re.press is a publishing house based in Melbourne primarily devoted to contemporary philosophy. The conscious employment of the new dissemination possibilities offered by the internet is what makes re.press different from other publishing houses in the field. Every academic book published by re.press is available as an open-access file, while the physical version is produced via print on demand services, minimizing the cost and at the same time increasing the network. Paul Ashton, co-founder of re.press, explained to us in details how re.press works and why such model was adopted.
Can you tell us a bit about you and about how re.press was initiated?
I have a background in humanities and philosophy. I currently work in a publishing program at NMIT (Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE) and I’m also working on my PhD at La Trobe University which focuses on Hegel’s philosophy.
re.press was developed and is managed in conjunction with Claire Rafferty and Justin Clemens in quite a deliberate way: we wanted to make an intervention into the publishing field but, at the same time, the idea just seemed to emerge and happen rather spontaneously. I had some skills and a background in publishing before re.press; specifically I have cofoundered (with Claire among others) and managed the academic journal Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy. Claire and I were thinking of doing some book publishing and from there it just developed spontaneously. re.press began with the general attitude we hold towards scholarly publishing as such. We believe that the field should always give back: if you are engaging with any academic field, you must produce material for it, that’s a responsibility.
From about the 1970s, commercial publishers realized that the libraries had compulsory acquisition policies and would happily pay high prices for journals and monographs and they decided to push this policy and really exploit the academic publishing and aquisition system for all that it was worth. We see this as being very dangerous continuing trend that it is ultimately unsustainable. The idea with re.press is that the academic community itself should be brought back into the production side of publishing for their own sake. Academics are already doing a substaintial part of the editorial cycle, what we began doing was to bring the academics into the production cycle as well.
The re.press model is different from the commercial one, and other open access models like OHP, in that production, and to a lesser extent editorial, is controlled by two or three unfunded players. This potentially makes it a less sustainable and transferable as model, than say OHP, when it comes to distributing it to other academic networks. Integrating this process into the university as well is still a difficult task. re.press is committed, producer oriented publishing and this is what is unique about our model [and it is because it is a genuine production of the philosophical community for that community that the model itself resists insitiutional involvement, even if the institution does claim to be the support or ground of that community. The model works because of the high level of self-determination and thus for it to be distributed to other academic networks what would be required would be for another group of self-determined pcreator producers to take it up for themselves and get support from their producer communities.] People often make the assumption that the re.press model is about giving away free content is a marketing tool to sell more printed books, however, this is not correct: the consumption of our material is completely determined by the community. Our main goal is to make things freely available to the community and this drives and motivates everything we do. Everything revolves around making things accessible to an engaged philosophical community.
How do you promote your titles?
We rely on the community to spread the word. Social networking and blogging have been hugely influential. Books that we have published by authors with a profile on the web, particularly those who blog, tend to be both sell and be downloaded far more than books that aren’t supported by authors with a presence in the blogosophere. A number of authors are not intergrated into this online networked community, they are more integrated into a local communities–that are still primarily oral–and there is a real difference how our model opperates for those two groups. At some point to get the most out of re.press online interaction has to take place.
We tried traditionally marketing to libraries, but these channels are too crowded and controlled by mainstream publishers. They play a traditional game of sales, if you want to get on one of their lists, someone needs to come off. Then we decided that we wouldn’t aim for the library market but instead concentrate on scholars. It is still largely the case that in order to actually have presence in a library catalogue, you need a physical book. Libaries are still important to us because they remain an important point of call for scholars so we would like to have a presence in their catalogues either n printed or digital form.
We produce our books through Lightning Source, which is a print on demand provider characterized by an amazing service that is fully intergrated into the wholesale system. It allows equal entry for publishers into the whole book system regardless of size or power. I see this as possibly the most important thing that’s happened for publishing in the last 20 years; to some extent it is even as important as open-access models. In the past, access to a global market was very difficult but now, all of our titles are continually available worldwide. In terms of data aggregation, just being in the system is really important. This provides us with the same access as huge publishers. Of course, they have some advantages, but it is a quite democratic environment.
Can you track the number of PDF downloads?
Yes and no. When we started, I was obsessed with tracking data but now I never look at it. The reason is simply that we have lost control of it. For example, our book the The Speculative Turn (a compilation of essays) was downloaded ten thousand times in 2-3 hours upon release. It was hooked into social media channels and eventually the popularity of the book brought down our server. Then readers just started uploading it to download servers all over the place. Others started distributing it through peer to peer networks and now it is on sites like Aaaaarg.org. At this point, we realized that it was pointless to track statistics at all, because you could never tell who was accessing the information and where. The spread of our resources actually reduces the responsibility for us, for starters there is less need to update our servers. The volume of traffic slows things down and creates technical problems, so these sites are actually taking the pressure off. But is does mean that any statistics that we generate are limited. [What is clear from the stats is that everyone of our books is being accessed many times everyday and have been downloaded thousands of times each. In short everyone who wants one of our books can get it and does.]
Did you consider alternative possibilities to the book as a closed form?
The book is a philosophical object that people engage with. It is a mini-totality. For this reason, we didn’t get into e-pub, etc. We wanted to maintain the integrity of the object as a whole. It’s not about bits of information but rather the totality of the book. So at this stage we have not experimented with other forms (OHP is doing some of this).
How do you feel about collaborative writing trends?
Collaborative writing is a completely different project to re.press. Some take this seriously, but it’s simply not what we do. re.press has a very old-fashioned peer review process. Perhaps in ten years time, we may look back at it as being a very backwards way of looking at a book. Collaborative writing is a valuable process and has the capacity to take the discipline into new places and possibly academic writing is currently not in a robust state, perhaps it does need new ideas like this to come in and transform it, I am not sure.
What can you tell us about your sales?
Our sales vary depending on titles. Take a book about Reading Hegel for example, it’s a book that people could use as a viable resource in teaching. All the text is freely available in a number of formats but they are brought together here in a very useful way, but sales of the book have been low. However, downloads have been huge. This shows that people value it, but not as a book that they would buy.
On the other hand, The Speculative Turn has been downloaded and purchased many times. Commercially, it is not doing anything for us. It is a fat (expensive to print), heavy (expensive to post) book and it’s selling well but it’s not really profitable. This actually doesn’t matter so much to us because our books are not positioned in the market in a way that would make the profitable. [For example a commercial publisher would have sold the Speculative Turn at a price point about 4 or 5 times as high as ours and they probably would have pressured the editors to get rid of the authors without a big profile to slim down the volume. They may have even pressured the editors to replace certain authors with other authors currently on their list to create a cross promotion advantage.] However, they do sell. We try to create books that have an aesthetic quality because this is an important aspect of physical books and physical books are very important to us. The business model, qua profitable, is irrelevant to us.
Will you expand your titles to include other areas besides philosophy?
We have no crossover titles and re.press won’t expand to other areas. We are embedded in the philosophical field but not in the way that the commercial business generally defines philosophy. Instead we re-present the field by being part, but this means that it presents philosophy as we experience it and this does not conform to the strict categorization you might find in a philosophy catalogue from a commercial publisher. This may include poetry, fiction etc. if, through its work, our community determines these materials to be philosophical.
Are any of your authors against open access online?
Our policy says: if it’s an academic title, we will provide it online for free or we won’t publish it. Initially some had to be convinced but now, if they’re not into it, we tell them to find another publisher. There are plenty of good publishers out there and it’s difficult –but not impossible– to get academic books published.
In the mainstream view of things authors, even academic authors who get salaries from the state, have the notion that if their books sell well, they will make good money. However, the people who have published academic works already know this is not the case. If they go with the traditional publisher, they will also not make much money either. Money is a signifier of something else in our society, even for academics. People expect monetary rewarded for their work, but this is not a realistic expectation in academic publishing. There is a clause on our contract that basically states: «Royalties are a headache. If you want royalties to go back into project, tick this box.» While all of our authors are very supportive of the project and they’re not really after money, not everyone says yes to the clause. Many of our authors and those who submit work to re.press still see us more or less as a straight commercial publisher but with a twist, despite this we see ourselves as a partner in production.
Are there certain ideologies that attract others to re.press?
For some, our open access model is clearly a political act, it is about creating alternative modes of public engagement. It is part of the left project. For other authors, it is about creating freely shared knowledge for the world, part of a liberal project. Some are just liberal and not only leftist. It is always political, but politics are not necessarily what I would have imagined in the first place: primarily we were trying to show that philosophy is a public good that belongs to the world.
What kind of licensing do you have in place and is it effective for re.press?
We use a Creative Commons license. The first page of any PDF download is a version of our license which is not strictly in accord with the CC license. The overall philosophy of our license is that you’re allowed to share and to do whatever you want with the material as long as you respect the moral rights of the author and our primary rule: "Thou shall not profit”. Really, this means that those who were not enaged in the creation or production of the work cannot profit from it. Use it, read it, distribute it for free, but don’t sell it. This non-profit ideal is tied back to our philosophical objectives. We didn’t have the resources to draft up licenses when we first began, so we didn’t think of creating a new license but CC is pretty good and pragmatic.
Will open access models strengthen traditional publishing and scholarship?
I have mixed feelings about whether open access models will strengthen traditional publishing. I’m a free culture advocate and I believe that people should produce as many cultural artifacts as they can for free. I think we should prevent the commercialization of culture. By the way, we must recognize that for fiction sustainable models are more difficult, but the current model in use in mainstream publishing doesn’t work well for authors at the moment nonetheless. One thing is for certain, mainstream publishing will change and there’s no correct view on how it’ll play out, but there must be a publishing industry because it creates culture.
Some exploitative segments of scholarly publishing business must go. However, the majority of academic publishing is good, but I think that open-access models will only strengthen them and make academic culture more vibrant in general. From a humanities perspective the university as we know it is under huge amount of pressure. The current performance models are forcing academics to behave in a way that is not productive for knowledge. Academics are behaving in counter productive ways because of the systems of control that organizes the institiutions. These governmental systems of control produce rather easy and unimaginative techniques to control academics like ranking and performance systems. However, the shrude publishing companies in search of profit are working off the back of this which creates a negative feedback loop. [Institutions demand publications, academics desparately seek out publishers for their large volumes of partly thought through work, publishers say we will publish anything you have also long as you pay us to do it via subventions or massive subscription fees or high priced monographs… state can’t afford to finance universities any longer, massively increase student fees…]
Open access models create publishing communities which refocus the thinker on the activity itself. We prompt the author to consider what they are doing and why. Our authors focus on these questions in a more meaningful way and as a result, the outcome is more powerful and the result is that hopefully it provides a more positive contribution to the academy in general. In the long term, hopefully it will lead to a more robust and healthy university that produces real research.
Ten years ago, I had extremely negative views on commercial culture but now my view has changed. Commercial culture has a valuable role to play in terms of building and sustaining culture but not by commercial means. For example, architecture is a commercial business but also creates some amazing buildings, there is a partnership there. I am for a very robust publishing community, a commercial one, but I also think scholars should perform some of the operations themselves. I am pro-DIY as well, there should be a symbiotic relationship.
What are some of the functions that are specific to the digital book?
A digital book is a book in its own right but the functions differ. On’s level of engagement is different depending on the medium of use. E-readers have changed this because the act of reading from an e-reader is not so different from the book. Prior to iPads and e-readers, scholarship was about glossing and gleaning. Few would actually want to read whole works, often they just want to see what they have to say. A dominant mode of accessing material in scholarship is scanning. The digital realm strongly facilitates this.
With everything going digital, information can be genuinely shared. That is great. There used to be this fad to leave a book on a park bench for someone else to find. Now in the digital realm, the book is already on everyone’s bench. When we engage with a digital book, we have a specific experience, both phenomenologically and aesthetically different. The same differences are true with a printed book.
On your website you claim: «Lacking the established power, media and reputation of traditional centers of world art, Melbourne forces its artists to sustain themselves otherwise. Aware of contemporary work from all over the world, local artists transmute it for their own, often-obscure purposes, into unprecedented forms. re.press seeks, like an insatiable kleptoparasite, to draw off some of this aesthetic power for its own ends, by using their images for its cover-art.» Can you tell us more about the design of you books and about the role of it for philosophic books?
I think the design of our books is based on a remix process. If you look back to Socrates, his method was gathering disciples and then conducting a dialogue and eventually producing a line of philosophy. The gathering component is important to philosophy. re.press is a weird techno post-postmodern gathering of people in Melbourne, mingling on a face to face level. This produces a kind of sensory and aesthetic mood and inspires us in our everyday practice. We also have this connection with a global philosophical community. This network of people shares assumptions and provides a specific entry point towards a certain way of thinking. re.press is very loyal to the local art scene in Melbourne. We use all local art and we believe that these local artists are transforming the discourse, philosophically and aesthetically. Art has the ability to convey the fundamental nature of our projects in ways that the written word cannot.
There is also a kind of tragedy at the heart of a project like re.press. The tragedy today is not that we are all alone, but that we are alone and can’t share this fact with each other. Philosophy always points back to the community of the polis the gathering of philosophers who try to speak truth, but re.press is not some big happy philosophical gathering though, the friends of re.press will probably never meet, the dialogue will always be mediated by the distance created by the online networked community.
How do you see the future of re.press in 3-5 years?
I’m sure that we will still be going, but I’ll be probably disappointed if in 5 years re.press is just doing what it’s doing now. We need to do something new to maintain relevance. We must bring these projects to new generations, that’s a difficult task because it’s often hard transition towards new groups of people and new paragdims especially if your have been at the front of a major change already.