A Story about Academic Publishing

The first post I ever published on this blog was a happy announcement. I boasted that a rhetorical-Bakhtinian analysis I’d written of the cult TV comedy Mystery Science Theater 3000 would soon be published on a new online journal run in part by TV studies guru David Lavery. Bad news: that never happened. Good news: something else did. So here’s a story about academic publishing.

Let me backtrack to the first year of my master’s program at Miami of Ohio. My friend and then-colleague Kasey Butcher, knowing what kind of nerd I am, one day handed me a CFP flyer for scholarly essays on MST3K, a show where a man and two robots mock bad movies in real-time. Dr. Shelley Rees, an English professor at of the University of Arts and Sciences of Oklahoma, had sent out the CFP hoping to compile a scholarly book project on the show: in essence, a book of nerds writing nerdily about the nerdiest show ever. It sounded awesome.

So I sent in a proposal. I was new to postgrad academic writing. Like a lot of grad school neophytes I had a poorly defined list of enthusiastic interests. I knew I liked Mikhail Bakhtin’s discourse theory (and I still do!), so I wrote in vague terms about how I’d read MST3K’s interesting form through the lens of Bakhtinian heteroglossia. I don’t think I knew too well what I was talking about, but I guess it sounded like I did because Dr. Rees accepted the proposal. Cool! Then I waited.

And I waited. Months passed. Dr. Rees finally sent out an email explaining that she still had no publisher, but she did have an invitation for us contributors to present our research at the national Pop Culture Association / American Culture Association conference in San Antonio. A number of my friends from Miami were headed to that same conference, so I happily accepted. So, over a year after I’d written the original proposal, I realized I’d have to actually write something. I looked back at my old proposal, and I made some changes.

By this time, I was deep into my MA thesis research on the rhetoric of film, so all that had stirred up ideas and theoretical frames to work with. I began by changing the title. Originally it was “Competing Voices: Bakhtin, Rhetoric and Audience Sympathy in Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” That’s right — somehow I’d used the British spelling of “theatre,” and neglected the Oxford comma between “rhetoric” and “and.” For shame. I’d also unwisely seemed to imply that a dead Russian literary critic was actually in a show about sarcastic robots watching bad movies. Hmm. I changed the title to “The Audio-Visual Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Poetics, and Heteroglossia in Mystery Science Theater 3000” — much better, if equally verbose — and put together ideas for a conference talk. At PCA/ACA I spoke about the humorous effects of the show’s lopsided rhetorical struggle between the different voices. It was a well-attended session in a massive, intimidating ballroom, and there was good conversation. Dr. Rees chaired. She was a pleasure to meet — smart, generous, and funny. Later at the conference, she spoke about gender performance in Lord of the Rings. It was swell.

After that, I actually wrote the damn thing. My essay just poured onto the page, really. I wrote a draft of it — 6,250 words — in a day. I’ve only had to tweak it since.

Still no publisher, though. More time passed. Things happened. I moved to Louisville to start my PhD. Finally Dr. Rees contacted us with the information that Series/Season/Show, Lavery’s new online journal, has agreed to publish all our work as its inaugural issue. Yahoo! So, optimistically, we waited some more.

And waited. Then, just recently, came the news that one of S/S/S‘s editors (not Lavery) had fallen ill, and the journal’s progress had, for now, ground to a halt. Boo. But! Dr. Rees had been in touch with Scarecrow Press, who had — thank bejesus! — agreed to publish us all in a hardcover-only collection. Contracts are signed and the book, as I understand it, should roll off the press in April of 2013. Hooray!

It’s absurd how enthusiastically I look forward to holding my one gratis copy — thumbing through it, showing to my friends, and so on. Hooray, a book! And I’ll be in it!

Morals of this story? A few:

  • Academic publishing, as I put it earlier on Facebook, trundles along at the pace of an inebriated sloth. I submitted the first proposal in March of 2010. Three years later, it should — cross your fingers tight! — be published. And I’ve heard of worse. I’ve heard five- and six-year stories. The lesson, I guess, is to get things in the system in such a way that they have a good chance to be published down the road.
  • The essay I would have written in 2010 is a lot different than the one I did write a year later. That’s a good thing. Expect to evolve as a scholar and evolve willingly — that’s my point.
  • The web vs. print question — both have their advantages. Had the S/S/S deal worked out, my essay would have been a lot easier to access, and more people would have read it. (Is that actually a good thing?) But, damnit, there’s still something really cool about the prospect of seeing your name in print. Or maybe I’m a completely anachronistic twenty-something. I don’t know. I do suspect that the word “print” at the end of an MLA citation still carries some weight on a CV, though.
  • Finally, this needs to be said: People like Shelly Rees are rockstars. I’m amazed by how she stuck with this project, earned us a spot at PCA/ACA, dealt with one stumbling block after another, read and reread our work, and finally, FINALLY, found a place to publish. Admittedly, I saw very little of this process, but I saw enough to realize what a nasty, time-consuming slog it is. Props. I hope the book sells a bazillion copies, mainly so Shelley can make a few dollars in royalties — because she deserves more than she’ll get.

That’s all for now. I’ve been busy, but more soon, I hope! Here’s some good footage from MST3K: Space Mutiny:

6 Replies to “A Story about Academic Publishing”

  1. Congratulations, Ben! As for the long road to print, if it’s any consolation–and I’m sure it wouldn’t be, but you don’t need consolation now that you’re getting congratulations instead, right?–the road is equally long for writers outside academia. Stories such as yours show what it takes to be a rock star, too: perseverance. I’m happy for you that you were on the radar of Dr. Rees. Again, congrats, and thanks for entertaining me so well this morning.

    1. Yes, I’ve heard horror stories from non-academic writers, too — people who sent off manuscripts to nine bazillion publishers before someone would bite, and so on. Perseverance does seem to be the key. Thanks!

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