The rush to publish

April 5, 1996

Ned Thomas gives a university press view on the scramble to meet the research assessment deadline. On Thursday March 28, with one working day to go, the last two books we had promised would see the light of day within the Research Assessment Exercise period arrived in our warehouse and were declared published.

The following Wednesday we celebrated publication of 20 titles in the last six weeks (nearly a third of our year's total) at the HMSO Oriel Bookshop in Cardiff - more like whitewater rafting than your conventional single launch - and then our staff went out for a meal together. We felt modestly pleased with ourselves and pleased for our authors too, whom we get to know personally. They had been reassured with ISBNs and page-numbers that all would be well and had panicked less than they might have, except when the postal delivery firm appeared to have lost the package with their final proofs.

Of course, it does not make publishing sense to bunch your titles in this way - commercial logic would have suggested holding several of these titles over until later, but then we live in a perpetual tension between the need to be increasingly commercial and the need to prove our worth to the institution - and the authors - that help support us.

I have felt this generalised tension but never any specific pressure by institutions or departments to bring their publications forward. We belong to the federal level of the University of Wales, and that I think places us at an ideal distance - close enough to know the constituent institutions, far enough away to keep our objective standards and avoid the charge of academic vanity publishing. Our grant is not paid by any single institution that is desperate to improve its research rating. That is how it has been and that is how we want the funding of the press to continue.

What about pressure from individuals? There has been plenty of pleading but I cannot confirm any of the wilder tales. There may have been people offering their books with personal cheques-in-aid to small publishers, but none of them have come our way, though authors have been adept at tapping funding from outside bodies for uncommercial publishing projects. And if, as academic folklore maintains, there is a prolific genius who has been locked away on a three-year sabbatical somewhere in the north of England writing books and articles for all her departmental colleagues (I hope she gets promotion), then I am fairly sure that none of her work has come our way. We know our authors too well - which gives a kind of social control, I suppose.

Seriously, it is not the pressures on us that have been most worrying but the pressures on academics which can be observed from a publisher's office. The RAE may have startled some quiescent talents into unaccustomed activity and brought to a timely conclusion some projects that were on the back burner. But I have been more conscious of the distorting effects the RAE can have.

We have nurtured a young author for three years or more, expending our own time and effort and that of our "reader" only to find that the author was given one month by his institution to finish a book that really needed another year's work - all so that something might be published in time, presumably by a publisher with more flexible standards. I suspect that 1995 will have seen more than the usual number of small imprints appear for the first time.

In whose academic interest is all this? Not the author's in anything except the very short run, nor the institution's. It is certainly not in the interest of the subject area. Nor would I expect people to do their best work in an atmosphere where heads of departments and research directors ring up the publisher to check whether lecturer X is really writing a book on Y or to ask to see a reader's report before the author does.

Then there was the rise of the multi-author book proposal. Many multi-author books are excellent, and sometimes they offer the only way of treating a subject that requires, for example, an interdisciplinary approach. Having said that, the last two years of the RAE have produced too many such proposals, cobbled together with the intention of giving everyone a publication within a short time.

Still, it has been nice helping so many people into professorships. Some two years ago I came to expect that signature of a book contract would, within two or three months, inevitably see the lucky author winging his or her way to another university or, at the very least, being promoted on their home ground.

Reader, you may think you have strayed into the Laurie Taylor column, and indeed I have sometimes felt like that. But when I look at the books that we actually did publish I am struck, in those subject areas where I am qualified to judge, by the strong involvement and thorough immersion of authors in their subject. Not every book is equally successful, but the work in each and every one is worthy of serious respect.

Whatever is going on outside the author's door, down the corridor in the head of department's office or the admin building, something quite different is happening in that interaction between mind and word-processor that maps the territory of thought. Sometimes it may happen because of the RAE, sometimes despite the distorting influence of that same RAE, but it happens, and we, the publishers, have the privilege of being the first assessors.

Ned Thomas is director of University of Wales Press whose authors are drawn both from within and outside the University of Wales.

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