Can scholars get a cut?

Over at Differences and Repetitions, Ted Striphas wonders whether authors in academic publishing could change the industry the way comic book authors did:

So what might we do to improve the situation for academic authors? We might take a cue from the comic book industry. In the 1990s, star writers and illustrators such as Todd McFarlane stopped working for Marvel and DC, the industry majors, and began their own lines. Significantly, they allowed those in their emply to retain rights to the words, pictures, and characters they created. This totally transformed the industry. The new companies almost immediately siphoned off the best talent from Marvel and DC, who were then forced to offer similar deals to writers and artists in order to remain competitive.

I wonder: is something similar possible in academic journal publishing? Is there a way to allow authors to retain most rights to our published work, and perhaps even to profit directly from it? If we could create a journal like that–a successful one–might it not compel the large journal publishers to follow?

This is an interesting question, because unlike a lot of the open access and creative commons activism, it starts from the premise that even our little dark corner of the publishing industry is monetized and scholars might deserve a piece of the action. The question is: for which sectors is this an important move? University presses are often not-for-profit operations, and right now the model appears to be that journals subsidize the publication of books (plus a few blockbuster books subsidize the rest). So university presses are, as far as I can tell, still doing scholars a favor by existing and therefore deserve our support as authors and readers. But of course for-profit textbook and journal publishing is a whole other thing. That seems much more lucrative, which is why journals come in bundles for libraries, and also why so many presses at Communication Studies conferences are talking about textbooks and writing that is “accessible to undergrads.” This category is most certainly fictional, but they mean textbook-y plain prose, which in my experience is “boring to undergrads” and also “not as useful for scholars” but quite probably “high margins for publishers.” I will stop using quotes now. There’s also journal publishing and course adoption issues, where revenue does flow in and where authors usually sign away their rights: we don’t get paid to publish in journals and when copy shops pay publishers for course adoption or other presses pay them for anthologization, we don’t get a cut. At least I don’t. The few times I have been paid for essays, they have been flat fees and that then mean I get no cut of future sales or revenues, which are obviously expected to be much greater than what I was paid, otherwise there would be no point.

From here, there are three routes: open access, which requires some kind of public funding, which can in turn lead to all sorts of problems (as exemplified by the Canadian academic publishing industry, where granting agencies basically control a lot of what presses do). We can go open access + free labor, but that means that we are in an all (or mostly) volunteer operation, which makes it inherently fragile (want to understand the publishing schedule of Bad Subjects? The more people willing to put in the hours, the more issues we put out in a given year). Or last, some kind of co-op model. It works for grain, maybe it can work for us, but the logistics are beyond me. So I’ll have to wait for Ted’s next installment.