Navigating the Changing Landscape of Scholarly Book Publishing in Literary and Cultural Studies, Part 3

Catherine Cocks's picture

This post was developed from a virtual panel conversation that took place at the Modern Language Association 2022 meeting in January, organized by the MLA Publications Committee. Throughout the week, the Elephant will publish one post per day from each of the six interlocutors on the themes of Change, Generations, Experiments, Open, Fit, and Labor. As always, readers are invited to continue the conversation in the comments. –Eds.



Courtney Berger, executive editor, Duke University Press

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a significant increase in scholars who are writing non-conventional books—in terms of both the writing itself and the form—aimed at academic and non-academic audiences. Scholarly writers are pushing against the boundaries of genres and disciplines and looking for new ways to think, write, and share knowledge. On Duke’s list, for example, scholars in Black studies, queer and trans studies, affect studies, feminist studies, and Indigenous studies are at the forefront of new forms of writing. Books by Christina Sharpe and Alexis Pauline Gumbs and series like Writing Matters! and the Black Outdoors, among others, are changing how we think about scholarship.

Of course, autotheoretical writing, poetic or narrative interludes, ethnographic fiction, and other forms of creative criticism are not new. But they are being pursued with new urgency and curiosity. More scholars are coming to their dissertations or first books with form and style in mind. Whereas previously many academics saw this kind of writing endeavor as something they could undertake as a second or third book, after tenure and promotion were secured, now I find more scholars early in their careers wanting to write in more expansive and non-conventional ways. That shift has raised new questions both for publishers and for scholars.

 This drive towards more writerly scholarly books seems to be driven by a couple of things:

  1. The inadequacy of conventional scholarly forms, such as the monograph, to address persistent political and philosophical problems. People are looking for new ways of writing and thinking about the material, political, economic, and social structures that inform anti-Blackness, coloniality, capitalism, the policing of gender and sexuality, climate change, and so many other urgent matters. Writing differently allows us to think differently, and thinking differently produces new forms of expression.

  2. While writing has always been central to the academic profession, more scholars are wanting to focus on the craft of writing and to embrace this aspect of their work in more creative and fulfilling ways.

These developments are exciting for me as an editor. It’s fun to work on books that may get taken up by new readerships or that play with form and narrative; it’s also exciting to have more opportunities to publish the kinds of projects that may have at one time been snatched up by trade publishers. But there are challenges as well.

  1.  It’s much harder to write this kind of book successfully. Most academics spend years honing their scholarly writing. But they may be relatively new to writing fiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, and poetry. Authors may be inspired by recent forms of creative criticism, but have not yet developed the skills to successfully interweave academic arguments and ideas with other forms of writing. I tell authors with these kinds of projects and ambitions that the bar will be higher. Readers will be more aware of the quality of the writing than they may be with a conventional monograph. Authors have to work much harder to get the book to work. It may take more time to write the book or to see it through the review process (if you decide to publish with a university press). But the potential rewards are also high, so it’s a matter of deciding where you want to put your efforts.

  2.  As people endeavor to write non-conventional scholarly books earlier in their careers, they (and often their editors too) find themselves navigating questions about the job market and tenure and promotion. I have had authors tell me that they wanted to write a book in a certain way, but weren’t sure if they should because they didn’t feel confident that the book would be taken seriously for tenure. For some, this may mean writing two books: the more traditional scholarly monograph and the less conventional book, both before tenure. Or, it may mean taking a risk. As colleges and universities are confronted with a changing publishing landscape, in terms of what kinds of books scholarly publishers can and want to take on—and as contingent positions continue to become the norm—these constraints could change, and they will look different from institution to institution. But they remain critical for the time being, and early career scholars need to be aware of them as they ponder the place of their book in their career.

My comments only touch on a fraction of what we could discuss when it comes to non-conventional scholarly books. There’s also the question of agents, how to find the right press, and how non-conventional books benefit (or don’t) from the review process. But long story short: new forms of writing energize and activate new conversations in academia and in publishing, and that’s something to get excited about.

Courtney Berger is Executive Editor at Duke University Press. She acquires books across the humanities and social sciences.

Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing.