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  • The Politics of Subvention:Crisis in the Humanities II
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Editor and Publisher

Your publisher informs you that your scholarly book won't have an index unless you create it. Permission or copyright fees for works you used in your book will not be covered by the press; you are expected to finance them. If you want your book to be copyedited by someone other than yourself, you'll have to pay his or her fees.

Scenarios like this are not uncommon in the humanities. For years, publishers—and many very good ones—have requested that authors cover certain costs of publication. However, given the dismal state of the economy, particularly in the publishing world, it's not surprising to find publishers making new subvention requests.

Publishers are requesting that authors perform more of the work in preparing books for publication. This does not make these publishers vanity presses, nor does it make these works self-published works. It is one thing to request increased authorial assistance in the book production process; it is quite another to request that authors pay the cost of book production—and then some.

A request for subvention fees—funds to underwrite the cost of publication—does not in and of itself make a press a vanity press. Nor are requests for subvention fees a sign of lesser quality or integrity on the part of the publisher. After all, many of the most prestigious journals in business and the sciences regularly require subvention fees of their authors. In fact, most colleges and universities who support publication from their faculty have subvention funds—and even policies regarding their allocation. Take, for example, Middlebury College.

Middlebury, like most colleges and universities, has an explicit policy on subvention fees. It states that "The College will assist faculty with production costs and reprint costs for scholarly publications through the Scholarly Publication Subvention Fund (SPSF)." In reference to "Scholarly Books and Artistic Works," Middlebury's subvention policy says that

Assistance will be provided (as funding permits) for tenured and tenure-track faculty to cover production costs when an academic publisher requires a subvention as a condition for publication. It may also be used for indexing, copyright or permission fees, or copy editing (i.e., copy editing of the final version of a manuscript after it has been accepted for publication). The funds for copy editing will only be paid to an independently-hired editor (not to the publishing press). The maximum grant amount for each book project is $2,000 and repayment is not required.

The presence of such policies in many faculty manuals indicates the normalcy of subvention requests from publishers. And if Middlebury's $2,000 were not generous enough, the college also offers faculty members the opportunity to apply "to the Dean of the Faculty for a loan to cover production costs in excess of $2,000."

Middlebury's policy is typical of academic subvention policies. It is built upon the assumption that faculty will at times be required to provide subventions to their publishers for both scholarly books and artistic works.

The only proviso comes in the last line of the policy: "The faculty member may not be the publisher, producer, or agent."

Given the dismal economic state of publishing, authors must expect increasing requests from publishers for subventions; given the dismal state of funding in higher education, faculty should not be surprised to discover more limited subvention funds.

Authors who are surprised by a request for a subvention are advised to acquire a better understanding of the economics of book publishing before they jump to conclusions about the integrity of the publisher or the press.

The recent dustup regarding BlazeVOX [books] publisher Geoffrey Gatza's request for subventions from his authors exposes not the vanity of his press, but rather the vanity of authors who scorn any financial outlay toward the publication of their books.

Gatza requested a recent group of authors pay a $250 subvention fee if they wanted print versions of their books in addition to electronic versions. The fee was not necessary if they agreed to online publication.

This was the first time that subvention fees have been requested...


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