Kizer Walker (Cornell University)

German Studies and the Shifting Landscape of Academic Publishing 


Paul and Patrizia’s invitation asked us to “address the shifting landscape of academic publishing and new media ecologies for knowledge production and dissemination.” I’m going to touch just briefly on a couple of aspects of this set of issues, speaking from the perspective of a librarian with an academic background in German studies and one foot in the university press camp. Specifically, I want to raise the question of the relationship between book sales, especially sales to libraries, and the viability of book publishing in the humanities, German studies in particular. 


Some of you may recall a 2006 report by an MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion, which among other things addressed the state of scholarly book publishing in the context of tenure and promotion. The task force noted that market pressures on university presses had led presses to bring out fewer specialized titles in the humanities, raising the specter of a “narrowing of publishing possibilities, especially in fields viewed as marginal.” The MLA report was issued at a moment of flux in university press publishing and in the field of German studies – indeed, I believe three longstanding book series in German studies published by US university presses were discontinued in the first five or six years of the century.


As a librarian, I am especially interested in the dynamic between our collection development decision making – where we invest our funds – and the health and equitable functioning of scholarly communications networks. And I’m particularly concerned about the viability of the publishers situated in our own institutions. The story of falling sales of university press books is to a large extent a story of shrinking library sales, which threatens the balance of the de facto “system” that funded the presses from the 1960s through the 1990s. Some of you may be familiar with a chart published by the Association of Research Libraries showing a steady increase of 400% in libraries’ journal spending from 1986 to 2011 while spending on books increased by only about 70%, well below the 99% increase over that same period in the average cost per book. But I believe it’s a mistake to fixate on the competition between book and journal spending (which is, of course, to some extent a surrogate for competition between the humanities and parts of the social sciences on one hand, the STEM fields on the other). Libraries’ book purchasing patterns are changing regardless of what we spend on exorbitant electronic journal packages, reflecting changing usage patterns by our campus communities, easier and quicker resource sharing among libraries, growing concerns about long-term storage and preservation of massive collections largely duplicated from one institution to the next, etc.


It is not realistic to expect library acquisitions to prop up a publishing model for specialized monographs that is based on sales covering the cost of publication. But it is the responsibility of our institutions to find ways to secure the viability of long-form scholarship. The authors of the 2006 MLA report looked forward to the emergence of alternative, electronic channels for delivering specialized scholarship – and notably recommended that university presses and libraries work together on developing alternative publication channels. A new initiative of the Association of Research Libraries, the Association of University Presses, and the American Association of Universities known as “TOME” marshals institutional subsidies to cover publication costs of university press books, which are then made available electronically on an open access basis – with the potential for the sale of print editions. “Solutions at scale” are needed, and TOME is a start in that direction. But there is also room and urgent need for targeted approaches, focused on particular disciplines. “Local and organic” is something we do well here in Ithaca and I want to briefly mention our publishing initiative in German studies.


In 2010, Cornell University Library and Cornell University Press partnered with scholars in the German Studies Department and broader German studies field at Cornell to launch the book series Signale: Modern German Letters, Cultures, and Thought, which is co-published by the Press and the Library, in partnership with Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, and edited from the start by Peter Hohendahl. Signale was a direct response to the “narrowing of publishing possibilities” described in the 2006 MLA report. The Signale program benefits from an unusual division of labor among staff at the Library and the Press and a strong local faculty editorial board. The intensive involvement of local scholars in the publishing process and the alignment of the series with a key academic strength of the institution made the work and the stakes of humanities publishing more visible in the University community. 


Signale has included print and ebook editions from the beginning.


The Signale program’s attention to sustainability has helped both the Library and the Press to better understand and control publishing costs. Working with external and internal grant funding, we have been able to create multimedia supplements for some of our books, which have helped to drive sales of the print editions. Most of the Signale books shift to open access online four years after initial publication. We are now building a program within Signale for the transmission of critical German-language texts, newly translated into English, with books forthcoming by Hans Blumenberg, Alexander Kluge, and Aleida Assmann.