UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
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ALTERNATIVES TO TRADITIONAL ACADEMIC PUBLISHERS
by Richard Seltzer, B&R Samizdat Express
My recent encounter with an academic publisher (MSU Press) is probably characteristic of the experience of many others. And perhaps the alternative that I am pursuing could prove useful to others as well.
Back in 1970, I chanced upon an article in the London Times of 1913, while digging through microfilms looking for something else. Ever since, I've been fascinated by the life of Alexander Bulatovich (1870- 1919). Bulatovich was a soldier, explorer, and religious leader whose field of action ranged from Tsarist Russia to Ethiopia to Manchuria to Mount Athos. He explored Ethiopia, led cavalry in Russia's conquest of Manchuria, then became a monk and went to Mount Athos, where he led a group of "heretics," who believed that the Name of God was part of God and therefore in itself divine. For practicing the Jesus Prayer (a la Franny and Zoey), 880 monks were forcibly exiled to remote parts of the Russian Empire -- that was the subject of the London Times article.
The odd shifts in his career drew me to him. I was interested in the man himself -- his energy and enthusiasm, and the puzzle of what motivated him. I suspected that he was on some sort of quest, driven by an inner need to push himself to the limits of his capabilities. I was also drawn by the strangeness of the events -- explorers in Ethiopia, the Russian conquest of Manchuria, a heresy battle in the twentieth century. I wanted to understand the man and his time, to get some insight into how people and circumstances could have interacted to produce such events.
I wrote an historical novel, The Name of Hero, which dealt with Bulatovich's Manchurian experience in 1900 and, in flashbacks, covered Ethiopia as well. That book was published by Tarcher/Houghton Mifflin in 1981. I'm now at work on a sequel and a movie script.
My best source is Bulatovich himself. He wrote a number of books, including two about his experiences in Ethiopia -- From Entotto to the River Baro and With the Armies of Menelik II. They are probably the best and most accurate first-hand sources on Ethiopia at the turn of the century. They are an original source of historical and ethnographic information about a little-known but critical and exciting period, when Ethiopia vied with Italy, France, and England for control of previously unexplored territory in east-central Africa. These are documents that any library should want to include in its black or African history collection. But, amazingly, they were only available in Russian -- in the original edition and also a recent reprint edited by Professor I.S. Katsnelson of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.
As Katsnelson pointed out in the introduction to his reprint: "Almost all documents of the period of Menelik's reign were destroyed at the time of the war with Italy in 1936. As for the papers of the Russian Embassy, in 1919 tsarist diplomats gave them to the French Embassy 'for safekeeping'; and in 1936, they were taken to Paris, where they were burned along with other archives in June 1940."
The main English source of information about Russian activities in Ethiopia is "Russians in Ethiopia: An Essay in Futility" by Czeslaw Jesman. This is an amusing collection of rumors and anecdotes, based primarily on Italian sources. It is often wrong. Unfortunately, historians without access to original sources often repeat and give added authority to the errors of their predecessors.
I contacted about a dozen publishers with a proposal to translate these works. Commercial publishers, even ones with a backlist of works related to Africa, indicated that regardless of the scientific and scholarly value of the project, they didn't think they could sell enough copies to justify publication. Even academic publishers showed no interest. (An editor at Rutgers University Press indicated that regardless of merit, there simply is no market for any book about Ethiopia).
Finally, in the summer of 1990, I contacted Michigan State University, which has a program in Ethiopian Studies. MSU Press expressed strong interest and encouraged me to go ahead and complete the translation. The understanding was that I would serve as editor as well as translator of the work and would receive a small advance if and when the work was accepted.
I completed the work in Jan. 1993. My investment of time (nights and weekends) amounted to over 1000 hours.
I proposed publishing Bulatovich's two Ethiopian books as a single volume entitled Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes. The manuscript came to 681 pages, including my introduction and footnotes.
MSU Press sent the work to several reviewers, including a professor in Moscow. This process took another year and a half. The reviewers finally concluded that this is indeed a valuable work and should be published.
The director of MSU Press then sent me a "standard" contract. When I read it, I simply couldn't believe the terms: no advance, royalty = 10% of profits (normal = 10% of gross; an academic publisher normally does not expect to make a profit and hence 10% of profit = 0), only payment = 10 copies of the published book. They expected me to quickly compile a detailed index at no charge (even though an index does not seem necessary for this particular book). In return for those 10 printed copies, they wanted all rights (including electronic and movie and serial) even though they do not intend to exercise them, and even though I had made it clear that I had already published one novel and was at work on others that were related to this material. I had also informed them a year ago that Safari Magazine will soon be publishing an excerpt, dealing with an enormous elephant hunt.
I pointed out the problems and reminded them of our four-year-old understanding. I am not a professor. I am not doing this because I'm in a publish-or-perish situation. This was a labor of love. It's work I feel needed to be done. But if I were to give the rights to it to a traditional publisher, I would expect some token cash payment as an advance. (In our original verbal agreement, the "standard" advance for an arrangement such as this was $2000.)
I didn't expect to get rich from this work. But I also saw no reason to give up all control of and all rights to this work for payment of just 10 copies.
And I also was greatly frustrated by the fact that it had already taken them a year and a half just to review the work; and, apparently, it would take another couple years before it would ever appear in print. And then they would only issue it in hard cover for a high price, and market only to a handful of academic libraries.
I wanted this work to be read. I wanted to make it available to interested scholars as soon as possible and as inexpensively as possible.
I proposed giving the Press traditional print publication rights and my retaining the electronic rights, so I could make the work available over the Internet. The editor-in-chief professed that he didn't know the meaning of the term "electronic rights" and was not at all interested in negotiating , though he affirmed that "the material contained in this work deserves to be published."
In the past there would have been no alternative -- the only way to get your work to an extended audience was by way of a traditional book publisher. After investing four years in getting your work accepted by such a publisher, few people would back away from such a deal -- money or no money. The only real alternative would have been to invest in sending around photocopies to a few individuals, and otherwise let the work gather dust in a drawer.
But that is no longer the case.
I am making this book -- Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes -- available through the PLEASE COPY THIS DISK project.
This means that immediately -- not two years from now -- scholars and libraries can purchase this work for a nominal price from B&R Samizdat Express, and then can freely make copies for colleagues and students. It also means that I would welcome having the text made available for free in electronic form from archives on the Internet (ftp, gopher, www).
At the same time, I'm also making my novel The Name of Hero available in this same format. (The hardcover publisher let the book drop out of print and the rights to that work have reverted to me -- the only printed copies available are the ones left in my attic).
In a previous issue of this newsletter I noted: "Academic publishers should reassess their standard procedures and terms in the light of current technology which can enable them to accomplish their main mission far less expensively and more quickly. And authors of academic works should think twice before submitting their work to publishers who still use antiquated methods."
So I'm practicing what I preach.
Let's hope that others do likewise, and that collectively we help to wake up the academic publishing community.
Back issues are available from us on request, and are also found at the archives of Computer underground Digest (CuD), housed at the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
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Published by PLEASE COPY THIS DISK, The B&R Samizdat Express, PO Box 161, West Roxbury, MA 02132. firstname.lastname@example.org
Art McGee [email@example.com]
From: "Arthur R. McGee"
Subject: Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes To: Multiple recipients of list AFRICA-L ---------- Forwarded message ---------- Date: Sun, 28 Aug 1994 19:46:33 -0400 (EDT) From: B+R Samizdat Express Subject: Internet-on-a-Disk, Issue #5, September 1994
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