The Truth About Academic Publishing

I like to write. This website is an attempt to share some history directly with the public, instead of publishing in the obscure and strange world of academia.

Many professors, such as in history, publish books (I have published three) But the reality is…hardly anyone reads them. The vast majority of academic books are published on scholarly presses, many of which are ‘university presses’ associated with major universities. These books are almost exclusively published in hard cover, overpriced (in the range of $50-100), and sell overwhelmingly to university libraries.  

Truthfully, academic publishing is kind of a joke, especially when it comes to monographs (narrow academic books). A friend who is Managing Editor at a major university press recently told me that a narrow monograph, badly written (as is so often the case with academics) can expect to sell about 200 copies--180 of them to university libraries. 

I published my first scholarly book in 1997. Based on my Ph.D. dissertation, The Mexican Right: The End of Revolutionary Reform, 1929-1940 actually “sold well”—at several hundred copies. Of course the vast majority of those sales were to university libraries, where the book either sat endlessly on a shelf or got lost. Six scholarly journals reviewed the book, nearly all of which were positive (personally, I thought the book had some serious shortcomings of logic and analysis; the writing was rather dry and, I would think to nearly anyone not intimately familiar with mid-twentieth century Mexican history, really boring).

No one contacted me about the book for many years. But one day I sat down at my computer at work and opened up an email. “I read your book,” it read. “It was interesting. But I have some questions. Could you tell me, 1) what is the thesis of the book? 2) why did you write the book?”, etc. I nearly fell out of my chair, I was laughing so hard! What an excellent commentary on the reality of academic publishing! Years had passed, and when someone finally contacted me about my book, it was clearly a student in need of basic answers…because he didn’t read the book and was doing a class assignment on it!

Why publish an academic book? The reason that I published The Mexican Right was to keep my job and get what’s called tenure, or job security. The reason I published a second scholarly book a few years later was to get promoted to what’s call Full Professor. Once a Full Prof, the work and financial motives to publish become much weaker. I do continue to write and publish an article now and then--mainly because I enjoy writing. Select journals do have at least a minimal, functional readership. 

If a few hundred people read the mini-book on this website, by any realistic calculation that will be several times more than those who have read my academic books. And that, for me, makes it worth it. Just in the first year of its existence this admittedly rather dark website generated more emails and responses than all of my scholarly works combined. After three years, evidence suggests that it is out racing my obscure academic scholarship!

"Our addiction to the internet is as harmful as any drug - and what passes for comment these days is often simply foul abuse. The focus on 'surfing' rather than proper reading has impoverished literature."

                                                                                   Robert Fisk, Journalist and Author