Image: Kevin Van Aelst
The Modern Language Association’s annual convention is not so much a conference as a traveling city. For four days each year, more than 5,000 members of one of academe’s best-known scholarly organizations take over a cluster of hotels to hold the largest conference in the humanities and social sciences. Members don the requisite nametags as they attend panels, convene disciplinary groups and subgroups, interview job candidates, bestow awards, and conduct a sometimes-raucous legislative forum, the MLA Delegates’ Assembly.
Main Street of this traveling city is surely the book exhibit. It’s the downtown hub, where crowds gather and wander the aisles lined with publishers. Old acquaintances meet as they browse the booths. What does Duke have out this year? Did you see that display by Minnesota? Expectant authors excitedly pitch their latest books to the editors, who also check out the offerings of their peers. As passers-by scan the book displays, they get a snapshot of the state of literary humanism today.
Judging by last month’s convention, Main Street is considerably less populated these days.
The book exhibit has been shrinking for some years now. When I first started attending MLA more than 20 years ago, every press I could think of — and some I’d never heard of — had a booth there. Now many of them stay away. What’s happening, and why?
Of course the answer begins with money. The size of the MLA book exhibit dipped after the financial crash of 2008, and lately the numbers have declined further: The past three years show a drop of more than 40 percent in the number of exhibitors compared with 20 years ago. (General attendance at the meeting has similarly gone down by about 40 percent. However, some of that reduction surely arises from the increased number of departments that do their first-round interviews from a distance — via Skype or some other platform — a move as humane as it is expedient, since it spares job candidates the financial burdens of traveling to the convention.)
Publishers pay a lot to set up shop at the MLA convention. Its exhibitors’ booths are among the most expensive on the conference circuit. Drayage fees — the money to ship the books to and from the conference — also add up, as do the costs of paying staff to travel and work the show itself.
But it’s not just the direct costs that affect a publisher’s decision to attend MLA. Along with the rest of academe, scholarly presses have come under crushing financial pressure in recent years. Many have shrunk and focused their lists. Instead of welcoming submissions across a large field, they now focus on a handful of subfields. Some have eased themselves out of literary studies altogether, or have compressed their offerings to a couple of niches within it.
For such presses, the traffic at a big show like MLA isn’t as valuable as it used to be. Instead, they take more precise aim at scholars whose specialties match their own. "Our travel budget has been constrained for years," wrote Scot Danforth, editorial director of the University of Tennessee Press, in an email. "In recent times, we have traveled to smaller, more focused conferences where our heaviest disciplinary interests lie."
Likewise, Sian Hunter, senior acquisitions editor at the University Press of Florida, described its decision to concentrate on niche conferences as a simple matter of "scale and ROI" (that is, return on investment).
A more surgical strategy allows a press to sell more books while paying less rent for a booth. As important, it also gives acquisitions editors added efficiency to do their job. "We see the exhibits as primarily an acquisitions tool," said Danforth — not so much to sell a lot of books as to sign up authors of new ones.
For wealthier presses, the MLA remains a place to see and be seen. "Publishers with a large presence in a given field can still exhibit and chalk it up to the cost of doing business," said Mark Simpson-Vos, editorial director at the University of North Carolina Press, in an email.
Indeed, an editor at a large university press described the MLA as "a flagship conference" that remains an "unparalleled chance to show our wares to more people than anywhere else." It is, he said, a "great place to announce new books to the world." Such a marketing strategy is akin to a retail chain choosing to open a store on Fifth Avenue: The stratospheric rents make it unlikely that the outlet will make a profit, but it’s a terrific showcase for the brand.
Samuel Cohen, an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri and editor of a book series at the University of Iowa Press, invokes this showcase idea in more conscience-driven terms. "Having a full exhibit hall at a major conference like MLA," he said, "demonstrates the commitment of universities to the production and dissemination of knowledge, which is supposed to be a key part of the mission of higher education."
Cohen’s emphasis on commitment is worth a further look. Principled commitment rarely comes cheap, but it costs a lot more these days in the book business.
The academic book world is "a moral commons," said Hunter, of the Florida press. We’re all connected within that commons, she said — from the administrators who fund the presses, to the departments that require books for tenure, to the professors (and graduate students) who write with an eye on tenure or promotion.
"The commons is getting chipped away," said Hunter, "because no one has any money." In the end, presses have to sell books. But who’s going to buy them?
Library sales were once the foundation of university press marketing. These days, they "continue to decline beyond what we could have imagined," said Jerome Singerman, senior humanities editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press. The MLA used to be a place where scholars would buy armloads of books in their field at discounted prices and carry them home. No more. "The market," he says, "is shrinking to a point where it’s not sustainable."
What’s the answer? "Buy books," said Singerman.
Well, yes, but what can be done toward that end, and who should do it? The MLA needs to step up, said Singerman, and respond to the changed landscape with "forward thinking" and "sustainable models." In the case of scholarly publishing, there hasn’t been enough of either.
"In the midst of all the things that have changed in scholarly communications and scholarly publishing" over the past 20 or 30 years, said Simpson-Vos of North Carolina, the MLA book exhibit "seems to have changed hardly at all."
Greg Britton, editorial director at Johns Hopkins University Press, wrote in these pages that conference book exhibits "are more than just places to buy a book." They occupy "a middle ground between scholarship and commerce," he said, "where the rubber of ideas hits the road of the marketplace." Those ideas go beyond the books themselves.
Singerman points out that the connections that draw together scholars, colleges, and books form not just a commons but an "academic ecosystem." Declining book sales "make it increasingly difficult for presses to fulfill the publishing mission that the academy has given us" as "proxy grantors of tenure and promotion" (and these days, of postdocs, too): You write a book, and the book gets you, or helps you keep, a job.
The MLA, Singerman says, needs to confront the threats to the equilibrium of the publishing ecosystem "in a public way," as it has confronted the more visible contraction of the academic job market. The two are connected and interdependent. "If the system of scholarly publishing as we have known it is unsustainable in the long run," asks Singerman, "what will replace it?"
More than 10 years ago, the MLA convened a task force (full disclosure: I was a member of it) and published a 2007 report in an effort to "de-fetishize" the book. In 2014, another task force report sought to destigmatize nonfaculty career paths for Ph.D.s. That work has made some valuable difference, but it hasn’t solved the problem, to say the least — and it hasn’t considered the point of view of the publishers.
It’s time, Singerman says, for the MLA and other large professional associations to confront the open-access elephant in the room. We all need to keep working to "shift the protocols for tenure and promotion." But apart from that, he wonders whether the MLA could help organize and anchor an open-access model that might take the pressure off presses to publish tenure books that might be hard to sell, and authors who often must subsidize their own books.
The problems facing the conference book exhibit are really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Simpson-Vos is surely right that we need "a broader rethinking of the book exhibit as an institution." But that conversation needs to encompass the larger publishing landscape. The MLA can facilitate such a conversation. It is, says Simpson-Vos, "long past time" for it to begin.