The Possibility of Anthropological Micropublishing

The Possibility of Anthropological Micropublishing

As one of the longest-running anthropology blogs around, Anthrodendum has been a space where many conversations about open access, and alternative forms of publishing and communication have taken place. I’ve been involved in some of those conversations over the years, especially in dialog with Ryan who shares my enthusiasm for weird, experimental projects that neither of us has any time for. In that spirit, as a recently-added “dendrite,” I want to try and keep those kinds of conversations rolling on here and see what new ideas are emerging in the world of para-academic publishing.

Over the last few years, I’ve been immersing myself through social media in the world of micro-presses. These are very small-scale publishers, drawing from DIY, anarchist, and zine traditions, but making use of the recent proliferation of print-on-demad (POD) and small-run printing services. They’re usually run by one or a maybe handful of people largely doing it as a labor of love rather than as a substantive source of income. A couple of my favorite examples are Inside the Castle (run from my own hometown of Lawrence, KS) and Influx Press.

The thing I love about these presses is that they provide a space for publishing books that might not get published anywhere else, and they typically do it with such care and concern that the final products are beautiful objects to spend time with. For example, I love this amazing novel in card-deck form by BR Yeager put out recently by Inside the Castle. The story emerges in no particular or predefined order as you lay out the cards, and the experience is more than just reading – you are engrossed by the very process of sifting through the deck and splaying the cards out on the table. It’s really a wonderful thing that they’ve put out into the world.

box labeled Pearl Death B R Yeager and cards displayed next to it
Pearl Death by BR Yeager, published by Inside the Castle

Last year on twitter, I wondered whether there were any similar outlets for anthropology or academic publishing more broadly. Some para-academic examples come to mind: Punctum Books, Re.Press, Repeater, etc. But I couldn’t come up with any that were anthropology-focused (please let me know if there are any that I’ve missed!). And yet, there have been a lot of calls recently for new and experimental forms of ethnographic writing and engagement. My sense is that micro-presses could be one of the ways that those kinds of experiments are made tangible and available to wider audiences.

I know there are a lot of reasons why there aren’t dozens of anthropology micro-presses proliferating through the para-academic world – none of which are reducible to a lack of interest, skill, or creativity. The largest hurdles are institutional. Most of us simply don’t have the time amidst an academic career to invest in organizing a press and doing the work of editing and assembling books and getting them out to people who might be interested in them. And this kind of work is not rewarded or even noticed by the academy – no one is going to get a job or tenure because they’ve organized a para-academic press, no matter how valuable and good the publications are. These are all the same or similar problems that many people have discussed around open access publishing, blogging, and engaging in other alternative publication and communication strategies.

Coupled with that are other issues that are endemic to the broader academic world, to publishing in particular, and that could be compounded in a world of academic micro-presses. Although I’d hope that the people interested in starting and maintaining a press would be conscious of issues of equity, access, and justice, looking at the field of micro-presses that I know about (and this may be my own limitation, in part), many of them are run by white men and many of their publications are authored by white men. That’s not necessarily to disparage them or the work that they do, but if micro-presses simply replicate the same inequalities that exist in the broader publishing world, is it really worth it? These are also questions relevant to blogging, open access, para-academic journals, zines, and other alternative publishing models. Given that these approaches are additional labor, and uncompensated and unrewarded/unrecognized labor, the people who will be able to do it are those who have some level of privilege, whose positions are relatively secure. In other words, nothing about micro-presses or other alternative publishing models resolves these inequalities, and they can make things worse as discussions in the last few years about a certain OA anthropology journal demonstrate.

I don’t have answers to these problems, and I don’t want to suggest that micro-publishing or any other publishing platforms or models will resolve them. But, given calls for greater experimentation, we clearly need more spaces for new and experimental modes of writing and engaging with ethnographic research. My goal here is just to open up the discussion and think about micro-presses and the affordances they offer as well as the challenges they create or, at least, make apparent. I’ll be honest, I have a vision of creating my own micro-press specifically dedicated to publishing speculative ethnography – another project I don’t have time for! But if I do it someday, I’d like to do it in a way that is cognizant of and working to address some of the issues I’ve described here, and I’m open to discussing what that looks like.

8 Replies to “The Possibility of Anthropological Micropublishing”

  1. Great idea, micro publishing the multitude of ethnographic materials. I have an ethnographic novel which grew out of a doctorate in the previous century. It could be a talking point for students in anth courses, in the rare few places where there is time for discussion rather than cramming for exams and IQ scores for jobs jobs jobs.

  2. Anthropologists have always had DIY presses (e.g. Sahlin’s Prickly Paradigm Press) and still have that capability today. The limitations, as you note, are the resources, both financial and paid & unpaid labor. Even larger limitations are the lack to incentives– an academic reward system that ignores these projects and the inability of scholars to distribute these experimental projects widely within the field. That is why there are professional publishers. With the globalization of the anthropological community and the increasing complexity of the online system of circulating metadata so that scholars know these things exist, the most efficient ways of do so have been through organizations like the large publishers. Still, having been an anthropology editor/publisher for 40 years and knowing most of the other ones, I don’t know any of them who wouldn’t encourage experimental projects. In larger organizations, there are filters that make these harder to approve. Experimental work rarely secures large audiences needed to pay overheads for large publishers. But I did my share of experimental works and most other modest-sized publishers and university presses have as well. I would encourage you to try them before engaging in a frustrating attempt to replicate the system already set up to circulate innovative anthropological work.

    1. “Experimental work rarely secures large audiences needed to pay overheads for large publishers.” I get yer point here but doubt that there are such things as large audiences for ethnographic/anthro work, how academic libraries came to be a market is worth looking into but demand by readers isn’t likely a significant part of the answer, also Mol (see above) and others are working on forms of publishing that actually allow for public reader input/reaction as part of their professional and their methodological ethos.

  3. great post–there is a bit of this kind of activity around the taiwanese anthro blog (if i can promote the work of my colleagues here) guavanthropology, which every few years publishes in book form a selection of blog posts from their site. it’s in mandarin, so maybe not accessible to many of the readers here; yet, it’s a project that has a bit of traction in the small but active anthropology community here, which fortunately also includes many people outside of universities. on other fronts, your questions about equity in micro-publishing are also really relevant. to get at these problems might require rethinking the publics of anthropological publishing as well as those editing and writing

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