Not Breaking the Rules Is Unconscionable: Where Punctum is Headed, Why It Is Hard, and What You Can Do To Help



… because humanities scholarship is so tied to writing and publishing, opening up new possibilities for writing and publishing may, in fact, open up new possibilities within the institution itself. To change attitudes toward academic style means changing practices in the training of graduate students, … changing the practices of conferences and publishers, changing the practices of hiring and tenure committees. It means experimenting. Every writer and thinker knows this, because to write and to think is to experiment — to try stuff out and risk failure. It’s terrifying because in a very real sense this is about people’s livelihoods. But given the state of higher education in the U.S., at least, there’s little reason not to experiment, because it’s only a minority of people who are making any sort of livelihood from this work, or who even have any hope of making a livelihood from it. American academia is a perfect embodiment of capitalism in the way that it wastes human beings: their knowledge, their potential, their good will.  … The rules are against us. Learning them is important, because we need to know the landscape, the architecture, the logic. But the rules do not like us, they do not want us, they do not have any use for us. Not breaking them is unconscionable. 

 A grasshopper walks into a bar, and the bartender says, “Hey, we have a drink named after you.” And the grasshopper says, “You have a drink named Steve?”


First, try to figure out what the grasshopper joke has to do with any of this (it might become more clear by the end).

Over the past year (or so), and as related elsewhere (HERE and HERE), I have experienced no little amount of anxiety (and also occasional depression) over whether or not an open-access press (in this case, punctum books), which gives everything away for free (and which is located in the U.S. where, unlike most of Europe, there are no government-funded research councils that actually underwrite OA publishing), and which is also dedicated to fostering radically experimental modes of “academic” writing, can actually survive, and the answer is: without some combination of institutional, foundational, private, and also general public (id est, READER) support … probably NOT. In addition, I have been working myself beyond a certain physical and emotional breaking point — albeit, I’m really kind of okay with this, as long as it doesn’t last forever (in that sense, I think of punctum as a sort of start-up venture, and I have given myself roughly 3 years, until August 2016, to work these inhuman hours, with the hope that eventually I won’t have to). And finally, I am going (or have gone) completely broke. And I’m not the only one. Dan Rudmann, for example, who founded and manages punctum records and Studium, has also been working inhuman hours — 8:00am to midnight most days — has also drained all of his personal coffers, and teeters on a very precarious economic precipice.

In the way of SOME relief, I am thus THRILLED to announce that both David Hadbawnik (PhD, University at Buffalo, SUNY and soon to be en route to the American University of Kuwait, where he has been hired as an Asst. Professor) and Chris Piuma (PhD candidate, University of Toronto) are joining punctum as Associate Directors, in order to help me manage the editorial and production workflow, as well as help me focus more attention on matters I have been neglecting due to how much time I simply spend reviewing manuscripts, editing and designing books, and managing correspondence, such as: marketing (social media outreach but also getting books reviewed in as many outlets as possible), developing relationships with distributors and bookstores and institutional libraries, managing metadata, increasing the diversity of our delivery platforms, experimenting with different ways of designing enriched reading environments, and also just generally helping me to strategize where punctum goes from here (wherever “here” happens to be). (We also have a new Co-Director waiting in the wings, more about which in a few months.) And as silly as this might sound, I am so happy that David and Chris, like myself, are both medievalists (who also, like me, have backgrounds as well in creative writing), because I really believe that there is something about the orientation (and training) of postmedieval premodernists (who also happen to be creative artists) that makes us especially suited to chart nighttime raids into the past to poach cool stuff that can be re-purposed, in strategic fashion, for creative (and importantly dis/orienting) interventions into various present moments, and also because, at any moment when anyone is declaring the “crisis” of anything, the premodernists have a very useful LONG historical perspective.

In addition, Alli Crandell (a brilliant and creative graphic and web designer — see HERE), who has previously donated her skills to help punctum design special web-based environments for punctum titles that are not just analogues of print editions (see HERE and HERE), has graciously agreed to help punctum do several things this summer, including: a) a complete overhaul of our website to make it more easily/logically navigable; b) the creation of a subscription service, or services (that would allow us to offer punctum’s entire library through unique interfaces that would be adaptable across all sorts of devices); and c) the launch of what I am calling (for lack of a better term at present) a GRADUATED OA model (the idea for which is partly influenced by projects such as Knowledge Unlatched), in which the downloadable PDFs of titles would carry a very small and reasonable fee for a *temporary* period — say, something like 6 months — after which they would be fully “unlocked”; these titles would still carry a Creative Commons license that would allow them to be shared at no cost, regardless, with no restrictions, and the bottom line is that, little by little, and with everyone’s help, the open archive of punctum titles would continue to grow in leaps and bounds. The primary idea here is that OA publishing won’t work without at least some reader support, and simply asking people to consider making a donation (in any amount of their choosing) every time they download a book is simply not netting us anything that would allow us to even pay one person to do ANYthing (and THANK YOU to everyone who has made donations, nevertheless, and please don’t stop). OA publishing will not survive, especially in the American context, without government, institutional, and foundational subsidies, and if we in the humanities want to avoid the author-pay system that appears to be endemic now throughout Europe (and has already arrived in the US by way of, for one prominent example, University of California Press — more on which, see below), and I believe we should want to avoid this, as I see it as a potential impediment to ACCESS to publication for many authors and projects, then as readers, I think we have to be willing to lend some small support (the Open Library of Humanities in the UK, for which I serve on the Editorial Committee, is one shining example of a different, collective funding model). We should be willing to pay reasonable prices for things we really want and need (whether that is a book, a journal issue, a music CD, a TV series, a software app, and so on), unless you want to live in a world where companies like Google and Apple and Amazon own all of the content and all of the tools and toys and don’t ultimately care how any of this relates to democracy and a thriving cultural commons, and who will quickly dump any platforms for making content available if it doesn’t suit their ever-evolving-at-hyper-speeds business plans.

It is important to point out here that David, Chris and Alli are DONATING their time, albeit with the hope that their labors will help free me up to spend more time drumming up financial and infrastructural support that would eventually lead to the 4 of us (and hopefully more!) actually running punctum books full-time with the sort of compensation that could sustain us and our collective ventures, and in this sense, we all work on borrowed time. The future, as always, is uncertain, while at the same time I see real opportunities for creating something radically different within the Open Access movement (and the Digital Humanities more largely) with punctum books, especially within the American context  — although, to be certain, we are an international publisher with authors spread out around the globe, and we have very serious interests in multilingual and translation projects (as evidenced HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE, and with more to come). It’s just that, unlike in Europe and in other countries, there are no explicit funding mandates, either at state or national levels, for the cultivation of OA academic publishing. Currently, many university publishers and DH Centers are looking to foundations like Mellon for help with developing the initial infrastructure for projects such as Manifold Scholarship, a joint project between University of Minnesota Press and CUNY Graduate Center’s Digital Scholarship Lab, and Luminos + Collabra, University of California Press’s new OA Monographs and Mega-Journal platforms. In the case of the latter, it is hoped that long-term sustainability will be achieved through a combination of authors+universities, libraries, and the publisher itself sharing the cost of producing the titles up front, and/or through Article Processing Charges. But the troubling question still obtains, especially in the American context where state legislatures are slashing budgets for higher education and university managerial technocrats are increasingly uninterested in helping to sponsor experimental, speculative, and “useless” (non-applications based) scholarship. If there is, for example, currently no money to be had for say, creating more tenure lines or reducing class sizes or supporting faculty development (such as through travel grants, reductions in teaching loads, and the like) or making tuition affordable for all or adequately compensating graduate student assistants, and the like, then where is the money coming from to sustain these new publishing initiatives into the long term? The answer is: from nowhere … at least, not right now. Bon Jovi’s “Living On a Prayer” comes to mind.

With regard to the larger Open Access movement in general, we are thus at a strange, and possibly troubling moment, and the reasons why were starkly (and serendipitously) brought home to me just this past week when, as luck would have it, the Radical Open Access conference at the University of Coventry (for which I was a featured speaker) preceded by just a few days the annual meeting of the American Association of University Publishers, the proceedings of which I followed assiduously on Twitter (for the first time in my life, as a ghost-spectator to a conference I could not attend, I really *for realz* realized the immense value of those who tweet conference sessions — the information can only ever be partial, and is sometimes “askew,” but it is enough to get a good sense of some of the viewpoints being put forth, and you can also engage with those who are there to ask clarifying questions). There are SO many things I want to say about the ways in which these two events could not have been more radically different from each other (and I don’t have room here to go through everything, but …), especially in the ways in which everyone at RadicalOA was wringing their hands over the neoliberalization of OA publishing, such as by commercial publishers, and especially within the European context where multiple millions of dollars are flowing straight from national research coffers into commercial publishers’ bank accounts, with little in the way of what might be called a radicalization and democratization of editorial/curatorial practices (see, especially, Martin Eve on this state of affairs HERE, HERE, and HERE), whereas in Denver, a lot of the sessions at the AAUP conference addressed questions like: when and how and under what circumstances do you both initiate and also kill a book series? what is successful product development? should publishers target libraries or scholars and “end users”? how can acquisitions editors and marketing directors work better together on the “front end”? how can we make backlist titles more widely accessible globally and enhance their “long tails” with minimal investment and positive returns? And so on and so forth. In the meantime (or before this “meantime”), the organizers of the RadicalOA conference (Janneke Adema and Gary Hall, both involved with Open Humanities Press, among other OA ventures) were concerned to “brush” the contemporary scene of OA publishing “against the grain” —

Open access is currently being positioned and promoted by policy makers, funders and commercial publishers alike primarily as a means of serving the knowledge economy and helping to stimulate market competition. This version has become so dominant that even those on the left of the political spectrum who are critical of open access are presenting it in much the same terms: as merely assisting with the ongoing process of privatising knowledge, research and the university. Rather than ‘working with the grain’ of neoliberalism’s co-option of open access, the Radical Open Access conference will reclaim it by asking: what is the potential for supporting and taking further some of the different, more intellectually and politically exciting, ways of understanding open access that are currently available internationally? A particular emphasis will be placed on those that have emerged in recent years, in the arts, humanities and social sciences especially. Radical Open Access will thus provide the impetus for bringing together many of those currently involved in experimenting with ‘alternative’ forms of open access: both to discuss the long, multifaceted critical tradition of open access, its history and genealogies; and to examine a broad range of radical open access models. As part of its refusal to concede open access, the conference will endeavour to strengthen alliances between the open access movement and other struggles concerned with the right to access, copy, distribute, sell and (re)use artistic, literary, cultural and academic research works and other materials (FLOSS, p2p, internet piracy etc.); and to stimulate the creation of a network of publishers, theorists, scholars, librarians, technology specialists, activists and others, from different fields and backgrounds, both inside and outside of the university. In particular, the conference will explore a vision of open access that is characterised by a spirit of on-going creative experimentation, and a willingness to subject some of our most established scholarly communication and publishing practices, together with the institutions that sustain them (the library, publishing house etc.), to rigorous critique.

On the panel that I was involved with, “Radical Open Access in Practice,” there was a lot of emphasis on publishing as a practice of care (of persons, of ideas, of relations), on the technological fragilities of the OA enterprise and the Digital Humanities more largely and the ways in which we need to guard against technological determinism + overly simplistic “catching up” narratives tied to the privatization of everything, on the precarious labor practices involved with OA publishing and how to be more mindful of and strategic about that, on how we need to resist “prestige” ranking systems, on cultivating writing as risk/adventure, on promoting invention/intervention over “innovation” (a term toxified through its use within capitalist ventures), on how to resist the neoliberal uptake of OA by commercial presses while also collectively strategizing how to survive that state of affairs, and somewhat interestingly, everyone seemed invested in preserving the print book while also exploring new platforms for digitized interactive-networked forms of scholarship and publication (which, for me anyway, is a valuable stand against the hyper-aggressive planned obsolescence of everything that seems endemic within neoliberal capital). Whereas at the session at the AAUP conference dedicated to “the practical implications and challenges” of the OA monograph, the collective conclusion seemed to be something along the lines of the monograph perhaps not surviving because: a) it will be impossible to get institutions (universities) to subsidize them and it will never pay for itself, and/or b) it will ultimately no longer be required for tenure and promotion and is thus a soon-to-be “outmoded”/ungainly genre, and/or c) shorter-form scholarship will replace it because “the way we read now” is changing, and/or d) dynamic (interactive, hyper-networked), born-digital scholarship will simply supplant it as the “one thing” everyone will be doing in the future.

And here we come to the crux of the matter, and to something that troubles me about the AAUP conference overall: its emphasis on profits and monetization (not the only subjects, of course, but they predominated a lot of panels). And here I must say that, of course, university publishers have done amazing things to advance scholarship in our fields and they are staffed by very well-meaning and super-smart people with real investments in cultivating, curating, and pushing the boundaries of knowledge production (to whit, historically, the Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics series at Stanford UP, the Theory out of Bounds series at Univ. of Minnesota Press, Series Q at Duke UP, Prickly Paradigm at Univ. of Chicago Press, and so on), and they have absolutely every right to worry about profitability/sustainability and to talk about and collectively strategize the long-term sustainability of their enterprises, and they have a lot to worry about (as I do) that would necessitate such strategizing. Nevertheless, I personally want to see university presses (which are typically designated as non-profts, I believe, with some institutional subsidization) spending more time distinguishing themselves from commercial academic presses, especially vis-a-vis the question of sustaining, not profits, but the most radically open public commons possible, and to do so in tandem with collectively insisting (through a variety of activist and interventionist measures) that state legislatures and public universities INCREASE their support for underwriting the work of university publishers, who should be spending less time on monetizing everything and more time on sponsoring and caring for radically creative forms of academic writing. This isn’t easy, of course. This is the hard part. What might be called “centralized” funding for OA publishing is an absolute necessity, and yet, such does not exist within the American context.

Obviously, those of us within OA publishing should do everything in our power to be savvy about the ways in which we might generate income to help keep our (non-profit) ventures afloat, but that should not be the primary factor driving most of our editorial conversations because as anyone with half a (financially-savvy) brain might understand, that sort of emphasis will ultimately harm (or at least deform) the larger, valuable objective of a democratically rowdy and open commons “without condition.” Here’s why: if your primary concern is making money to stay afloat, then you adopt the tools of the strategic winnower (you keep what supposedly works in the model of increasing profits, and you eliminate, or stop at the front gate, whatever is not increasing, or might not increase, your profits), and there is not much time you can spend concentrating on developing talent and even more important, taking risks. To be fair, many university presses may not have a choice if they find themselves in a position where the subsidized support rug has been pulled out from under their operations, and much of the conversations at the AAUP conference were likely influenced by that already palpable state of affairs. The other problem is, in the rush to chase money in the face of less and less institutional support (especially in the context of seeking funding from private foundations such as Mellon or government agencies such as NEH), a sort of bandwagon strategy emerges where certain key concepts dominate both the “asks” and the “gets” (such as: born-digital, big data/metadata, dynamic/networked, multimodal, megajournal, iterative/interactive, gray literature/short-form scholarship, encoding/mapping, and so on). There is a lot of pressure as well, when seeking money from foundations and agencies, to serve up the “next big thing” that will somehow provide all of the solutions to whatever problems currently inhere within the contemporary landscape of academic publishing and to declare, “X (often defined as one particular platform, no matter how networked/multi-modal) is THE future.”

There is no, and never can be, just one future. Of necessity, certain futures will materialize and others will only emerge partially and still others will be suppressed, outright killed, etc. Our job in the present is to keep all options in play and to maximize what is possible over what is determined in advance (usually by the powerful) to (supposedly) not be possible. This is an ethical, as well as a political, project, and it is not one that could ever be made to be “profitable,” although it could be sustainable if enough persons — in the administrative towers of academe, in the state legislatures, in the gilt halls of the (hopefully socially-minded) privileged, and also in the streets — banded together to make it a reality. This brings me to the core mission of punctum books, and why I also think what we are doing is truly different from any existing university press and even from most independent presses (although we have our allies, such as Open Humanities Press and, among others): we are an Open Access press, not because we make our titles broadly available to the public (to READERS) without exorbitant fees and high paywalls (although we do do that, and it matters, especially in the context of public universities where research should never be shuttered from the public), but because we are dedicated to opening up access to publication for AUTHORS who otherwise might not find a publisher, either because their work does not fit within a readily recognizable current disciplinary paradigm or because they want to experiment with the forms and styles of academic writing or because their work engages in disciplinary mashups that make marketing their work overly difficult and so on. It’s a question of personal freedom and how the publisher (however defined: university-based, independent, etc.) is an agent of both sustenance and change. It’s about supporting the WEIRDOs and recognizing that the university, and especially the humanities, should be the haven par excellence for the weirdos and for the weird — for you, for me, and for grasshoppers named Steve, which is where the ethics of “care of the self” enter in, because I believe that publication is both a practice of care and curation as well as of “seeding” new publics (in Michael Warner’s words, this is public-ation as “the poeisis of scene-making”), around which persons, who otherwise might become marginalized, suppressed, lost, etc. can “groupify” (in important counter-cultural modes) with others who share certain predilections, values, orientations, affinities, etc. (see my further thoughts on that HERE). And you can’t subject all of your editorial decisions to the marketing team on the “front” OR the “back” end. But you can’t NOT worry about how any of this might, or might not, be sustainable, either. You still have to worry and care about, and also agitate for, the money. It really is, in the end, about the money and whether or not, in the United States, state legislatures and public (and also private) universities will decide that the OPEN and unrestricted dissemination of scholarship should be a chief public concern worthy of being underwritten in some manner.

So this all brings me, finally, to what punctum books is currently doing to (hopefully) ensure some sort of sustainable future, and how YOU can also help. To be frank, I have spent a good portion of the past two years striving mightily to convince certain universities, and also funding agencies, to provide partial support and/or infrastructure for punctum’s operations, and all to no good outcomes (so far), but I just (perversely) see that as yet another opportunity to continue refining the pitch, and as I’ve explained above, the situation (and conversations) in both Europe and the US round OA publishing convince me that we’re on to something unique that is not (and *will* not be) served by current reigning paradigms. So this is what we’re going to do next (again, with your help) —

  • first, we will be redoubling our efforts to convince at least one (if not more) universities to consider engaging in OA publishing “incubator” experiments, along the lines engaged in by Daniel O’Donnell and his colleagues at the University of Lethbridge (see HERE for a recent article about their experiment and the proposals they have about how this can be duplicated elsewhere). The primary reason for this: keep the money (however much or little there is) for publishing and scholarly communication within the departments, units, schools, etc. where it can have the greatest benefit; STOP the outflow of money to commercial, and even university presses, where it is going to fund often bloated overhead and infrastructure, and where, for better or worse, editorial decisions are being made with too many “business”/marketing/”prestige” considerations and not enough emphasis is being placed on maximizing what it is possible to SAY, and in what modes/genres/styles, within the humanities.
  • second, with the generous, pro bono assistance of Sally Livingston (who I am now outing here as one of punctum’s angels), we will be developing a task force this summer to go after private philanthropic money, because punctum’s mission is just weird and non-dominant-keywordy enough that seeking money from established foundations and funding agencies (such as Mellon, Ford, NEH, etc.) might be a dead end. To that end, I am also happy to announce here that Pioneer Works, a center for art + innovation based in Red Hook, Brooklyn helmed by the mad artist-genius Dustin Yellin, has awarded punctum an institutional residency for Spring 2016, during which time we will be running our primary editorial operations out of Red Hook while also developing an internship program with universities in the NYC area.
  • third, as the Ford Foundation recently announced that they have completely revamped their mission to focus exclusively in their giving on INEQUALITY (see the recent story HERE),  including unequal *access* to information/knowledge, with one of the 6 key funding areas being “Creativity and Free Expression” (and within that, “Advancing Media Rights and Access”), we will be working on seeking a Ford Foundation grant.
  • fourth, when we release our Graduated OA platform this coming Fall/Winter (see par. 3 above), please be an enthusiastic booster. Purchase our PDF e-books (which, I promise you, will carry very affordable price-tags, and only for a brief, temporary period), distribute them freely to friends and colleagues, and thus help to “unlock” these titles for the greater, common good while also contaminating the system with the punctum virus. Purchase our titles in print whenever you can, and also assign them to classes. DONATE as often as you can, and go HERE to do that (right NOW, even!).

And the reason WHY you should want to help us with this is because we (meaning me PLUS SO many persons, many of whom inhabit very precarious positions both within and outside of the University, who have given selflessly of their time to help edit and design the books) have been working so hard to secure the SPACE that is so necessary for others to do exactly the sort of work they want to do (as opposed to doing the work they are often subtly, and not so subtly, coerced into doing), and at a time when more traditional university and commercial academic presses are simply not wired to help provide for such space that hasn’t already been deemed in advance to be “profitable,” “marketable,” “trending,” etc. Because the future of academic publishing cannot be just ONE thing, or one wagon, that we all have to get on (or risk being left behind), and it won’t be secured by funneling all of the money into corporate entities that have no real concern for the public commons other than the profits to be gained thereby, and because we don’t want our work to be shaped by forces that have no regard for the the singular desires that lead us to our work in the first place, and because we desperately need a publisher that puts a premium on EXPERIMENTation, as summed up beautifully in the epigraph to this post and worth repeating here:

… given the state of higher education in the U.S., … there’s little reason not to experiment, because it’s only a minority of people who are making any sort of livelihood from this work, or who even have any hope of making a livelihood from it. American academia is a perfect embodiment of capitalism in the way that it wastes human beings: their knowledge, their potential, their good will.  … The rules are against us. Learning them is important, because we need to know the landscape, the architecture, the logic. But the rules do not like us, they do not want us, they do not have any use for us. Not breaking them is unconscionable. 

4 thoughts on “Not Breaking the Rules Is Unconscionable: Where Punctum is Headed, Why It Is Hard, and What You Can Do To Help

  • Hi Eileen, I just wanted to congratulate you on your work with Punctum books and your fabulous enthusiasm for what you do. what you are trying to do appeals to me immensely as I was locked out of the academic system by choosing to earn a reasonable living.Now retired and 60 and just about to start a minor dissertation in Lang and Lit at Signum University in the US.Your words are music to my ears. I long for the opportunities to meet and talk and read what others have to say. Living in Australia chances are slim to zero. My passions are particularly medieval old languages and fantasy fiction but are much wider than this .I will try to support you from afar any way I can. Please keep going what you are doing is soooooo important. Dianne Sedgman-Coope

  • Dear Dianne — thank you for your message; it means the world to us; and if you ever want to send something punctum’s way, we’ll be delighted to consider it. Regarding your studies: congrats and bonne chance!

  • I recently heard about the Voynich Manuscript and this site has a photograph of one of the pages featured on the front page yet when I searched for the title nothing came up. Do you have any literature on the mentioned manuscript?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *