Tuesday, December 1, 2015

7000th signature on the petition but still many unanswered questions

The Save Ashgate petition has just hit 7000 signatures. This is an overwhelming statement of appreciation for the accomplishments of both the US and the UK offices. We all know that persuading 7000 academics to agree on much of anything, much less getting this many of us to look up from grading and deadlines so late in the semester is just short of miraculous. Three of you have already written lengthy letters on short notice when I know you all are overwhelmed with letter requests from your students, mentees, and colleagues. I want to thank you all for your swift responses to the troubling news of the closure of Ashgate's US office.

When I posted the Save Ashgate petition two weeks ago, the only information I could confirm was that the Vermont office was scheduled to close just before Thanksgiving. I had learned this news from twitter, where a series editor had posted part of an email announcing the closure of the office. I launched the petition after confirming that information but I was not expecting such a quick or powerful response. Unfortunately, two weeks later we still know almost nothing about what is going on with Ashgate, though many of you have come to me with information I cannot confirm. Most troubling is the information that has come to me from multiple confidential sources that Ashgate's UK office is closing at the end of this week. My sense is that this is a closing of a building, not a closing of a press-- I know that the UK editorial staff is still working with authors, including close friends of mine. I also have heard that other authors with books in press or in progress have been transferred to editorial staff at Routledge or T&F. Academics may love gossip but we uniformly dislike being denied information.

Here are some questions of my own and questions raised by those signing the petition:

* Why the secrecy? Why send out an email to authors July 15 announcing a "Change in Ownership" and promising that "we will be back in touch with you to confirm future contact arrangements in due course," then no further updates? I realize that series editors were updated, and that authors with books still in production have been sent the contact information of new editors, but this information has come very late.

* What is Informa's plan for Ashgate? What is happening with the UK office? How many Ashgate staff will be retained? Rumors abound--Informa bought Ashgate to end competion for T&F in visual studies, they wanted to make money on the backlist, they are buying up every independent academic publisher in the UK... Surely they wouldn't spend a reported £20,000,000 just for a backlist?

* Why did the prices of Ashgate books increase so sharply and why weren't authors informed of this? How does this relate to the promise that authors' contractual and other arrangements will be honored in full? If the idea is that only libraries buy Ashgate's books, are they aware that most libraries are facing significant budget shortfalls due to the increased cost of electronic journal packages and databases? Libraries are increasingly cutting back on book purchases. What is the logic behind this price increase?

* Will Ashgate continue to produce high-quality illustrated books? To allow authors up to 40 images without a subvention?
* Will Ashgate continue to uphold the standards of rigorous peer review and remain a viable press for tenure standards?

* How will Informa/T&F market books in North America without the US office? Will they continue to attend North American conferences as Ashgate ? Will they be able to sell books from the backlist without editors around who know the books/series?

* Will Informa continue to respect authors' rights and academic labor as Ashgate has in the past?

* What commitment will there be to continuing to publish in areas Ashgate is strongest in? For instance, visual culture before 1800, crusades studies, medieval history, gender history, early modern history, byzantine studies? More importantly, what commitment might there be for continuing to publish quirky books, specialized books, the work of first time authors, and other projects that might not at first seem commercially viable but are nonetheless academically important? For how long will Ashgate/Informa continue to publish in these areas?

* Are there UK or US laws regarding monopolies that might have some bearing here as Informa purchases more humanities publishers? Or laws regulating for-profit companies making money from publicly funded research (many Ashgate authors receive subventions and grants from government agencies)? The July 15 email to Ashgate authors announced that "Together, Taylor and Francis with Ashgate and Gower are now the largest academic book publisher worldwide in the Humanities and Social Sciences." Informa's website indicates they intend to continue growing. Subsidized university presses cannot compete with them. 

I pose these questions in part because I have been offered "answers" to them in the form of rumors. We as a community know better than to trust press releases, gossip, or 3rd hand information as reliable sources. As we weigh our next responses, it would be good to have real information about the future of Ashgate.
The passionate response this petition has attracted is not just about Ashgate's editorial staff or the books they produce. Whether or not the corporation that has purchased Ashgate can maintain the production standards and strong subject lists Ashgate developed, I hope they understand that an academic press is also about people. The personal relationships built around editors--they are the ones who guide erratic and often-months-late authors through the publication process, who solicit helpful peer reviews in a timely fashion, who talk tipsy academics walking by the table after wine hour to buy a book and assign it to their students too-- they are the ones who persuade scholars to submit their work, and make sure that the books we publish are better than the books we originally wrote.

Thanks for signing. Keep the letters coming! And if you have ideas, suggestions, answers, or information, please get in touch. -Rabia

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