Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Norms of publication

As Draft Two of my novel continues percolating with my beta readers, I've been thinking about publication. Not because I have any concrete plans (perhaps my ontology only allows for plans to be abstract) in that direction myself, at the moment, but because I hang out in an FB group for NaNoWriMo participants and many of THEM are interested in publication and write about their pursuit of it. And there's a number of ways in which the whole "publication of a novel" business is so different from the whole "publication fo a journal article" business.

Join me for a moment in putting on Idealist Glasses, and take a look at the academic publication process -- for journal articles, book manuscripts, conference proceedings, etc. Seen through those glasses, the (or maybe an) ultimate goal of publication is to Promote Truth. How do we decide what gets published, in academia? At one point, we decided that Truth was what mattered. So many artefacts of the academic publication process can be traced to an attempt to realize this goal: Anonymity. Peer review. Retractions. How do we determine whether something is true? We get other experts to read it and give their opinion on it. (In some fields, they may also give their opinions on other things, such as novelty, importance, linguistic beauty, and many, less relevant, aspects.) How do we ensure that it is Truth we are promoting, and not some lesser virtue such as Nepotism? We make the reviewing system anonymous, not only for the people doing the reviewing but also (though not always) the authors. If sufficient doubt is cast on The Truth of an academic publication, there are means in place to issue corrections or even to retract the piece altogether (though that doesn't seem to prevent some people from still acting as if the retraction never happened.)

All of these seems sensible provisions to put in place when seeking The Truth. But when that is not the ultimate goal, some of these provisions seem downright weird. Can you imagine someone retracting a novel? We can all imagine someone prohibiting or banning a novel (and there fiction does not differ from nonfiction, for Aristotle's works were routinely banned and their study prohiited), and we can also imagine someone issuing a new and improved edition, one which takes into account certain infelicities which arose when the narrator did not want his traveling companions to know just exactly he had found that magical ring -- but on what sort of basis would someone retract their novel? "I'm sorry, I made a mistake, what I said was wrong." One of the deliciously freeing parts about writing fiction is that it is difficult to actually write anything wrong. You can write something badly, or you can write something self-contradictory, or you can write something offensive, but (and this is basically the problem of fictional entities and fictional discourse in a nutshell) in what sense can a novel be described as wrong, in the way that academic publications can be wrong in failing to adhere to The Truth? It's certainly not clear to me. Maybe I just haven't thought about it enough.

One might think that anonymity would still be a good thing, because it is there not because it promotes Truth directly but because it helps demote other things, such as Nepotism or Cronyism. One might think that even if promoting Truth is not the aim of the publication process in fiction, reducing cronyism might be. Which is why I find it so weird, coming from a well-entrenched position in the academic side of things, the requirements of certain publishers. For example, the "Rules for Submitting" for one Australian publisher include:

In the body of your email, tell us about yourself:

  • 100 words about you
  • Where in cyberspace we can find you (links are good)
  • What you've done, including any previously published or self-published works
  • Whether you're part of any writers groups
  • Whether you have any media contacts/a blogger profile

If you're an academic, I'd like you to pause for a moment and reflect on what you'd feel like being asked to provide this information before sending off your next journal article or book manuscript. If you're like me, you're probably thinking "why the hell should any of that matter??"

It's because the aim of fiction publication is not The Truth but The Readers. The point of publication is to be read -- either as an end in itself, or as a means to money. One may complain about the failings of academic peer review and publication processes in the early 21st century, but I have to admit, I am really really glad that whether my work gets published does not depend solely on whether the publisher thinks its worth their financial while to publish it. [Note: I am going to completely avoid the issue of predatory academic publishers whether they be genuine scams which take payment and provide no guarantee of quality of publication or whether they be things like Springer and Elsevier, whose bottom line is money. They are not -- yet -- the ones making the individual decision on my individual publications.] Of course, for many academic presses, financial matters do matter, and not every book that says true things is going to be published. But there is still much more space out there for academics books which say true things but will not generate much money than there are for non-revenue-generating fiction.

Which brings up another norm where the two fields differ significantly, and that's the legitimate possibility of self-publication in the fiction side of things. Sure, there is a lot of self-published dross out there, but there are also some really good things, and increasingly (but not universally), saying a book is self-published is not taken as a slur. While blogs, et al., are all plausibly construed as "self-publishing" venues in academia, I think very few people would, upon having their academic book turned down by press after press after press, decide that the thing to do was to self-publish. And I would be surprised if such a book would carry much weight when it came to the author's annual review, or tenure/promotion. (Maybe I'm wrong. If anyone has any good examples of recent -- last 10-15 years -- self-published academic books which are treated as legitimate in their fields, please comment, I'd love to know.) The academic alternative to self-publication is perhaps the setting up of academic small presses (College Publications, I'm looking at you), but these are still rare, and few people have the wherewithal (including the clout!) to establish a new one.

There are plenty of other differing norms. Simultaneous submissions are often acceptable unless otherwise stated in the fiction side of things, whereas they are seriously and significantly frowned upon in academic publishing. In academic publication, we generally have the luxury of submitting without having to pay for the right to have our submission be read by the referee/editor -- not so for many fiction venues, particularly journals. But there is one norm that I look at from my comfortable academic seat and wonder -- wouldn't that be nice? or at least how would it work in academic context? -- and that is the literary agent. You convince an agent your work is worth representing, and they promote you and support you. They are your go-between with the publisher. And they only get paid if you get paid (Oh. There it is. That's why it wouldn't work. When was the last time you got paid for a piece of academic writing?). I find the idea of having one's own personal cheerleader, essentially, someone who believes enough in you to be your champion, a really attractive idea. Too often academic publishing is a horrible and horribly isolating process. Wouldn't it be nice to have someone whose job was to be on your side -- but since you aren't paying them to be on your side, you know that they're on your side because they think you can do it? (Sort of like Your Personal Penguin for academics.)

But, I'm really not sure at all how one could adapt the idea of a literary agent to the academic realm. Until then, I guess I'll just have to keep Believing in Myself.