February 7, 2019


On Louise Adler, academic publishing and cultural barbarism

By Frank Bongiorno
On Louise Adler, academic publishing and cultural barbarism
The debate about MUP has been remarkable for its intellectual poverty

I recently spent a morning doing two of my favourite things. I was let loose in a second-hand bookshop. And I was spending someone else’s money. Along with Meredith, an old mate and librarian at the Australian National University, I was searching for copies of Australian history books that were destroyed in the flood that ravaged the Chifley Library a year ago.

We found plenty. The magical moments occurred when we came across some classic from bygone years, often once represented in the collection by multiple copies, now sadly landfill somewhere.

One example was Geoffrey Serle’s The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria, 1851–1861. Published by Melbourne University Press in 1963, it remains the standard work on its subject, never superseded, a book for all time. But in reality, we needn’t have bothered. The Golden Age is back in print with MUP as a paperback. We could also have ordered an e-copy.

What, if anything, does this tell us? It’s a reminder that the present debate over the future of MUP is rather more polarised than it needs to be. MUP remains a significant presence in Australian scholarly publishing, if less significant than in Serle’s heyday.

It also tells us that the field of academic publishing has been transformed by technological change in ways that have barely registered in the controversy. E-publishing means that books that would once have slipped in and out of print are now permanently available to anyone willing and able to pay for them.

The debate about MUP’s decision to shift its focus towards scholarly publishing has been remarkable for its intellectual poverty. Any unsuspecting soul who entered the Twittersphere and observed the journalists and politicians falling over one another to lament MUP’s change of direction might imagine that under its long-standing director, Louise Adler, MUP had been the one bright beacon of intelligent debate in Australia’s cultural Badlands.

The barrackers have, almost without exception, been MUP authors. Most are journalists. Not a few are politicians who, usually unable to agree about anything else except their pay and perks, can agree that the publisher who gave them their chance should be protected from the cultural barbarians in the universities. The very small number of academics who have had anything to say in defence of MUP have, like these journalists and politicians, been MUP authors.

There is nothing especially surprising in any of this. Adler has looked after these authors, nurturing genuine talent in some cases and doing her best with what was on offer in others. The result is a rich and vocal network of powerful supporters. Authors with a happy experience of a publishing house are likely to commend its direction. If the resources of that publishing house have also promoted their book and their profile, they will be especially grateful. Some will have received significant advances. Those whose books sold well will have enjoyed the royalties, satisfaction and prestige that large sales bring.

Journalists and politicians know that MUP is the oldest, and still the most prestigious, of Australia’s academic publishing houses, and they could be forgiven for enjoying their proximity to its lustre. What is less forgivable – and more sinister – is the crude anti-intellectualism that has accompanied the harrumphing of this same coterie. Former New South Wales premier Bob Carr – an MUP author and one of the board members who resigned in protest at the change of direction – foresees “a narrow, cloistered printing house for purely academic work”. Jack the Insider at The Australian spent a few hundred words abusing academics for their inability to live in the real world, and thinks that we can look forward to MUP textbooks on “colorectal cancer featuring 96 … colour plates of diseased backsides”.

This might have been mildly funny were it not a genre with which every academic in the country is already familiar, from Murdoch tabloid reaction to the announcement of each round of new research grants. If I ever have colorectal cancer – and I’m hoping for a long, happy and healthy life – I won’t be asking my oncologist whether they’ve read A Tale of Two Cities. Or Tales from the Political Trenches.

Sales and profit figures have been thrown around on each side of the debate, as convincingly as a Soviet commissar reporting last year’s steel output. MUP, it is said by its defenders, has been making a profit. But it also runs on a large subsidy from the university, $1.25 million a year (and $26 million over the past 15 years).

No one among the barrackers has explained what a university would be getting in return for supporting the publication of the insubstantial memoirs of a thirty-something Labor senator fallen on hard times, or a cookbook by the wife of the leader of the federal Labor Party. It’s easy enough to imagine the kinds of question that would be asked by a newly appointed vice-chancellor, fresh from one of the ancient English universities. Would Cambridge University Press publish, say, Philip May’s Delicious Weekday Dinners?

The defenders actually want it both ways. MUP should publish commercially attractive books that punters want to read even if these have little or no intellectual value. And academics who publish with MUP should be grateful that people like to read books about Mick Gatto and jockey Michelle Payne, even if they have little interest in colorectal cancer this side of an unfavourable diagnosis. The theory goes that these books make the press so much money that they’re keeping the academic side of things going. (This is clearly not the case.)

But then a second line of defence is that MUP is a major player in the world of ideas: that the intellectual life of our country has been enriched because we have the thoughts of Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne, Chris Bowen and Derryn Hinch, brought to us courtesy of the country’s leading academic press.

In reality, Louise Adler and MUP have simply been grappling with pretty much the same problems as every other academic press in the world. These can perhaps be boiled down to three questions. How can the best academic research be published when there is such a limited market for it? How can a university press make a positive impact on society? And how can a university press be made financially sustainable?

There is no “right” answer to any of these questions, no magic bullet. But the most dispiriting thing about this debate has been the nearly complete ignorance of many of the most vocal participants about the current context of academic publishing. Labor frontbencher Kim Carr’s suggestion that a federal ALP government might be willing to fund a new university press, possibly somewhat on the model of The Conversation, must have come as a surprise to the country’s other academic presses, to say nothing of the possible attitudes of the several small independent publishing houses that already make a pretty impressive impact on public discourse. Under Carr’s proposal, these would find themselves competing with a taxpayer-funded outfit.

In Australia alone, there are several university presses and they are doing extraordinary work, often with very limited resources. The University of New South Wales Press and its NewSouth imprint are as well regarded as MUP among academics, and yet they publish a diverse list, and contribute much to the liveliness of the Australian book scene. Its books are often prominent when the prizes are being handed out at literary award nights.

Monash University Publishing is rising fast; it is one among several university presses – those of the Australian National University, University of Sydney and University of Adelaide are others – that have emerged from university libraries. The newly formed La Trobe University Press operates on a different model again: as an imprint of Black Inc. and La Trobe.

The global open-access movement, as well as rapid technological change, are shaping the evolution of these presses. Each operates differently. Each is feeling its way towards a model of financially sustainable academic publishing that will also fulfil the universities’ desire for public impact. Each is keeping an eye on global developments, as well as on the local scene. In short, MUP isn’t the only game in town.

There is also a convergence, of sorts, between the academic presses and the commercial publishers, especially the small independents. As the experience of MUP has revealed, university presses do publish non-academic works – they always have – while commercial publishers are bringing out books written by academics that have all, or many, of the features of the academic monograph. Publishers such as Allen & Unwin, Scribe, Text and Black Inc. are now major players in this field.

This is a complex ecosystem, made more so by the possibility of publishing overseas. Academics who take this path often find that their work will be unavailable to purchase except online at a virtually prohibitive price. I attended a book launch for a new and innovative work of Australian history a year or so ago: the volume was $180. Clearly, such books will be confined mainly to library sales, but university bean-counters will still congratulate academics who attach their names and research to the prestige of a major international publisher, even if the book is so expensive that it will never appear in an Australian bookshop.

The accusation that MUP produces “airport trash” – allegedly thrown at the press by someone who favoured a change of direction – is inaccurate and unfair, not least because there is nothing necessarily wrong with books sold in airports. I’ve seen my own there from time to time. But the accusation also underestimates MUP’s significant role in the publication of academic research under Adler. My own view is that MUP did go too far down-market with too many of its non-academic titles than was good for the brand, but I appreciate that Adler’s strategy was a legitimate and imaginative response to the challenges faced by anyone seeking to run a university press today.

I equally suspect that the MUP has a bright future ahead of it as it pursues a different pathway. Jack the Insider’s vision of “an injection of dry, turgid, unreadable academic texts” is as absurd as his account of MUP’s past, when it supposedly “published books that did not sell or more properly found an almost microscopic niche within academia, selling in tens of copies at best”.

This is a press that published Manning Clark. And, strange to report: he was a university professor.

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno is a professor of history at the Australian National University and the author of Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia.

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