Visitors to this site will know that I am involved in a range of projects relating to reform in the scholarly communication system. University presses are a key part of that system. They bring to the current moment a lot of durable skills, values, and useful practices and they have the potential to play a key role in innovating the future.
In this note, I want to put on my author hat and celebrate two modest practices–one a tradition and the other an innovation–in the work of the University of Nebraska Press, the press that I have historically worked most closely with.
Part One: Some Things Never Go Out of Style
As an editor of a small scholarly journal with a reviews program, I spend a lot of time with what used to be called (and sometimes still are called) tear sheets. The term’s origins are in commercial advertising, but it extends logically to journal-based publishing of things like book reviews. When a publisher sends a new book to a journal in the hopes that it will be reviewed, it asks (among other things) that a journal that actually does publish a review send a copy of the final published review to the press’ attention. In the older days (and, in some cases, still today) the obligation was to send two (sometimes more) paper copies of the review to the press’ attention. These days, this task is most often accomplished electronically by sending a PDF of the published review to the attention of the relevant press’ marketing staff. The old name tear sheet refers to actual sheets of paper (with advertisements to send to buyers or reviews to send to publishers) torn from the relevant print edition so that they could then be mailed. (BTW: Shame on those journals who do not live up to their end of this bargain.)
When the reviews get to the press, there are a number of things that can be done with them. It is common for them to be harvested for favorable quotes that get added to a book’s page on the press’ website. In more elaborate operations, such quotes get pushed out to sites like Amazon. A acquisitions editor can use the incoming reviews to guide the development of their “list.” In aggregate, reviews tell editors what kinds of works (and which authors) are being well received. Such intellectual indicators complement quantitative measures as sales numbers.
At the University of Nebraska Press a tradition that many other presses have abandoned is also maintained. It is one that promotes tremendous goodwill with authors and, by extension, furthers the press’ reputation among potential authors. Judging by my experience (I have never discussed the practice with UNP staff.), the UNP marketing staff forwards incoming reviews to authors for their interest and use. Even in an era of such things as Google Alerts, this is a tremendous help to authors. In the wake of the publication of Yuchi Ceremonial Life, copies of these reviews–neatly annotated by press staff with date and place of publication–were mailed to me as they came in. Today, via email, I got from the press a PDF copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education book note appearing in the wake of Yuchi Indian Histories Before the Removal Era. This is such a wonderful courtesy. If the new (edited) book is reviewed, I will really appreciate learning of this from the press. Even today, not all journals are richly woven into the digital infrastructure and thus the press will sometimes know of a review before I will. When I mention that UNP does this for authors, all my colleagues are jealous, as few of them have experienced such attention from the presses with which they work. This service is especially valuable to pre-tenure scholars for whom reviews are a crucial resource in route to their tenure cases.
In a time in which academic author have new choices, old courtesies like this can go a long way in maintaining strong relationships with authors.
Part Two: New Things Done the Right Way
Increasingly, university presses aim to promote awareness of their titles by making sample chapters available for free via their websites. This is an inevitable outgrowth of broader practices, such as the views inside books available on sites like Amazon. Typically university presses simply (and it is not exactly simple, of course) make this material available as a PDF download from inside the press’ website on the book’s page. This is a logical thing to do, but it is also a very temporary thing to do, as press websites (like most websites) are very unstable and ephemeral things. They are breeding grounds for link rot and they just do not measure up as preservation environments.
If a press is going to let a sample chapter loose into the digital world, it should do this in a way that advances all of the goals of scholarly communication. This means that if content is going to be freely available, it should be made freely available according to professional best practices. This means curated carefully in a digital environment with attention directed to preservation, metadata, stable URLs, etc.
Kudos and thanks, in this context, to the University of Nebraska Press for working with DigitalCommons @ University of Nebraska-Lincoln (the university’s institutional repository) to make such samples permanently and properly available (with a great cover sheet and good metadata) for the long haul.. I was happy to learn about this effort when I found the introduction to Yuchi Indian History Before the Removal Era deposited there. As such samples clearly generate sales, these practices are self-interested as well as in the interest of the public good.
In a word, thanks to everyone at the University of Nebraska Press for your work to preserve what is good about university presses while we discover new paths forward.