Pluto Press and U. of Michigan Retain Business Ties

I’ve been somewhat absently following the story of U. of Michigan Press’ reconsideration of its relationship with UK-based Pluto Press, since my forthcoming book Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War is being released on Pluto Press and the loss of an American distributor would limit its availability in the country that it most directly deals with.  So it’s with some relief that I see that Michigan has decided to continue its relationship with Pluto Press. 

The issue was set off by the publication of anti-Zionist author Joel Kovel’s book Overcoming Zionism by Pluto.  Books about Israel and Palestine make up a sizable part of Pluto’s leftist-oriented catalog (and are apparently among the company’s highest-selling titles in the US) — and of course, books like this bother the heck out of America’s powerful pro-Israel Jewish community, which began pressuring Michigan to refuse to distribute the book.

After suspending distribution for a short time, Michigan decided that this was akin to censorship (no, you think?) and resumed distribution, but stated that they would rethink their relationship with Pluto.  On one hand, I suppose there is something to rethink: Pluto is an explicitly leftist publisher and publishes work with a distinct political edge, and U. of Michigan is a public university which might feel that by distributing Pluto’s books, it is endorsing their political positions.  

I think Michigan’s concerns in this area are trumped, though, by the fact that it is a university with a university press, and has a higher obligation to foster and contribute to the debates that shape society. If they need to hide that obligation behind the disinterested stance of a “distributorship agreement” (which means they pass books from Pluto into the US’s retail channels without reviewing them or contributing editorially in any way), so be it, as long as they are meeting that obligation in the end.

I suppose some may ask whether I feel any compunctions about publishing with such a “controversial” publisher. The answer, as my mocking sarcasm quotes around “controversial” might suggest, is a resounding “no”.  First of all, I have no problem with anti-Zionist stances, and see no reason why scholarly work should uphold or kowtow to any particular philosophy.  I find the argument that this kind of work is somehow anti-Semitic to be intellectually dishonest and severely misguided at best, and potentially harmful and intentionally misguiding in its strongest manifestations.  But even setting aside the particular nature of the current complaints about Kovel’s work, what about publishing an academic work with a house that is explicitly committed to a particular political position?

The reality is, I had a choice of where to publish and chose Pluto because its terms were much better, both for me as the editor of the book but more importantly for the content and for getting the book noticed.  I’d like the book to be taken up by professors, at least in advanced classes, and publishing with Pluto makes that a possibility.  Pluto markets; many academic publishers do little more than set up at conferences.  Pluto’s books are affordable — they are offering a $27.95 paperback of my book in addition to a $90 hardcover, where other publishers planned to bring out a $130 hardback and nothing else. Pluto will do a press run in the thousands (I’m not sure what the final figure will be) where others were in the hundreds, aimed mainly at library sales. Pluto offered contributor copies for the other authors whose work is included in the book; others offered discounts only. And yes, Pluto pays its authors, though obviously I’m not going to get rich off of a book about the relationship between anthropology and Cold War politics. Still, it’s the principle that counts, and nobody’s made it quite clear to me why anthropologists (and academics in general) should be willing to work for free — especially when, in this age of increasingly privatized academic publishing, somebody’s making a profit off our work.

Obviously I’m not opposed to working for the enrichment of the field without remuneration — I’ve posted at Savage Minds since its inception without making a penny, and I support open publishing models — but a lot of work goes into publishing a book, even (maybe “especially”) an edited volume, and it’s surprising that so few publishers offer any sort of compensation for that labor.

As long as I’m on the topic of publishing and the work of putting a book out, I’d like to ask if anyone would be interested in hearing about that process.  It’s been a huge learning experience for me that I’m more than willing to share (for free, even!) if people feel it would be useful to them. I know my own education did nothing to prepare me for the job. Or are SM readers all well-versed in the publishing world to be interested in that? Let me know.

13 thoughts on “Pluto Press and U. of Michigan Retain Business Ties

  1. Pluto’s list is superb. End of story as far as I’m concerned. If this is the first that people have heard of Pluto they should look more closely at the press — even if you are not a rabid lefty they are worth keeping an eye on.

  2. Pluto may have some respectable titles, but the fact is that it distribute some very anti-semitic books (ex: books by Israel Shahak, and Hamas a beginners guide). Nothing a University should be associated with.

  3. In response to MJ: Israel Shahak was actually a well known Jewish-Israeli citizen whose work argued that Zionism was actually a product of European anti-Semitism, insofar as “since it, like the anti-Semites, holds that Jews are everywhere aliens who would best be isolated from the rest of the world.”

    To frame Shahak as anti-Semitic is to both misread his works, and to misunderstand his stakes in trying to develop a truly democratic sphere of politics within Israel.

  4. MJ’s specious claim that any book that criticizes Israel is “anti-Semitic” has to be challenged. According to him or her, Israel’s version of the New York Times, “Ha-Aretz” would have to be classified as anti-Semitic, as its daily searing critiques of Israeli policies and leading political ideologies are well-known and much appreciated by a good part of the Israeli reading public. Indeed, Ha’aretz is (or was) the main touch stone and most visited news page among Beiruti journalists and newspaper editors when I worked in Lebanon. Enough of this intellectual terrorism. Restricting debate about Israeli policies, their impact on the Middle East, and the extent to which US policymakers, academics, and journalists should just sign off on and shut up about anything Israel wants to do is really bad for all concerned — Israelis, Americans, and Arabs. Had we been able to talk about this more openly and freely, we might not be in the mess we now find ourselves in now in Iraq.

  5. Laurie,

    Nobody is saying that every book that critisizes Israel is anti-semitic. You are the only one alleging that argument is being made. However, many of Pluto’s books are ANTI-SEMITIC. Not anti-Israel or anti-zionist, but anti-semitic. You can defend them all you want but it doesn’t say much about you. Israel Shahak is an anti-semite (look him up), and books supporting Hamas (whose charter is anti-semitic) are Jew hating books.

    As far as intellectual terrorism, you are the one saying that Israel supporters are not allowed to have an opinion. I guess you think free speech is okay, as long as people agree with you. You are the one trying to shut down dialogue by using loaded terms like that.

    Grow up.

  6. I never said that Israel supporters are not allowed to have an opinion. They have a wide variety of opinions, as do writers who address the Palestinian narrative.

    Define anti-Semitic. Are you sure you are not confusing it/conflating it with anti-Zionist? I’m not trying to shut down dialogue, but rather, to question comments that paint with a wide and sloppy brush a number of books the writer probably has not read. Khaled Hroub’s book on Hamas is critical of Hamas. He used to be a member of that organization. Israel Shahak was an academic and worked long and hard for social justice. Justice, you shall only do justice and justice is a key tenet of Judaism (from Ecclesiastes). Zionism is a whole other ball game. Free speech is wonderful and I don’t expect or demand that people will agree with me. Free speech ought, however, to be based on informed and careful consideration of the subjects under discussion, and not stoop to such comments as “grow up.”

    Intellectual terrorism is when one’s views, based on long-term ethnographic research, that a particular country is engaging in actions and policies that bear a strong resemblance to Apartheid, and regularly contravene international humanitarian law, are considered sinister and beyond the limits of academic discourse and debate. For an example of such an approach to free speech, surf on over to Do some research.

  7. Human Rights Watch today criticized Israel for cutting all electrical and gas supplies to the Gaza strip, a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition on collective punishment.

    Here’s a recent cultural geography/urban studies/anthro study of mixed cities and structural violence in Israel that might help clarify some things.

    Mixed Towns, Trapped Communities
    Historical Narratives, Spatial Dynamics, Gender Relations and Cultural Encounters in Palestinian-Israeli Towns
    Daniel Monterescu and Dan Rabinowitz
    Series: Re-materialising Cultural Geography

    Modern urban spaces are, by definition, mixed socio-spatial configurations. In many ways, their enduring success and vitality lie in the richness of their ethnic texture and ongoing exchange of economic goods, cultural practices, political ideas and social movements. This mixture, however, is rarely harmonious and has often led to violent conflict over land and identity. Focusing on mixed towns in Israel/Palestine, this insightful volume theorizes the relationship between modernity and nationalism and the social dynamics which engender and characterize the growth of urban spaces and the emergence therein of inter-communal relations.

    For more than a century, Arabs and Jews have been interacting in the workplaces, residential areas, commercial enterprises, cultural arenas and political theatres of mixed towns. Defying prevailing Manichean oppositions, these towns both exemplify and resist the forces of nationalist segregation. In this interdisciplinary volume, a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian scholars come together to explore ways in which these towns have been perceived as utopian or dystopian and whether they are best conceptualized as divided, dual or colonial. Identifying ethnically mixed towns as a historically specific analytic category, this volume calls for further research, comparison and debate.

  8. Dear MJ/UB40: you claim to be able to distinguish between anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist arguments, but I’m not sure how you can make this claim when you reference Shahak as your example. Israel Shahak was born a Polish Jew and later became a citizen of Israel after surviving over two years in the Bergen-Belsen camp. He was always an important critic of Israeli state policies, but he was never anti-Semitic. If you can’t make this simple distinction in the case of Shahak, I find it very unrealistic that you would be able to make this distinction elsewhere.

  9. It fascinates me that people continue to consider books just, well, “books”. You mention “print runs”, “distribution”, and “press run of thousands”; Pluto Publishing’s site lists alternative bindings – an ebook subscription called “The Academic Library” and POD (print on demand) for select backlist titles. Many universities are going digital, so my question is: will your book be included in their ebook subscription repository? Perhaps some professors may want to adopt the electronic version rather than print (or what is more common is for students to request the online version). Making your book available in ebook format also increases distribution – perhaps Pluto has arrangements with 3rd party distributors like MyiLibrary and Ebrary. If they have POD capability for backlist titles, I’d imagine that at some point they’ll make it so for new titles as well, instead of printing thousands of copies that languish in a warehouse somewhere and costing publishers a fortune to maintain. With POD nothing ever goes out of print (google “long tail”) and those who still want print books are satisfied.

    If I were publishing a book today I’d really consider the publisher’s ability to distribute electronically, not through print books– that’s where authors have the greatest chance of getting their works read.

    Oneman: what about writing a post having to do with your publishing experience? Perhaps a mini-publishing ethnography from an anthro point of view? I’m sure many here would be interested to hear it, compare notes, and learn.

  10. SeaPixy: as I understand my contract, e-rights would be included in “other distribution” where Pluto acts as a broker with other distributors and/or publishers. It’s a right like translation rights — if they can find a press that wants to translate or release it in a new market, they arrange the deal and take a cut.

    I will start putting together something on the process of creating and getting published an edited volume in the near future — right now, I’m neck-deep in the last set of tasks before it goes to the printer, so that’s got most my attention.

  11. Not all Pluto books fall into the political category. They also publish Israel Shahak who wrote viciously anti-Semitic books, replete with blood libels, accusations of Jews deliberately murdering non-Jews on rabbinic advice, and medieval canards about the nefarious contents of the Talmud. (Yes, Shahak was born Jewish)

    I really can see why a State University may not wish to ba associated with a publisher that is comfortable keeping blood libel in print. Although Pluto is avowedly Socialits, it seems to hve some campitalist motivations here. Shahak sells good numbers.

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