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Here's What You Can Do with Your Overhead

Published onDec 11, 2019
Here's What You Can Do with Your Overhead

As punctum books over the last few years has tried to develop a sustainable model of scholar-led open-access publishing, and has devoted a considerable amount of resources to advocating for the common goods of public scholarship and knowledge, we have increasingly encountered arguments, both open and veiled, that somehow our practice would not be “replicable,” “scalable,” or, indeed, “sustainable.” These arguments often depart from the assumption that we—in one way or the other—are not playing by the rules of the academic publishing game. And because we would be rigging the game, our publishing model could reasonably never gain any traction, let alone serve as a model for others.

Some of these arguments suggest that we have poured our own supposed personal (or family) resources into punctum, and that this would give us an unfair advantage over traditional legacy publishers. If we choose to disregard the reality of the sizable endowments for certain university presses and the obscene profit margins of commercial players, it is indeed the case that for many years we have worked for salaries below the industry standard. However, we never made the claim that the scholar-led open-access model that punctum advocates necessitates such below-market remuneration levels; on the contrary, we believe that with the current money that is already in the system, all scholarly publishers, editors, and authors can be paid a reasonable living wage. We don’t assume that any open-access scholar-led publishing house that were to follow the model we are developing would have to make the same financial sacrifices we did in our early years—that, indeed, would be unsustainable and unreplicable.

Underneath the accusation of investing personal wealth (as if that were a bad thing!), there are actually even more insidious suggestions lurking. First of all, they betray a typical belief that women or queers or people of color are unable to set up shop in the straight-white-male-dominated publishing world without some type of unfair advantage. Second, it implies the toxic suggestion of the “hidden pot of gold.” I hope that I do not have to explain here how accusations of unfair advantage and cheating based on secret caches of money are one of the major tropes of antisemitism and racism more generally, and being a descendent from a Chinese immigrant family that suffered the CIA-sponsored racist policies of the Indonesian Suharto military dictatorship, I am particularly sensitive to this point.

It is not our fault if those invested in legacy publishing venues have difficulties imagining sacrificing personal gain for the public good (what they, with unveiled derision, call “revolutionary”). In fact, that is precisely the problem.

Another argument we are occasionally confronted with is that we don’t have an “overhead,” and that therefore we must be cooking our books and cheating our way to unearned prestige. This is an argument that is factually incorrect. First of all, punctum pays salaries to its employees (currently three: Eileen Joy, Dan Rudmann, and myself), and fairly remunerates people who do editorial and typesetting work for us on a contractual basis. We have at the moment one unpaid intern, whom, however, as soon as we are able to, we actually want to pay. Furthermore, punctum has payables, as any business does: to service providers such as cloud service companies, digital repositories, and other content hosting platforms, organization membership fees, for equipment, software, transportation, and the like. We have to pay lawyers, accountants, and advisers, and because we believe that socially embedded, embodied, face-to-face encounters are critical to lubricating the sorts of relationalities that are critical to forming productive alliances in the landscape of scholarly communications, we travel frequently. All of this is overhead.

So what does it mean when it is said we don’t have “overhead?” It means that we don’t pay for expensive real estate in prestigious locations, because we choose to work from wherever we happen to be. It means we don’t pay a cleaning service, because we don’t mind sweeping our own floors or scrubbing our own toilets. It means we don’t have expensive leased cars, because we like to walk and bike. It means we don’t outsource labor which we can source among the members of our own communities — here, there, and everywhere (we’re globally promiscuous, after all) — because our bottom line is called trust. It means we don’t give ourselves obscene six-figure management salaries, because scholarly communications are not driven by competition but collaboration. It means, in other words, that we try to save money where we can so that we can pay for what is most important: creative and intellectual labor.

We don’t need the “overhead” we are accused of not having, because we strive to create an environment that is hospitable to scholarly creativity that is not — to use a dated but extremely relevant term — alienating. Leased cars, business-class tickets, and toilets cleaned by the unrecognized Other are a sad antidote for the alienation from the pursuit of human happiness and self-fulfillment that is caused by the optimized business processes of the modern academic publisher, all too keen to outsource or automate the living heart of publishing: the co-creation, materialization, and care of an original work of scholarly research.

Indeed, punctum has no overhead. We have underhead – the support given to and gifted by the community of scholars, the anarchist republic of letters, the unspoken bond of those who dedicate themselves to research for the simple beauty and pleasure of it and for what it means to them and their communities.

And if the accusation is that we are mixing the personal with the professional, our passion with our labor, then yes: we are guilty as charged. At punctum books, we strive not to alienate ourselves from our work to such an extent that any possibly different way of producing scholarly books can only be imagined by assuming deception and deceit, or by following the deadening routines of the status quo publishers.

Discontented scholarly publishers of the world, leave your drab corporate offices and see that outside, the sun — “in clownish yellow, but not a clown” — of creativity and inventiveness is shining over the collapsing infrastructure of the university. Your institutions will not save you, you have to save yourselves. And we are happy to lend a helping, and replicable, hand!

Shani Parsons:

Wow, as founding director of a small nfp arts org in Toronto that has always very much been conceived and programmed in service to the wider community, I feel so grateful to you for having written this. I’ve heard all of this before, even from people on my own board, and I can’t tell you how demoralizing it has been. We are in our 7th year now, and actively trying to resist, subvert/sidestep, and breach the systemic issues that force many arts orgs to compete/compromise/capitulate to capitalist/extractive frameworks in order to survive. What you are doing with Comms is very much in line with our thinking and initiatives to foster collectivity, criticality, and space for real communication. Thank you and I hope we get to work together in some way in future! Shani K Parsons / Critical Distance, Toronto

Dan Rudmann:

Thank you, Shani, that means the world to us! We’d love to keep conversing with you at Comms as we all work toward a better system for the arts and humanities. We can only get there together!