digital authorship, computers and writing #cwcon

As promised, a return to some specific topics from the conference. Several panels I saw, as well as Tim Wu's keynote, dealt with issues of digital authorship including blogging, ebooks, the future of scholarly presses, and copyright. The ebook panel did a great job of exploring some interesting possibilities out there. Catherine Prendergast and Joyce Walker discussed their local ebook projects for first-year composition.  Tim Laquintano looked at the larger world of non-traditional book publishing, which is flourishing. It's flourishing in the same way as blogging is flourishing. According to BlogPulse there are 162 million blogs currently. The number keeps growing. Of course that begs the question of when a blog stops being a blog.

What we discussed in the blogging panel was that the nature of blogging was changing in the context of facebook and twitter (more on twitter in a second). So perhaps it is a semantic argument. The same might be said of books. If you take up Tim's view, it would appear that books are as popular as ever.

However, if your concern is with scholarship, then all that misses the mark a little bit. As the scholarly press panel discussed, and is, I believe, old news, scholarly monograph book sales are measured in the hundreds, the low hundreds. You'll have to excuse me but I don't believe our problem is trying to figure out how to create an economically viable system whereby we can write and publish books that sell a couple hundred copies.

The real question is why do we keep writing books that no one wants to buy or read?!?

The answer is fairly obvious: because academic books are not written to be read; they are written to get tenure. So if you're a humanities professor at a book-for-tenure job, you have to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you would be writing this book if it wasn't for tenure. If the answer is no, or at least, "I wouldn't be writing it now, maybe in a few years," then we have a serious problem. 

One might say that the problem is too much information and/or hyperspecialization. I do think it is a problem if scholars are just churning out articles for the sake of doing so rather than because they honestly believe they have something to say. However, on a more basic level, I don't think we have a problem of too much information. That is, I believe we can productively make use of the scholarship that academics genuinely wish to provide. Especially if those academics think about the audiences they are writing to. 

So here's the deal. If you are the typical R-1 humanities professor churning out books for tenure, then if these statistics are correct, the audience for this fairly modest blog blows away the audience for your book. It blows it away in a month. If blogs are dead, as one C&W panel asked, what does that make scholarly monographs? And let's not even talk about the 95% of humanities articles that go uncited…. ever. With luck, this post will be cited a half-dozen times on twitter and on other blogs in the next couple days. 

What you could see really happening at C&W was an explosion of Twitter. Twitter was certainly a presence last year, but this year it seemed like there were multiple people tweeting nearly every panel. People chimed in from a distance. Conversations cross-polinated across panels. What we can see with Twitter at C&W is the possibility for highly productive, real-time digital collaboration. Of course the final product won't be on Twitter, but Twitter can provide a kind of rhetorical lubricant. 

Meanwhile if 10 of us write a book together, maybe it sells 5-10,000 copies rather than each us writing one that sells a couple hundred. Not as an essay collection of course, because those don't sell, but as a collective author, some kind of institute or think tank perhaps. I'm not sure. What I am sure of though is that we need a new model of scholarly work and dissemination.

What should be amazingingly clear is that books–trade publishers, self-publishers, ebooks, etc–are doing fine, but scholarly books are bankrupt. The old style academic blogs that many of my colleagues used to keep may be fading but blogging is shifting and proliferating. Writing is alive and growing. I imagine it has little concern for the humans that hitch a ride to it. Stop trying to save the monograph and instead try to answer the question that the monograph was originally developed to answer: how can I communicate with the world?