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Last week I was at a training event in Reading on publishing in the Arts. I only stopped the one day. It wasn’t bad, but there was nothing that we couldn’t have in a more focussed form from the Leicester faculty of Arts. I also felt that I was completely as cross-purposes with the others as to the point of publishing.

The aim of the seminar I was in was to help post-grads publish a book, because, it seems, postgraduates want to have their thesis available in book form. This is baffling as it doesn’t tally at all with my own view of publishing a thesis. If I publish my thesis I will want it to be read. The fact that it may or may not be a book is irrelevant. The book is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

An example of the difference between the two views was during a session on producing camera-ready copy for publishers. It would seem that IB Tauris, to take an example, are asking for some books to be copy-edited, proof-read and typeset by the author. They also want the author to get statements vetting the book. My question in this seminar was “If we’re writing the book, vetting the book and producing the book then why do we need a publisher? Why not go via print-on-demand?”

The answer was two-fold. One was the gatekeeper argument, the other was sales. I’ll deal with the gatekeeper first.

The gatekeeper argument is that it’s not just a matter of publishing. It’s also where you publish. Publishers are gatekeepers, ensuring a standard or quality. But this is rubbish. If I’m getting the reader’s reports it’s not the publisher who is maintaining the quality. It’s me. Further publishers will publish something if they think it will sell regardless of reader’s reports. The gatekeeper argument falls over.

More persuasive is the sales argument. This is that the publisher will send out review copies and push the book onto publishing lists making it more visible. A self-publisher could do this, but you’d hope the professional publishers would be better at it. This is a more difficult argument to rebut.

It’s not impossible though. A monograph can cost over fifty pounds, and I’ve posted books here with costs much, much higher. The increase overhead makes increased costs. Do the extra sales on marketing offset the sales lost through higher prices. Who knows? There’s no studies done. However, I think it should be possible to publish a book with a free end cost with the help of the AHRC. The AHDS is the perfect repository for this. As one PDF file a book could be left in the AHDS and made available for free. Obviously you wouldn’t want just anything here, but it would be feasible to provide reader reports to the same standard as requested by current publishers. Rather than being available to select schools, the book becomes available to everyone – even the public. The publishers are no required. This will no doubt make them jolly happy as I’m told time and again that they make very little profit on scholarly publishing. If we factor publication costs into grants then there is no reason at all for AHRC funded work not to be openly accessible.

Ultimately it might be time to ask the obvious question – what are we publishing for? To disseminate information or to feed the publishing system?