Books Digital Scholarship

after the scholarly monograph

This is a continuation of the last post and is, in part, an answer to Geoff Sirc's question about what happens next. When I say "after" the scholarly monograph, I don't necessarily mean what do we do after we no longer write monographs but rather going in pursuit of the monograph: I am going after the monograph.

First a few caveats. You can see my books in the sidebar. I have no idea how many copies they've sold. So when I talk about the situation with scholarly monographs, I certainly include myself. I also want to make clear that I don't think this is necessarily or strictly a technological problem with a concomitant technological solution. That is, ebooks or whatever, in and of themselves, are not the answer.

There were 525 attendees at Computers and Writing this year, the largest attendance on record I believe. I'm sure the field is slightly larger than that. Let's say it is 1500 graduate students and faculty who would look at a book in the field and say "Hey, that book is in my field. Maybe I should read it." Around 3500 people attend CCCC, the national rhetoric/composition conference. There are 30,000 MLA members, but that's across many disciplines and specializations. But those numbers should give you some sense of an absolute maximum audience that any scholarly monograph could reach.

To be clear, these numbers have only grown. What has changed is that there are more specializations and more faculty who need books for tenure, thus flooding the market with more and more narrow books.years. Plus there are more articles, blog posts, etc–more free (or free to me) stuff to read every year. So what should I (or you or we) do? Do we write 80,000+ words for 500 readers? In my last book, I tried to imagine an audience that would include rhet/comp graduate students. I hoped to make an argument that what I was writing was worth the consideration of those beyond those specialized in computers and writing. I'm not sure if I was successful, but that was the goal. 

At the end of this post, I'll through out some technological possibilities but I want to think as a rhetorician and writer a little longer. 

First, think about this as a reader. What do you read and why? I would say the bulk of my academic reading is twitter feeds, links from twitter, blogs I follow, and online articles and essays. I would say maybe 10-20% (to throw a number out) is "in my field" with the rest going from technology business, higher education news, philosophy/theory, new media/games studies, etc. I would also say, in terms of the academic books I read, that 10-20% are in my field. But then my work is not especially disciplinary. I would be curious if others have a more disciplinary focus. To honest, I would say that I generally only turn to journal articles when I'm doing specific research, though there are a couple journals where I will at least peruse the article titles and scan a few of the texts. 

By far, most of the interesting reading has sprung from social media. It isn't necessarily on the blogs themselves. All of the fascinating reading I've done in object-oriented ontology sprang from an encounter with it in the blogosphere and is renewed by the great ongoing conversation online about OOO. It's not just about marketing or promoting a book, though I suppose that's one way of thinking about it. It's about being part of a conversation where the reader is less passive (which of course is social media 101, right?). This is a point I made in the comment stream earlier and which I think is fairly obvious: it's difficult to have a conversation with a book or a journal article. We can invoke the Burkean parlor all we want, but we realize it's just a metaphor. On the interwebs we can actually converse, in real time if we wish. 

Now think as a writer. I think there are two valid approaches here. In the first case we say "Screw the audience. I am pursuing my interests." To a degree I think that's necessary. One can't (I can't anyway) just write what I think others want to read, will be accepted for publication, or will sell. So if you want to compose a book-length text (or multimedia of similar scope) that only 100 people want to read then that's ok. You'll understand, of course, if others don't read it and if it doesn't make sense to invest resources for traditional publishing in it. But it shouldn't be that hard for a discipline or library or professional organization to create a mechanism for turning your Word doc into a Kindle book/PDF/whatever and then make it freely available. No editing, no pre-publication review: just publish. 

I suppose the other extreme would be to pander to an audience. I won't go that far. But I will suggest that most writers, at some point, decide that they hope to communicate to somebody. Now if I'm going to write a book, it's going to be on some combination of the following topics: digital media, writing, higher education, and the particular cocktail of theory I mix-up here. It will likely draw in material from other disciplines, but those will be the central elements. Authors like Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold, Steven Johnson and such have written very popular and successful books in this constellation of subjects. I'm not saying I could pull off a book like that, but it is not impossible to write a book for a large audience on subjects that interest me. The narrowest audience I would conceive of would result in a book that would be suitable for graduate students in an introduction to rhet/comp class. That is, I would like to think that a student like this could pick up my last book, The Two Virtuals, and read it. 

Now there is an in-between audience that would imagine academic readers across a discipline. Of course, my last book could easily be read by any academic in the humanities. The question is whether they would read it. I'm having a hard time thinking of a book that is like this though (other than the canonical Foucault, Derrida, etc.). I guess it would be like the popular book but with more footnotes? Fewer generalized claims (e.g. "experts say" "studies show" etc.)? I'm not sure if such a book is any eaiser to write than the mainstream, popular one. I am sure that writing a dissertation is no preparation to address this kind of audience and that most humanities professors have little or no professional preparation to write in such a way (which doesn't mean they can't or don't but only that our disciplines aren't set up with such writing in mind).

So let's say that we axe the book for tenure requirement as economically unfeasible and replace it with any number of other electronic publishing options. Ultimately you just want to know that your colleague has a sustained, focused research project (i.e. one that could produce a book) and that her work has been vetted by experts in the field. There's no need to kill trees to do that. I know, easier said than done, but still it must be done. Then those of us who want to write books for really small audiences can follow an e-publishing route. Maybe they can get small institutional grants to hire some professional editing and a little book design help. At the end, publishers would be absolved of any pressure to publish books except those that made economic sense.

I suppose all of that is to say that you can keep writing those books for small audiences if you want in electronic formats, which is what we already see. But if you are interested in having your texts do more work in the world than that, here's what I would suggest, and this is a somewhat hyperbolic model to push the limits of the idea.

Take four academics who have a similar research interest and have an existing relationship that could serve as the basis for collaboration. They get together and sketch out a collaborative book-length project. Not an essay collection but a collaboration where each other contributes to each chapter. Not turn-taking but genuine intermixing. They agree on this at the outset. Then they take their project into the public space. We get blogs, tweets, whatever about the ongoing project. Then in a digital Dickensian manner, we get chapters. Readers can respond to chapters and chapters get revised. At the end we have an open access web-based book, a purchasable e-book with some value added by publishers, and an actual book as well.

In doing this, we've accomplished several things:

  • we have one collaborative book instead of four individual books, so maybe it is more valuable to us as readers and there are fewer books on the market
  • we've generated an audience for the book through public, online discussion
  • we've created invested readers by allowing them to comment on the book in progress
  • hopefully we've created a better book

Now, yes, this could be done with just a single author, and I realize that collaboration often sounds better than it actually turns out to be. It requires a great deal of trust. I would require rethinking the way we work. Furthermore, admittedly, this is not some amazing technological discovery. As I said at the outset, I don't think this is a technological problem with a clear technological solution. I think it is a rhetorical, ethical, and disciplinary problem with technological dimensions. And I think it needs to be addressed on those grounds.



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