Publish and be damned!

My fiancée was tonight questioning my commitment to blogging, posterity, etc., because I hadn’t touched my stony, fallow patch of the blogosphere in five months.  And I was all, ‘Fuck blogging!  I wrote a bunch of great stuff, and I’m not even famous yet, let alone rich.  I hate the internet!’

As I uttered these words, I was in New York, cultural centre and de-facto capital of the United States, preparing a meal that included lacinato kale, hand roasted hazelnuts and mimolette cheese for a bunch of local sophisticates.  NPR droned in the background, and a young, nasal critic hailed the latest product of the grinding, senseless (and enormously profitable) New York publishing machine as ‘richly textured’, in the signature monotone of US public radio.  I nearly stepped on the dog as I dove for the laptop to login to my WordPress account.

Firstly, the regime that would rule the US in my darkest and most triumphant fantasy would pay particularly close attention to the publishing sector, and would have an exhaustive list of capital offenses, at the very top of which would be the juxtaposition of the words ‘richly’ and ‘textured’, or ‘deeply’ and ‘felt’ in any context outside of my own writing.  (The reader can be assured that any use I might make of these dismal phrases would ONLY be in the interest of national security).

This led me to think about publishing, the internet, and my own, recent, heartbreaking experience.

‘Wait a minute!’ say my Brooklynite friends, almost spilling their glasses of absinthe while pausing the latest episode of ‘Oddities’.  ‘I am, like, totally underpaid.  How can you say our industry is profitable?’

Anyway, by locking myself in the library and stuffing throw pillows under the door, the smell of burning dinner quickly dissipates, and I can hear the yelling and sirens only as echoes through the garden window.  You can whine about your parasitic industry in your own time, hipsters.  This is my blog.

Secondly, let me share a few facts with you.  Nature Publishing Group (NPG – a subsidiary of MacMillan) and their villainous cousins Reed Elsevier (Elsevier), are running a remarkable scam, which is exemplary of the problems with publishing everywhere.  Both of these houses publish top-tier scientific research, in Nature and Cell, respectively;  which would be fine if it weren’t for the way they go about it.

The hard truth hit me as I sat in one of the world’s best neuroscience laboratories and quizzed a group of researchers about their business with the aforementioned publishers.  (NOTE – these people all have PhDs from places like Princeton and Oxford).

‘How much does NPG pay you for the paper?  Do you receive an advance?  Royalties?’

‘Pay us?  What do you mean?’

The moment of disillusion that followed was second only to discovering the lie of Santa Claus.  I won’t go into the details, but here is how it breaks down.

a) Scientist are born defenceless introverts, and remain that way through their adult lives.

b) They conduct research funded by the taxpayer and private grants.

c) Elsevier and NPG charge the scientists for the privilege of publishing in their journals.

d) Legions of salespeople from Elsevier and NPG, who are highly paid and incentivised (and many of whom seem, mysteriously, to have backgrounds in jurisprudence) sell the journals back to the universities and scientists for many, many thousands of dollars for an annual subscription.  They are aided in their salesmanship by the very public nature of university budgets in most countries.  Further pricing advantage is created by a) above. 

This scenario raises a few questions:  what do Elsevier and NPG do to deserve their money (their business margins approach those of the Beloved Goldman Sachs), and how does this relate to publishing generally?

Answers:  ‘nothing’, and ‘in a lot of ways’.

There was a time when publishers performed many valuable services for their clients, and a few less valuable, but that seemed quite good anyway when tied in a bundle with everything else.  They offered essential printing and distribution, and less essential editorial and promotion.

But what do authors require today?  Certainly not physical distribution.  Written content flies around the internet more quickly (and more freely) than is comfortable for many.  Perhaps if the publishers specialised in digital rights management, and could bring order to the piratical free-for-all.  But nearly none of them does (with the strange exception of  those rascals Elsevier and NPG).  And who cares about printing?  It can be had cheaply and on-demand, if required at all.  And as for the promotional efforts of major publishing houses, I’ll let this satisfied customer explain it all:

I would estimate that a little money spent on SEM and social media marketing with an expert agent would make more financial sense than leaving your nest egg in the hands of a comp lit major from Wesleyan.

So, what advice am I giving to authors (and researchers) in light of these disheartening facts?  Get a job with Elsevier.  They’re hiring:

Reed Elsevier
125 Park Avenue
23rd Floor
New York, NY 10017
+1 212 309 5498