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.