Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ownership rights

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Gerard Jones' wonderful book called Men of Tomorrow, which is a history of comic books' "golden age." Don't worry--I'm not going to re-review it. The book did get me thinking about another type of publishing, though--academic journal publishing--and the issue of ownership rights to one's work. That's what I want to reflect on here.

As Jones shows, the comic book industry's "golden age" (roughly 1938-1960) really wasn't all that golden, especially when you look at things from the standpoint of labor. Writers and artists were largely considered to be hacks by comic book publishers, and with rare exceptions, most were paid a pittance. There were a few star writers and artists, of course--people like Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and Batman creator Bob Kane. But stars or not, comic book writers and artists were almost universally compelled to sign away the rights to their words, illustrations, and characters to the publishers who employed them. (Kane was an exception, but only because of a legal loophole.) That was a basic condition of their employment and of the system writ large. Most sufferred terribly a a result. What's all the more shameful is that comic book publishers often claimed to be making little or no money off of the writers' and artists' work when, in fact, they were profiting handsomely from it.

There seem to me some rough parallels between the "golden age" of comic books and contempory academic journal publishing. Most significant here is the issue of ownership rights to one's work. Nearly all journal publishing contracts stipulate that authors must transfer copyright and other entitlements to the publishers of our articles. We retain some rights, of course, including (thankfully) the right to be identified as the author of the work. We're also typically allowed to re-use material from our published articles in whatever books we may write, although generally our doing so requires asking for the journal publishers' permission. But otherwise, like the writers and artists of comic books' golden age, publication of our journal articles is contingent on publishers stripping us of most of the rights to our creative work.

Now, the old saw usually goes something like this: academic publishing is the pecuniary backwater of the publishing industry. Consequently, scholars must grant journal publishers exclusive rights to publish, license, and otherwise commercially exploit our work. Otherwise, the latter would be unable to cover production costs, must less hope to turn a profit.

This may be true where the journals in question are published by not-for-profit university presses. It's not the case, however, for large, for-profit journal publishers. Consider this: Taylor & Franics/Informa's revenue topped £1.1 billion GBP in 2007, an increase of 9% over the preceding year. John Wiley & Sons 2007 merger with Blackwell was a US$1 billion deal. The proposed merger of journal giants Reed Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer (now Cinven), in 1997/19998, would have been a US$9 billion deal had it gone through. These companies and others like them are hardly straped for cash.

So what might we do to improve the situation for academic authors? We might take a cue from the comic book industry. In the 1990s, star writers and illustrators such as Todd McFarlane stopped working for Marvel and DC, the industry majors, and began their own lines. Significantly, they allowed those in their emply to retain rights to the words, pictures, and characters they created. This totally transformed the industry. The new companies almost immediately siphoned off the best talent from Marvel and DC, who were then forced to offer similar deals to writers and artists in order to remain competitive.

I wonder: is something similar possible in academic journal publishing? Is there a way to allow authors to retain most rights to our published work, and perhaps even to profit directly from it? If we could create a journal like that--a successful one--might it not compel the large journal publishers to follow? These are questions I'll consider in a future blog post.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

CFP/SCMS: Online Publishing

This Call for Papers landed yesterday in my email in-box, and I figured some D&R readers might be interested. The proposed session will explore the future of scholarly communication--a very timely topic indeed. Enjoy, and please contribute if you're able to get yourself to Tokyo.

Society for Cinema and Media Studies Annual Conference
Tokyo, Japan
May 21-24, 2009

Call for Papers for a Proposed Workshop: Online Publishing

Publishing in the cinema and media studies community has grown considerably in the past few years. In addition to the traditional print format, online journals and blogs have become a viable resource for educators and students in our field. This workshop will examine the state of publishing in cinema and media studies by looking back at what has already been accomplished in print, and looking forward towards the promising (and potentially not so promising) directions that online publication might take. We will consider the differences between print and online forums of scholarly discourse, as well as evaluate the role that online publications fulfill for both the exploration of subjects and also for professional advancement. Topics for discussion will include (though need not be limited to): the production of online journals; the past, present, and future of print publication; the scholarly opportunities and limitations of blogs; and the legitimacy of print and online publications as resources for scholars and students alike.

Questions for consideration include:
  • What are the challenges and opportunities of online publishing?
  • Is there a future for print publication?
  • What is the relationship between print and online publication?
  • Are blog posts viable resources for academic research and writing?
  • What role does professional accountability/peer review play in the self-publishing/blog paradigm?
  • Are there networks or communities of academic cinema and media studies publications or bloggers?
  • What role should interactive or dynamic content play in online academic discourse?
  • Is there resistance to open-access models of online academic publishing?
  • How does (or should) academic writing change across media platforms (print, online, blog)?
We would like to bring together professionals with direct experience producing print and/or online publications, academics who have extensive experience publishing in print and/or online publications, as well as graduate students currently working on the staff of online and/or print publications to discuss the past, present, and future of academic publication in cinema and media studies.

If you are interested in participating, please contact: John Bridge ( and Jen Porst (

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Men of Tomorrow


It's rare that I read a book and feel compelled to reread it immediately. But that's what happened when I finished Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (Basic Books, 2004). It offers a fascinating look into a nascent industry full of fast-talking hustlers, shrewd accountants, and nerdy young men all struggling to make their mark on U.S. culture in the 20th century.

Jones is an outstanding writer. I say this having read a fair amount of work by other comic book authors who've decided to switch genres, turning either to novels or to nonfiction. Usually the work isn't a disaster, but then again, neither is it all that memorable. It's a different story for Jones. He penned Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman early on in his writing career, where he developed a knack for exposition and an ear for engaging dialogue.

He uses both skills to his advantage in Men of Tomorrow. The book moves nimbly between large-scale social/cultural history and more intimate, narrative reconstructions of the lives of the early comic industry's key figures. What results is a precarious yet perfectly executed balancing act. Jones' account is rich with historical detail, yet he never manages to lose the plot.

The book opens with an aged Jerry Siegel, co-creator (with Joe Shuster) of Superman, learning that a blockbuster movie featuring the Man of Steel would soon be making its way onto the silver screen. It was the mid-1970s. Siegel was working as a mail clerk in Southern California, barely making ends meet and seething inside about having signed away rights to the lucrative character decades before. Men of Tomorrow then takes a sharp turn back in time and space: to New York City's Lower East Side, circa the early 1900s, where we're introduced to the sons of Jewish immigrants who'd go on to become the authors, illustrators, editors, printers, and distributors of a peripheral print genre that would, with time, become a part of the American cultural mainstream. Eventually the book returns to Siegel's desperate, last-ditch effort to secure rights to Superman--a success, it turns out, owing the rallying of fans and others to the cause.

Jones isn't only an outsanding writer, he's a talented historian and analyst. He's read practically all of the secondary literature, scholarly and otherwise, on comic books. He interviewed most of the early industry's key players at one time or another, in addition to their family members. He meticulously reconstructs contested information and never tries to pass it off as anything but. Beyond these more insular, disciplinary concerns, his research displays a remarkable sensitivity to comics' critical reception by midcentury academics and politicians who, owing to experiences far removed from those in the comic book industry, fundamentally misunderstood the genre's psychosocial and cultural impact. Jones is a historian with a deft touch.

Men of Tomorrow ends with a provocative claim, namely, that U.S. culture today is significantly the product of geeks. And in this respect it shares something of a kinship with another book I admire: Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which I've mentioned in passing on this blog. In their best moments, both texts capture something rare. They manage to put into words what Raymond Williams called a "structure of feeling"--what it felt like to live (for some, at least) in 20th century America.

This is the mark of history at its best. Excelsior!