Book publication in linguistics (and other fields of scholarship) has become so absurd that I’ve started saying that it’s the biggest problem of contemporary linguistics: Books of major publishers cost about €0.20-0.40 per page, and articles are even worse. This is something that perhaps I notice more than other linguists in the richer countries, because as a typologist I need access to works on many different languages. The commercial publishers would argue that this is unavoidable, but filesharing has become so easy that I expect fewer and fewer scholars to be willing to accept this argumentation in the future. What is it that the commercial publishers add to the value of our manuscripts? They used to print and distribute books, but we don’t really need this anymore (due to technological changes, print-on-demand services are more efficient than large printruns anyway). They used to advertise books and organize the sale of books, but from the authors’ perspective, it would be much better if our books were freely available. This is the big difference between science and music or film: No scientist has ever made a living off the sales of their books and articles. These days, the best advertisements are social media like Facebook and Twitter, and we don’t need publishers for this. Publishers normally expect that the manuscript of your book is not freely downloadable from your website, so by “publishing” a book, you actually make it less public. While not published yet, it’s freely available on your website to anyone in the world, and after publication, it exists as a paper copy in a few dozen libraries in the rich countries – this is what I call absurd.
So why do people still publish books with the traditional commercial publishers, instead of just putting their works on their website, or making them available via sites like ResearchGate or Academia.edu? The reason is not that this would benefit the readers – the reason is that it benefits the authors. What authors primarily get from the publishers is prestige, and this is the most urgent thing they need. Prestige is what builds careers, and without careers there’s no academic linguistics. Everything else comes after that. This is why people publish grammars of small languages at prices that are totally unaffordable to the speakers, and unaffordable also to many linguists who would like to read them. The authors don’t feel good about it (I certainly felt awful when my grammar of Lezgian was published, which costs EUR 229.00), but they often accept it as a necessary evil.
However, the prestige of publishers is not something that the publishers themselves created on their own. Publishers’ imprints are prestigious because prestigious scholars have published with them. For example, Mouton (which later became De Gruyter Mouton) got a big boost from publishing Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic structures in 1957. So prestige is something that ultimately derives from prestigious scholars. If enough established scholars get together, they can create an imprint that is prestigious, out of nothing. This has often worked with journals, and it also works with book imprints. This is the idea of Language Science Press, a new book imprint associated with the Freie Universität Berlin, run by Stefan Müller together with me. We approached many colleagues and asked them if they favour the idea of free (open-access) electronic book publication in general terms, and after an overwhelmingly positive response, we decided to go ahead and start a new scholar-owned linguistics publisher. In the meantime, the DFG has awarded us over €500.000 to pursue this idea, so we can expand our activities.
The reviewing and selection of the book manuscripts will be taken care of by the series editors of the various series. So far, we have eight series, one of which (Studies in Diversity Linguistics) not accidentally has a name that is reminiscient of the name of this blog. These aspects are no different than with commercial book publishers, and our goal is to publish books of the same quality and prestige as the major publishers in the field (Oxford University Press, De Gruyter Mouton, Benjamins, Brill). The first books should come out in March or April 2014.
Since there is now free software for book publishing (PKP’s Open Monograph Press), the main costs we have are typesetting costs, and we hope that these will become lower and lower as more and more linguists acquire good typesetting skills, especially skills in using LaTeX. We also hope that there will be continued support from institutions like the DFG and the FU Berlin, so that there will be no need to charge authors. We think that it should not cost more than EUR 500 to publish a linguistics book if the author has used LaTeX in creating it.
Of course, open-access book publication is a growing trend, and the commercial publishers are increasingly offering open-access options as well, usually with an author-pays model (you pay EUR 10,000, and the publisher will make your book available free of charge to its readers). But can there be a functioning market for scientific publication by commercial publishers? I have argued that market forces will not bring the costs down as long as the publishers own the imprints and therefore authors have a strong incentive to collaborate with the companies who own the imprints. It would be irrational if companies did not make use of the prestige of their labels to extract the maximum price out of public science budgets, whether they are library budgets paying for subscriptions, or research budgets paying for author-pays open-access.
So what I’d like to see in the future is that all the prestigious labels in science is owned by the scholars themselves, like Language Science Press. We should try not to publish in journals whose titles are owned by the publisher, and for journals whose titles are owned by the scholarly associations (e.g. Linguistic Typology and Folia Linguistica, owned by the Association for Linguistic Typology and the Societas Linguistica, respectively), the organizations should shop around for the publisher that offers the best price. In the past, publishers and scholars had largely the same goals, because both wanted to see as many copies of their books and journals sold as possible. But in the world of electronic publication, the interests no longer coincide, unfortunately: Publishers want to charge high prices, but scholars want to pay low prices, while still publishing in prestigious outlets. This is a situation where the scholars will keep losing unless they take the valuable labels (book imprints and journal titles) into their own hands and unsentimentally look for the cheapest deal for the technical services.