The Paradox of Publicity

(I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while but recently talked about it with my colleagues in the anthro department here at UH Manoa who really added a lot, so thanks to them for that!)
When David Weinberger wrote that the Internet was “a world of first drafts”, he wasn’t specifically thinking about academic publishing, but he should have been. There is a paradox at the heart of how scholars (or at least anthropologists) communicate with each other: the more time and energy you spend trying to write something true and important, the less people will read it.

Think of it this way: a blog entry is (in principle) available to a vast audience — far more people than ever want to read it. It takes relatively little time to write, and it is relatively informal, so you can just get around to saying what you want to say.
An article in a journal takes longer to write and a lot longer to publish. It has to be written to placate the peer reviewers and be written in an academic voice which may not be easy to read. It will be on the Internet but behind a paywall, and most people on the planet will not have access to it. Still, an article is generally higher quality than a blog post because it is a collaborative product — the editor, proofreader, and peer reviewers have all ‘added value’ to your ‘scholarly product’. Unfortunately, in an article you can not just assert what you think is true, you must provide some evidence to convince people it is true — an unfortunate but necessary side of the scholarly endeavor. Luckily, you don’t have the time or space to put very much in, so the entire process is not very onerous.
A book is much, much longer than an article. It take longer to write, and making one involves a whole team of people. Depending on your publisher, this could include proofreaders, acquisitions editors, the board, the managing editor, the graphic designer, the PR people. It’s a team effort, and a vote of confidence in your project that it deserves the full time and energy that collaboration can bring. It is far, far more collaborative than just an article. A book is also the place where you have the time and space to deeply engage your audience. For academics — and particularly those of us in the business of qualitative research — this means laying out the details, giving the evidence, qualifying the claims, and going through a lit review.
Remarkably (and sadly) these days books are often cheaper than individual articles. In digital form, they can go pretty much anywhere these days. However, there are still formidable barriers to entry. Books require a lot of attention, and attention is what everyone is short of these days. They also require specialized knowledge which many readers lack.
The result is a paradox: the work that people care about most is the stuff that is read the least. Scholarly publishers work very, very hard to produce tomes that most people would rather “read the article version” of. This doesn’t make scholarly publishing less important — it makes it very important because scholarly publishers publish work that is important, original, and deserves to go into our human memory bank, but it is not likely to make a big splash.
One way to respond to this is to make books shorter, which many presses are trying to do. To be honest, I’m somewhat scandalized at the length of some of the work that is being published these days. I don’t have a problem with short pieces (I’m a blogger) but at a basic level I feel that you should call a pamphlet a pamphlet, as several academic pamphleteers do.
A result of this paradox is the tendency of apex books to disappear. I am thinking here about The Magical State, a book that was universally declared The Bomb when it was published, but has since (as far as I can tell) been cited perfunctorily and has not really been engaged with. There are lots of reasons for this — Coronil’s untimely passing, for instance. But surely one major reason is that the book is actually about Venezuela, and most people who just want to read it for its theory are turned off. The same might be said about Anahulu. 
The takeaway, I suppose, is to fit your writing habits to the paradox: write books for specialists, and the article for a broad audience. It’s better for your career, and better for your specialist audience. I’m not quite sure how tenure works into this equation, but I’m sure there’s a way to make it work there as well.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “The Paradox of Publicity

  1. Rex, I’m not sure if I agree. When I think about teaching, nine times out of ten I would rather teach an entire book than an article at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. While there are some fantastic ethnographic+theory articles out there, most articles fall short in comparison to full-length monographs for the exact reasons you detail above. It takes a village to write and publish a book, and when well done, the ethnographic depth of chapters unfolding is invaluable in the classroom. If one is just reading for theoretical ideas to think with, articles can probably shorthand a book (and save time). Career-wise, including for tenure, I would advise writing books for both a specialist and a general anthropological audience; a book written only for specialists is not going to get very far especially for those of us in smaller geographic/topical fields. Given their shorter length and thus easier readability, articles are where I think you can really tailor your piece for a specialist versus a general anthropological audience.

  2. Hmm… We both agree that books allow deep engagement, that deep engagement is important in the classroom, and that if one is just reading for theoretical ideas to think with, articles can save time. So…. I think I disagree that we disagree 🙂

  3. Fascinating. When working with undergraduates pursuing their own questions, I often see them better able to use scholarly books in their work than scholarly articles because the books often do a better job of describing the context into which the new ideas nestle. Yes, articles have lit reviews, but they tend to be like introductions at a chummy party where people already know each other, lots of name dropping and the assumption you already know of those people even if you’ve not actually met.

    Do these student researchers read the whole book? Rarely. If you’re taking four or five courses with lots of reading and three require a paper and the semester is 15 weeks long, the math is against it. But the introductory chapter often is like a map to the state of thinking about whatever it is.

    Assigning books versus articles in the classroom requires a different math, though.

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