Singles Going Steady: New Journalistic Practices and The Need For New Academic Publishing Strategies

In recent weeks, two high-profile works of journalism have demonstrated the changing physical and commercial landscape of publishing. In late April, Byliner published John Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way. Krakauer’s in-depth examination of the gap between Mortenson’s reputation and the financial realities of his humanitarian operations has received significant coverage because of its content (an expose involving not one but two commercially successful authors) and because of its unique format: the work is only available online (for purchase at Byliner’s site or as a “Kindle Single” on Amazon) and has been designed to be “Readable in a single sitting” on your Kindle or iPad. More recently, Geoff Keighley published an iPad-exclusive app titled The Final Hours of Portal 2. The app is a interactive examination of the development process of the hit video game with high production values, exclusive access, and multimedia features. As an apprentice academic in the field of American literature, these developments have me thinking about the relationship between these publications and the potential for literary scholars and publishers to take advantage of newer technological platforms.

At this stage it’s hard to throw an e-stick and not hit a blog or online magazine (or some hybrid of the two) devoted to some corner of literary studies. Efforts made at publishing “singles” along the lines of Byliner’s offerings are less visible, but there have been some developments in that direction. n+1 published Mark Greif’s Octomom and The Politics of Babies, its first Kindle Single in January (a Kindle edition of What Was The Hipster? is also available for purchase). And Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series of film criticism (which may have been discontinued in the wake of the house’s changing-of-hands), also available on the Kindle, resembles a slightly-pricier Kindle Single / Byliner model ($9.99 compared to Krakauer’s $2.99 work and Greif’s $1.99 price point).

Most of these efforts are also not the work of unfamiliar or untested brands: Soft Skull has Jonathan Lethem writing about They Live, Krakauer is known for his nonfiction bestsellers, Keighley is an established journalist on the gaming beat and n+1 has carved out a place in print and online for itself as a prominent voice in literary discourse. While Amazon and Apple have made it relatively easy for authors to release apps and Kindle editions, the speed and ease of publication do not solve the problem of establishing an audience for one’s writerly wares. If a Stephen Greenblatt or a Terry Eagleton decided to try their hand at a Kindle Single, their efforts would surely be more lucrative than, say, a relatively-unknown grad student publishing his or her dissertation.

I’m also not sure how wide an audience there is for academic “singles.” If people aren’t buying subscriptions to literary journals, why would they shell out three bucks a pop for individual articles? That being said, these new avenues for publication might allow us to reconsider the shape, tone, voice, and structure of the “academic” long-form article. What if scholars took the needs and interest of a wider audience into consideration while composing these shorter works? Greenblatt, for me at least, remains the template for scholars who have figured out how to get people to care about literary matters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he or someone of his stature experimented with this mode of publishing.

Based on my own experiences, traditional academic publishing houses are inconsistent in their approach to Kindle editions. The most expensive Kindle book I have purchased to date is a copy of James Longenbach’s Modern Poetry After Modernism, priced by Oxford University Press at $39.96. That’s $20 cheaper than the current paperback (!) price of $60, but it’s still a bit steep. On the other hand, Columbia University Press offers a Kindle edition Mark Goble’s Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life for $17.59 (and its hardcover counterpart sets you back $32.20). I’ve since been more inclined to quench my academic thirst at the library, and I’m sure my non-buying habits dictate the price of such texts: libraries that will pay these rates factor in the needs of multiple readers. In many ways, the excessive-from-a-distance pricing structure resembles the seemingly-exorbitant rates newspapers and magazines charge advertisers: the argument is that more than one reader will typically leaf through or pore over a copy of a given periodical, so you’re being charged accordingly. That being said, the fact that these practices are conventional does not mean they should not be re-assessed or revised.

The Kindle interface could also be better suited to academic needs. While it allows readers to add notes or highlights to texts, I find the system to be clunky and typically resort to hand-writing or typing out important-sounding passages. The “Location” system of pagination is also of little use to the academic scholar: while I’m sure that MLA offers a set of citation guidelines for Kindle editions, the retention of print records of original pagination (or, in the case of Kindle-exclusive materials, a pagination system that resembles conventional pagination methods) would be ideal. I don’t have the hard data to determine whether a conversion to this system would be appreciated by a majority of current Kindle owners, but it would certainly make the device (and its apps) more appealing to scholars.

One area where “singles” easily best conventional online publishing methods is in the speed at which criticism is made available to readers. The minimal financial resources and rewards of publishing academic journals certainly contribute to the glacial pace of publication: even the best journals are understaffed and overwhelmed, and for many scholars the “privilege” of reading articles up for consideration at a particular journal have networking and prestige benefits that don’t always immediately register in one’s bank account. On the other hand, removing the peer-editing process utilized by most journals would certainly influence the reception of the work: it may be out there more quickly, but is it any good if no one vetted it? Of course, the presence of peer editing and the circulation of manuscripts pre-publication could still be maintained in some form in the venture of publishing singles. The collaborative nature of academic work could manifest in new ways: academic publishing houses or consortiums of prominent authors could construct brands with their own pedigrees.

In any case, academics and publishers should take technological developments and the transformation of reading (and purchasing) habits into consideration. There are financial and intellectual rewards out there for proactive members of the field who adapt to these developments. There are practical considerations to take into account, and the economic problems of literary studies will not be wiped away by the endorsement and implementation of new sites of publication. But at the very least, scholars and publishing houses should use these moments to reevaluate what is currently not working in our conventional publishing models and approaches.

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