The persistence of books in an age of content: A conversation

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In recognition of West Virginia University’s long-form scholarship celebration, we’re turning the blog’s camera around for an interview with Derek Krissoff, director of West Virginia University Press, in conversation with Ryan Claycomb, interim director of the WVU Humanities Center. 

RC: Derek, at this transitional moment in the publishing industry, how would you characterize the work of university presses?

DK: I would say, without qualification, irony, or diffidence, that this is a golden age for books and for university presses. There are more books, more bookstores, more authors, more communities of readers, more publishers in general, and more university presses specifically than ever before.

Moreover, while presses are experimenting with new business models and new methods of disseminating information, our recent history has been characterized by continuity far more than disruption. At most university presses, eighty to ninety percent of sales continue to come from print, while the upstart open access model, heralded in some quarters as our inevitable future, involves something like one percent of new scholarly titles. The substance of university press books—from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression—is more adventurous than ever. Their form, however, is essentially unchanged.

RC: Those last two titles are from pretty prominent presses, though.  What about for smaller presses like ours?

DK: At West Virginia University, signs of the book’s golden age are—thanks to a supportive administration and faculty, very much including you, Ryan—all around. I’ll restrict myself to just a few recent examples directly involving the press. The day I type these words our authors are reading in three states. We’re putting the finishing touches on a catalog that includes endorsements ranging from John Sayles to Bustle to the Los Angeles Review of Books. I’m still abuzz from our event late last month, cohosted by the humanities center, that filled a large lecture hall to capacity. And of course there’s the long-form celebration itself, a manifestation of the university’s commitment to books that brings together WVU’s office of the provost, press, humanities center, library, and faculty and staff authors.

RC: Let’s talk about trends in publishing more broadly. How are books from university presses faring a decade into the age of the Kindle?

DK: Technophiles and futurists who at the end of the last century began to predict the death of traditional books and publishers misunderstood the relation of the digital to the nonvirtual, and those in the field of information science who today long for the frictionless flow of digital content continue to misunderstand it. Some of this is widely commented on: the satisfying new mini-genre of “books aren’t deadpieces. Yes, printed books can be read easily in the bath and yes, their tactile quality and lack of distracting add-ons become more appealing in an anxiously wired era, when so many seek respite from “another damned screen.” But there’s more to it. New technologies are changing things, but not (from where I sit) in the ways their most confident champions predicted.

Consider the life cycle of a book circa 2018. My colleagues and I often become aware of potential authors through electronic methods, by reading their articles on-screen or seeing their names in online conference programs, but we frequently meet them in person—we’re still going to those conferences, and so are they—to talk about their work on its path to becoming a book. Once they’re published, we let the world know about new books in virtual spaces via social media, email, blogs, and listservs. But the online attention we generate draws readers and authors together at lectures and launch events, in bookstores, at libraries, at book festivals, in exhibit halls—an ever-expanding range of IRL encounters which in turn generate additional online conversation. At this point, in other words, it seems nearly impossible to disentangle print and e-, digital networks and in-person interactions. And the digital aspects of books, publishing, and reading more often seem to enhance their tangible, real-life counterparts than detract from them.

RC: But is this still part of a slow, inexorable migration to digital environments more generally? Can university presses survive the onset of algorithmic content?

DK: There’s still the grounded, material nature of publishing work itself—the stuff that requires paid professionals and makes it so difficult to give away books free. (The resources required to support publishing have to come from someplace, after all, even when that publishing is digital.) I work with a series editor who likes to say that his series features “books written by human beings” as a way to distinguish more readable, personal prose from the institutional, textbooky sort. The paradox is that it takes more human beings, not fewer, to achieve the effect he’s talking about. That’s why in a frictionless, free, and endlessly abundant scholarly communications system, things often end up harder to read, and it’s harder to know what to read. An open, ungated arrangement may be fine for content but not, I think, for books. The friction of bookmaking involves humans—curators, dealmakers, series editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, designers, marketers—it makes the book “read” human, and it works to bring humans together at events like this month’s long-form celebration.

All of this helps explain why university presses and their books are thriving in an age of scholarly content and institutional repositories. It’s part of the service we provide, broadly understood—not just serving our universities by publishing our own faculty (although we sometimes do that), but propelling the university’s name into the world and relatedly, I think, drawing together communities of readers both far away and close to home.

RC: Is that effect actually happening with books from our press?

DK: An obvious example would be our edition of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. Last year someone in New York contacted me on behalf of someone in California about issuing a new edition of this classic work about West Virginia. The national buzz generated by the book’s publication in February meant two things simultaneously: that people outside West Virginia encountered the words “West Virginia University” in new ways and in new places (think Publishers Weekly, Politics and Prose, the twitter feed of the executive director of the American Academy of Poets) and that readers in West Virginia were moved to celebrate with a series of local launch events and conversations. It’s a neat trick, the braiding of public sphere and place-specific, digital and face-to-face. And it’s one indication that while university press books are everywhere, the book isn’t going anywhere.

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