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Discipline and Publish

Disciplinary Boundaries in Publishing Studies


… although it has not yet developed passwords or secret handshakes or its own population of Ph.D.’s, its adherents can recognize one another by the glint in their eyes. They belong to a common cause, one of the few sectors in the human sciences where there is a mood of expansion and a flurry of fresh ideas. (Robert Darnton, ‘What Is the History of Books?’ 1982, 65)

Writing in 1982 about the development of the fresh field of book history, Robert Darnton persuasively argued for the importance of establishing a model of the ways that books enter into and move through society as a counter to ‘interdisciplinarity run riot’ (67). This model, Darnton’s communications circuit, radically reconfigured— and continues to influence—subsequent approaches to the study of the publishing industry, despite the largely historical focus of most of the critical work (including Darnton’s own) done within the field in the 1980s and 1990s. Scholarly research into contemporary publishing grew more prominent alongside the growth in universities of largely vocational training programs for aspiring book industry professionals in the 1990s and 2000s (Murray 2007, 3). This chapter outlines how publishing studies, as a discipline, is configured. How do we recognise research as belonging to this discipline? Aside, of course, from the ‘glint’ in the eye of the researcher, hopefully not quite dimmed 35 years on. What are the discipline’s restrictions, pre-occupations, and affordances—its passwords and secret handshakes? To what extent have expansive moods and flurries of ideas coalesced into research traditions and disciplinary conventions?

Publishing studies is an area of academic speciality that encompasses a wide variety of approaches, frameworks and methodologies. It is also an area that we demarcate broadly in this chapter: its boundaries with, in particular, book history, cultural sociology, and more traditional disciplines like literary studies and media studies are porous. We seek to include rather than downplay this disciplinary bleed. Work in this field addresses topics as disparate as diversity and social justice in the publishing industry, trends in book marketing, the book-design process, the impact of technology on the publishing sector, publishers’ business management processes, or the communities of practice that support and shape publishing activities. The field can to a certain extent be defined by its focus on the activities of book and, to a lesser extent, journal and magazine publishing. But although publishing thus delimited might seem to provide a clear focus, new platforms and technologies are transforming all facets of the industry, from production through to dissemination and reception. There is a clear overlap with the activities of other digital media and news organisations, traditionally the domains of the media studies scholar. Publishing studies is consequently a field that is doubly indeterminate. Recognising existing academic work that discusses the emergence of publishing studies (Boswell 2017; Marsden 2017; Murray 2007), this chapter discusses the affordances and limitations of its dynamic construction, and identifies key areas of aspiration for future development.

Institutional History

Publishing studies has been shaped by both institutional and cultural frameworks. It emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s as universities began to add vocationally focused publishing programs to their offerings—an institutional change formally consecrated by the creation of organisations such as the International Association for Publishing Education (IAPE), based in North America, in 1989, and the Association of Bookseller and Publisher Training Organisations in Europe (ABPTOE), in 1990 (Montagnes 2015, 103). In Australia, the first formal publishing program was a graduate diploma first offered by RMIT in 1988, although universities like Macquarie had already been offering some editing and publishing subjects (Michael Webster, via interview, 15 July 2017). Both programs were established to remedy skill shortages within the industry. Interestingly, the RMIT program was in part prompted by the inclusion of editing roles under the industrial awards system, a move which emphasises the importance of labour-market conditions and wider government policy to the formation of academic disciplines (Webster 2017). In many (if not all) cases, early publishing programs functioned separately from the established academic disciplines—in Australia, universities often first dipped their collective toes in the area through diploma programs, which operated largely outside the research frameworks of their host universities. Michael Webster (2017), who was instrumental in the establishment of the first publishing studies program at RMIT in 1988, notes that these programs were primarily staffed by: ‘[ … ] industry veterans with little or no academic experience beyond their own [Bachelors] degrees.’ Initially, academics teaching in these new programs put little emphasis on research outputs, and these programs stood aside from universities’ research culture.

Since the mid- to late-2000s, however, publishing programs have tended to become more thoroughly integrated into the universities that host them. Many programs are now based in either creative industries or media and communications departments that themselves find their home in larger arts and humanities faculties. Mean-while, the importance of research funding and ranking to many universities has increased. As Diana Hicks (2012) notes:

The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the UK was launched in 1986, [and] since then many countries have followed suit and introduced performance-based research funding systems (PRFSs). At least fourteen such systems were found in 2010.

These research frameworks are leveraged to improve direct funding—usually through national governments—and competitive rankings, thereby increasing enrolments, particularly of foreign students (Hazelkorn 2015, 6). Though publishing programs have traditionally tended to operate primarily as postgraduate coursework programs (which earn their keep through fee-paying students), they are now increasingly expected to contribute to research outputs (a trend observed by Simone Murray in interview, 4 August 2017). As with many coursework Masters programs, this creates tension between the subject offerings, which are largely practical and vocationally orientated, and the academics who teach within them, who increasingly need to focus on research outcomes, including publishing high-impact research and securing grants. These are not diametrically opposed pursuits, but it is important to recognise that pursuing this research agenda—while staying engaged with industry, and industry developments, and while teaching in programs requiring labour-intensive pedagogical practices—does create pressures specific to vocational programs.

Disciplinary Trends

Publishing studies research is characterised by several key trends and approaches. These include an embrace of work that maps the field of contemporary publishing; that is highly sociological in nature; that is technologically attuned; that is commercially and politically aware; and that is highly responsive to the political and social climate in which it is produced. The spread of these characteristics—and of the ways in which they are employed and combined by researchers— reflects both the youth of the discipline and the unstable nature of the contemporary publishing industry’s technological and cultural underpinnings. These features have developed to enable work within the discipline to adapt to and intervene in shifts in regulatory frameworks, cultural pressures and technological changes.

Field Mapping

A particular characteristic of publishing studies research is its often exploratory nature. As a relatively young discipline, one of its remits is to establish the boundaries and the logics of its object of study. The first important example of this kind of work is Robert Darnton’s article on book history, quoted above (1982). Darnton produced an enduring model of the relationship between author, publisher, printer, supplier, bookseller and reader, framing each within the often concurrent social, cultural, economic, political and legal contexts in which they operate. He modelled these as a communications circuit—a functional and highly structured entity. Darnton’s formulation served to position studies of specific aspects of the industry in relation to one another, as well as to frame publishing for future scholars as something in a necessarily close and contingent relationship to other aspects of society. Subsequent scholars have built from and updated this model to reflect the radically different landscape in which book history and publishing itself operate in the twenty-first century—most notably Darnton himself with the (still-historical) ‘“What is the History of Books?” Revisited’1 (2007) and, from a contemporary publishing studies perspective Padmini Ray Murray and Claire Squires, in ‘The Digital Publishing Communications Circuit’ (2013). Clayton Childress’ Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel (2017) is an example of work that is in many ways cognate in its mapping of the processes and practices of contemporary publishing. It is notably distinct in that Childress tracks in detail a single case study—Cornelia Nixon’s Jarrettsville—in order to knit together analyses of the diverse practices involved in the creation, publication and reception of a book.

Other key exploratory works include the growing body of research investigating publishing industries in specific national or regional contexts. These are more strictly locative in the ‘mapping’ that they do. They include studies of the dominant world of North American, British and Commonwealth publishing—such as hefty multi-volume scholarly series A History of the Book in America, The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, and The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland. There is also a growing and important body of works studying publishing in what Pascale Casanova (2004) terms ‘peripheral’ contexts. Notable recent works in this vein include Beth Le Roux’s A Social History of the University Presses in Apartheid South Africa: Between Complicity and Resistance (2015)—a study which combines exploratory national history, sociological analysis, and political critique—and Edward Mack’s strongly sociological volume on Japanese publishing of the 1920s and 1930s, Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature: Publishing, Prizes, and the Ascription of Literary Value (2010). Casanova’s work itself is another example of politically forceful locative research: The World Republic of Letters (2004) explores the structures of aesthetic, linguistic and political power that create patterns of dominance and marginalisation in literature worldwide.

The prevalence of research that connects publishing activities to the regions in which these activities occur might well be down to pragmatics: state boundaries are easy ones to draw around industrial activities defined by economic and legal jurisdictions, while research is often funded by government bodies interested in the social, cultural and economic realities of their own constituencies. But additional important connections subsist between publishing and nationhood that cement this relationship. The publishing industry and the fixity and sense of regularity that this industry bestowed on language were central to the development of contemporary understandings of nationhood and citizenship. As Benedict Anderson (1991, 46) argues, ‘the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation’.

Chapters such as this one, as charts of the research being published by the discipline, are themselves firmly established in this exploratory context. Other notable surveys, each of which informs the trajectory of this chapter, include Simone Murray’s 2007 article ‘Publishing Studies: Critically Mapping Research in Search of a Discipline’, as well as more recent positioning pieces such as ‘What We Write About When We Write About Publishing’ (Boswell 2017) and ‘Positioning Publishing Studies in the Cultural Economy’ (Marsden 2017).


A second characteristic of much research within publishing studies is its sociological bent: it is attuned to the ways in which print culture, and the creation, dissemination and reception of books, are socially constructed. Taking cues from cultural sociology, and particularly from the work of French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (1984, 1996, 2006), much of this research builds on conceptions of a competitive literary field structured by the accrual and movement of economic and symbolic capital to interpret the relationships that subsist between the field’s agents—publishers, writers, readers, and various intermediaries. James English’s The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (2005) is a field-configuring work in publishing studies and, like Mack’s (2010) volume discussed above, its discussion of prizing literature is firmly rooted in Bourdieusian conceptions of field, capital and position-taking. English’s work maps the ways that literary prizes, and people’s behaviour in accepting, receiving and critiquing them, work to confer and reconcile symbolic and economic value.

The other key strand of sociological publishing studies research explores the reception of books, and the ways in which communities of writers and readers develop. Innovative work on readers and reading practices began to be conducted by scholars in literary studies and book history in the latter half of the twentieth century. This research, looking at the ways that readers construct meaning from texts, based on their personal pre-existing knowledge, values, beliefs, and social and historical situations (cf. Chartier 1992; Fish 1976; Iser 1972; Rose 2002), strongly influenced publishing studies’ sociological and conceptual development. To quote book historian Roger Chartier (1992, 53), another French scholar whose work shaped the trajectory of publishing studies research, reading ‘is not only an abstract operation of the intellect: it puts the body into play and is inscribed within a particular space, in a relation to the self or to others’. Taking this approach, it is doubly important to frame publishing in sociological terms: it is social both in its conceptual construct as a form of communication between individuals, and in its physical construct as the movement of tactile materials and the creation of haptic experience. Crucial and more contemporary-focused contributions to the discipline’s understandings of social, material and often highly affective reading processes include Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-class Desire (1997); Elizabeth Long’s Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life (2003); Danielle Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo’s Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture (2013); and Beth Driscoll’s The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century (2014). Driscoll’s work on the middlebrow is an example of research that studies literary formations as both social and value-laden—understandings that are crucial to interpreting the dominant influence of the middlebrow on contemporary publishing. These are the kinds of understandings, too, that one of the authors of this chapter, Millicent Weber, has employed in interpreting contemporary literary festival audiences (2015).


Publishing studies research has been shaped by preoccupations with the ‘death of the book’ (Murray 2007, 4). Fears, predominating in the 1990s and 2000s, around the replacement of the codex object with digital media forms—an exemplar of which is Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies (1994)—led both to concerns about publishing studies’ own viability, and to a large body of research that sought to identify the effects of digital media on print, or that focused exclusively on understanding digital forms of publishing.

It has of course become increasingly apparent that the uptake of digital technology in our societies does not eradicate print media as a key format for the dissemination of information—an argument persuasively put by Miha Kovac in Never Mind the Web: Here Comes the Book (2008). Publishing studies work of the last decade—as outlined in Kirschenbaum & Werner’s survey of digital research in the field (2014)—is still largely concerned with the ways that technology is fundamentally reshaping understandings of publishing, but approaches this from a different mindset. Typified by works like Lisa Gitelman’s Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (2014), research in this vein acknowledges the complex interrelation between digital and print media, rather than fixating on the usurpation of tradition by innovation.

Contemporary publishing studies work understands digital media as an object of study, and also uses new technology as a tool to help explore the ways in which publishing operates. This turn towards digital methods in the humanities is one of the key factors working to eradicate the ‘… lingering dichotomy that says work on the (distant) past book world can be scholarly, but work on the contemporary book world is at best vocational’ (Simone Murray in interview, 4 August 2017). Much of this work—such as the collection of essays From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (Lang 2012), and Marianne Martens’ Publishers, Readers, and Digital Engagement (2016)—overlaps closely with sociological investigations of the industry. This is unsurprising: one of the key affordances of digital media is that, as a direct mediation of communication, it retains traces, often textual (and consequently easily computer readable) of those communicative interactions. It offers an archive of social engagement and personal reflections. It consequently promotes studies of social structures, as well as encouraging innovative approaches to the study of existing practices—such as Beth Driscoll’s (2015) use of sentiment analysis, a technique that originated from market research, to understand people’s engagement with literary festivals, or Gruzd & Rehberg Sedo’s (2012) use of web scraping and text-mining to explore the range of responses to American Gods on Twitter.

Commercially and Practically Aware

Publishing studies is deeply attuned to the commercial and pragmatic considerations that govern industry participation. As discussed earlier in this chapter, it converged as a discipline following the introduction of tertiary programs designed to produce future industry employees. The practical bent of these programs, defined in opposition to the aesthetic purism of literary studies, meant that much early publishing studies research tended to over-emphasise commercial features of the industry (Murray 2007, 6). As the discipline has matured, these tendencies have been tempered by research that explores the economic logics of publishing in conjunction with its cultural and social constitution. These contextual undertakings include Simone Murray’s own The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation (2012), which introduces understandings of real-world industry logics into the previously text-focused study of literary adaptation. Murray’s work also offers another example of the productive influence of Bourdieu’s conceptions of field and capital.

Studies of the phenomenon of the literary celebrity—a phenomenon bolstered by, or perhaps bolstering, the huge growth of literary festivals since the 1980s (Weber 2015)—also offer prominent examples of the kinds of contextual understandings of commercial and cultural logics that characterise contemporary publishing studies research. Influential work in this area includes Joe Moran’s Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America (2000), Loren Glass’ Authors Inc: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880–1980 (2004), and Lorraine York’s Literary Celebrity in Canada (2007) and Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity (2013). The rise of the literary celebrity, and research into the ways that celebrity authors are promoted, intersects directly with research exploring the marketing of literary works—key exemplars of which include Claire Squires’ Marketing Literature (2007) and the edited collection Judging a Book by its Cover: Publishers, Designers and the Marketing of Fiction (ed. Matthews & Moody 2007). As each of these volumes explores, the cultivation of both marketable books and marketable authors is contingent upon a number of social, cultural, and economic forces. Unpacking these forces’ operation, and the reasons why particular texts and people are promoted while others are overlooked, offers serious insight into the power structures—and the industry logics—of publishing.

Politically and Ethically Aware

The final trend in publishing studies research that we want to discuss in this section of the chapter is its political and ethical edge. On the one hand, feminist, marxist and postcolonial critiques shaped much of twentieth century literary studies. It therefore comes as no surprise that work claimed by publishing studies, with roots in literary and cultural studies, often employs cognate political critiques (cf. Radway 1984, 1997; Murray 2004). On the other hand, there was an historic failure of more quantitative industry-focused research to take advantage of these critical tools (Murray 2007, 6), again due at least in part to the discipline’s attempts to discern itself from other more traditional schools in the humanities.

In recent years, there has been a surge in publishing studies research with a critical, political edge. This is partly a result of the wide-scale adoption by the discipline of Bourdieu’s model of the field, and the attendant critiques of class and structural power. But this surge also has important roots in the growing cross-disciplinary work concerned with the co-option of cultural industries by contemporary neoliberal interests. Scholars like Sarah Brouillette (Literature and the Creative Economy, 2014) and David Hesmondhalgh (The Cultural Industries, 2007) situate publishing within the contemporary creative economy. These studies explore the ramifications of cultural policy-making that justifies spending on book production and other forms of cultural production in primarily economic terms, building strong political economy critiques of the processes of inequality and exploitation that stem from these utilitarian approaches. As Marsden (2017) notes, however, despite contemporary publishing studies’ willingness to engage with other studies of the cultural economy, it has generally not seen reciprocal traction within this space. There are parallels here with the dismissal by media and cultural studies of print as a media form (Murray 2007, 12). But issues such as the lack of diversity in contemporary publishing (cf. Squires 2017), the increasing precarity of creative work (cf. Brouillette 2014), and the over-representation of women in these precarious freelance roles (cf. Bridges 2017) require critical intervention, underscoring the importance of increased cross-pollination between publishing studies and cultural economy studies.

Interdisciplinary Affordances

As this mapping demonstrates, publishing studies embraces a wide variety of methodologies and theoretical frameworks. This is not surprising as, in disciplinary terms, it is defined by its subject rather than its methods—mirroring an established discipline like classics, which is defined by its object of interest, rather than a discipline such as cultural studies, which has a relatively open object of interest, but is more tightly delimited by its approach and methodology. Indeed, one could characterise publishing studies, as Leslie Howsam has book history, as an interdiscipline: ‘an intellectual space where scholars practicing different disciplinary approaches and methodologies address the same capacious conceptual category’ (Howsam 2016). However, publishing studies is not simply characterised by a pluralist approach to methodology and theory. Much work in the field is truly interdisciplinary, integrating methodologies and perspectives that have historically tended to stand apart. In Australia, researchers such as Emmett Stinson (2016) and Ben Etherington (2015) have brought quantitative methods into dialogue with literary criticism in a way that reveals the dynamics and pressures at play in the cultural field of book reviewing. In interview on 15 July 2017, Emmett Stinson eloquently summarised his understanding of the nature of the discipline:

Publishing studies is inherently interdisciplinary, potentially involving economics, business studies, digital humanities, sociology, media studies, and literary studies. Its reason to exist is not a method but an object: the publishing of books and the industry that surrounds this. This unifying purpose is not necessarily different from fields in traditional literary studies in many respects: scholars of Romanticism study a topic and/or period through a variety of different methods many of which are as much historical as they are interpretive or ‘critical’, for example. The main difference is that publishing studies inherently requires at least some knowledge of larger aspects of business and economics and absolutely requires an understanding of how the publishing industry functions in both economic and sociological terms. I also think that publishing studies lends itself to quantitative analyses; in this sense, if it has a core methodology, it would be the imbrication of various quantitative or social-science approaches within a topic of study (books) that have usually been analysed qualitatively or historically.

Stinson’s acknowledgement that interdisciplinarity is at the heart of publishing studies supports our contention that publishing studies is a discipline that embraces its inherent hybridity. His emphasis on the importance of quantitative and economic analyses to the discipline is noteworthy given publishing studies’ inheritance of methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and indeed practitioners from literary studies and cultural studies. However, as Stinson’s own work on book reviewing attests, these methods are able to provide a fresh perspective on reception history, a central preoccupation of literary studies. This kind of work also complicates questions raised by cultural studies regarding the bestowal of cultural capital and the dynamics of cultural fields by closely attending to particular mechanics of reviewing—the sourcing of reviewers, and the politics of literary communities—and by closely analysing the substance of the reviews themselves, using a hybrid of literary analysis and quantitative methods.

Toward Normativity?

Publishing studies is both hybrid and heterogeneous, characteristics that stem from the discipline’s youth and its complex situation at the meeting point of other disciplinary interests. However, there has, arguably, been movement towards greater uniformity, and the methodologies and theories deployed are trending toward a disciplinary approach which recognises ‘… that books are both vectors for cultural change, and themselves compelling sites for analysing cultural forces’ (Murray 2007, 17). This program, contextualising publishing studies with reference to both book historical and cultural studies approaches, has largely been accepted. The researchers we have spoken to have had different views on the proximity of publishing studies to book history, but it is notable that most major publishing studies researchers attend SHARP events and conferences.

Though the disciplines have natural and obvious affinities, their close relationship was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. As Michael Webster observed, publishing programs were staffed in the beginning almost exclusively by publishing industry veterans, without well-defined backgrounds in a specific research culture. Exploring how other practice-led subject areas approached the problem of developing a research culture that answered the needs of both their discipline and the institutional requirements for research outputs reveals alternative possibilities. Creative writing and literary studies, for example, stand in a similar relation to each other as publishing studies and book history did initially: one is practice-led; the other research-led. Creative writing and publishing studies both began with departments staffed primarily by practitioners, who often lacked a research background. Literary studies and book history programs, in contrast, were staffed by trained and established researchers. The focus in creative writing remains primarily on practice-led research, which, while it shares many theorists with literary studies, uses a methodology that is quite different—research often taking the form of ficto-critical essays, auto-ethnographic research, critical reflection on practice, or addressing pedagogical concerns reflectively or ethnographically. Creative writers can also, in some institutions, submit creative work as research outputs—an option not open to publishing studies scholars.

Practice-led research does exist in publishing studies. Zoe Sadokierski, for example, has brought a practice-based design research approach to publishing studies with fascinating results in articles such as ‘From Paratext to Primary Text: New opportunities for designers with print-on-demand publishing’ (2016). However, such work is more often the exception than the rule. As Murray foresaw, the trend has been for publishing studies to operate in the intersection of cultural studies and book history, despite doubts from one discipline about the book’s viability as a media format, and from the other of the contemporary book’s viability as a research object.

Mark Davis (via interview on 15 July 2017) makes the case that the histories of disciplines involved are more dynamic than prior formulations may suggest:

Since I’ve been teaching and researching within publishing studies [since 2003], there have been major changes in the discipline. Book history was, when I began, primarily historical. People like Robert Darnton, John Thompson and Ted Striphas fundamentally changed the practice taking publishing studies and book history from historically focused disciplines and moving them into the realm of media studies and cultural studies. For example, Ted Striphas’s work out of cultural studies is really important. It’s a shift that has been furthered, particularly in an Australian context, by people like Simone Murray, Beth Driscoll, and, overseas, by people like Danielle Fuller and Claire Squires. This shift has redefined the boundaries of the discipline, opening it up to media studies in particular, and lately, obviously, digital media studies, in very productive ways.

Davis charts a dynamic series of encounters, in which book history and publishing studies are influenced by both cultural studies and by media studies. We can take this a step further and suggest that, arguably, the influence of media studies on book history comes via the upstart publishing studies and the participation of its researchers in the SHARP community.

Stinson too sees publishing studies as coalescing into a more coherent discipline, though he sees the discipline as differentiating itself from book history. In interview (2017), he noted that

In the seven years that I have been employed as an academic, I would say that the main change has been that the field has begun to codify. What was previously sort of a weird subset of either media studies or history of the book has become its own field and attracted both emerging scholars and established scholars from other areas (particularly the sociology of literature and those looking at digital media and literature).

This perception that publishing studies is coalescing into an identifiable discipline with some degree of shared vocabulary and approaches has been confirmed by our discussions, both formal and informal, with key researchers. A key element of the ‘codification’ of publishing studies is the emergence of shared theoretical frameworks and vocabulary. The field draws heavily on theorists of cultural value such as Pierre Bourdieu and on theories of cultural materialism as articulated by people like Raymond Williams, and is influenced more generally, in its vocabulary and outlook, by both cultural studies and new historicism. Cultural and literary studies are themselves products of a revolution in English departments that happened in the 1970s and 1980s. This shared genealogy is felt in publishing studies not simply because of an overlap in the object of study—books and publishing—but also in the prevalence of researchers trained in literary studies and cultural studies in our discipline.

The emergence of disciplinary cohesion reflects another development—one arguably only apparent in the last five years. Publishing programs historically enrolled very few doctoral students within their largely vocationally focused cohorts, but this is changing: there are ‘a new guard of scholars and academics who have not necessarily worked in the industry’ (Davis 2017). New research students will, quite sensibly, be inducted into the dominant theoretical and methodological frameworks in the discipline. While earlier researchers developed their research skills in another discipline or built their skills and knowledge working in the industry, more and more researchers are first and foremost publishing studies specialists. They are grounded in the status quo, both formally and informally. In choosing their approach, such researchers will, absent other influences, build on the framework inherited, producing an intensification loop, which, left alone, will lead to greater homogeneity within the discipline. This has led to the emergence of a discipline which is both distinct and open to other disciplinary influences: it has ‘resulted in a very productive and sophisticated range of practices that, while heterogeneous, are nevertheless recognisably publishing studies’ (Davis 2017).

The Next Moves

Publishing studies is forging new research methodologies fusing quantitative and qualitative, digital and traditional approaches, and is employing these to develop exciting new knowledge of the industry’s social, cultural, political and commercial truths. The discipline’s flexibility stems both from its comparative youth, its history of reacting to industry changes and concerns, and its position at the intersection of book history, cultural studies and media studies, which allows the discipline to participate in those wider conversations—and often to publish across the journals that cater to such work.

The strengthened sense of disciplinarity we have described offers advantages by demarcating the boundaries of both subject and approach. It enables scholars to build communal knowledge of shared methodological techniques and conceptual models. As Louise Wetherbee Phelps and John M. Ackerman (2010) write:

To be recognized as a discipline is a powerful measure of whether we have earned the respect of others. As Steven Mailloux points out, ‘Placing oneself in a specialized field when one speaks, writes, publishes, teaches, hires and engages in other rhetorical [and, we would add, writing] practices … constitutes perhaps the most powerful condition of academic work’ (125). A disciplinary identity is necessary for such work to be taken seriously within the meritocracies of higher education and to help sustain the working identities of practitioners, scholars, teachers, and administrators across the United States.

Phelps and Ackerman assert this in the context of the ‘Visibility Project’, a coordinated attempt to get writing and rhetoric studies recognised as a distinct discipline. The project set out to defend writing from being classified as an ‘applied field’, amidst concerns that this designation would overshadow research outputs or lead to undue influence on that research from practical and vocational concerns (2010, 188). Publishing studies’ embrace of its relationship to book history and cultural studies allows it to avoid the potential pitfalls of being an ‘applied’ field. But despite these concerns, it is of strategic and pragmatic importance that publishing studies research remains relevant to industry. Developed nations actively pursue research agendas aimed at helping key industries succeed both nationally and globally. As a multi-billion dollar industry, publishing can justly claim that it has a right to research aimed toward supporting its development.2 And publishing programs’ continued vocational offerings demands the synthesis of practical knowledge and experience with theoretical perspectives.

Publishing is at the heart of how information circulates in our societies. It determines who speaks and who listens: which voices and perspectives are heard and valued. Critical scholarship is crucial to understanding the implications of publishing’s operations, identifying points of intervention in the industry, and informing those interventions. To restrict publishing studies to practice-led research is therefore a disservice to both our students and our communities. A focus solely on the research that aids the bottom line of industry would inevitably risk the abdication of the role as critical commentator on these points. Work grounded in both industry analysis and cultural politics, such as that of Melinda Harvey and Julieanne Lamond (2017) on the Stella Count, may or may not improve publishers’ bottom lines, but it contributes significantly toward the improvement of our cultural commons. And the value that the critical component that cultural studies brings to the disciplinary arsenal can be seen in work like Beth Driscoll’s investigation of how ‘middlebrow’ functions as, among other things, a highly gendered and class-bound concept.

Casting forward for publishing studies, there is a clear need for this kind of research: at once highly industrially aware, critical, and incorporating both ethical and practical considerations in its critique. In these interstices we see emerging the discipline’s most innovative affordances. This work combines an understanding of the symbolic and functional significance of cultural products with investigation of the practical and political ramifications of the real-world context in which these products are produced. As an intervention into contemporary publishing’s structural logics, this kind of research needs to be cultivated to ensure the long-term health of our cultural practices. Publishing studies is, as a discipline, most productive where such cultural critique exists in close proximity to both industry-centric and practice-led research. When these different strands of publishing’s research culture remain in dialogue, the conversation they inspire is one that includes publishers, teachers, students and researchers. Thus conceived, publishing studies is not simply a discipline that speaks about the publishing industry; rather, it is a discipline that speaks with and to and about, and even for the industry.

Works Cited

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——— 1996, The Rules of Art, trans. S. Emanuel, Polity Press, Cambridge.

——— 2006, ‘The Field of Cultural Production’ in Finkelstein, D & McCleery, A, (eds), The Book History Reader, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 99–120.

Bridges, L E 2017, ‘Flexible as Freedom? The Dynamics of Creative Industry Work and the Case Study of the Editor in Publishing’, New Media & Society, pp. 1–17. Available from:

Brouillette, S 2014, Literature and the Creative Economy, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Casanova, P 2004, The World Republic of Letters, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Chartier, R 1992, ‘Laborers and Voyagers: From the Text to the Reader’, Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 49–61.

Childress, C 2017, Under the Cover: The Creation, Production, and Reception of a Novel, Princeton University Press.

Darnton, R 1982, ‘What Is the History of Books?’ Daedalus, vol. 111, no. 3, pp. 65–83.

——— 2007 ‘What Is the History of Books? Revisited’ Modern Intellectual History, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 495–508.

Driscoll, B 2014, The New Literary Middlebrow: Tastemakers and Reading in the Twenty-First Century, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

——— 2015, ‘Sentiment Analysis and the Literary Festival Audience’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 29, no. 6, pp. 861–873.

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1A less serious remodelling of Darnton’s work, described as ‘“What is the History of the Book? Revisited” Revisited’, can be found in the form of Twitterbot @RobotDarnton (, which provides randomised suggestions for left-of-field inclusions in the communications circuit.

2In the US, revenue from publishing for the financial year 2014–2015 was USD 27.8 billion; in Europe over the same term it was USD 24.6 billion. A detailed breakdown is available in the International Publishers’ Association annual report for 2016:–2016_interactive.pdf

Publishing Means Business

   by Aaron Mannion, Millicent Weber and Katherine Day