April 28, 2013

On Timeliness and Timelessness in Book Publishing

I’m working on a “Publisher’s Pledge to the Library Community” that we will release soon. I’ve put out some feelers regarding what people want to see in this pledge, and one concern came up that I feel is too complex in its implications to respond to in a bullet point on the pledge, and that is “timeliness of publication.” It turned out that this question was coming from an author’s perspective, which is fairly valid for the purposes of a pledge to the library community, since most book authors in the professional literature are librarians and many librarians have publishing expectations as a part of their job responsibilities. The question of timeliness is also relevant to collection development and acquisitions librarians, both in terms of the timeliness of the content of a book in the context of its use and in terms of organizing the process of buying books based on publishers’ advertised publication dates. In terms of advertised publication dates, I will readily admit that Litwin Books and Library Juice Press have not always published our books by the advertised publication dates, and can say in our defense only that it is difficult to work on that kind of a schedule when much of the work is subject to factors we can’t control. Among these factors may be other responsibilities of contractors to whom we send production work, permissions issues, and the ability of editors of collections to submit their manuscripts on time (given that they too have issues beyond their control that can affect their schedules, especially for work that is not their primary responsibility in life). So there are factors that are difficult or impossible to control that can affect how long it takes to bring a work to publication once we have announced it and set an expected publication date. As a result I have begun to build in a longer period of time for the expected publication date, for the sake of truth in advertising.

There is always the possibility of cutting corners to make the work go faster, and we avoid doing this, because quality has a different balance point with timeliness in book publishing than it does with faster forms of publishing in the information ecology. Often, I feel that an expectation of “timeliness” of topics is a little misplaced with regard to books. The long form and permanent nature of the book format gives room for the long view as an intellectual approach. I think the perspective of time is one of the contributions that book publishing has made culturally, and not only because we have a lot of old books around. The format encourages work that takes a long time to write, work that is the product of reflection over greater spans of time. Not all forms of book publishing are like this or should be like this. Software manuals, for example, become useless quickly. In academic subjects, the intellectual duration of long-form works can vary by discipline and sub-discipline. My feeling as a book publisher, though, is that if people are less interested in books than they used to be and read fewer of them (which may or may not be true, if you want to be inclusive of e-books, and we are), then the importance of long-form publishing for creating a space for intellectual culture has only increased. Compromises with faster forms of publishing represent compromises with the long view. Timeleness isn’t exactly irrelevant, but I want it to be in balance with quality, and with something that with some exaggeration I will call “timelessness,” by which I mean that I want to publish books that will be of interest to people in ten or twenty years and not just next year, and a few books that will be of interest for much longer than that.

So that is what I bring with me to conversations with impatient authors or contributors to edited volumes. Often, their impatience is based in part on a lack of understanding of all that is involved in the publication process. We had a problem with a book recently that was held up for a long period because the editors had personal issues to deal with, but because they didn’t communicate about this with contributors, we as a publishing house took the heat (and it had to do with people’s tenure portfolios, among other things). So I have experience with authors who have had serious issues regarding timeliness of publication. But because it is not always possible to make people happy regarding their expectations of timeliness, I don’t feel it’s possible to make “timeliness of publication” a promise in our pledge to the library community.

What about the option of saying that we will “make every effort to ensure timeliness of publication,” as was suggested to me by the person who brought this up? That would allow us to avoid promising what ends up being impossible. The problem I have with that option, though, is that it places too much stress on the value of timeliness in a form of publishing that is less about timeliness than other forms. So I have arrived at this:

“We pledge to balance timeliness, quality, and ‘timelessness’ in our choice of book projects and our processes for bringing them to publication.”

I’m interested in readers’ feedback on this.

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  1. [...] We pledge to balance timeliness, quality, and “timelessness” in our choice of book projects and our processes for bringing them to [...]

    Pingback by Library Juice » Publisher’s Pledge to the Library Community — May 29, 2013 @ 8:14 am

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