my own life is rooted in would grow even more luxuriantly’.

He argues that since the late nineteenth century, around the time people stopped thinking of their fellow human beings as ‘souls’ rather than as clusters of molecules, ‘it’s been extraordinarily difficult to love’; at least in a way that might ‘save us from time … or at least (open) a crack in it’.

And what is this love which today’s educated secularists find so hard to imagine? For Dessaix, seeking to explain this to a friend, ‘“The sweep of being” came to mind … It’s the sweep of being we believe we’ve glimpsed – instantaneously – when we’re seized by the love that saves us from time. All of a sudden, for no reason at all, without our willing it, we are flying towards that opening in the wall of time, becoming at one with the sweep of being beyond it. In that first instant we do something impossible: we recognise the unknown. It does happen – rarely, in reality almost never, but it does happen.’

The passage brings to mind the experience of Gabriel Conroy, so immortally realised by Joyce, when Gabriel hears from his wife of a younger man’s earlier, more innocent love for her:

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself toward any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling … His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

It’s a humbling thing to read this, as to read Travels with Turgenev, and to be reminded of how much one has to learn.

 

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06/02/2015

Manuscript assessment and the tragedy of the commons

For a publisher there are of course various moments of trepidation … Reading the first para of a review, opening the Excel file with the monthly sales figures, getting on the phone to the printers to see if stock will arrive in time for a planned launch – that’s a good one – but among these moments can be the asking of a scholar you don’t know, but respect, to assess a manuscript for you, knowing that your budget doesn’t allow for you to pay the person adequately for the task.

Assessing manuscripts is an area where, in the humanities and social sciences at least, the spirit of collegiality continues to be called upon (and I like to think I’ve done my share of it as well) however much this spirit has been undermined by or seems out of place within management and accounting trends of recent decades.

The right person, who still possesses this collegial spirit and has a strong interest in the book’s subject-matter, will say ‘yes’, sometimes in spite of themselves. Real scholars ultimately remain driven, notwithstanding some of those management and accounting trends, by their own intellectual curiosity.

Refereeing is like writing a review, or minutes. It’s best knocked off quickly. (Not that this has always been my own practice.)

It is also possible with many manuscripts to do an adequate job of assessing them without reading every word. I had an author who delivered a manuscript that was much too long (not to mention much longer than was agreed in the contract), after having become fixated, I suppose, on the notion of the centrality of the subject matter to more or less every area of policy and life. As I am not remotely an expert in the area – and who am I to declare that he hasn’t written the next General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money? – I sent it off with the usual quibbling apologies for what I could offer for the assessment job, to a referee at the University of Melbourne.

The guy said yes he’d do it. I sent it over. He got back to me in an hour or two with some clear, logical distinctions the author needed to grasp before the manuscript could be reduced to a length more manageable and more befitting the relative significance (with all due respect) of the arguments being advanced, within their intellectual field.

The point is that good manuscript assessment is very much dependent on the quality of the assessor. Not anyone can do it (though of course a non-specialist reader can be useful for books you’re wanting to appeal beyond the academy). In fact, you really need the best minds you can find for the job.

The referee you don’t want is the person who cannot bring himself or herself to say that Professor so and so, whom perhaps he or she knows, has on this occasion not offered up a completed pie ready for the oven but rather a slab of uncooked meat, a bag of flour and some eggs of questionable freshness.

On one occasion in particular that comes to mind, such maunderings almost led us to publish a book that should not have seen the light of day under one of our imprints. Thankfully a fellow Professor, from Canberra, was prodded to send us a two-line email that included words to the effect: ‘Don’t embarrass yourself by publishing this book.’

God bless him.

In The Australian’s Higher Education Supplement on 4 February Andrew Trounson (‘Reviewing the role of paper reviewers’) reported:

Australian journal editors have been increasingly vocal in their belief that the quality of editing and reviewing is being put at risk. They say the work, which is central to the entire research sector, isn’t valued by university management, which is focused on research outputs. It means they have little time to do the grunt work that sustains the whole academic enterprise.

They warn the system is driving academics to focus on their own research at the expense of editing and reviewing. To address the problem they want the Australian Research Council to somehow recognise their work in the Excellence in Research for Australia exercise and so get management to take notice.

These editors are absolutely right, and of course their arguments apply even more strongly for assessors of book manuscripts.

Getting such assessing work recognised by government either as part of the ERA or in the Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) was something I raised in the Scholarly Publishing Expert Reference Group of the federal government’s 2013–2014 Book Industry Collaborative Council, though this didn’t make it as one of our final recommendations. Such acknowledgement would have positive flow-on effects throughout the academic publishing environment as, under current conditions, refereeing is, understandably, not always prioritised by hard-working academic staff, and this can measurably slow down the whole publication process and mean the publisher is spending more time and other resources getting referees and chasing them for reports.

While it is understandable and in many ways laudable for universities and governments to focus on the close recording of outputs, the onus should then be on those bodies to make sure they are recording and giving credit for all of the outputs that are relevant.

 

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10/10/2014

Politics and the novel

On my couple of days’ off in Tasmania last week I read a recent biography of Benjamin Disraeli by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young: Disraeli or The Two Lives.

I had lunch one Friday a little while back with Dennis Altman on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy and bought the book afterwards at the Brunswick Street Bookstore after grilling the staff there about why one of our Monash titles wasn’t on their shelves.

I was interested in Disraeli as an important – often referred to and quoted – political figure associated with some progressive policies of his period and as a politician who was also a novelist. (Some years back I worked on a project on ‘the political novel’ with my friend Sean Scalmer at the University of Melbourne, looking at novelised portrayals of parliamentary politics, which in all accounts began with Disraeli.) I was also interested in that mid-nineteenth century historical period more generally, as I am unfortunately in most periods of history.

The authors set out to ‘de-mythologise’ Disraeli, combatting erroneous perceptions of him and misuses of his legacy especially by contemporary politicians like Ed Miliband. I would have liked a more straight explicatory approach as I didn’t know much of the basic story.

Still, there were many points of interest in the book for me and, perhaps most especially, there was Disraeli’s use of literature as a vehicle for exploring the world as it is and as it might be:

On the one hand, Disraeli became a passionately ambitious politician, intriguing and manoeuvring with growing skill, choosing whatever tactics and relationships might take him up the greasy pole. On the other hand, through his interest in literature he developed a set of ideas to which he was devoted and which throughout his life he spent much time refining. He refused to give up either his career or his ideas; so how could they be reconciled? The answer was through his novels. For Disraeli, literary sparkle held the key to great leadership. Here was a man who had diagnosed the nation’s ills and could supply the relevant imaginative remedies. Together with his Jewish stock and ancient ancestry, it gave him, as he later suggested, the feeling on waking each day that he could topple governments and shake dynasties.

The conception of the role of literature put by John McLaren in his memoir Not in Tranquillity (2005) came to mind here:

My reading of [Martin] Buber coincided with my studies of the way children learn language, and developed my understanding of literature itself as the dialogue within which we make our worlds and our place in them. The world gives us our language, and from it we make ourselves. Literature enables us to know in their fullness a range of people greater than we could ever otherwise know in our daily lives, and so enables us to fashion ourselves through dialogue across space and time. The Arts and Sciences extend this dialogue to the whole of being.

(It was actually because of John that I ended up with this Disraeli book. I’d been trying to resist going into the Brunswick Street Bookstore when I saw him inside.)

It is hard to imagine a politician of today writing novels, or at least (as I now remember Jeffrey Archer), ones that engage in a meaningful way with contemporary society.

There are obvious reasons for this, among them the fact that novel writing has been professionalised and the standard of writing expected by major publishers has risen. (Archer from all accounts had a bit of assistance in producing his works, quite a number of which I read and enjoyed, embarrassingly enough, as a teenager: one of them, that I still own, was a Year 10 English prize.) Disraeli’s sometimes casual and woolly efforts might not have gained him much credit. Indeed, they didn’t often bring him much credit even when he published them, though some of his works were popular.

I suspect the main reason politicians of today would be unlikely to write novels, however, is that they would fear this activity would be seen as frivolous and self-indulgent. Unfortunately, the understanding that literature can identify the core, intrapersonal, dynamics of society in ways that the more abstracted languages of politics and economics – dealing with social life in the aggregate and reaching for quantification – cannot, appears largely absent from our society. Frustratingly, this is so even in the case of many literary reviewers, critics and historians, who might otherwise play a much more important social role.

The cultural dimension in our life is there and it is important. If it was not, there wouldn’t be an advertising industry. Smart political leaders understand this and have an inkling, in some cases more than an inkling, of how culture, politics and economics interact within their social worlds. Scholars of literature who don’t understand this – no I won’t name names at this point – sell themselves short.

 

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17/01/2014

My local local

The most valuable thing an intellectual can do is explicate the particular experience and identity of the group or groups he or she is looking at. This may be contrasted with the attempt to explain the development of groups as part of a supposedly universal phenomenon, of ‘modernity’, ‘postmodernity’, ‘globalisation’ or even, God help us, ‘glocalisation’. Unfortunately, for historical, intellectual and political reasons, it is versions of this universalising narrative that remain dominant within universities and that tend to facilitate personal professional advancement.

Partly because of this philosophy on my part, though partly also for just personal reasons, I have always had a strong interest in the history and culture of my home town, Mildura, population circa 30,000, located in the top north-west corner of Victoria.

What, I have long wondered, have been the human and other actions and forces that created the world my friends and family and I grew up in?

Of course many of these actions and forces were not ‘simply’ local to Mildura. What was there and what happened there was and is obviously connected to larger – at times much larger – aspects of the physical and social world, from climate and ecology to the systems of land, flora and fauna management of the local Aboriginal peoples, to democratic and industrial revolution in Europe, the imperialism of that continent, Christianity, capitalism, world wars, and so on. Ultimately, more or less all social processes are linked to each other in some way, however indirectly.

Nonetheless it is only when we drill down into the local historical record and find the individuals and groups who most powerfully shaped our personal conditions of living, that we can get the strongest sense of our own individual place in historical or social development. (This localised historical delving may be contrasted with what often seems to me the fairly pointless exercise of researching one’s forebears back to Christ knows when.)

I was then doubly surprised late last year to come across a publication that is both a remarkable local publishing phenomenon and one that is from and about Mildura: The Dura. Rob Pascoe, Professor of History and Dean Laureate at Victoria University, dropped off a copy in my office here at Monash. He’d found it in a café in Fitzroy.

The Dura is an A3 publication – journal, rather than ‘newspaper’ or ‘magazine’, seems the best word for it – on art-stock quality paper. The stock was chosen, as I was told by Brendan, one of the founders of the publication, when I met with him in Mildura a couple of days before Christmas, to encourage people to collect and keep The Dura, as they do the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and comparable works.

It is printed in Mildura, with healthy runs of 2–3000 that have sold out or all-but sold out over the first three quarterly issues. The locals are buying it; people from satellite towns are buying it; and there’s some distribution into Melbourne and Adelaide.

Local advertisers have gotten behind the publication – particularly arts organisations, which the magazine seems intended, in part, to strengthen and promote.

When I’d driven up to Mildura I’d thought I’d tell a couple of my friends about it, thinking they probably wouldn’t have heard of it. But no, advertisements seemed to be everywhere and Brendan told me they’d even got a good deal on local television advertising. In its home town at least, it would be hard not to know of The Dura. Even with its still negligible web presence.

All of this was remarkable enough, but more arresting still was the content. Here, The Dura seems to break all the rules. In an age of information overload where publishers, broadcasters and content producers of all kinds are increasingly intent on presenting nicely packaged products that can be clearly marketed to an easily identifiable market segment in an untroublingly digestible form, The Dura overflows with journalism, fiction, poetry, opinion, photography, cartoons. Issue 1 includes (what I think is) the beginning of a novel or novella serialisation by Desmond Curran dealing with life in traditional Aboriginal society (‘Once Upon a Time: The Long Journey of Jampinjinpa Narruc’), complete with a glossary of Aboriginal words. A less smoothly marketable piece would be hard to imagine.

Where many magazines of a popular flavour have nothing to offer, anymore, besides the encouragement of a mindless obsession with celebrities, or with made-up stories about ‘celebrities’, The Dura usually kicks off with a critical examination of the historical legacy of one or other major figure of the town’s history, someone recognisable in the names of streets or shops or other landmarks about the town. It features numerous other local historical articles, photos and curios (I won’t look at the town’s central fountain in quite the same way anymore, though I’ve looked at it all my life, now that I know it was moved to the CBD from the founders’ mansion following the drowning in it of one of their babies), and features on interesting local individuals. Writer and illustrator Stuart Walsh presents in issue 1 ‘a true story’ of being bashed by local rednecks, commenting here and in a later issue on the important questions of violence and racism in the town (Walsh relates meeting numerous Mildura people who assumed he’d been belted by Aboriginals).

In place of the ironic detachment of the coolly urban publishing or artistic initiative, there is passionate, unselfconscious engagement, most evident in the ‘Mail, News, Notes and Opinion’ section, which often features attacks on bankers and politicians, as well as on Mildura’s august and politically quietist newspaper The Sunraysia Daily. A Q&A with Chris Crewthers, Liberal Party candidate for the Mallee, we are told in issue 2, was cancelled because Chris’s answers were ‘unfortunately too boring to print’.

Needless to say also, a ‘nice’, genteel, ‘country living’ aestheticism is eschewed in favour of earthy, frequently ribald, sometimes angry and often blunt provocation.

How will The Dura develop? Stylistically? Intellectually? Politically? Financially? It will be very interesting to see. In some ways it is certainly rough around the edges, and I’ve thought the editors have been a little unnecessarily defensive towards criticism they’ve received from readers. But the town and region The Dura springs from, and not only this town and region, are much the richer for its existence.

 

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14/10/2013

I was asked about ‘The book industry under the new government’ in the most recent issue of Books and Publishing. I thought my first little para was worth including, so I’m surlily publishing it here …

Among the many people I spoke to about the Australian book industry, as a member of the BICC and, prior to that, a some-time participant in the discussions of the BISG, there appeared to be broad agreement that industries, or sections of industry, that are not competitive, should not be propped up by government support, but, equally, there was acceptance of the view that government should not stand back and simply allow Australian industry participants to go to the wall in the face of unfair competition from overseas, be that unfair competition in the form of corporate tax avoidance or covert government subsidisation or of some other kind.

The Books and Publishing comment is currently (behind a paywall) with those of Martin Hughes (Affirm) and Phillipa McGuinness (UNSW) at http://www.booksellerandpublisher.com.au/DetailPage.aspx?type=item&id=28538

 

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30/09/2013

This letter was submitted to The Australian newspaper. As it didn’t get a run it’s being published here and on a number of other platforms by my co-authors.

Dear Editor,

In making her case for federal government support for the Australian publishing industry Louise Adler (Weekend Australian 14-15 September) has made certain remarks about open access electronic and library based scholarly publishing that require a response.

It is misleading to suggest that ‘In the tertiary education sector open access represents a fundamental threat to the rights of intellectual property owners’. The movement to open access in scholarly publishing is driven by authors and scholars who have traditionally given up their copyright in a work as a precondition of being published, only to have the work sold back to their institutions. Open access seeks to enhance the rights of intellectual property creators and funders, to widen the audience of their work. The existence of open access publishers in no way coerces authors into publishing with them or into not publishing with a commercial publisher. There is also no evidence that open-access publishing is incompatible with commercial publishing, and growing evidence that they can easily coexist.

The statement that ‘some university libraries have established in-house e-publishing initiatives for academics who fail to garner the interest of commercial publishers in highly specialised research for a limited audience’, implies that these presses produce only work that no one could want. In Australia library-based presses publish high-quality peer-reviewed scholarship, invariably in both print and electronic formats, relatively quickly, and open access where possible, appealing to authors precisely because this enables the maximum visibility of and reach for their research.

We agree that Australian university presses have an important role of providing access to scholarly works for non-academic readers. The development of new open access university presses is critical for the community to benefit from Australian research.

Sincerely,

Mal Booth, UTS University Librarian, for UTS ePress
Ross Coleman, Director, Collection and Digital and eScholarship Services, University of Sydney, for Sydney University Press
Dr John Emerson, Director, University of Adelaide Press
Dr Nathan Hollier, Director, Monash University Publishing
Roxanne Missingham, University Librarian (Chief Scholarly Information Services), for ANU E Press
Derek Whitehead, Director, Information Resources and University Copyright Officer, Swinburne University, for University Press of Australia

 

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25/09/2013

The humanities, the public purse, and the public sphere

Shortly before the 7 September federal election the then Chairman of the ‘Scrutiny of Government Waste’ committee, Jamie Briggs, announced that a Coalition Government, if elected, would audit ‘increasingly ridiculous research grants and (reprioritise) funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) to deliver funds to where they’re really needed’ (https://www.liberal.org.au/latest-news/2013/09/05/ending-more-labor%E2%80%99s-waste).

This troubles me, for three reasons.

Firstly, there appears to be a lack of awareness and acceptance of the independence of the ARC: ‘The Coalition would look to targeting those ridiculous research grants that leave taxpayers scratching their heads wondering just what the Government was doing’.

Presumably what Briggs, now Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, meant, was that taxpayers scratch their heads about what the ARC, not the Government, is doing. If there is to be a process to stop the ARC making such awards, what is that to be? And how would it avoid compromising the intellectual freedom of Australian researchers? Australia’s research reputation, as with that of any nation, is dependent on the integrity of its processes of peer review.

Secondly, all four of the examples Briggs points to are from the Humanities:

• The quest for the ‘I’ – a $595,000 grant aimed at “reaching a better understanding of the self”;

• $160,000 on an examination of “sexuality in Islamic interpretations of reproductive health technologies in Egypt”;

• a $443,000 study into “The God of Hegel’s Post-Kantian idealism”; and

• $164,000 for a study into “how urban media art can best respond to global climate change”.

The implication appears to be that the Coalition believes the humanities is where irrelevant research happens, at great public expense.

Gavin Moodie noted recently (The Australian, 11 September 2013) that this idea of ‘auditing’ research grants originated from Andrew Robb, now Federal Minister for Trade and Investment, who late last year criticised as wasteful grants from the ARC in medieval history, Renaissance history, literature and ethics: ‘He proposed a process to “weed out the unjustifiable in order to support the genuinely meaningful”’.

As Bernard Lane reminded his readers in The Australian on the day before the federal election: ‘There is a history of Coalition figures ridiculing ARC grants, typically in the humanities and social sciences, as useless or activist. In 2004–05 the then Liberal education minister, Brendan Nelson, vetoed several projects, and appointed outsiders, including former Quadrant magazine editor Paddy McGuinness to vet grant applications.’

The most recent figures from the ARC on funding per disciplinary area, for grants commencing in 2013, reveal that the Humanities and Creative Arts had the lowest number of proposals considered, the lowest number of proposals approved, and the lowest amount of funding received (12.54%). The next lowest funded disciplinary area was the Social, Behavioural and Economic Sciences (17.01%). The most funding went to Engineering, Mathematics and Informatics (28.23%), with the next most funding going to Biological Sciences and Biotechnology (23.54%) and Physics, Chemistry and Earth Sciences (18.67%). (See http://www.arc.gov.au/ncgp/dp/DP13_selrpt.htm#4)

My third concern, though one related to those above, is that this representation of the humanities as wasteful, selfish, self-absorbed and irrelevant can only be expected to have a negative impact on the growth of humanities education, on demand for books of or derived from Australian humanities scholarship, and on the quality of Australian public discussion and debate.

As a member of the now former government’s Book Industry Collaborative Council, and its Scholarly Book Publishing Expert Reference Group, over the past year, discussing how to improve conditions for scholarly book publishers, I often had the feeling that the elephant in the room was the attitude towards the humanities generally, of government.

Mostly we focused on supply-side reform: ways of reducing cost and boosting efficiency and output. But in an environment where the humanities are perceived of by the powers that be as, at best, of tangential significance, it was and is hard to see where real growth in demand for serious books of genuinely public relevance could come from.

The ALP’s 2007 education manifesto, ‘The Australian economy needs an education revolution: new directions paper on the critical link between long term prosperity, productivity growth and human capital investment’, contained no reference to the humanities whatsoever and argued solely for investment in education in order to increase economic growth.

Humanities books – histories, biographies, literary studies – thrive in a healthy public sphere, where an educated public believes it has a stake in voicing its opinions, because such opinions are going to matter, politically: are going to be reflected, in however mediated a form, within policy. Such a healthy public sphere is arguably the basis of a healthy democracy and society.

The most effective way to strengthen Australian scholarly book publishing would be to strengthen the public sphere; and a good place to start that would be to emphasise the value of humanities education and knowledge.

07/10/2013

A response to the above from John Byron, Senior Advisor to Senator Kim Carr, via Facebook…

I think one conclusion to draw from the government's approach to the humanities is that scholarship has to find a way to its public directly, so the withholding of approval (from Briggs, Robb, Brandis, Abbott, whoever) becomes detached from questions of readership. Of course the withholding of funding is itself a significant problem, but that in turn becomes more difficult for a government to perpetrate if a deeper connection between scholars and readers helps build a wider audience that appreciates the significant and importance of humanities scholarship (and teaching and learning, for that matter). As we've discussed in the past, achieving this will involve using all available publishing methods, new and established, print and electronic. But it also requires more scholars to undertake new forms of writing that speak to this wider readership we need to recruit, and not just addressing the peers. Some authors do it exceptionally well: many more scholars need to get on board, really, if we are to prosecute this campaign. The bookshelves are now our barricades.

 

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07/01/2013

This piece was published in a slightly modified form in The Conversation of 3 Jan 2013, with the title ‘In praise of the printed book: the value of concentration in the digital age’. Some of the discussion that ensued read this as taking a ‘side’ in a ‘print versus digital’ argument, which I did not intend. I do think though that print and digital publications are different products with different strengths and weaknesses

Don’t throw your print books out yet

There is an old saying that anxiety is the enemy of concentration. One of the best pieces of sports journalism I ever read was by Gene Tunney, world heavyweight champion of the 1920s, speaking of how reading books helped him stay calm and focused in the lead-up to his most famous fight, against former champion Jack Dempsey. While members of Dempsey’s camp ridiculed Tunney for his bookishness, Tunney kept calm, and went on to win.

Most of us would feel stressed at the prospect of stepping into the ring, but stress-related illnesses, especially depression and forms of anxiety and attention disorder, are increasingly prevalent, in wealthy societies especially. According to a major 2006 projection of global mortality by Mathers and Loncar, unipolar depression will by 2030 be almost 40% more likely to cause death or disability in wealthy societies than heart disease and over 50% more likely to cause these than either alcohol abuse or diabetes.

Stress can of course have many causes but in the most general sense emanates from things which impact negatively on focus and concentration: interruption and the fear of interruption or a surplus of tasks, responsibilities or activity options. As E.M. Hallowell identified in a 2005 edition of Harvard Business Review, an emergent ‘Attention Deficit Trait’ and low-level feelings of guilt and panic are endemic to ‘hyperkinetic’ environments, such as those in which electronic connectedness results in a superfluity of information being directed towards us. In many contemporary contexts, including workplaces, we are never ‘offline’; we are always open, and expected to be open, to new requests for interaction or sources of information, however vital, from email, twitter, facebook, the web, text and potentially many other electronically connected sources.

The digital age is an age of distraction; and distraction causes stress and weakens concentration. Concentration, as the philosopher William James argued in his classic 1890 work Principles of Philosophy, is the most fundamental element of intellectual development: ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will ... An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’

Concentration is equally important emotionally, as is being increasingly revealed by new research into ‘mindfulness’ and meditation (examples from this article are taken from a presentation by Dr Craig Hassed, author of The Essence of Health: The Seven Pillars of Wellbeing). The inability to focus is associated with depression and anxiety and, amongst other things, an underdeveloped sociability and human empathy. Tests have revealed that people report a greater happiness from being effectively focused on what they are doing than from daydreaming on even pleasant topics.

How many memoirs include stories of the author surreptitiously reading books by torchlight underneath the blankets, with parents fearful of the child ... now famous and successful ... reading too much? (In my case I was reading The Hardy Boys so my mother’s objections were probably justified.)

It seems likely that the concentration required and encouraged by books is extremely valuable. Reading books is good for one. And this seems especially so in the case of print books, where a reader is most completely free from distraction.

Ebooks, and more pertinently perhaps, the digital reading environment, are unquestionably transformative in the opportunities and experiences they offer to readers. Great oceans of knowledge otherwise obtainable only through tracking down print books or physical archives and records, have become available and, through widespread tagging up, much more easily searchable. Hyperlinks mean readers no longer have to read in a straight line, as it were, but can follow innumerable paths of interest. Web2 technologies enable ‘talking back’ to publishers and media, the formation of groups of readers with common interests, easy (sometimes too easy) sharing of files and other information. Stories can be enriched by animated graphics and interactivity. And so on.

No-one in their right mind would imagine that the e-reading environment can or should somehow be wound back.

Nonetheless it is interesting to consider, in light of this possibility that the greatest benefit of reading may come from its capacity to assist in the development of focus and concentration, that the print book may not actually have been superseded or, indeed, be supersede-able. This, I think, is what the novelist, critic, philosopher and communications historian Umberto Eco means when he argues: ‘The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved’.

 

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24/10/2012

On 14 September I spoke at a forum at the University of Melbourne, organised by Gary Pearce and the Caval Reference Interest Group. (It was a very stimulating research day, with excellent presentations from Gavin Moodie, Rebecca Parker and Inger Mewburn.)

As I now think my paper for the upcoming SPUNC Inc. publishing conference (8 Nov) will be substantially different, and 22–28 October is Open Access week, I thought it worth publishing a slightly edited version of my talk, here ...

Open-access publishing: panacea or problem?

I wanted to take the opportunity, afforded by having been asked to speak at this forum, to get a better grasp of the issues around open-access publishing, and of the arguments for and against it. In my abstract I set out this issue of whether open-access publishing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in a fairly open-ended way, as if the jury is still out on this question. Now that I have actually looked into this issue a bit, I don’t believe that the jury is or at least should still be out. Open-access scholarly publishing, of one kind or another, is desirable and should be achievable. I will talk briefly of existing arguments against open-access, while noting also the benefits of this model of publishing, as I see them. But I will mainly focus on a question that I think is more interesting and to which the answer does not appear as clear-cut. That is the question of whether or not there continues to be a value or a compelling argument for scholarly open-access publishers publishing into bookstores and / or selling rather than giving away ebook content. In answering this question I will be discussing the contemporary scholarly-publishing sector, especially in Australia, and drawing in part on my own experience as a participant within that sector. I have tried to put on my scholar’s or researcher’s hat in putting this paper together, but am not deluding myself or seeking to delude anyone else that I am able to be as free of commercial and political pressures as Habermas, amongst others, has stipulated that intellectuals should aspire at least to be. Inevitably my own interests and the business decisions I’ve already taken have influenced my perceptions. One final point to note, before launching in to what I have to say, is that I’m indebted to my tireless and – by-me-at-least – unpaid research assistant Colin Steele, who, since I was lucky enough to have moved into his email circle, has kept me up to date with new developments, statements, documents and arguments in this field.

Open-access publishing is good for scholars. It maximises the visibility and, evidence suggests, even the research impact, of research. An open-access article is most likely to be used and cited. Open-access also enables more timely publication. As they spend most of their ‘scholarly’ time reading, open-access is of course also good for scholars in this sense, and the open availability of research encourages or at the least enables cross-disciplinary thought and engagement.

Governments, which fund research and much of the infrastructure around it, have much to gain both from that research being made as broadly available as possible and from avoiding having to buy research, or buy it back, from commercial organisations driven, for the most part, by commercial imperatives. 

The same basic logic applies to recipients of that government research investment, such as universities and their libraries, though as universities – in Australia especially – come under pressure to seek specifically commercial sources of funding, this can encourage them to participate in the commercialisation and privatisation of research. It needs also to be acknowledged that there are quite different levels of government research funding, from country to country, and that Australia and New Zealand are at the high end of that funding (only 10% of research is government funded in Japan and Switzerland cf. roughly 80% in Aust & NZ).

It is often pointed out that library finances currently being paid in subscriptions could otherwise be spent supporting open-access publishing, of a ‘gold’ (author-pays) or even a ‘green’ (institutionally supported) variety. This observation  lies at the root of the innovative  business models proposed in recent years by Frances Pinter of Bloomsbury Publishing and now Knowledge Unlatched. Libraries, needless to say, have been amongst the most active institutional advocates of open-access publishing, especially since the so-called ‘serials crisis’, and librarians have been at the forefront of attempts to expose and undermine the apparent profiteering of private journal-publishing behemoths Reed Elsevier and Springer. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), established in 1997 by the Association of Research Libraries, is an expression of this commitment, as is the expanding tranche of library-based scholarly publishers. In Australia, the Council of Australian University Libraries (CAUL) has established a subcommittee to represent and coordinate its members’ publishing activities, all of which include open-access publishing of some variety.

Members of the general public also benefit from open-access publishing, in direct and indirect ways. A publishing colleague (at a company that has not embraced open-access publishing) told me recently of his friend’s father, who was able to research his own medical circumstances and, as a result, find a doctor who, against the professional advice he had so far received, gave him hope of restoring his sight and, in time, delivered on this promise. Of less immediate but perhaps even more profound public benefit is the increasing availability of scholarship – including whole courses – online, through initiatives such as OpenCourseWare at MIT. The public moreover pay taxes and, with government, can probably expect to receive better return on their investment in research from an open-access publishing environment than from a privatised, commercial one based on permissions payments and fees-for-access. (With this in mind the decision of the UK Government to support a commercially oriented gold open-access policy seems to me unfortunate.)

Critics argue that open-access publishing is either unnecessary or likely to be harmful to the public good.

Most scientific literature, it is contended, is available for researchers via inter-library loan at the very least, where a researcher’s home institution does not itself subscribe to a particular publication. Thus outgoing Australian Research Council CEO Margaret Sheil stated in April this year ‘[I]nformation has never been more accessible to the research community than it is now ... I just don’t believe that argument that the research community can’t get access to research.’ (Justin Norrie, ‘Open access not as simple as it sounds: outgoing ARC boss’, The Conversation, 23 April 2012)

This seems less certain when viewed from an international perspective which, admittedly, the head of an Australian Government research body may be under no compunction to do. In poorer countries access to information and the communications technology that makes it available, is more scarce and expensive, in relative terms; facts which have underpinned the rationale for developing open source publishing software, such as that of the Canadian-based Public Knowledge Project.

Open-access publishing has been criticised, by journal publishers especially (such as the DC Principles Group in the US), as constituting unwarranted government intrusion into private commercial activity, and as deadening, through this, individual initiative and entrepreneurialism. These arguments, based on the discredited notion of economic ‘trickle down’, seem driven more by ideology than evidence. Nonetheless, more testing questions, in relation to open-access publishing, have been raised.

Perhaps the likelihood that commercial companies, like pharmaceutical manufacturers, will spend less on paying for others’ research, in an open-access world, while being no more likely to share their own research, is a second-order issue when viewed alongside the benefits of and savings from open access. And it may not matter greatly that research-intensive institutions, in a ‘gold’ open-access environment especially, might end up paying more for journal publication than they did previously, while teaching-focused institutions pay less, especially since research publication also yields payment from government research-funding bodies. But what will be the effect of mandatory open-access publishing policies on the great many not-for-profit journal publishing associations? Will they be able to adjust their business models and attain sufficient revenue to do all that they currently do, without charging a journal-subscription fee?

These are conversations I’ve had a number of times with the two journals Monash University Publishing publishes. So far an ideal solution hasn’t materialised, although I would guess that if government legislated that the research it funds should be published in an institutional repository within, say, two years, and this was built into contracts between authors and journal-publishing associations, this would not significantly affect the financial viability of these associations. Such legislation would be likely to affect the profitability of commercial journal publishing operations, but that seems an acceptable price for government and society to pay.

Sheil has stated ‘[T]here are many, many examples of where protecting intellectual property actually makes it more readily available, because then someone is prepared to commercialise it and make it accessible’ (Norrie).This is easy to imagine, though I wonder if such problems could not also be sorted out legislatively, by for example stipulating that certain published research can only be commercially developed by the company with whom its author has a contract. Often a student will publish his or her PhD in a repository, for instance, but still obtain a contract for the thesis to be turned into a book. If the publisher is adding value to the work, through the editing process, design and packaging, marketing and so on, the published original version of the research is not likely to be a significant financial factor; it is only if the publisher is not adding genuine value to the work that the financial value of that work might be at all likely to be comprised by its being available open access in its original form. Would not the same hold true for other forms of intellectual output?

Writing in Research Fortnight in July this year, Peter Webster has argued that as humanities scholars ‘[b]y and large ... do not need large capital equipment and facilities, beyond a good library ... scholars outside universities – in museums, libraries, archives, across the professions and not least among the retired—regularly publish world-leading research. Universal gold open access funded by the author would wipe much of this work out.’ This seems to be a strong argument against gold open-access funding models, which – to me – only points to the superiority of green open-access. (The payment-to-publish model, it is worth noting, is now being taken up quite enthusiastically by Elsevier and Springer, who charge roughly 15,000 euros per book, prior to its publication.) As noted earlier, in relation to possible open-access policies that would be compatible with not-for-profit journal-association publishing, legislation that would require government-funded research to be published in institutional repositories would be unlikely to adversely affect these not-for-profit journal publishers and wouldn’t affect independent scholars either.

More troublingly, for me, Webster also argued ‘So far, there is little sign of [an open-access] business model for book publishing.’ Mostly this was troubling for me because I thought we’d developed such a business model, at Monash University Publishing, and had been operating that model since the launch of the business in September 2010. When we put our model together we were influenced most strongly by the example of the ANU E Press, which since 2003 has published 400 titles, including some journals, open-access. The University of Adelaide Press also looked to the ANU E Press in developing its model. Since its establishment in 2009  it has published over 20 books open access. Monash University Publishing, launching in September 2010, is now publishing around 20 books a year.

These three Australian university presses, each based physically or administratively in the library of its host institution, have developed successful open-access book-publishing business models, and a number of other Australian university libraries are planning to enter this open-access book-publishing environment. Sydney University Press also does some open-access publishing and Sydney University itself has an open-access policy. Of these presses Monash University Publishing is the only one that distributes its titles actively into bookstores, via professional distributors operating around the world, so I will admit to an element of the rhetorical when I ask whether it is worth open-access scholarly publishers publishing into bookstores and / or selling rather than giving away ebook content; clearly we do think there is a value in doing so, though we haven’t yet moved to sell our ebook content.

In reaching this decision to operate as an open-access scholarly publisher in the commercial realm, and to face the very considerable administrative and financial pressures this entailed, a number of considerations came into play: Could we produce books that looked good enough – which is to say, were individualised enough – to go into bookstores and attract readers, at a cost-effective price? What did our readers want? How important was design to them? And would they buy print versions of our books if they were available online open-access? If so, would they prefer to buy them from bookstores, and pay a relatively higher price for them, or would they prefer to simply buy them from our site or from another online channel? Is professional distribution important to book reviewers and to review organs, from broadsheets and popular magazines and journals of review to specialist journals, many of which are online? And to prize committees? Does that print-revenue stream matter, in the context of HERDC payments? What did our authors want? What did our host institution want? (As you can imagine, rather an important question.)

Most fundamentally we were driven by a desire to maximise the cultural impact of our titles – this has been written into our Charter – partly on the basis of the belief that cultural standing will, in time, lead to economic standing or, put another way, that a prestigious brand will translate in a positive way to sales and sales revenue (which of course is also affected by price). We thought that for the moment at least it is worth individually designing books, selling them into bookstores and marketing them in traditional as well as ‘new’ online ways; that all of this is necessary, at this point in time, to maximise the cultural impact and standing of the press and its titles, to stand properly within, or at the centre of, the Australian public sphere.

The example of the ANU E Press, which was selling print books in the thousands each year, across its list, in spite of their titles being published simultaneously on the web in pdf and other (e-book and now mobi) formats and not being really marketed in a traditional way, suggested that e- and p-books were different things with different readerships and, I suppose, markets. This was backed up by the experience of re-press, a Melbourne-based private publisher of philosophy texts, that used the same open-access model with (at that time) more developed international print distribution channels than that ANU E Press. As the re.press publisher Paul Ashton wrote on his site: ‘We do not consider the digital version a replacement for the physical book. On the contrary, we believe that the two mediums perform different functions, offering the best of both worlds. In fact, it is our hope that open access publishing will strengthen traditional publishing and scholarship more broadly’ (http://re-press.org/about/open-access/ accessed 13 Sept 2012).

Not all of our titles, I hasten to add, are available open access. Some of the more commercial titles we have deliberately delayed online publication of; and we’ve tried to be flexible and accommodate authors that for one reason or another – often an emotional reason – don’t want their book available online for free. We also don’t put pdfs online, unlike the ANU E Press, the University of Adelaide Press and re.press. We publish in html and e-book format, for downloading to an e-reader. In this we’ve followed the example of the National Academies Press, publisher for the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, and other arms of the National Academies in the US, which has found that these formats, at least, do not discourage print book sales (AAUP Task Force on Economic Models for Scholarly Publishing, ‘Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses’, March 2011). We were conscious of not wanting to cannibalise print sales (and our distributors and booksellers were not happy with the prospect of us putting pdfs online) and we were also of the view that publishing pdfs online makes piracy simply too easy.

Nonetheless we are hopeful that through open-access electronic publishing in conjunction with print publishing and professional distribution we will not only be maximising cultural impact but visibility, readership and the exchange of knowledge, as well. With the ANU E Press Monash University Publishing has paid for the development of a web-asset statistics collection and reporting system that will provide very robust data on visits to our two sites, and readership of our titles.

In politics, as a former Politics professor at my alma mater once wrote, victory is the great legitimator. In business, I suppose the great legitimator is revenue, and I’m pleased that the business model of Monash University Publishing does appear to be working: we are on track to hit our revenue and other budget targets for this year, for example. We’re also pleased with the media and other attention the press’s titles have received, and the critical response to them. The marketing concept of Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE) (the science of which I will now defend to the death) is very useful for us, and we’re confident the press is heading in the right direction. But as stated at the outset, I recognise that I am not exactly an unbiased voice.

The point is that open-access publishing may not be a panacea but it is far from a problem. In my view it is possible, and indeed desirable, to combine the public benefits of open-access publishing, thinking especially of ‘green’ open-access publishing, with the essentially private benefits – for consumers and publishers – of commercial publishing, and not just in relation to journals and the ‘hard’ sciences, but books and the social sciences and humanities, also. Because scholarly- and trade-, print- and e-books, are all different things.

 

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13/06/2012

Setting the record straight

I was interested to read in The Australian newspaper’s Higher Education Supplement this morning of ‘a new “warts and all” book’ which ‘claims universities in Australia are “haemorrhaging expertise” and “finding it increasingly difficult to recruit first-class home-grown talent”, blaming the Dawkins reforms and the governments that have perpetuated them.’ This is Dr Donald Meyers’ Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline.

The name of the author and the book itself were starting to ring some bells. Didn’t I get this submission some time back?

Reading on, my interest was pricked further by news that ‘Dr Meyers notes “a large number” of publishers declined to publish his book … Non-university presses said it wouldn’t sell, the university presses “indicated they didn’t publish this sort of work or … had similar work in the pipeline”. Melbourne University Press cited “too many questionable assertions, generalisations and too few direct examples with … detailed explanation”.’ I found myself nodding. That accorded roughly with what my reaction had been.

When I looked in my ‘sent’ file to check, though, I realised those words actually accorded exactly with what my reaction had been. They were my words.

Below is the full email I sent to Dr Meyers’ agent on 9 May 2011. This offers a more extended explanation of why I thought the submission needed more work. I suppose I also hope this will set the record straight. If I’m going to be quoted rejecting a work, I’d at least like myself and Monash University Publishing to be given the ‘credit’ for this.

Hi [author’s agent],

Thanks for sending through the manuscript of Nitwit Nation.

Unfortunately, while I think Myers [sic] makes some very important points, I also think the argument needs some re-thinking and a different mode of expression before it could be seriously considered for publication.

In  my view (again) the main problem with this manuscript is that the points made are generally not backed up by evidence. There are too many questionable assertions, generalisations and distinctions and too few direct examples with documentation and detailed explanation.

In the course of documenting these examples and explaining them at greater length there would also – hopefully – be a different tone emerging. While it is good to condemn things that need condemning (such as falling academic standards and the increasing managerialisation and bureaucratisation of the university), it is also good to be aware of why people – including those with views different from your own – think and act in the way they do. Generally, I would suggest, people in the tertiary sector are operating within a complex system which, like the society of which it is part, faces various pressures from within and without. A more extended consideration of these pressures would enable a reading of what has happened and is happening within the sector, including the negative parts of this, that does not wrest [sic] on the assumption that large groups of people are either stupid or ‘bad’.

Best wishes,
Nathan.

 

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25/01/2012

In the e-corner ...

Ding! Ding! Ding!

In today’s Australian newspaper, Melbourne University Publishing CEO and Publisher-in-Chief Louise Adler is quoted saying that Australia’s university-based scholarly e-presses ‘are not professionally edited, and are not published, marketed or distributed in the ways (traditionally or electronically) recognised by the industry as a whole or the scholarly publishing sector. They have almost no impact internationally.’

It’s obviously time to put the gloves back on. Or take them off. Or something.

ANU E Press, Sydney University Publishing, Adelaide University Press and Monash University Publishing titles are professionally edited, to a greater or lesser degree. What I gather Adler is referring to here is that these presses don’t generally employ editors to work closely with authors and turn their manuscripts into books that will sell a sufficient quantity in the retail sector to break even or make a profit. That is because, at risk of speaking for others, they are generally not trying to sell their books to ‘general’ bookstore-going readers; they are producing them primarily for academics, students and libraries and rely on reports from other scholars, as part of a rigorous peer-reviewing process, to ensure that these are original and readable. It is certainly the case, however, that some Sydney and Monash titles, at least, are produced with a general readership in mind, and where that is the case these titles are edited for that readership.

What does it mean that these e-press titles are not ‘published, marketed or distributed in the ways (traditionally or electronically) recognised by the industry as a whole or the scholarly publishing sector’? I think what Adler means here is that these e-press titles are not professionally distributed into the bookshop trade, marketed to that trade or sold in their electronic versions to consumers via e-book vendors such as Kobo.

For the most part this is true, though it is not true of Monash University Publishing (or MonUP), whose titles are distributed professionally into the bookshop trade in Australia and New Zealand, the UK and Europe, the Middle-East, Africa, Asia and North America, via agreements with Footprint, Eurospan and ISBS. As Andrew Trounson, the author of the piece Adler is quoted in, pleasingly noted, MonUP has a hybrid model, which we hope brings together the best of both (traditional and new) worlds. But is it necessarily a bad thing that the e-presses Adler refers to have rejected traditional and created for themselves new business models that combine some form of open-access online publication with print-on-demand facilities that (as with the ANU E Press) make the print versions of their titles available for purchase around the world, including through Amazon? If they can do this economically and disseminate knowledge for free and reach a readership which in all likelihood is much larger than that they could reach via traditional bookshop distribution, does it matter that this model is not ‘recognised’ by the trade publishing industry? In 2010, to grab the figures most readily to hand, the ANU E Press reported over three million downloads of its titles. (MonUP, with the ANU E Press, incidentally, is in the process of acquiring a website statistics package that will produce very firm figures on online readership of these two presses’ titles.)

Without professional bookshop distribution and conventional marketing, it is true, it is difficult to be taken seriously by established review organs and make the social and cultural impact a press might hope for (which is why MonUP has such distribution and marketing), but if the cost of these things is an unworkable business model and comparatively low readership, is it worth it? What kind of an impact can you make if you go broke or are not actually read except by those people who purchase a copy of your title during the few months a store will generally stock your book (which is why MonUP titles are also available online open-access)?

These e-presses are taken seriously by the scholarly publishing sector; indeed, as Agata Mrva-Montoya noted in a 19 Jan 2012 SUP blog which was then published in The Australian, this e-press grouping, in Australia at any rate, to a substantial extent is the scholarly publishing sector. Where publishing specifically for the scholarly market in Australia has traditionally not been possible, because the market is so small, these e-presses have found a way of doing it, and their output is fully accepted as scholarly by Federal Government research measurement and recording agencies. The traditional university-based scholarly publishers, on the other hand, have always had to focus on reaching a popular audience where they have been required to maximise their financial return on investment (because of that small scholarly market I’ve referred to). In recent times, in the face of tight university budgets and difficult and uncertain economic and book publishing conditions, these publishers have focused squarely on popular or trade publishing.

At their best (UWA Publishing is the Australian exemplar), these ‘traditional’ presses bring scholarship to a popular audience and serve an invaluable social and, if this is not a dirty word, political function. They help democracy function; in fact, without them, it is hard to imagine democracy, in any meaningful sense of the word, existing. Needless to say, not all traditional scholarly presses fulfil this purpose as well as they might, and the e-presses, in their own way, certainly contribute significantly to our democratic society also.

No-one likes a fight but, of course, getting mugged is worse still. Like us, I would expect, the e-presses will want to do what they can to set the record straight.

 

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22/09/2011

‘Paying the Rent’: Publishers throwing in their lot with the retail sector

I’ve been watching with interest recent debates about retail rents. Obviously, in Australia at the moment, and not only in Australia, the retail sector is (sing along) ‘doing it tough’. In the Melbourne Age newspaper of 20 September 2011, Premier Investments CEO Mark McInnes was reported saying an increasingly ‘adversarial’ relationship had led to Premier attaining a 30 per cent rent reduction after threatening to close one of its Portmans stores. Premier Investments’ retail chains also include Peter Alexander, Just Jeans, Jay Jays and Smiggle. According to McInnes (or to the Age quoting McInnes), ‘Landlords have got a business model, they are protecting that business model, the [shopping] centres are underperforming, the retailers are underperforming and there are massive arguments going on between retailers and landlords about the types of rent they are trying to get.’ Business commentator Malcolm Maiden, in the same paper on the same day, referred to the ‘the battle with landlords that is developing as the retail recession intensifies’.

For publishers, or for this publisher, at any rate, an important question is: How much of this downturn is cyclical ... occasioned by the international recession ... and how much is structural: arising from the expansion of internet traders unencumbered by retail rents and staff and a host of other overheads associated with doing business in the retail sector on the street?

E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), noted that the first mass political activism in the wake of the industrial revolution was not about low wages but high prices. If we’re in the early stages of a digital revolution, a possible parallel can be seen.

It hardly seemed a coincidence that in the Age, again of 21 September, another article reported on Australia Post struggling to keep up with delivery demands arising primarily from increased online shopping.

Of course, these two phenomena are likely to be related: consumers can be expected to look extra hard for bargains and forego the ‘real’ shopping experience (assuming that is worth experiencing) when money is especially short and economic confidence low. One businessperson I was talking to recently, however, voiced the opinion that, because of the internet, retail rents need to come down by half before ‘shopfront’ retailers can compete with their online competitors. His successful clothing brand was driven to the wall by rent costs, and he was now re-launching the brand as an online entity only.

‘It will take a long time for the rent chargers to accept this need for their costs to come down,’ he said.

Has there ever been a truer word spoken?, I wondered.

At Monash University Publishing we have thrown our lot in with the retail sector. You can buy our books in human bookstores – I’ve been unsatisfied with that ubiquitous ‘bricks-and-mortar’ adjective, for bookstores, for some time, and am going with ‘human’ as more suggestive of these stores’ distinctive property – in Australia and New Zealand, North America, Asia and, soon, the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. But I’ve been surprised at the number of print books we sell from our own site even though, naturally, we don’t undercut the retail price (except with special offers for contributors etc.). Getting to bookstores is, I guess, not always easy.

I still believe for a range of reasons – primarily to do with maximising a book’s impact – that distribution into the human retail trade is the best option for us, and that human bookstores offer or can offer a unique and valuable service.

But, not surprisingly, perhaps, I also like the idea of those retail-property rents coming down, and of the price-competitiveness of our products going up.

Thinking about it for a moment, a more or less inevitable effect of the web and its spread would seem to be to make the specific location of retail outlets less important.

One could have said the same thing about the spread of car ownership and the growth of suburban society, after the 1940s, except of course that the growth of suburban car society resulted not in increased freedom for the retailer and the consumer but in increased cost burdens being placed upon, and fewer choices being made available for, them, because of the simultaneous rise of massive shopping centres offering retailers a ‘captive’ market of consumers extracted from their own, ordinary communities, and charging high rents for this privilege. (Jason Epstein discusses this dynamic in his eminently readable Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future (2001).)

There is some hope, I think, that falling profits in the human retail sector will bring rents and prices in this sector down as well and, over time, lead not only to this sector’s renewed competitiveness but also increase the capacity of retailers ...  and most importantly bookshops, with their seemingly inevitable low margins ...  to be more creative and experimental in what they stock, and so to provide a better service for producers and consumers, including readers and publishers. What results might actually be a more diversified and interesting social landscape.

 

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Reflections on Academic Humanities Publishing

Having backed a humanities career horse many years ago, I’ve been saddened – and at times sent broke – by this horse’s continuing poor showing. I’d been thinking and reading a bit about the current state of the humanities, and at the same time becoming increasingly committed to a strong humanities and social sciences list for Monash University Publishing, when Ali Lemer, Events Manager with the Victorian Society of Editors, asked me to speak at one of their dinners. This is an edited excerpt from that presentation.

I do have some positive things to say about developments in humanities publishing but before getting to those it is necessary, and important, to identify and acknowledge some of the profound challenges facing the humanities now – as a disciplinary body – at all levels of education and, consequently, as a field within the publishing industry.

In Australian universities today the research focus is squarely on science (conceived of in the very narrow, specifically English sense of this word), and the teaching focus is on vocational education, the imparting of practical skills and professional training (Turner and on the narrow meaning of ‘science’ in English, see Wierbicka). A consequence of this has been the decline and regular disappearance of language departments. (Schwartz, p.11; Turner) Classics and Philosophy are also under pressure, where they continue to exist. (Schwartz) Writing in October last year Professor Graeme Turner from the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland stated: ‘The Excellence in Research for Australia process is certain to reveal what many know already: that the landscape for the humanities disciplines, once you move beyond the main metropolitan universities, looks like scorched earth. Picked off by administrative restructures, market forces and just plain neglect, whole programs have disappeared.’ He extrapolated: ‘In some of the regional universities, as well as in some of the more vocationally oriented metropolitan campuses, it is hard to see humanities programs of any quality surviving.’

Luke Slattery, reporting on these rankings in February this year, bore out Turner’s prediction: ‘Results from the research assessment reveal that in a field such as studies in human society, only a quarter of our 41 universities attained the international average of three points or higher ... Only 12 universities made it onto the page in anthropology; none of the other 29 had done enough research in this field, broadly defined as the study of human behaviour and social development, to warrant ranking ... In academic work, the University of NSW top-scored with a ranking of four, while four other universities made par with three. The remaining 36 were either given a sub-world standard ranking or no ranking at all.’

Humanities academics feel undervalued while, at the same time, being fearful of losing their employment altogether (Schwartz, p.11). Part of the undervaluing is financial: the median annual starting salary for Humanities bachelor degree graduates aged under 25 and in their first full-time employment in Australia in 2010 ($42,000) was nearly 15 per cent lower than the median average for all bachelor degree graduates ($49,000). (Cambourne) But there are additional factors: Humanities departments have not been alone in suffering from the shift away from democratic governance structures of management within the university, but their Socratic traditions perhaps make these changes especially difficult to bear. Similarly, the dramatic increase in university class sizes since the late 1980s has had a particularly negative effect on humanities teaching, which depends on personal interaction. The whole idea underpinning humanities education is that it should not be passive. The initiatives to standardise testing in secondary schools is also clearly inimical to humanities traditions.

Humanities education, especially when it is advanced as humanities education, rather than as a branch of ‘objective’, ‘value-neutral’ science (in cultural theory, for instance) or a set of measurable skills (within an Education degree, say), is well and truly on the sidelines. The humanities are not seen as being anything like as valuable as either science on one hand or training for a professional career on the other.

This is certainly the case at the level of government: the Labor Party election document of 2007, ‘The Australian Economy Needs an Education Revolution’, was all about the supposed need for more skilled workers to increase economic production. (Schwartz) The humanities are disadvantaged by the relative funding model, now 20 years old, which, Turner notes, ‘privileges research income over research output.’ In addition, ‘there is the practice of putting new money into higher education through strategic research initiatives rather than through changes to base levels of funding. By routinely requiring matching contributions, from the universities or elsewhere, strategic funding consolidated the advantage of those who already had most of the research dollars: typically, the biological sciences.’ (Turner) The Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative, designed to measure (amongst other things) research impact, has relied for its measuring of research impact on the Scopus bibliographic database, in which the arts and humanities are relatively poorly covered.

But there is evidence also that the humanities are also undervalued within Australian university senior management. While Macquarie University Vice Chancellor Steven Schwartz recently lamented the fact that ‘the humanities are in crisis’ (p.11) and called for a new level of support for them, he also referred to ‘leaky finances’ supposedly ‘forcing’ universities ‘to jettison disciplines to keep afloat’ (p.11). This would likely be disputed by Turner, who argues that with a small number of exceptions, universities ‘have sat back and watched, deploring the depredations that market forces have wrought on their humanities programs, while operating in complicity with them.’ (Turner)
Turner contends that ‘It is not enough to blame government funding strategies ... These defects in the system would be remediable at the university level if there were sufficient will. Universities don’t decide how their money comes to them, but they do decide how to spend it. Most, however, have decided there is no money in the humanities and gradually declined to invest in them.’ (Turner)

The odds stacked against the humanities in most parts of the world outside of Australia seem even more extreme. In Britain the Tory-Liberal Democrat Government is preparing to remove all public funding from university humanities departments, completing turning on its head the notion of ‘public good’ that historically underpinned the development of the humanities, and universities. Those who forsake training in a particular set of skills likely to lead to certifiable credentials and employment, in favour of the broad education and general knowledge that indirectly contributes to the health and quality of life of society as a whole, are paradoxically to be treated as self-indulgents who effectively need to be punished. New private higher education options are springing up in the wake of these government cutbacks in the UK, but it is feared these will be available only to the very wealthy who can afford their considerable fees (see Eagleton).

In the US, according to Schwartz, ‘Huge for-profit ... universities, such as the University of Phoenix, shun the humanities entirely.’ (p.11) Toby Miller, chair of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, reports that just 53 per cent of US humanities staff had full-time jobs in 2009. Business professors in 2005–2006 were paid twice as much as humanities professors. Between 1979 and 1997, US government National Science Foundation (NSF) grants went from five times the size of grants awarded to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), to 33 times the size. In 2010, just 0.45 per cent of federal research money went to the humanities. Miller also notes that ‘The vast majority of governmental support for the humanities nowadays goes to museums, historical societies, regional re-granting bodies and libraries.’ (Miller, ‘Dilemma’.)

By and large, the new universities of Asia focus on science, technology and business and pay little attention to the arts, literature or philosophy (Schwartz, p.11).
University Library acquisitions budgets – especially in relation to humanities publications – have been placed under pressure by the dramatic increase in recent decades of the cost of journal subscriptions in the areas of science, medicine and technology (SMT), a cost increase arising primarily from the acquisition of journals in these areas by commercial publishers who tightly control and effectively exploit associated copyrights. In Australia, between 1986 and 1998, the number of journal subscriptions in university libraries declined by 37% while expenditure on these increased by 63% and the unit cost of journals increased by a ‘staggering’ 474%. (Houghton)

Libraries are under pressure to purchase journals in these fields because without access to the information within them, scholars in these fields will find it difficult to gain access to the largest research grants, now such a priority for most universities. (Miller, ‘Worldwide jitters’.) Even ten years ago, an institutional subscription to a humanities journal might be under US$100 while one in physics might be close to US$1500. (Miller, ‘Worldwide jitters’.). In 2004, Brain Research cost approximately US$20,000 a year, while Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry Letters cost almost US$30,000. (Davidson) The situation has deteriorated further since then.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), probably the best known and most influential global universities ranking, places a heavy emphasis on the natural sciences as opposed to the social sciences and humanities. It does not seek to measure humanities quality at all.

James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield (in their book Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, 2011) suggest that the traditional role of money in universities has been inverted. Rather than being a means to achieving an end, making money has become an end in itself (Schwartz, p.11); arguably the only real end. Martha Nussbaum, in her recent work Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), concurs:

Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive ... The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college-university education, in virtually every nation of the world [and, in addition] what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science—the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought—are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.’ (2)

She concludes: ‘We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance ... a world-wide crisis in education.’ (1–2)
Valuing the Humanities

I’m sure – I hope at any rate – it is unnecessary to mount an argument for the value of humanities scholarship to this audience.  But I would like to remind us of the nature of this value by reporting what some prominent advocates for the humanities have had to say on this topic in recent times.

For Nussbaum: ‘These abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a “citizen of the world”; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.’ (7) She adds: ‘the faculties of thought and imagination ... make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation. When we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self and other in that way, imagining in one another inner faculties of thought and emotion, democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built upon respect and concern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.’ (6)

Speaking personally: I think if I had of been clearer on this point during my own time as a (primarily) humanities university teacher: that I was educating people for citizenship, this would have enabled me to better articulate the value of what I was doing, to my students and to myself.

Anna Wierzbicka (professor of linguistics at the ANU) has also made useful comments recently on the value of humanities scholarship. Noting that ‘The fundamental distinction between studying things and studying people was introduced into European thought by the Italian 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico’, she explains: ‘Essentially, the idea is that people can know things of many kinds about people in a way they can’t know things about anything else, that it is extremely important for people to know these things about people, and further, that people can know things of these kinds about people imaginatively, from inside, and that they can have a better understanding of them than they can ever have of the natural world.’

Wierzbicka also notes that a ‘link with values and moral judgment needs to be taken into account in the full definition of the humanities’: ‘Natural sciences are widely taken to be value-free (and social sciences tend to imitate science in this regard). The humanities, on the other hand, do not aspire to be value-free. Thus, when a historian writes of Stalinism and Nazism that “moral judgments are intrinsic to all historical understanding’’, he [sic] is placing history in the context of the humanities rather than the social sciences.’

At the risk of labouring the point (of the value of the humanities) I’d also like to quote Peter Singer (professor of bioethics in the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University and laureate professor in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne): ‘The idea of a liberal arts education goes back more than 2000 years to Plato’s Academy ... We might say that it attempts to answer the broad questions ... Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? This kind of education does not train you in a profession, but it gives you an intellectual foundation to use throughout your life, whether you decide to go into medicine, law, business, engineering, or any other occupation.’ And, in a formulation that brings Nussbaum’s to mind: ‘If our best-educated citizens have no idea how to answer these basic questions, we will struggle to build a democracy that can solve the problems we face, whether they are what to do about climate change, the world’s poor, the problems of Australia’s indigenous people, or the prospect of a future in which we can genetically modify our offspring. An education in the humanities is as valuable today as it was in Plato’s time.’

Are we in Australia as empathetic and understanding towards the various ‘others’ outside of and within our own society, as we could be? Are we capable of thinking critically (as opposed to cynically), about issues of public policy on which decisions must be made (and are made in our name)? Are we fully aware of the difference between scientific ‘fact’ and assessments based on value judgements? And of the inevitability and value of these  judgements? Do we reach for a rich philosophical and ethical basis for the various decisions we make as individuals and as a society in our day to day lives?

We don’t have time to discuss the answers to these questions in detail and I’ll leave you to make up your own mind but one point I can’t resist making is that, reportedly, more than 80 per cent of Australians are actively disengaged from political commentary and debate, even during election campaigns. A senior Minister in the current Federal Government said at a conference I attended a couple of years ago that, during the 2007 election campaign, it made no sense for then opposition leader Kevin Rudd to engage with the Prime Minister (John Howard) on economic policy because, according to ALP polling, when the electorate heard words like ‘economy’ and ‘economic policy’, approval ratings for the Coalition went up, regardless of the particular policies being advocated, whereas when people heard words like ‘education’, ‘health’ and ‘job security’, approval ratings for the ALP went up. The powers that be in the ALP believed, in other words, that existing word-associations were likely to have a greater effect on voter behaviour than the content of policies themselves. And, well, I also can’t resist noting that Australia’s refugee policies and the treatment of outback Aborigines were attacked in May this year by the United Nations’ top human rights watchdog, which suggested there was ‘a strong undercurrent of racism here’ (hardly surprising following years of disinvestment in the study of other societies and cultures). (‘UN rights chief slams “racist, inhumane” elements in Australia’, and this general point about the effects of disinvestment in study of this kind is also made by Turner and Nussbaum.)

It is heartening – after all this doom and gloom (sorry) – to consider that, while the Bachelor of Arts Degree is no longer the most common degree taken in Australian universities (it was knocked off that perch some ten years ago by the Master of Business Administration), more than 26 per cent of Australia’s university students still choose to enrol in the humanities (where they are taught by 10.8 per cent of the nation’s university staff). (Turner) Polling of what people would like to study also suggests strong interest in the humanities. ((My Career), Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Feb 2010, p.4.) ‘When working life wanes and it comes time to feed the soul,’ Schwartz points out, ‘only the humanities provide the required nutrition ... Not once have I encountered a retiree [at university graduation ceremonies] whose return to university was driven by a passion for accounting or marketing or business administration.’ (p.11) And, of course, much high quality humanities scholarship continues to be produced.

We have a situation, then, in which the humanities can be seen to be highly valuable, even imperative, socially, and are popular, while, at the same time, these disciplinary fields are going to the wall; whole bodies of knowledge are being lost from our societies.

This seems to me to be, broadly speaking, a case of market failure, in Keynesian terms, in which the market, so good at pricing and facilitating exchange in privately owned goods, is not able, of itself, to deliver for society a product which would greatly benefit – not individuals, or not only individuals – but society as a whole, a product which essentially yields public, rather than private rewards (or ‘positive externalities’ in Keynesian terms), and without which the quality of life of all individuals within society is immeasurably cheapened. 

The classic solution for market failure of course is government action. But in the current public-policy environment it would seem to be irrationally optimistic to wait for that. In recent years hopes have grown that the development of digital technologies and, more specifically, the capacity for virtually cost-free reproduction of digitally created products, will facilitate a loosening of the social dominance of market means of product exchange and distribution. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better (2009):

For everything that can be copied digitally, additional copies cost little or nothing either to produce or to distribute over the internet ... So low are marginal costs of digital products that there is a growing “free” sector. Efforts are made to enforce patents and copyright protection in an attempt to restrict access and enable companies to hold on to profits; but the logic of technological progress is difficult to resist. (258)

Humanities publishing, in particular, is benefitting from new technologies and business models which enable a new level of emphasis on the dissemination of knowledge and a new degree of freedom from the need to have one’s costs recovered through the sale of print books in bookstores, alone. In Australia the ANU E Press, Adelaide University Press, UTS ePress and Monash University Publishing (which grew out of an epress) publish a large and increasing number of books and journals that are, for the most part, made available online open access (and so, free of charge to anyone able to view the web). It is no coincidence that these presses are, physically or administratively, housed in their host institutions’ libraries. Libraries, after all, have borne the brunt of the dramatic increases in journal acquisitions costs in recent decades while, at the same time, being among the earliest and most sophisticated institutional consumers (and in many cases developers) of data management, discovery and distribution software. 

The ANU E Press alone currently publishes over 50 books a year. Extensive, targetted metadata dissemination heightens the discoverability of these library-based presses’ works online. They are generally typeset as part of a semi-automated, XML-based workflow, and digitally printed, yet, at their best, are the equal of commercial publishers’ offset printed books, in terms of their physical quality (the advancement of digital print technology is a story in itself). And the strategy of publishing open access online in no way precludes simultaneous distribution into brick-and-cement bookstores, or even a business model based on these ‘traditional’ sales (that’s what I hope, at any rate, since this is the business model of Monash University Publishing).

I am not suggesting that these new presses, making use of new developments in digital communications technology, are ‘the solution’ to the problems faced by the Humanities as a whole (which can only be overcome by a wider social mobilisation and more enlightened political leadership), but they are, I believe, a very positive development for Australian education (and humanities scholars especially) and society.

References
No author listed, ‘UN rights chief slams “racist, inhumane” elements in Australia’, www.theage.com.au, viewed 26 May 2011.
No author listed, Sydney Morning Herald (My Career) 6 Feb 2010, p.4.
Keeli Cambourne, ‘Job net is wide in public service, Sydney Morning Herald 5 March 2011, quoting Graduate Careers Australia 2010 GradFiles survey.
Terry Eagleton, ‘AC Grayling's private university is odious’, Guardian online, 6 June 2011.
Cathy N. Davidson, ‘The Futures of Scholarly Publishing1’, Journal of Scholarly Publishing 35:3 2004, pp. 129­–142, p.139.
J.W. Houghton, ‘Crisis and transition: The Economics of Scholarly Communication’, Learned Publishing 14:3, 2001.
Toby Miller, ‘Dilemma of blowing up the humanities’, The Australian (Higher Ed), 16 Feb 2011, p.25.
Toby Miller, ‘Worldwide jitters over publishing’, The Australian (Higher Education) 4 May 2011, p.40.
Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton University Press, 2010.
Steven Schwartz, ‘Soul food in the age of money’, The Australian Literary Review 4 May 2011, pp.11–12.
Peter Singer, ‘We must nurture the humanities’, The Age 27 July 2009, p.13. 
Luke Slattery, ‘Cultural life diminished by the absence of top-flight experts---RESEARCH RANKINGS’, The Australian 1 February 2011, p.6.
Graeme Turner, ‘In thrall purely to sciences’, The Australian (Higher Ed) 13 October 2010.
Anna Wierzbicka, ‘The humanities battle to gain a scientific edge’, The Australian (Higher Ed) 7 July 2010, p.24.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better, Allen Lane, 2009.

*Thanks to Professor Graeme Turner for kindly sending me his very helpful notes for a lecture he presented on ‘The Humanities and the University in Australia’ at the University of Queensland on 14 October 2010.

 

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20/05/11

The Future is Regional

In about two weeks’ time (on 3 June) the Monash University Publishing team will load up the station wagon, strap a mattress to the roof and head down to Wonthaggi for the launch of Andrew Reeves’ Up from the Underworld: Coal miners and Community in Wonthaggi 1909 – 1968.

This is being launched by Senator the Honourable Kim Carr, federal Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, at the State Coal Mine Visitor Centre.
This is going to be an exciting event for us. It’s not every day that one of your titles is launched by a federal Minister, and certainly not one so central to Australia’s future plans for economic and educational development as Senator Carr. The response to the book and the launch event, especially in the Wonthaggi region, has also been fantastic. And we’re very proud of the book itself, both as a work of history and as a physical production, with a cover adorned by a Noel Counihan painting and over fifty graphics inside.

But I’m also especially pleased to be publishing a work with such a regional focus, and hope that such works will be a strength of this press.

Of the many characteristics of the digital era that I continue to find difficult to ‘process’, foremost among these is the impact of this technology on rural and regional life.

Growing up in Mildura in the eighties, one felt more or less completely isolated from the world outside that rural city and the cluster of little towns around it.

Now, not surprisingly, a lot of those people I grew up with (and who, in another age, I would probably never have heard from again) are enthusiastic users of Facebook and various other means of digitally keeping in touch.

Australia’s highly urbanised society has, since its early days, shared Banjo Paterson’s dream to go bush with Clancy. The founders of the Country Party, in New South Wales, even campaigned – for many years – for their own nation state, in which the ‘evils’ of urbanisation and industrialisation could be avoided.

Now, with the cities’ increasing congestion and expense and the spread of digital technologies and infrastructure to regional areas (assisted, in part, by the attention afforded the two independent rural MPs who sided with the Government after the last federal election), the decay and decline of rural areas may not necessarily be so ubiquitous, the experience of driving through country towns so inevitably morose.

It is to be hoped that intellectually, too, the privileging of what Raewyn Connell has termed ‘metropolitan’ theory (Southern Theory, 2007), which seeks a universal explanation for social phenomena, will also, increasingly, come into question. And, in turn, new spaces will open up for non-metropolitan voices.

The publication of Up from the Underworld exemplifies ways that new technology can help to preserve historical traditions, rather than erase them, while the book itself tells an important story of struggle, sacrifice and cooperative achievement.

If, as Martha Nussbaum has reminded us recently (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, 2010), the great value of humanities scholarship derives from its capacity to explicate ‘other’ worlds, experiences, desires, fears, imaginings and sets of values, a focus on localised cultural and historical study might play an important part in generating more sophisticated understandings of and lines of communication between the various groups that make up our nation and our world.

 

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10/05/11

I was impressed by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better, when it was first released in 2009, and wrote this review of it for Overland magazine. They didn’t end up running the review, so with the recent re-issue of this publication, I thought it worth publishing here. The study, especially in the authors’ discussion of developments in digital technology, has implications for publishers and publishing.

REVIEW

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, Allen Lane, 2009.

In the UK, according to Thornton McCamish (Sunday Age 16 August 2009), The Spirit Level has helped to stimulate a “lively debate about the social costs of inequality”. Here, no such debate has got off the ground, in spite of Richard Wilkinson’s visit to Australia in 2009, the mass media’s publicising of Executive incompetence and excess during the global financial crisis, supposedly high levels of resentment against profiteering banks, and intermittent public spats about school funding formulae. Whatever the reasons for this quietude, Wilkinson and Pickett’s findings and arguments need to be remembered by anyone seriously interested in understanding and responding to fundamental social dynamics here and throughout the world.

Drawing their primary data exclusively “from the most reputable sources – from The World Bank, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and others”, and taking care to ensure that their objects and methods of study have been consistent and systematic throughout, these epidemiologists find that more equal societies are more healthy – physically, mentally and emotionally (and thus also ‘happier’) – more trusting and internally cohesive, have higher life expectancy and social mobility and lower rates of crime (including violent crime and crimes against women and children), shorter sentences for criminals and better records of rehabilitation, and lower rates of teen pregnancy and obesity and of their associated problems. In more equal societies women do better, professionally, and more money is spent on welfare, health and education, while, partly because resources are less likely to be siphoned off into prison building and private bank accounts, more financial assistance is also given by these nations to the poor in other parts of the world.

All of this is very affirming for those of us who believe in the general social value of equality: “Health and social problems are indeed more common in countries with bigger income inequalities. The two are extraordinarily closely related.” More arresting though are the authors’ other central findings: firstly that “as nations join the ranks of the affluent developed countries” – the focus of the research here – “further rises in income count for less and less”, in terms of their impact on health and quality of life. In these countries, for example, “there is no relationship between the amount of health spending per person and life expectancy”. And secondly, though coterminously: the strongest influence on the physical and social health of these nations is the degree of equality that exists within them: “Some countries can be almost twice as rich as others without any benefit to life expectancy. Yet within any of them death rates are closely and systematically related to income”. In other words: “The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.”

Why is this the case? Wilkinson and Pickett trace out, more comprehensively and thoroughly than has been done before, so far as I am aware, the complex process by which a person’s economic position in society is likely to affect – indeed, statistically speaking, determine –  his or her chances not only of, say, achieving in school or obtaining a good job, but of being overweight, violent, a teen parent, happy, healthy, living a long life, and even of such things as getting certain cancers and other illnesses: “In a striking experiment, researchers have . . . shown that people with friends are less likely to catch a cold when given the same measured exposure to the cold virus – in fact the more friends they had, the more resistant they were.”  As individuals, our socio-economic experience and social position seeps through our psyche and into our physiology itself. In more unequal societies, for example, more stressed pregnant women carry more stressed foetuses who may then turn throughout their lives to food as a source of comfort, as most obese people do. (Australia is singled out, incidentally, as having one of the very worst systems of child care and maternity / paternity leave, in the rich world.)

The authors go on to speculate about human beings’ fundamental evolved psychological nature and traits, bringing to mind this aspect of the project of Emile Zola and, unfortunately, being no more convincing. (As ‘Frankfurt school’ thinkers like Habermas have argued convincingly, one needs always to be wary of reducing ‘the social’ to ‘the natural’.) They do, nonetheless, decimate the proposition, still dominant in our nation at least, that human beings are naturally overwhelmingly inquisitive, selfish and greedy: “Now that we have much more knowledge of hunting and gathering societies it is clear that our ancestors did not [as Hobbes thought] live in a state of continuous conflict … [S]ocial and economic life was based on systems of gift exchange, food sharing, and on a very high degree of equality.”  “Forms of exchange involving direct expressions of self-interest”, on the other hand, “such as buying and selling or barter, were usually regarded as socially unacceptable and outlawed”.

Turning to the future, and technological development, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that in the “digital age”, in which goods can be reproduced, perfectly, for very little extra cost, the sustainability and desirability of private property may well need to be reconsidered. Why pay to develop a product that can easily be copied? And why should profits from such copying go into private hands (such as those of Google)?

What, then, is to be done? Refreshingly, for scholars trained in the ‘natural’ sciences especially, Wilkinson and Pickett are strongly aware of the social dimensions of knowledge and of the ultimately arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries: the point is to change the world, for the better. Also, being unencumbered by any conscious intellectual debt to Marx and finding that “greater equality can be gained either by using taxes and benefits to redistribute very unequal incomes or by greater equality in gross incomes before taxes and benefits, which leaves less need for redistribution”, they recognise, as Marx and his followers sometimes did not, that there is no single ‘correct’ approach to economics. That said, they do identify what is likely to be the most effective means of bringing about the kind of social transformation which their findings suggest is desirable: industrial democracy: giving employees a greater share of profits from, and say over the direction of, the companies they work for.

This is argued for so clearly in the book’s final chapter, and on the basis of such evident logic, that it is made to sound easy and unproblematic (employees would, for instance, be restricted from selling their shares). Partly for this reason, the arguments are patently inspiring; and the authors’ practical intentions are signaled by both the confidence of their rhetoric (“[n]ow that we have shown that reducing inequality leads to a very much better society . . . We are on the verge of creating a qualitatively better and more truly sociable society for all”) and by the fact that they have set up a research institute to continue to advocate and campaign for change (see www.equalitytrust.org.uk).

The study as a whole stands as a corrective to those – like Clive Hamilton – who would argue that increasing affluence has made the goal of wealth redistribution in the rich ‘first’ world less vital, politically. It also invites a reconsideration of the truism, accepted within most approaches to cultural theory (including mine), that cultural and political phenomena are, if not floating free from the economic, then independent to some degree. For Wilkinson and Pickett what Marxists call, or used to call, ‘the superstructure’, sprouts directly from the economic ‘base’: “We should perhaps regard the scale of material inequalities in a society as providing the skeleton, or framework, round which class and cultural differences are formed. Over time, crude differences in wealth gradually become overlaid by differences in clothing, aesthetic taste, education, sense of self and all the other markers of class identity.” On the evidence presented here, it is hard to disagree.

It is also true, of course, that times change, and that social progress does take place; sometimes even social transformation. Still, I am not quite convinced that “if governments understood the consequences of widening income differences they would be keener to prevent them”. Would Thatcher? Would Howard? Or Bush (I or II)? And isn’t it possible that for what might imperfectly be called ‘the ruling class’, social dysfunction and pain (especially other people’s pain) are a price worth paying for their position of dominance?

Clearly, Wilkinson and Pickett did not need to read Marx to arrive at their conclusions. They have merely responded intelligently to the evidence they have found. But a consideration of Marx’s work on ideology may have added an extra layer of analytic strength to this book. After all, remember what happened – and what didn’t happen – when Laurie Carmichael and others put the case for industrial democracy in Australia Reconstructed (1987) …

 

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3/25/11

Talk for Professional Historians’ Association of Victoria

On March 16, I gave a speech at a Professional Historians Association of Victoria event.

Event organiser Kimberley Meagher asked me to cover: ‘what SPUNC [Small Presss Underground Network] does/represents;  general direction of publishing considering the introduction of new media/ publishing mediums; tips for getting published; outside/mainstream/niche interest in history material’.

Read the full transcript

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