plenary 1: innovation & organizational change—a.k.a., release the McCracken! (part 2)

After describing how we might go about keeping an open mind to enhance our collective lateral thinking and improve commercial outcomes for the AAUP, using our inherent and abundant pattern recognition abilities to imagine new organizational structures, new entrepreneurial opportunities, new poly-valent business models, and new modes of enabling the scholarly discussion, Monsieur McCracken went one step further to imagine one such way we might reshape what we do: by our dropping peer review.

Now before it gets ugly, let me say why I think this improved takeaways from the meeting. [insert: humorous anecdote about recovering from knee surgery, where I call Tony the physiotherapist Torquemada, repeatedly cursing his house and questioning his parentage and mental health, but end up being able to ski again.] It just goes to show; sometimes we need to be pushed into uncomfortable positions to re-achieve our full strength and potential range of motion.

Note to self; possible book idea in this: It Takes a Sadist.

McCracken held our editors’ pattern recognition skills apart from the peer review process for us, as value-added assets in and of themselves. He imagined a third product category for us, in addition to our peer-reviewed journals and books. Specifically, what he said was, What if... we stop at our editors’ assessment of X and go to press with it, sans costs associated with too much design and copy editing and of course peer review, in order to field “well written essays, of topical cultural worth, for popular consumption.” Might there be something in this (a new product) that could enable the scholarly discussion and further support our other publishing efforts. (His question to us)

It's a bit of an uncomfortable stretch to imagine our fielding anything perfectly disintermediated; we edit grocery lists before shopping. But, after a good long Wait what? and taking our editorial nature as read (not going anywhere anytime soon), I came up with two possible products in the would-be, acquisitions-driven category:

1. An AAUP zine like Giant Robot or Bust; for the sake of discussion only, let’s call it “U Press Forum”—I'm sure we can come up with something apt and well branded if pressed.

2. A suite of AAUP-wide, print-only, subscription-based publications by discipline, per McCracken's illustrative example of Surveillance; for the sake of discussion, “[Insert Discipline Name Here] Surveillance”—now I'm clearly ducking any name calling.

1. U Press Forum - We already have an example of a zine comprising “well written essays for popular consumption” that also happens to support/parallel other publishing: a little outfit called Harper’s Magazine. As Harper’s has new pubs covered, an AAUP zine could focus on headline news and areas of topical interest, supporting our “Books for Understanding” program.

a) What if we asked authors of Books for Understanding books to respond to current events and tie them into their work (or tie their work to current events); thus, creating a bridge to our books, giving us a new—and monetize-able—promotional tool in the bargain while and by providing our authors with a new forum.

The disintermediated angle could work to our collective advantage, to underscore the timeliness and, dare we say, immediacy of the content (something books aren’t particularly known for), and help keep costs minimal.

b) Another section could be the “Plan C” option mentioned above (not a book or a journal article). If editors review a book proposal that is especially timely or attractively topical—but not quite a book—they could move to engage authors to write an article for the Forum.

We often bounce projects at one press, only to pick it up at another. A brief Forum piece would be an expression of support from (and an equity-up scenario for) the imprimatur of the U Press system at large. It might help spread the word of the work among other presses and possibly grow the AAUP brand in a celeritous direction.

c) And last, we could throw in some feature articles (which probably would call for some editing). These would only be necessary if we wanted to go so far as to field a “Harper’s Mag for U Presses.”

Thus, U Press Forum could be seen to have at least three McCracken-inspired sections for starters: a) scholars at large (rejected or fast-tracked scholarship) + b) the experts speak (in support of Books for Understanding) + c) feature articles. All sans peer review. Feature articles might be a bit of a departure for university presses, but the first two sections seem within reach and reason. By slapping a nominal sign-up/subscription price on it, we could defray added administrative/editorial expense(s).

2. [Insert Discipline Name Here] Surveillance - This one focuses on McCracken’s illustrative example, Surveillance, rather than on his seditious remarks in re peer review. It’s a little busier, as a model, but it would work in step WITH our peer review process (and therefore probably work better for U Presses) and be more likely to generate high subscription revenues while also reshaping the industry in favor of our offerings. It might fall under the headings of both collaborative entrepreneurship and collaborative publishing.

a. We already solicit reader’s reports. What if, roughly when final manuscripts return to Capistrano, when we transmit them to manuscript editorial and therefore about a year out from publication, we go ahead and send a copy out for a single report in a new category: coverage.

This new report (coverage/treatment or whatever you like) could be a boilerplate summary of the book’s content, methodological approaches, arguments, material analyzed, and contributions to the academic discussion—by scholars for scholars—slightly more descriptive than critical, running a few pages at most, and cleared for us to publish.

(I seem to remember “book abstracts” coming up a few times on Scholarly Kitchen and elsewhere—and they no doubt have many times before; this report would be similar but completed by a third-party under work-for-hire. Apologies if I’m repeating anything, but I don’t think anyone has touched on collaborative publishing of such “coverage” by discipline, as a standalone product offering; if so, apologies again, that’s what I’m seeing in McCracken’s suggestion.)

b. All book coverage (from all AAUP member presses receiving a title in a given discipline during the season) would route to one U Press for complication, possibly along with related journal abstracts from the discipline?, and at the end of an acq-season—about 6 + months ahead of publication of the earliest book in the list—we could place an attrctive though disintermediated cover on it and send it forth into the world. We could also send them tri-annually or quarterly, increasing the “lead time” we’d be giving our customers.

The compiling press could easily drop the new McCracken-inspired offering in alongside other serial publications, for a print-only subscription and/or nice cover price (individual/institutional), and revenue could be distributed to contributing presses, per number of titles “covered” in the issue, less administrative costs and shipping fees.

c. Prices could be set gratifyingly high in the first season, as Disciplinary Surveillance would be a luxury item rather than a necessity, containing a wealth of information well ahead pub dates, and could be dropped to free in seasons following—so none could complain of the cost.

Reports could be solicited without cash out of pocket from partner presses, viz., in exchange for a copy of the issue of Disciplinary Surveillance in which their coverage appears. The end result being that news of our authors’ work (our books) will enter the popular scholarly discussion six months ahead of publication without any marketing budget expense.

Most importantly, and even if the Disciplinary Surveillance(s) are distributed “liberally” (pirated), our titles will be quantifiably more likely to breech the 10-page-view threshold (and trigger sales) in the new PDA paradigm, in their first six months-year of publication, as people will already be talking.

Ergo, libraries will be pleased; scholars, engaged; and we will be able to distance ourselves from the commercial press (our competition)—increasing revenues from e-book aggregation options for AAUP member presses and adding an entirely new revenue stream/collaborative product offering in the bargain. I.e., we might just have a 21st century solution built on our traditional, 20th century strengths of peer review, compilation, and serial publication. (Once it was up and running, and scholar behavior had been duly modified, the serial could allow commercial presses to submit coverage as well, for a fee.) Fiscally, that McCracken might be on to something.

d. Finally, responsibility for compiling and publishing disciplinary surveillance could fall to/route among several presses—each of us is a “top contributor” to one discipline or another. Or, compiling operations could be centralized to the AAUP, or to a few or one member press. Economies of scale might support centralization.

So those are my Wait, what?s from McCraken's What if...? in the second half of Plenary 1. I’m sure others are way ahead of me on all fronts; apologies again if I'm out of the loop on anything/repeating anything and sorry for the delay in posting. Should, however, the latter Wait, what? ever sound attractive enough to pursue, I hereby call dibs for Indiana, including but not limited to: Jewish studies, African Studies, Paleontology, and Music, several disciplines which we are proud to support.