Growing for Goldsmiths

Growing for Goldsmiths

Much anticipation surrounds the launch of a university press at Goldsmiths, University of London, an institution long associated with cutting-edge creative experimentation. Goldsmiths Press launches officially this spring, bringing out its first title, sociologist Les Back’s Academic Diary (April, B-format paperback, £9.99), and holding a session at the London Book Fair (“The Making of a Modern University Press” on 13th April). A deal has been put in place for worldwide sales and marketing through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Press.

Discontent with the conservatism enveloping academic scholarship was the inspiration behind the new venture, explains press director Sarah Kember, Goldsmiths professor of new technologies of communication. “Now that we work for the REF [the Research Excellence Framework, the system for assessing research quality in Higher Education], there are a lot of constraints,” she says. “The effect of the audit culture on scholarship and on disciplines is to make everything more constrained and conservative. There are imperatives to publish, but to publish in a certain way. We’re Goldsmiths, and we can do that and we can do that quite well, but there is a lot more to us.”

There is a lot of frustration at the inability to publish through normal publishing channels work that crosses disciplines and spans theory and practice in the way Goldsmiths likes, says Kember—and she herself feels that frustration, as she writes fiction as well as producing her academic work. “You get to a point in your career and you think, OK, I’ll do it,” she adds.

Kember found an ally in old friend Adrian Driscoll, who started his publishing career as an editor at Routledge, then left to found digital publishing company Semantico, and now runs apps business Aimer Media. Together—in classic fashion, over a drink in the pub—they hatched a vision for a Goldsmiths university press based on “what would a post-digital academic press look like, if you’re looking beyond apps and e–books, thinking, ‘What does this project require?’”

Driscoll says: “If there is a crisis in monographs and journals but your organisation has never found them good ways [to communicate]— because you are in practice-based research and you’re talking about dance performance, and monographs and journals didn’t particularly work for you anyway—then there are opportunities for different ways to do things.

“University presses have been becoming more and more commercial over the past 20-plus years, yet ‘commercial press’ is actually the last place you want to end up at because it’s really, really hard to be a commercial academic publisher now, with libraries in crisis and Open Access [OA] putting pressure on the business models of mainstream commercial academic publishing. So why should you set up a university press that does [what commercial presses do]?”

Goldsmiths Press titles will not begin to appear en masse until 2017, but the discussions are firmly under way. Goldsmiths will pioneer Green OA monographs as a default, a model not yet mandated by funding councils, and is setting itself the challenge of making that work across not just scholarly monographs but also trade fiction, poetry, arts and performance publishing. But, Kember says, Goldsmiths will take a “nuanced” approach and is sceptical in many ways about the “very top-down agenda” of Open Access, especially Gold model OA.

“Because I am embedded at Goldsmiths in the humanities, I was never going to come off very well through that [Gold] model, because there’s no money really to support it, therefore you are looking at a radical reduction in output for arts, humanities and social sciences, as well as more constraints on who gets published and who doesn’t,” she says. It also puts institutions in “an incredibly invidious position”, since the amount of funding institutions receive varies widely. “In our case it’s a block grant of £40,000, and there is no way you can distribute that fairly or ethically, within an institution with different research areas and researchers at different career stages.” Instead Goldsmiths Press is going for the Green model “because it is still nice to make scholarly material free at the point of delivery, where we can . . . But Green is the way to do it without creating hostages to fortune, because we can’t sustain the Gold APC [article processing charge] model”.

Peer review is another contentious area Goldsmiths will be looking at. Kember says: “We accept, along with pretty much everyone else, that double blind peer review [when reviewers of a paper don’t know the identity of the paper’s author, and vice versa] doesn’t work. It’s increasingly hard to extract free labour from the same people over and over within the academy, and it tends to get bias in terms of gender and career stage. There are too many opportunities for the abuse of that system. But the answer is not open peer-to-peer review [where identities are revealed and reviewer comments published], it’s too simplistic and work-intensive—ironically. We don’t have the answer, but we’re going to be part of a conversation about changing peer review.”

Among early productions from Goldsmiths Press will be an app to accompany the Goldsmiths Prize, which is in its fourth year of rewarding “the spirit of creative daring”, after picking Eimear McBride, Ali Smith and Kevin Barry as its first three winners. The app, set for release initially on iOS in September, will be free to download but the press is also in discussions with publishers to sell e-books through it. Also in the pipeline for 2017 is Design Briefs, a book that will make use of the briefs the Goldsmiths design department gives its students. Kember says: “A strand we have identified is work that might be seen to be able to expose the processes of a discipline, how a discipline thinks and where it works out what it’s contributing. Let’s get to where design at Goldsmiths works out what design is; how design works socially, culturally, politically, economically; and how it embeds itself in a culture and how it changes that culture. The current head of department Matt Ward is editing it and he has got a wonderful phrase for what [the department] does—‘the dark matter of design, which holds everything together, you can’t see’. We’re going to make it visible.”

Among more traditional projects set for 2017 will be an anthology of work on the late Stuart Hall, Stuart Hall: Conversations, Projects and Legacies, edited by Goldsmiths professors Julian Henriques and David Morley; and a series of short monographs on media and technological futures, Future Media, co-edited by Kember and sociologist Rebecca Coleman.

But there will also be poetry pamphlet publishing, to meet the needs of students in the department of English and Comparative Literature, a format Driscoll calls “an emerging form of publishing, coming out of poets solving their publishing problems themselves . . . not very important if you are in mainstream poetry publishing, but very important if you are a poet.”

And there will be the phenomenon that Kember describes as a “Goldsmiths DIY modular post– textbook textbook for undergraduates and sixth formers”. The idea is to have strands of modular material that students can be offered channels through, she says: “If you are interested in the practice of photography, follow this strand; if you are interested in the theory of gender in TV, follow this strand.”

Driscoll explains: “When you design a course, you think of all the possible ways in which the course might work and then you focus on what you can deliver, and if you do a textbook out of it, you narrow it down even further. The other way of doing it is, you prepare a content bank of activities and then from that you create your courses and sub-courses and alternative versions of the courses, and then you may have a custom textbook that is printed on demand. So you let the demand dictate the publication, rather than the system. Don’t design your materials to only be used in this specific context and if you want to use it in another way, you have to start again and rework it. Let’s try at least to make sure the amount of intervention that takes place when you decide on the physical delivery of that content is not a big deal, it’s a relatively small deal.”

Kember calls this “defining pedagogy and publishing in relation to each other, rather than a static model of what comes first and what comes second”. Driscoll says: “Because we are a university press, we can have the conversation all the way back to where someone is planning a new course. We are not waiting for that course to exist and then coming along and saying: ‘We can do a textbook out of this’. We’ll say: ‘Let’s work out what people might want here and work out if there’s a way we can meet their needs.’”

He adds: “We are coming back a little bit closer to serving the academic community, rather than simply being an adjunct to it.” Within Goldsmiths itself, Kember notes, “there is a lot of institutional support, moral support, enthusiasm and excitement”.