What We Write About When We Write About Publishing: Interscript, a Journal for Students of Publishing

Publishing as a field of study is a difficult, often ill-defined premise. A common and, I’m sure, familiar anecdote for anyone involved in the delivery of Publishing as a course of study involves a night out, or a dinner with friends, inevitably including a couple of new acquaintances. As introductions are made and the discussion turns to backgrounds and occupations you quietly respond, to the question of your own employment, that you “work at a university”, are an “academic” or a “lecturer”. Somehow you make the assumption that this is a sufficient descriptor, yet, without fail, it entices the follow up, “Oh, and what do you teach?” Now there’s no escaping it, you calmly, if somewhat hurriedly, reply “Publishing” (nothing to see here, moving on…). But you can’t rush over that – it’s a trisyllabic hydra, it languishes in the air, catching attention and catching fire. The choruses follow: “Publishing, as in books?”, “I didn’t know that was a thing”, “How exactly do you teach that then?”, or the more scathing, “Is that one of those new subject areas?” (By which they mean inauthentic/unnecessary/illegitimate), or, “A bit like English Literature?”.

Full disclosure, I may simply be recounting the most awkward of my own experiences over the past few years. However, these are points worthy of discussion. These comments shine a light on the challenges inherent to the field, its practitioners, and its students. These are questions which all too often seem to be avoided, skirted, rather than clarified and, as necessary, contested.

Publishing is, undoubtedly, a new(er) field of study within the grand auspices of academia. Subject areas which find themselves in this position need a foundation, definitions and criteria which offer a framework onto which practitioners can fasten themselves. There’s no dearth of opinion when it comes to creating frameworks around the concept of publishing as an industry, and this is, as a starting point, precisely what we teach. However, when it comes to clarifying the purpose and boundaries of the pedagogical and theoretical side of the field, these definitions are harder to come by, and that is understandable. I, for one, am not equipped to offer a consummate definition and would likely be wary of similar attempts by others. So practitioners find themselves in their very own catch-22. To some extent, the field requires definition in order to establish, sustain and defend its corner of the knowledge and research spectrum, and at the same time anyone who is sufficiently familiar with the field to lend such a voice of authority is doubly wary of what such a classification and mapping of the field might achieve and imply in delimiting its scope. I have attended conferences focusing on approximate disciplines, such as Book History and Bibliography, where aspects of publishing seem to naturally converge, and have heard the comments from established academics and critics in these fields and their own questioning of boundaries, such as, “What relevance does business theory have to the field of book history?”, and, “What role do producers play in the study of bibliography?”. Neither question elicits a straightforward answer, while both provoke many conflicting opinions. What I feel confident in arguing, given my own experience with these issues of jurisdiction, is that Publishing or Publishing Studies, however you prefer to label it, can offer a unifying palette upon which to paste many of these concerns and observe their interplay. I acknowledge that this statement remains vague in clarifying a coherent purpose for the field, but it certainly alludes to the creative application of interdisciplinary concerns to an established field of creative enterprise. Publishing as an academic discipline may seem new; as an industry it is ancient. And this offers a huge scope for interpretation of our intractable quest for understanding within the realm of human communication. In this sense, Publishing is a quintessential field of enquiry. At an intellectual level it encompasses the human endeavour to codify and share experience in a common format. Paring down this grand ambition to core concerns and contributions is also a challenge.

So let me first address a key point, the proverbial elephant in the room; literature. Publishing inherently entreats its students to interact with literature. And yet Publishing is not the study of literature insofar as it circumnavigates the field of critical literary investigation. It is not the study and interpretation of literary narrative and content in its nominative linguistic and geographic varieties. And yet there are aspects that would seem to befit that more established, more critically bedded of the two disciplines, that are also neatly and effectively complemented by their examination within the field of publishing studies; readership and audience studies, authorship, sociological interpretation of the text, material culture (particularly as applicable to new historicist interpretations) among many others. Literature and Publishing may not overlap, but intertwining seems to be not only inevitable; they are apparently compatible companions within the same space. Of course, this makes complete sense. How can we expect to separate cargo and container entirely?

But where are the lines for literature then, or should publishing studies be applied as a subset of this? Far from it, the crucial value of publishing as a research framework lies in its inter-disciplinarity. If Publishing is considered new, then it represents scholarship which can be theoretically fresh and free from epistemological legacy. Thus Publishing concerns writing, but it also concerns history, and bibliography, and economics, and business studies, and technology, and sociology, and cultural studies, and linguistics, and semiotics, and art, design and aesthetic theory (to list a few).

However, if we only consider the act of publishing, with all its implied industrial connections, to be about the commercial transaction of textual products, then we might argue for a focused disciplinary base which primarily values either the economic or historical interpretation of the product, producer and consumer. But, as already mentioned, publishing is a creative industry. That remains a vague way to apply a caveat.  What is it about creative industry that distinguishes it from other commercial production?  A producer of culture perhaps hopes to achieve capital the same as any other producer. However, most producers’ reward expectations are monetary in nature. Do producers of culture demand cultural capital as recompense instead? Technically no; their primary transaction is the same as all other business: they provide books and the market exchanges these for money. “But creative industries are different.” That is the common response to this element. Books are different, as publishers frequently tell us. So the study of creative industries and, particularly, books must be different, and must account for this difference. Thus a nuanced understanding and appreciation of what it is that we are teaching when we teach publishing, and of what it is that we write about when we write about publishing (thank you Raymond Carver), is necessary in order to clarify our position. Whenever I see commentaries on the nature and value of publishing degrees (which are appearing in the media at an increasing rate), criticisms seem to be levelled at a very singular interpretation of what Publishing, as a course of study, entails.  

A recent article on The Scholarly Kitchen website’s ‘Ask the Chefs’ section, for instance, asked “What is the value of a Master’s in publishing?. This article approaches publishing education from another vantage point, that of employability. What I found most interesting is that the focus of the article (configured as a response to a question from a reader) suggests a very narrow definition and understanding of publishing as a field of education. This seems to be an unavoidable and almost implicit interpretation of courses which are ostensibly vocational. The underlying tone of this piece (initiated by the reader’s question about whether having a Master’s in Publishing would make them more attractive to a potential publishing employer) advocates that the purpose of a postgraduate degree in Publishing, in theory, is a general qualification to enter the industry.

Whilst that is certainly an element we do prepare our students for, it is not the only purpose, and nor should it be seen as a simple training guarantee. Reviewing these employers’ responses to the potential of the degree, they do not paint a complete picture of the degree experience. Whilst some of the respondents do allude to the opportunity for publishing education to enhance understanding and development of the industry, most ignore the research element, at most applying it as a portfolio opportunity for a career. To some extent, this seems to imply that publishing education is, and can only be, of interest to those wishing to work within the industry. It would be curious to conduct a similar survey of Film Studies and consider the comparable expectations for that course of study.

I don’t deny the importance of industry linkages in highlighting these concerns. It is true that a large number of our students, many times the majority, do wish to enter the industry, and do embark upon these degrees in order to gain appropriate qualifications that might reflect their interests and make them a more noticeable and knowledgeable applicant in the rat race. However, only meditating on the value of a field of study in relation to its capacity as a trade school is actually to devalue the purpose of higher education. In fact the greatest value of these courses to students, and to the industry, lies in the complex relationship and interplay between research and professional pathologies.

 
Venn diagram demonstrating the overlap and outcomes of a balanced programme in publishing education

Venn diagram demonstrating the overlap and outcomes of a balanced programme in publishing education

 

This also runs the risk of disregarding and devaluing the excellent research that our postgraduate students undertake during the year of their Master’s degree, and the attention and critical thought required of them to produce quality coursework deserving of a degree at this level.

Many companies and individuals within the publishing sector are hugely supportive of our UK postgraduate courses, precisely because they recognise this potential. We are fortunate at UCL’s Centre for Publishing to count on the support of honorary fellows who have worked at the highest echelons of the industry and who help us to create a rounded course of study with the aim of connecting these concerns. But we believe we can do more to capitalise on this opportunity, and to create an interface between the ‘studies’ our students undertake and the visible development publishers perceive when they employ our students. That is precisely the purpose of this new journal, Interscript, and its accompanying Online Magazine. This has been conceived and developed by postgraduate students at UCL, but it is intended to provide an open platform for all HEI publishing programmes (those affiliated with the Association for Publishing Education, and beyond) to increase the visibility and engagement of their research. My hope is that, in time, it will come to act as a locus for connections and provide a communication space to counter misapprehensions about publishing education. For students who have produced high quality research outputs during their course, it offers a publication space which is distanced from the challenges of discoverability and competition inherent to senior professionalised academic journals; for researchers and educators it offers an archive and repository to build on the alumni networks and outputs year on year; and for the publishing industry it offers a lens, a look under the hood into the role that research can play in developing and enhancing practice.