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Why Academics Publish Unreadable Books

YOU'RE in the mood to sit down and read a book. Would you select a novel? A nonfiction book on an exciting subject? Or a collection of 10 essays by leading authorities on a neglected area of research? If the last one sounds a little dubious, you're not alone. Collections of scholarly essays, or edited volumes, are usually published in very small print runs (500-1,000 copies) because publishers know they won't sell.

But academics produce hundreds of these volumes every year. Why do they bother?

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There are several reasons. An edited volume is often the revised version of papers presented at a conference. These conferences can be very interesting, providing opportunities for scholars to meet and exchange ideas.

In addition to intellectual incentives for participating in these conferences, there are sometimes material ones, too. Frequently a foundation or other sponsor will pay travel expenses and honoraria so that scholars will attend. And sometimes conferences are held at truly magnificent conference centers located in scenic locales and providing excellent cuisine.

Scholars, then, are primarily interested in the conference itself, but usually must agree to write a paper to justify their attendance. This is because the sponsors which fund them want a ``product'' to show for all the money they've spent, even though they, too, are mainly interested in the conference. And the publishers of these volumes make money by charging sky-high prices for the small number of copies that they print.

I have published chapters in seven edited volumes and thus know the perils of being a contributor. After spending considerable time and energy writing and revising a chapter, a contributor may be told that the entire project has been canceled. The papers have almost all become obsolete, and there is no hope of getting the majority of authors to revise them substantially after they've already been paid.

Sometimes an editor will eliminate chapters either out of irreconcilable intellectual differences with a contributor, or for more arbitrary reasons. An inexperienced editor, for example, may commission 20 or more papers for a conference. Most publishers, though, will only agree to publish 10 papers or less, and so some have to be cut.

I have also been the editor of two volumes. Being the editor is infinitely more frustrating than being a contributor. You soon learn that no matter how much money you obtain from a sponsor to pay contributors, your edited volume is never their first priority; their own books and articles are instead.

Some of those who agree to contribute chapters will not do so until well after the deadline, if at all. As a result, the chapters of those who did turn them in on time have become outdated and have to be revised. But by then, those contributors have become involved in other projects or are irritated at someone else's delay forcing them to make revisions. So they take a long time to revise, during which yet other chapters become out of date.

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As a result, edited volumes sometimes appear only years after the conference that spawned them. By this time the editor and contributors may have become so annoyed with each other that they are barely on speaking terms.

One of the volumes I edited took over four years to appear. The conference at which the chapters were presented occurred in September 1986. Planning for the conference began a year before that. The book has only just now been published. But I know some volumes that have taken even longer to appear.

In my case, most of the delay was not due to contributors' unwillingness to revise their papers, but to rapidly changing events which necessitated rewrites. I can honestly say that the volume is now up-to-date. But who knows for how long? And at $37.50 a copy, I don't expect it will make anyone's best seller list.

Considering all the frustrations of revision necessitated by delay on the part of others, the risk of the book not even being published, and its typically being outdated and little noticed if it is, I do not think I will accept any more invitations to edit or contribute to edited volumes. It is too much trouble.

But what's that you say? You have a grant for a conference in Italy in the spring? You will pay all my expenses plus an honorarium? And all I have to do is write a paper for your edited volume? Count me in!

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