Another Publishing World is Possible…

There is so much to say about what’s wrong with the publishing industry these days, and so much depressing to report about the state of reading and writing and the circulation of good ideas, that it’s nice to see a clear example of someone trying hard to find another way. John Sundman (aka John F.X. Sundman) is a science fiction writer with a background in truckdriving, volunteer firefighting, development in West Africa. I’ve read one of his three novels (Acts of The Apostles) and (full disclosure for my haters) he’s written a very nice review of by book, the sordid story of which is chronicled on his website. All his books are available for free under CC licenses, as well as (as my friend JFB says) in a flat rectangular form with printed symbols throughout.

John is writing a new novel, his fourth, called Creation Science. But he’s not independently wealthy, so writing and publishing the book is not free, regardless of its form. Fortunately, there is Kickstarter. For years I’ve been hearing people talk about alternative business plans for publishing, art, movies or music. This is it: a platform where people can pitch projects, have people pledge money to them, and if the funding level is met, the funds are released. There’s no mechanism to monitor whether the project is completed… but pledging a fistful of dollars doesn’t hurt anyone. Good old-fashioned risk-sharing. If you think John’s novel sounds like something that should be written, then pledge away. If you like Cory Doctorow’s books (who is also running a similar experiment in self-publishing), you will probably like Sundman’s as well.

But at the very least: think about what he’s doing. This isn’t vanity publishing. Well it is, but it relies on a pool of people who are willing to feed someone’s vanity. But that’s what the mainstream publishing industry is, except instead of vanity, it feeds on raw exploitative power. We have the technology, we don’t need to go back and read Marx again… just stop and think about it.

John is offering different levels of funding: you can pledge just a little ($5) and get a pdf. That’s basically a donation. Or you can pledge $17 and get a signed copy of the book. That’s a steal. Or you can pledge $750 and get “a souvenir pack of nifty stuff from my Creation Science archives, including my original notebooks, copies of correspondence with my editor, one-of-a-kind mockups, etc. After Creation Science has outsold Harry Potter, you’ll be able to sell this on Ebay for a fortune.” That’s hilarious, and not totally insane.

There are other projects like kickstarter, but none, so far as I can tell that are directed at a scholarly audience in any particular discipline. Imagine what a tool like this might look like for scholarly publishing. Imagine a journal run this way, for example. Topics or collections of research are proposed, along with a funding goal, projects that get funded have money to pay for editorial work, copyediting, promotion, maybe even on-demand publishing of the work. At the very least, it’s an easy way to go open access. Anti-OA people like the publishing staff of the AAA always wave the “pay-to-publish” bogeyman at anyone who argues that our work should be freely available (“OMG. It will cost you $9000 per article, we can’t do that!”). So bypass them. Start your own edited volume and raise what you think you’d need to pay someone to edit and manage it (hey you, yes I’m talking to you, the assistant professor trying to get tenure, you end up doing all that work FOR FREE anyways, what do you have to lose here?). Use your AAA Membership fees to contribute to other people’s edited projects that you think deserve to be published and read. It could engage the population of people who care about your work most. It’s an alternative to conventional grant-writing etc.

But even more than that, it could transform peer review and quality-monitoring. Currently Kickstarter is “invitation only” whatever that means. Imagine a scholarly version in which rather than it being “inivitation only” one has to constitute a mini-editorial board of respected scholars (for whatever value of ‘respected’) who would sign off on a project, peer review it and stamp it with a seal of approval (we do this for free already, or at most for $350 in books). My mind reels with the possibilities this has for improving the sorry state of scholarly publishing today. Kickstarter probably isn’t the right forum for this. In fact, I know it isn’t. But some enterprising people from the university press world could get together and make something like this happen right (hint hint). It could even be a consortium of existing presses, if they could solve the collective action problem of saving themselves from extinction. In fact, they might want to check into Kickstarter’s business model: they get 5% of successful projects. In other words, Step 3: Profit!

Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

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