The American Historical Association’s Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations, released earlier this week, kicked off a round of debate that few lurking in any corner of the academic interwebs can have missed. Much of the conversation has been based on inaccurate or merely ungenerous interpretations of the statement, and the AHA made a quick attempt to address the straw men by posting a Q&A on the statement, followed by an essay from AHA past president Bill Cronon. Rather than an endorsement of a blanket ban on online availability of dissertations, they explain, the AHA “objects to institutions requiring that all dissertations go online immediately,” favoring instead flexible policies that allow young historians to weigh the impact a dissertation’s availability may have on their prospects for securing a publishing contract.
The thrust of the negative reaction to the statement, though, seems to be general disappointment in the perceived priorities of a scholarly society in the face of evolving models for and economics of scholarly production and dissemination, library purchasing patterns, and academic career tracks. The AHA’s Q&A addresses these points as well, but the disagreement here stems from conflicting principles—imagined or actual—not the parsing of any particular statement. It’s not a new conflict, and definitely not one we’d claim any chance of resolving here.
What we can do, though, is say a bit about our own practices in the acquisition of first book projects. Various survey findings and conversational gleanings have been cited by both sides of this debate, and perhaps our piping up here amounts to nothing more than another node of “inference, anecdote, and fear.” But the alternative—sitting back while other parties debate the behavior of publishers—seems a bit odd.
Most people involved in this discussion likely understand that a publication-ready dissertation is a rare thing. Generally speaking, when we at HUP take on a young scholar’s first book, whether in history or other disciplines, we expect that the final product will be so broadened, deepened, reconsidered, and restructured that the availability of the dissertation is irrelevant. It’s only fair to note, though, that from a business perspective this position is at least in part a function of our size. As one of the country’s larger university presses, we have the capacity to ensure that we can help usher the project to that expanded state. We also have grown our sales and distribution channels to the extent that the possibility of X number of academic libraries rejecting the book based on access to the dissertation doesn’t have to be as great a factor for us as it may be for smaller UPs.
From our perspective, a missing element in the AHA’s statement—and within the field, to the extent that the statement is reflective of its members’ concerns—is the possibility of a dissertation’s availability actually working in favor of a young scholar seeking a contract. HUP Assistant Editor Brian Distelberg, for instance, notes how a project’s discoverability can be the means by which his interest is sparked:
I’m always looking out for exciting new scholarship that might make for a good book, whether in formally published journal articles and conference programs, or in the conversation on Twitter and in the history blogosphere, or in conversations with scholars I meet. And so, to whatever extent open access to a dissertation increases the odds of its ideas being read and discussed more widely, I tend to think it increases the odds of my hearing about them.
In this whole discussion, academic publishers tend to be characterized as a strangely passive lot, sitting back, keeping the gate, waiting for scholars to come to us and meet our terms for entry. If that was ever the case, it certainly is no longer. An enormous part of a university press acquisitions editor’s job is to be out scouting for new voices, new ideas, and new inquiries. And as Distelberg notes, much of that scouting takes place online, where these conversations are happening. If you can’t find it, you can’t sign it.
The way that ideas and arguments being available online relates to their author’s ability to publish them in book form has an analogue, perhaps, in the trade publishing world’s practice of finding popular blogs, tumblrs, and twitter accounts, signing the authors to contracts, and releasing books that may or may not just repackage in book form what’s already freely available online, sometimes with remarkable success. Obviously the audience for “Shit My Dad Says” is orders of magnitude larger than any we’re ever likely to see for a historian’s first book (unless maybe James Franco adds History to his roster of graduate programs), but maybe it and other such successes can help us understand that prior availability doesn’t have a clear relationship to market viability—the proper role of market viability in scholarly publishing being a further unsettled matter, of course.