The Academic Times May Be A Changin’

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When I wrote my book Commie Cowboys, I entered into the project largely as an experiment. I had (and still have) other book projects planned, but I wanted to go through the process of writing a book so I could be sure I could do it, and that I didn’t hate it. Thanks to James Altucher and others, it was already clear that the process of putting together a book with a print-on-demand publisher was easy (assuming one actually likes to write), and if one was not interested in going through the hassle of a standard publisher, that was probably the preferable choice. In addition, I already had a means to promote my book to a large audience directly, without any need of a publisher to do the marketing. And of course, a small non-fiction book like mine would never receive any significant marketing budget or effort from a publisher in any case, so there was little to be gained from a traditional publisher in my position.

In addition, since I am not an academic seeking tenure, I had no need of publishing with an academic publisher or impressing the faculty members of my department. And although it is short and unambitious, I nevertheless wanted the book to make a contribution to the literature of politics in popular culture. And once the book was released, I was curious if the book would ever be read or referenced by any other scholars in spite of its origins with a thoroughly un-prestigious print-on-demand publisher. While I was unwilling to bother with an academic publisher, I nonetheless moved to gain some academic credibility for the book by hiring professional editors and proofreaders and by seeking out an established and highly-respectable scholar to write a foreword for the book. Fortunately for me, Paul Cantor of the University of Virginia remembered that I wrote a glowing review of his book Gilligan Unbound ten years earlier, and kindly agreed to write the foreword.

Upon its release, the book  generated some interest in some places, but it was only the other day that an academic reference to Commie Cowboys came to my attention. It was mentioned in a new book on Westerns called International Westerns: Re-Locating the Frontier

Numerous scholars have explored the genre and its impact from various vantage points: Will Wright has examined the structure of the genre’s narratives, while Jon Tuska has offered more thematic critical approaches. Peter Stanfield has analyzed the role of “cowboy crooners” as exemplars of heartland values, while Ryan McMaken has focused on “commie cowboys” as cultural critique. While each of these is instructive when considering the genre in relation to American culture, the discussion becomes more complex when the genre is loosened from its cultural moorings.

Now if you’re a normal person, you’re thinking at this point “big deal,” and “what kind of hard-core narcissist even keeps track of this sort of thing?” To be sure, I’ve been writing stuff long enough to know that a mention in an expensive  academic book isn’t about to bring me great celebrity and wealth. But I think this is significant, because it is at least one instance of a self-published book that’s being referenced in a scholarly context, when only a few years ago, the phrase “self-published” was the kiss of death to any book or author who sought to be even included in the conversation.

Those days are now long gone though, and the examples of authors who have been making significant amounts of money through self-published works have been growing for the past decade.  The case of academic writing, however, has been less clear.

We shouldn’t read too much into this one case, but it may be significant that we have now at least example in which an independent author can publish his own book, put it online, promote it himself, and have it be included among a myriad of recent contributions to the subject. Those of us who have spent time in academia know what an inward-looking, cloistered, and hierarchical world it is. Ten years ago, had I mentioned to my colleagues at Indiana University that I would just self-publish a book and consider it a contribution to the literature on any subject, such a suggestion would have been met with guffaws. That is probably still true for people seeking tenure, but I get the sense that for many authors, the tyrannies of the old academic and publishing systems are breaking down.

The decline of the legacy higher-education guilds and cabals continues, and I encourage others to help speed the decline along.

2:08 am on January 18, 2014
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