Some interesting thoughts here, based on his experience with The Speculative Turn, and Prince of Networks. Much of this is undoubtedly right, and I think there is a lot of potential for these kinds of publishing outlets. 4-5,000 downloads of the pdf is certainly very impressive exposure. Part of this is due to the publishing model certainly; but equally part is due to the quality of the material and the buzz about the book, especially in the world of blogs.
Edited books seem particularly suited to this publishing model, since many people won’t read the whole thing, but just selective chapters. This is why pitching edited books to mainstream publishers is difficult, whereas authored books seem to get an easier ride. (That’s certainly my experience.) Why buy the whole book when you could borrow it from a library and/or photocopy the two chapters you want?
These considerations are different when looking at Graham’s Prince of Networks, which is a single-authored book. I first looked at this as a pdf, and then decided to buy the paper copy, so in my case at least, the model worked.
Like most academics, I want my work to be read, rather than inaccessible. The money can be nice – the advance for Terror and Territory bought a very nice road bike – but it’s not the motivation. My regret with Speaking Against Number is not that it didn’t sell as well as my other books, but that it is so unavailable (though there pirate versions online). But downloading a free pdf is perhaps a bit like picking up a book in a store, having a quick look and then putting it back on the shelf. Some will buy it; some will not. Similarly many of these downloaded pdfs will not be read. There has been an argument about how the accessibility of music on the internet has changed how people engage with that music and value it. I’m not saying that money is the only source of value, of course, but if you buy a CD then you might be inclined to spend more time with it than if you got it free.
On the other points I’m not entirely convinced by the arguments against journal issues – yes, I know that most people now read individual papers rather than issues, and that they come to them via other means than journal homepages. But as editor I do still put some work into the arrangement of papers – it’s not simply first in first out. Speculations did look great, but I know from my Foucault Studies experience just how hard it is to sustain a completely free journal without some kind of institutional support. I wish Paul and his colleagues well in continuing the initial success. Publishers do still add something to the process. None of this justifies Springer’s outrageous charge of course.
Graham’s most intriguing point is about the new publishing landscape and technologies changing the way we write. This will be fascinating to watch, as will the general challenge open-access makes to traditional publishing methods. One thing that has puzzled me, for instance, is why publishers still take so long to produce books. Not that many years ago, all manuscripts would have needed to be retyped by the press; now we all submit text that can be imported straight into publishing software. Other technologies have improved dramatically too. Where was the speed-up in publishing times as a result?