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Digital Killed the Analog Star: An Interview with Fred Moody of Anvil Academic Press

This is the fifth article in a series, Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing, by Adeline Koh. Each article in this series features an interview with an academic publisher, press or journal editor on how their organization is changing in response to the digital world.

The series has featured interviews with Stanford Highwire PressNYU PressMIT Press and the Penn State University Press.

Today I speak with Fred Moody (@moodyfred) of Anvil Academic, a new open-access digital press that aims to reshape the broken system of academic publication. Led by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) and the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR), Anvil aims to bring rigorous and innovative forms of peer review to digital publications, and develop new standards for digital publication in promotion and tenure. I introduced Anvil and its mission last week.

Today, Fred tells me more about Anvil’s conception and the ways this new publisher aims to address current problems within academic publishing. Before his work with Anvil, Fred served as Editor-in-Chief of Rice University Press, a digital academic publishing experiment run by Rice from 2007-10, an experience which has helped shape Anvil’s current mission.

NB: ProfHacker will be hosting a live Twitterchat with the Anvil leading team Fred Moody (@moodyfred, Editor), Lisa Spiro (@lisaspiro, Program Manager) and Korey Jackson (@koreybjackson, Program Coordinator and Analyst) this Friday, October 5 2012, from 12pm-1pm EST using the hashtag #anvil. Adeline Koh (@adelinekoh) will be hosting the Twitterchat. Join us! 

AK: Thanks Fred for joining us today. To begin with, could you tell us more about what Anvil Academic is? How is Anvil similar to a regular academic press or a university library that publishes the work of its faculty?

FM: Anvil is in some sense a “publisher,” in that it brings many traditional publisher’s services and practices to the world of digital humanities scholarship. We want to acquire, edit, peer review, “publish,” and connect the work of Anvil authors with their audiences. We are not a publisher in the sense of arranging for our authors’ works to be printed, shipped to distributors, arrayed in bookstores, then either sold to customers or returned to us. Anvil works will be exclusively digital, freely viewable and interacted with on the web, with some also possibly being sold in some distilled tablet/cellphone form. That last circumstance depends on various factors specific to each work, and depends as well on exactly how the Anvil mission evolves, and in particular how our financial model takes form.

AK: Could you speak more about the goals and aims behind Anvil Academic? What is it trying to accomplish?

FM: Broadly (and most grandiosely) speaking, we want to devise a new scholarly publishing model that brings the traditional academic publishing means of scrutiny, improvement, optimization, “manuscript” development of–and publisher’s imprimatur over–new-form digital scholarly research and thinking in the humanities. (In other words, we want to bring the good part of traditional academic publishing to the digital humanities, and shed the bad, the “bad” being the monograph-centric set of practices modeled on the commercial publishing industry.) We also want to discover and develop a financially sustainable model for this twenty-first-century digital publishing model. Increasingly, extremely good scholarly work is being done on the web, in non-monograph (although, in terms of the quality of its thinking and argumentation, monograph-equivalent) form, but this work is going unrecognized and undiscovered by its appropriate audience–the undergraduate and graduate students and fellow researchers in the author’s discipline (or, as is often the case with this work, multidiscipline). This work also is not being accorded proper evaluation in the tenure-and-promotion process, and Anvil hopes to evangelize for this “genre” in the larger academic community. The time for this work to enter the academic mainstream is long overdue, and we feel the missing accelerator here is that vital connection point from traditional academe: the publisher.

Another dimension to our mission: we want not only to publish and promote this work but to develop production and financial models that will make it possible for individual universities and scholarly societies to publish under their own imprints in the Anvil space–to forge their new-model presses on our Anvil, as it were.

AK: Will authors have to pay to publish with Anvil, or to pay subvention fees for the publication? Will Anvil offer contracts to its authors?

FM: We won’t be operating an “author pays” model, and don’t plan on taking subventions, which in my view are inherently corrupting of the publisher’s mission to publish work based solely on its quality. Try as I might, I can’t see the difference between a press that takes subventions and a vanity press.

We do indeed plan to have author contracts; our authors will retain the copyright to their work, and we will be licensing Anvil-produced/published work under a Creative Commons license, but there will be more-or-less standard contracts with our authors spelling out the rights, rewards, and responsibilities of each party.

AK: What is the funding model that Anvil uses? How does it envision sustaining itself past five years?

FM: Anvil is an experiment, and one of the things we are experimenting with is its financial model. I’m not aware of any model yet that has proven sustainable. We will have to support our startup years with outside funding, but I’m confident we can develop a sustainable model if we think creatively enough, and carry out some experiments carefully and thoughtfully. One model that is definitely unworkable, though, is the model based on sales of individual volumes in the hopes that you sell enough to cover your operating costs.

I also hope to get people to think of the publishing mission as something more akin to the library’s mission, or the university’s teaching mission, than to a commercial publisher’s mission. I’ve never understood why publishers are expected to be profit centers for their universities. No one expects the library to cover its costs with sales or fees, or the college/university to cover its costs with tuition. Universities should see the publishing of scholarly argument as part of their pedagogical mission, and just as worthy of institutional subsidy as is the library or the faculty. That said, we think that digital technology can be leveraged in a way that drastically reduces the cost to universities of their presses, and we hope to develop and promulgate models for doing so.

AK: Will you have editors who work to create “lists” as is done in traditional university presses?

FM: That is how I see Anvil growing–into a large operation with acquisitions editors who are expert in particular disciplines and/or interdisciplinary areas.

AK: Kathleen Fitzpatrick has urged scholars to ‘publish’ work online before seeking publication in traditional academic outlets (for example, blogging a book project before looking for a publisher). How do you feel about this? Will this help or hurt the author in finding a university press for a more traditional book?

FM: I would like to see Anvil publish large, complex projects–say, for example, a database mined by algorithms that produce sophisticated web-published arguments and insights, or compelling and enlightening arguments in the form of data visualization–out of which can be spun a monograph that would be taken on by a traditional press. It’s easy to envision a draft of that monograph going online in the Anvil space, linked to the larger project, and with open peer review much like that conducted with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. That work appeared first online at futureofthebook.org, with a CommentPress interface for dialog with reviewers, then in print with NYU Press. (I should add that at this point, there is pretty much no idea or model that we wouldn’t consider.)

AK: What is your take on the traditional peer review process, and new forms of peer review? What kind of peer review process will Anvil publications undergo?

FM: We want to tailor peer review carefully for each project we publish. We are going to experiment with various forms of peer review, with a drive toward openness. The only idea we’re wedded to at the moment is the idea that we must include both digitally enabled scholars and traditional scholars in the process. It is vital, if we are going to argue persuasively for the worth of Anvil works to tenure-and-promotion committees and college/university administrations, that we get a strong seal of approval from respected, traditional, senior scholars in the appropriate disciplines. But we will be employing all forms of peer review, from traditional blind peer review to wide-open peer-to-peer review, and everything in between. My suspicion is that a hybrid model will emerge as the most useful and persuasive.

AK: How do you look at web metrics as alternate forms of recording scholarly impact? For example, would you consider a blog with 3000 page views the equivalent of a high “impact factor”? Would this help or hurt the author in securing an agreement to work with Anvil?

FM: This is another area where we’ll be making strong arguments for redefinition of “impact factor.” My previous work at Rice University Press was eye-opening in this respect. Online versions of our publications sometimes had thousands of unique readers within 30 days of going live, while the print versions may have sold ten copies or fewer in that time. Yet even our own administration wanted only to hear about the print sales.

We will be developing reports and arguments documenting the impact of our work as measured by usage, commentary from readers, and the back-and-forth between author and audience inspired by the publication. Part of being a publisher of new-form, digitally mediated scholarly argument is developing, defining, and promoting new impact metrics.

AK: Do you think that there is a space for the scholarly monograph in the current and future economy, given that they are expensive to produce and are almost never profitable? What do you think is the future of the monograph?

FM: The monograph isn’t going away, but publishers (and their sponsoring institutions) are going to have to give up on the traditional, monograph-sales-based, financial model for the press. Academic publishing simply must come to be seen as part of the educational mission rather than as a “business.” Publishers also have to find an alternative to selling monographs in print form. Not only are libraries buying ever-fewer of them, but those that are purchased go unread. At the 2011 Charlottesville conference, I heard one librarian give voice to this fact in relatively graphic form. “Libraries,” he said, “will put publishers out of business if we change our purchasing model, which currently is buying books from publishers that no one wants.” Students and younger faculty do their reading and writing on digital devices now, and that shift is only going to accelerate in the years to come.

AK: What are some of the “post-monograph” forms of scholarship that Anvil intends to publish?

FM: We see tremendously interesting work being done on the web now. Korey Jackson (@koreybjackson) has identified four genres of digital publications where Anvil could make a significant impact: data-driven arguments, multimodal scholarship, networked authorship, and educational projects. As with most categories (especially within the digital humanities) the  dividing lines between genres are fuzzy at best, even defined more by confluence and overlap than by any core set of attributes. (For example, a data-driven work could support networked discussion, interactive display, and be adapted for an educational context.)

AK: Will Anvil ever publish traditional monographs in ebook form? And if not, what publishing solutions would you suggest to academic writers who work on books with very very small markets?

FM: Our initial focus is on these newer genres of digital work, what we’re calling “post-monograph” humanities scholarship. Much as I love the monograph, we can’t see a way to publish in that form, even in an exclusively digital way. Part of the reason is resources–working on monographs would require a whole different set of editors, designers, marketers, etc., and a whole different sent of relationships with different vendors–and part of the reason is our resolve to refine, distribute and bring recognition to these emerging forms of digital scholarly argument. That said, we’re (conceivably) open to partnership arrangements with monograph publishers. I’m thinking particularly of a wonderful series we published at Rice University Press: the Literature by Design series of titles. I would love to revive that series somehow, as there were some marvelous titles we had in the pipeline before the press was closed. But doing so at this point would require working with or even turning the series over to a monograph-centric publisher.

AK: And finally, my last question: what do you think is the future of the university press?

FM: Presses will have to move toward being fully digital enterprises, with entirely different cost models. Publishing is becoming much more a service than a business enterprise selling products. The role the publisher plays in identifying, acquiring, editing, improving, refining, disseminating and promoting scholarly argument isn’t going away; the question is: What form is it going to take in the twenty-first century and beyond, when producers and consumers of scholarship work exclusively in the digital arena, and consumers in particular do not expect to pay substantially for the privilege of reading this work?

AK: Thanks Fred for speaking to us today.

FM: My pleasure!

If you have further questions about Anvil, do join us for our live Twitterchat with Anvil this Friday, October 5 2012, from 12pm-1pm EST using the hashtag #anvil. The Anvil leading team Fred Moody (@moodyfred, Editor), Lisa Spiro (@lisaspiro, Program Manager) and Korey Jackson (@koreybjackson, Program Coordinator and Analyst) will be available to answer questions. Adeline Koh (@adelinekoh) will be leading the Twitterchat, and will Storify the conversation for a ProfHacker post for Monday October 8. 

Image from Juha Rissanen on Flickr.

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