Graham Harman on Open Access Publishing

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?

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7 Responses to Graham Harman on Open Access Publishing

  1. Pingback: Stuart’s response on open access « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. Thomas says:

    I’m interested in the idea of releasing journal articles as they come in. The major downside of this is that it would be never-ending work for the people behind the journal. As it is right now it comes in waves and the off-season is important for the sake of sanity.

    On downloading PDFs I’m about to launch a new project called GutenbAAAAARG which will be a series of tutorials that will allow anyone to turn a PDF on AAAAARG.ORG into an easily hand-bound DIY book. More on this here.

    This was an idea that I had initially wanted to implement for Speculations I and I hope to have ready for Speculations II.

  3. stuartelden says:

    thanks Thomas. It feels never-ending already – with six a year one is barely to the printer before we are finalising the lineup for the next…

  4. Thomas says:

    I wonder if the skill set required to put together a journal is going to be common enough that each journal can simply release their own InDesign template and the authors themselves can submit things almost ready-made. There is still a lot of work to do in reviewing, copy-editing, re-writing, etc. but it might make sense to think of all of the authors as collaborators in putting out an issue.

    Speculations is an odd animal and to a certain degree this is how it feels.

  5. Pingback: Elden and Harman on Open Access Publishing « PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR

  6. Paul Ashton says:

    Hi Stuart,

    I might take this opportunity to write a few comments in an attempt to outline/clarify the model a bit and reply to some points in the discussion … (I hope this is the right forum)

    It is great that people like Graham and yourself are talking about academic publishing because we are presently experiencing a paradigm shift in the way books are published (and written and read) perhaps only rivaled by that of the invention of the printing press itself and if it is to be shaped by the stakeholders they must be active. What is more, one could argue that the shape that the publishing industry takes could be paradigmatic of many forms of digital interaction and thus doubly important. I am also obviously happy that you are talking about so thanks.

    The question of a ‘publishing model’ is mentioned in the discussion and is a much-debated topic in OA circles in general; this is an especially important topic for us because I am not completely sure that’ motivation (and therefore our model) is all that clear. One the one hand, it is true that we are a pretty traditional publisher. We conform to typical academic conventions on selection and review of titles, we produce pdfs and printed books that are similar, if not identical, to that of other publishers (expect we like to think of our books as well designed and this is not that common in academic publishing), etc. However, on the other hand, we are very different and this difference is not simply driven by the fact that we offer our titles as free downloads. The OA or free aspects of our books is completely unconnected to the fact that we also offer print versions. That is, there is no model here designed to drive sales. We consider to a part of the philosophical project/publisher and not a commercial publisher that simply provides services to a writing community in exchange for profit. The presentation of ideas in book form is a key part of the presentation of philosophy itself and as contributors to the philosophic community we contribute in this way; just as Graham Harman runs a blog on ‘Object-Oriented Philosophy’, or Zachary Luke Fraser translates books like The Concept of Model, or Sigi Jottkandt edits ‘S’, etc. This is why the books are free—they already belong to the philosophical community. Obviously is a bit different to these projects for obvious reasons but I suspect very similar things motivate us.

    Having said this, I think of as a publisher of ‘books’, and for me, like many others, this still means paper books (at least for now!) and this is why we have books for sale. They are for ‘sale’ because it is very expensive to print and sell books (in fact most of the expense comes from selling the books), especially if you use a POD based model. Given this, our pricing policy (and this is also a broader philosophy) is ‘don’t loose money’. Thus, we have calculated our RRP on break-even basis on the most expensive mode of delivery to market for that item not taking into account any labour or the many other on costs. For example, if a book shop in Hawaii orders the book the equation may be like this: $25(RRP) – $10 (40% retail disc) – $7 (printing) – $8 (postage) = 0. Obviously not all ordering situations are this unfavorable so some money is made and that is great, but it does not ever determine our decisions on what or when to publish. All decisions are made on content and what is ‘manageable’ or ‘sustainable’ given our other commitments.

    You can read more about the philosophy with reference to our covers here:

    Anyway, I might address some of your points now …

    There is no doubt that the volume of downloads of the Speculative Turn is at least in part due to the popularity of the theme. To be sure, in the initially release it has been downloaded many more times than our Badiou book The Concept of Model and this has probably been our most ‘popular’ book. Whether this is true in the long term is another question. But to some extent how many people access the book is not a major concern for, rather the goal is that anyone who wants to can. Obviously I want many people to access the books because I think that the content is important and I want it for the authors, but ‘conversion’ to the content is not really a goal of mine (it may be for others involved with I don’t know). In general I think that people read philosophy if they have a need, are captured, or hear the command of philosophy but it is the work of others to demonstrate this need or announce the command.

    However, despite the success of the Speculative Turn, I don’t share your view regarding the OA model being better suited to collections as opposed to monographs. To be sure, unless the collection has some special qualities I think they are better suited to journal issues and that OA publishing is, or should be, about monographs. I do think that more and more useful reading is done on screen, but if you want it on paper you can print it out, borrow it, or buy a copy just as you would with any other book. My view is that monographs are what are important in philosophical publishing and this is want people really need to engage with if they are serious.

    Thus, when you say “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” I would say yes that is true but that that is fine. I also agree that “Similarly many of these downloaded pdfs will not be read” but again I would say that that is fine. However, I would add just because people buy a book it does not mean it is read either. I don’t really agree with the general idea that because it is easily downloaded it is given less attention. I know when it comes to me I do tend to download a lot of stuff much of which will not be read but anything that I really want to look at I will regardless of the source.

    Again, when you say in regard to Harman’s 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” I would say great, yes the model did your for you here as you have a usable codex of a book you want, but it worked for when you downloaded it, and it works for the author if we add ‘and read it’. Don’t get me wrong, if people do buy the book it is great, and if it is one of our books that does make money even better, some return can go to the stakeholders. It does cost a lot of time and money and some of the people who work and write for do not have good paying academic jobs so yes a return can be useful. However, with all of our books combined could not buy a road bike. I don’t want to bore people with the ins and outs of publishing but this is as much about the structure of the industry as it is about content. No doubt you book has broad appeal but if were to be published with a small OA press you would probably be looking as a second hand push bike!! Unfortunately this goes to one of the questions that you raise toward the end of your reply “One thing that has puzzled me, for instance, is why publishers still take so long to produce books.” It is true that books can be put out very quickly these days, however, one of the main reasons that you can add 3-9 months onto the end of a books production cycle is because of the way book marketing is organized. Basically if you want a book marketed and sold into shops and libraries you need to allow at the very minimum of 3 months (and often more – books are seasonal) between the print date and the sale date otherwise they will not be considered by the reps. This is just the way it works… Obviously does not bother with this kind of thing because any reader who wants our book can access it so it does not conform to the timelines and processes of the retail and supply business.

    Finally on journals, I am with you, issues are important (and probably should be more important). I think repositories could do a better job than single paper journals.



  7. Thomas says:

    Paul, I applaud your efforts at I think this is exactly the right attitude for a publisher to have and I would like to support the work you’re doing. In 2005 I started my own traditional independent publishing company so I can appreciate the amount of work it takes to put a book out.

    If is really interested in making books available as books with the goal of not loosing money, then it seems like the perfect publisher to partner with for my GutenbAAAAARG project. This way we could provide easy to hand-bind POD books and would not have to pay for any of the printing costs. The books would also be cheaper from the perspective of the buyer. I like how tries to print locally to cut down on the pollution and cost of shipping, but there is no way to print more locally than right in somebodies own home or office! There is one downside, and as an artist this seems like a significant downside, and that is that the quality of materials will be poorer. But for those of us who really care about that it is easy enough to substitute high quality paper or learn how to bind hard-cover books.

    As we speak I am busy hand-binding my own copy of The Speculative Turn. Keep your eye on GutenbAAAAARG, there is nothing there yet but there will be very soon.

    I have mixed feelings about piracy, so it would be nice to test drive the idea with the permission of a real press, and what better one than

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