Anatomy of an Unpublished Chapter

Jason Mittell's picture

The following post is only tangentially about television, being about the state of academic publishing as seen through the lens of one essay of mine (which happens to be about the television show Veronica Mars). So if you read this blog primarily for television thoughts and are not interested in the politics of academic publishing in the digital age, you might not want to click through…

When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, I got very little mentoring on the mechanics of academic publishing. Basically, our mandate was to try to publish essays in well-regarded journals, anthologies with reputable editors, and eventually turn our dissertations into books. I learned a lot about the editorial process as an editor on the graduate student-run journal The Velvet Light Trap, but I never got any advice about the nitty-gritty of publishing contracts until quite late in my graduate career. I was a participant in a national seminar for doctoral candidates, where I got the chance to work with a few senior faculty for a long weekend.

One of these faculty members – let’s call him Mentor X – told a few of us over beers one night about his strategy in dealing with publishing contracts. Typically, once an article has been accepted, you get a contract from the press (often via email now) to sign and return. These contracts are generally fairly boilerplate, and structured around a set of imbalances – the author agrees to give over all rights (including copyright) to the publisher for no remuneration aside from a free copy of the journal or anthology. Mentor X said that he objected to forfeiting his copyright, and would regularly ignore the contract for as long as he could. Eventually the publisher would demand that the contract be signed, at which point he would send back an amended contract that retained copyright in his name, while granting the press the exclusive right to print the article in journal form. Because the production process would generally be so far along, presses would typically acquiesce with minimal protest.

This strategy has been in the back of my mind for years – in my early days as a junior faculty, it would be too risky to play a game of chicken with a press, as the credential of publishing an article or book chapter would be too valuable to risk. Likewise, I did not insist that I retain copyright for my first book, allowing Routledge to copyright it in the press’s name. In recent years, I have more actively advocated for retaining copyright, both because the risk decreased as each individual publication became less important as my CV grew, but also because issues of copyright and open access became more vital within my teaching, reading, and the larger academic community. Since then, I’ve regularly made two requests of presses in publishing articles: that I retain copyright in my name, and that I be allowed to post a pre-publication draft on this blog. I’ve never had any real resistance from presses… until now.

A few years ago I proposed writing an essay about the Veronica Mars pilot for an edited collection about the series. After a number of delays – both from me and in the editorial process – I finally finished the essay and it was accepted into the anthology by editors Sue Turnbull and Rhonda Wilcox. The book was set to be published by McFarland, and this past winter the final edits were complete and I was asked to sign the contract for my chapter. I made my standard requests, asking for copyright in my name and that the already-posted blog version be exempted from the press’s exclusive rights. McFarland refused my requests, and also refused to communicate directly with me, channeling all interactions with the editors and thus creating an awkward situation for the two editors who were trying to advocate for both their book and their authors. McFarland specifically required that I remove the blog version of the essay from the internet (as if that could be done!) for two years after the book comes out.

Since the press refused to negotiate on my requests, I was forced to either sign their standard-issue contract, containing restrictions and terms that I disagreed with, or pull my piece out of an anthology that I wanted to be in. I chose the latter with some regret, primarily because I appreciated the feedback I’d received from the editors and wanted to help them publish a book with a strong line-up of essays. The actual benefit I would have gained by placing the essay in the book was minimal – getting another line on my CV adds little to my career or compensation, and I will certainly use a good bit of the essay in my ongoing not-a-book on television narrative. My priority is to get to my work read, not published, and the blog version of the essay has been viewed (if not read) over 2,000 times according to my blog stats – I have no doubt that more people will read it here than would have ever seen it as part of the anthology (yes, academic publishing has miniscule circulation numbers).

What was most frustrating is how this process speaks to the structural problems and conflicting perspectives within academic publishing, a topic I hope that graduate students today a better aware of than I was. Academic presses in the humanities are certainly not highly-profitable ventures – to stay afloat, commercial presses like McFarland publish books with low production costs, little-to-no authorial compensation, and sell to a contracting market of academic libraries. They claimed that having a draft of my essay freely available online would depress demand for the book, making it less likely for libraries to purchase the volume. To me that speaks to a very limited conception of publishing today – whenever I publish a book chapter that I’ve posted previous on my blog, I link to the Amazon page for the book. The link for the volume Reading LOST has been clicked over 100 times – while certainly not all of these resulted in sales, I cannot imagine that the net effect of having my essay more widely known and accessible, with a promotional link to the book, would be to curtail sales. There are many examples of authors seeing strong sales despite making their work available for free online. McFarland’s mindset of restricted access – and seeming inability to adapt to pressures toward open access and flexible models of distribution – seems to be a relic that will hopefully disappear soon in the face of authors pushing back.

And I believe that this push-back needs to happen in public. In writing this post, I want to help shine a light on the typically obscured processes of academic publishing, and encourage other scholars to resist signing a contract without considering the implications and requesting revisions as needed. I also think people should publicly discuss which presses are open and accommodating to author rights – in my own experience, I’d praise Oxford UP, MIT Press, NYU Press, and I.B. Tauris – and which ones are restrictive and inflexible. I’ve talked with a few colleagues about starting a website for authors to post anonymous (but authenticated) reviews of presses from the perspective of authors, but the logistics and time it would take have proved too daunting as of yet. But for those of us with secure academic positions, and the bully pulpit of a blog, we should do what Mentor X did for me over a decade ago, but more broadly and publicly.

Just to be clear, I encourage readers and libraries to order Investigating Veronica Mars once it is released, as I believe the editors put together a good volume – I wouldn’t want to put pressure on a press on the retail side if it means reducing access to scholarship. But we can put pressure via the supply side, refusing to provide the often uncompensated labor of authorship to presses who are not willing to meet reasonable requests, or even have the decency to engage in a conversation. So while I’d never encourage my library to boycott McFarland titles, I won’t be publishing with them until they change their policies. And I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with presses around these issues, and see suggestions on what else academics can do to make publishing better serve our interests.

Filed under: Academia, Copyright, Media Studies, New Media, Not Quite TV, Publishing

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Wed, 02 Jun 2010 20:20:52 +0000