Publishing, Reviewing, and Digital Culture

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In a recent post we examined and debated the potential effects that the Net is having on reading, thinking, and forms of literacy. Shifting from the cognitive effects of digital culture, this post will explore material aspects of electronic transformations. The discussion will consider the effects that digital culture is exercising on certain facets of the publishing industry—particularly reviewing and book promotion/publicity. A follow-up post later this week will explore what the release of Google editions portends for publishers, readers, and the state of e-books.

Book Expo America, the foremost trade event for the North American book industry, offers an annual window on developments and trends in publishing. Although focusing on book culture at large, the publishing industry’s bent toward conservatism in certain aspects of its practices has parallels with a similar tendency in academia. Such parallels are worth keeping in mind as we consider the discussion that ensued at the following BEA 2010 panel.

The 2010 BEA panel, The Next Decade in Book Culture: Effects of E-Book Reading Devices, offered insights about the business of books that extend beyond the subject matter intimated by the panel’s title. While not signaled by the title, the panel’s key focus was on reviewing, not surprising given that the National Book Circle sponsored the session. Participating on the panel were Carolyn Kellogg (book blogger, The Los Angeles Times), Denise Oswald (editorial director, Soft Skull Press), Nicholas Latimer (director of publicity, Knopf) and Ed Nawotka (founder and editor-in-chief, PublishingPerspectives.com), and Kate Travers (marketing and media consultant).

The opening question by moderator John Reed (books editor, Brooklyn Rail) asked about the general mood at this year’s event and the response was telling:

there’s a lot less angst out there today than there has been in several years … and that’s very encouraging. … People…are starting come to terms with the digital question and find answers that fit their own publishing models…the whole idea that publishing will fall into a digital sinkhole…has not come to pass and they are recognizing that rather than a sinkhole, it offers a portal.


This move from publishers’ conceiving digital culture as a sinkhole to portal is promising and should encourage initiatives in efforts to connect books and readers. That such changes are still in the developmental stages were evident, however, from the ensuing discussion about reviewing. Although economically highly desirable, PDF galleys have not yet caught on among critics. One reason offered was the need for better technology that would cut down on the time involved in downloading, and others noted issues related to reading files on one’s phone and other devices and the inability to manipulate the screen and e-texts in the same ways that reviewers manipulate the page and print formats. A general sense emerged that resistance would fade as advances were made coincided with the recognition of the convenience that PDFs galleys were already providing in certain situation. Economics are often necessitating small presses to rely on electronic galleys,, and reviewers are often willing to accept this format. While none felt that PDF galleys presented any new security concerns, all understandably rejected the usefulness of email blasts to deliver unsolicited copies.

Among the most interesting remarks were those addressing the changing nature of reviews. A query about the fate of the long review today spurred several reflections. Noting the tendency toward shorter reviewers, one panelist remarked that many don’t have the patience today for reading lengthy reviews online. This trend to the shorter review, given the lack of constraints on length that the Web offers, is somewhat ironic. Other panelists rightly noted that if we consider the comments that frequently accompany online reviews, then the long review is very much alive albeit transformed. Such collaboratively produced reviews both signal and participate in the more conversational bent our culture has taken. Moreover, just as the digital world is affording new opportunities for authors and, in turn, for the production of works that harness the capabilities of the electronic medium, so too is this environment presenting potentially exciting yet still untapped opportunities for transforming the review. As an example, one panelist mentioned the review work of Ward Sutton for Barnes & Noble online. The collaborative readings found on The Long Eighteenth Century and this blog arguably offer reviews adapted to take advantage of the online environment. By offering review discussions of that unfold at the chapter level of a given title, with each chapter being reviewed by a different scholar, and by featuring additional commentary by other scholars and often the author, too, these collaborative readings are reinventing the review in fruitful ways. At the onset of the discussion, one panelist mentioned the review essays that The New York Review of Books has embraced as a case of the persistence of the long review. Adapting this review form for the online world also seems to invite some intriguing possibilities for reinventing the review. For example, it might be interesting to take the chapter model and adapt it to reviewing the introductions and conclusions of multiple titles—if not hosting a successive series of collaborative readings that taken collectively add up to a review of current work in a given area. The latter possibility, however, would seem to require a sufficient number of willing participants.

The panel also raised a number of other interesting topics ranging from the growing presence of non-professional reviewers to questions about images and other forms of multimedia in e-books. The participants appeared to be in agreement that aspects of traditional bookmaking—attention to paper, type, and even deckle-edges—would still have a place in publishing. And several noted that in considering book production, each title should receive individual attention in terms of whether it and its projected audience made it more or less suited for issuing in print, e-format, or both. In discussing how books are advertised, one participant noted that the challenges affecting placement as our culture shifts from one that “browses” to one in which users “target” their media. Given Nick Carr’s comments about the Web’s encouragement of endless browsing, the choice of language here was striking.

As the panel noted, the publishing industry and book culture are very much in flux today. The relative slowness with which the publishing industry has responded to the digital developments has its own manifestations in the scholarly world. An October 1988 article, “The Electronic Journal” written by Daniel Eisenberg and appearing in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing is telling in its predictions and concerns. Advocating the benefits of electronic publication (including CD-Rom databases of say all the full texts of books in Wing), Eisenberg discusses what the shift to this publication will entail. Interestingly, while he suggests that such a shift will cause little disruption to the academic reward system of tenure, promotion, and the like, the acceptance of electronic projects, articles, and books seems to be far slower than he foretells. Yet, his remarks that “the most serious problem concerning electronic publication is less obvious: the absence from the system of those who cannot afford to participate in it” (55) were prophetic. The lack of access to commercial databases is no longer an obscure problem, yet it still remains arguably the most serious. As for the reward system, its continued heavy investment in print hinders many from becoming more involved in harnessing the capabilities of digital culture to adapt and create new forms of scholarship.

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11 Responses to “Publishing, Reviewing, and Digital Culture”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor. This presents a lot of to think about. It’s interesting to hear publishers respond to the internet, and as you note, they are almost uniformly open, perhaps out of necessity. I was interested in their resistance to PDF galleys and would like to hear more about the causes of that resistance.

    For academics, internet reviewing seems largely unexplored but tremendously promising. Print reviews take time to appear; internet reviews can appear within days or weeks of a book’s release. As the panelists note, the “comments” feature helps extend the review, and allows for the kind of debate and dialogue that ideally enriches the review. Comments can also correct errors or problems in the review.

    But before academic reviews become truly useful on the internet, we need to find both visual and organizational formats that help make the most of internet reviews. We also need to create a culture in which such reviews are viewed as credible. I think that culture is being created in our field, thanks in large part to the tradition of reviews that the Long Eighteenth has established.

    Collaborative reviews, like our forthcoming review of Stephen Karian’s Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript seem like a great way to view the contributions of a given book from a number of perspectives.

  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Overall, the publishing industry’s openness to the internet seems a more recent development, especially among long established firms. Yet, what this and evidently other panels at this year’s BEA suggested is that they are now thinking hard about possibilities and opportunities offered by the Net.

    Publishers seem to like PDF galleys–especially the cost-savings they offer. The resistance to PDF galleys comes from reviewers, though this resistance seems to be waning. In part the dislike stemmed from the devices they were using to read the works; almost all noted that as the capabilities of reading devices imporved, then more and more reviewers would be readily open to accepting PDFs. As I noted in a previous post, PDFs seemed designed more as a delivery system for documents rather than a form intended to be read on the screen. Evidently reading lengthy works stretching at times into the hundreds of pages was simply too much of a strain on eyes, etc. Although not stated, I would think that professional reviewers would not appreicate having to print out countless pages–both in terms of time and expense.

    H-net reviews is one of the pioneers of online academic reviewing, but all the ones I have read seem to have transferred the traditional review to the online environment. The Eighteenth-Century Graduate Student Reading Group, a part of ASECS, does offer a moderated discussion group of various, often primary works (now hosted on Google Groups); the ASECS graduate student caucus also at one point, I believe, presented online book reviews. Yet, the Long Eighteenth Century blog’s collaborative readings series made the innovative move toward collaborative reviews.

  3. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks for clarifying the PDF question. I can sympathize with those wanting a printed text for reviewing. A PDF galley would either take too long to print out or be too hard on one’s eyes to be useful.

    At some point, do we need more readable screens for real and sustainable work to take place on the internet in a serious way?

  4. Dave Mazella Says:

    I’ve said at other points that the collaborative review concept was taken from blogs like the Valve and Crooked Timber, which were collaborative blogs that often arose around common interests and concerns. The Long 18th is slightly different, I think, because I have operated as a through line, along with Laura R. and you all as well as others. Individuals seem to come and go around particular reviews or other projects. I’d love to have more people, though, contributing content.

    The notion of a collaborative review is hard for academics to get their heads around, because so many of our incentives are organized around individual rather than group efforts in the humanities, though I think that stuff like Digital Humanities is starting to challenge that view. But my assumption has always been that my work on the Long Eighteenth and elsewhere goes essentially unrecognized in departmental merit reviews etc., because of the uncertainties about how to “count” it as peer-reviewed or not. There are gradations now around this work that didn’t exist before, but there’s no doubt about how much labor it takes to do a top-quality academic blog like, say, Wynken de Worde.

    On the other hand, the work on motivation that I was citing in our earlier thread from Shirky and Pink, via Edward Deci, seems to indicate that the appeal of academic blogging is precisely its freedom from the conventional reward structures of academic life, which as everyone knows are only available to limited groups of people in the academy.

    Publishers are a lot more open than departments, largely because they have to sell books, or at least a few books, that otherwise go completely unreviewed. How to get departments to reward behavior that leads to their own benefit, however, is a problem way beyond my abilities. Reward structures for academics are utterly and completely irrational, from the perspective of the longer term survival of the profession. But I think we all know that.

    There are very interesting tensions at work here, and I doubt anyone knows how it will play out. I do think it’s great that you all are hosting this event.

  5. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks, Dave, for these thoughtful comments. As you note, it’s hard to predict the future.

    Even though publishers of course want to sell books, the panelists seemed less sure about whether increased book discussions on the Net were actually generating more sales. In terms of exchange and conversation, one panelist did note that “comments” were not unique to the web. Rather in the case of something like The New York Review of Books, the comments are delayed and appear in letters in subsequent issues. It was also clear that this group was also grappling with changes to its “reward system” related to cultural capital generated by titles.

    On a different note, several panelists mentioned reading manuscripts on their Sony reader or the like but when it come to their own pleasure reading, they much preferred print. The tactile experience was something they relished, and one said that she had trouble thinking of a PDF as “really” a book (and others seemed to agree). For these panelists, the digital was perhaps unwittingly connected in their minds to pre-publication stages of a work, and it was print that transformed a work into a published product.

  6. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Interesting problems of credibility. On the one hand, as Dave mentions, we need to establish the credibility of online book reviews, something that 18thConnect, with its plans for juried review of online sources, is likely to correct. On the other hand, as Eleanor mentions, PDF galleys just don’t feel like real books to many readers.

    So we need to work on the credentials of online book reviewing and on the look and feel of the screen page. Can this be done?

  7. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    In terms of generating interest and assessment of works, online reviews that are signed should carry credibility (especially if the reviewer(s) are at least somewhat known/familiar within a given field). As for how much weight such reviews carry beyond the field, that’s another issue. That MLA documentation now requires that citations includes the word “print” when hard copies are referenced is telling in terms of the in-roads electronic formats have made in literary studies.

    As e-reading devices become more sophisticated and less closed to a specific platform, then the second issue may become less of a problem. It is not uncommon, however, for reviewers to comment on the production qualities of a work, these comments use print as their reference. Again, that could change. Yet, as the panelists also noted, some books lend themselves more to an e-text existence, others are more suited to print.

  8. Anna Battigelli Says:

    “Credibility” was the wrong word to use. My apologies. Online book reviews have credibility. What they don’t have yet, as Dave notes, is an established role in faculty evaluation. Perhaps acknowledging the value of the review, in print, on letterhead by describing its contribution to the field would be one way to help alert Deans and review committees to the value of such work. (I’ll plan on doing that for our forthcoming review.) I’m sure there are other ways, too, and would like to hear about them.

    I thought the panelist who discussed the beauty of reading Alice in Wonderland on an iPad made an interesting point. What the screen offers differs from what the printed page offers, and we haven’t fully exploited that screen potential yet.

    But here I think we are approaching something that either moves away from the book as we know it or transforms our understanding of the concept of “book.” The kind of “book” that is enriched by deckle-edges and fine paper is going to be different from the “book” with jewel-like illustrations emanating from an iPad screen. They seem to be similar concepts at this moment, but their futures would seem to differ.

  9. Dave Mazella Says:

    I have no problem with using terms like “credibility” or “authority” to distinguish among various sources. I do think that the old vetting systems we had with journals and book publishers are breaking down, largely because the economics of paper publishing, either in terms of books or journals, no longer support our enterprise. This does not mean that academic books are going away, but I do think that we are understanding terms like “credibility” differently now than we did 10 or 20 years ago.

    Frankly, the prospect of collaborative reviewing seems a lot better suited to the collective scholarly enterprise than the older models, which to my mind make reviewing a much harder activity to sustain over the years. But I have learned that collaboration, though harder to reward, is actually easier to sustain over time.

  10. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Another advantage of online and collaborative reviewing is the speed and timing with which a review can appear. In the case of the upcoming review of Steve Karian’s book, the discussion will occur very shortly after its publication. Not many libraries have processed copies of Steve’s book yet, and such discussions can encourage purchases–both library and individual ones.

    Collaboration in different forms have always taken place in the humanities to some degree. Acknowledgment pages, rather than title pages, suggest earlier forms of partnerships (though here there is most typically a single figure that fashions the final project).

  11. Response to Collaborative Reading of Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript « Early Modern Online Bibliography Says:

    [...] — one of the many virtues of online collaborative reviews, a subject Eleanor recently discussed. I’ve learned a great deal from these reviews and the comments that followed. In fact, [...]

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