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The Routledge Revolution: Has Academic Publishing Gone Tabloid?

Lingua Franca, April 1995

Bill Germano will never forget the MLA meeting three years ago where he was approached by an admiring young academic. Although as editorial director of Routledge, Germano is frequently accosted by solicitous scholars eager to get chummy, what impressed him about the encounter was the young academic’s high seriousness. Clutching a copy of Routledge’s new Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, she complimented him on having published such an important book. After they exchanged further pleasantries, the academic realized that Germano hadn’t quite appreciated the gravity of her remark “No, you don’t understand,” she said, “this book is important, because I can show it to my dean and prove to him that the field actually exists. Without it I couldn’t even teach these courses.”

Sitting in a dingy kosher bakery on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Germano, bothered by a nasty flu, appears sallow and unshaven-imagine Al D’Amato as a long-suffering literature grad student. Still, he enthusiastically recalls that MLA conversation as a formative moment for him. “One often realizes only after the fact that certain acts of publishing are de facto pieces of enabling legislation,” he says. “I believe very strongly that publishing is cultural work and that we editors are cultural workers. Making things happen in the culture has always been an important part of what I do. There are certain conversations that need to take place in our increasingly alienated world, but the twin dangers of technology and social alienation make having these conversations difficult. I believe the kind of publishing we do plays a crucial role in encouraging these conversations.”

Disney Discourseâ€? Outlaw Cultureâ€? Gender Trouble. The fruits of Germano’s labor can be seen in the myriad cultural studies courses and bookstore sections dotting the land. And with their prominence, Routledge has earned itself a grateful, and lucrative, constituency. But despite its success, a number of academics are beginning to wonder whether the Routledge house style–up-to-the-minute readings of popular culture with a poststructuralist patina–hasn’t in fact contributed to the very “alienation” that Germano wishes to alleviate. Is Routledge bringing perestroika to the staid world of university publishing, or is it cheapening cultural criticism by taking it to new heights of obscurity and commodification?

One thing is for certain: By spotting intellectual trends ahead of the curve and responding with a flash flood of suitable titles, Germano has changed the face of academic publishing in the humanities. While a university press might do a book or two on media studies or cultural studies, Germano was the first to publish entire lines of them aggressively, churning out wide-ranging “readers” and essay collections. And his gamble has paid off, Once there were only isolated scholars scribbling away in English or history departments. Now the universiry is awash with programs in film studies, gay studies, women’s studies-many with reading lists heavily dependent on Routledge authors like Judith Butler, Cornel West, and Constance Penley. By supplying these nascent disciplines with the software needed to get up and running, Germano may have become the Bill Gates of cultural studies.

It doesn’t hurt that Routledge’s rise has paralleled the culture industry’s recent penchant for manufacturing full-blown academic celebrities. Andrew Brown, an editor at Cambridge University Press, remembers the exact moment the Routledge pantheon came into View: “I was walking through the book exhibit at MLA in the mid Eighties and saw these blown-up photos of their authors of the season-not all of them that good-looking as I recall. There were all these young professors looking at them with Horatio Alger hopefulness, thinking, One day, I’ll be up there too.” And stars they became. Chances are that the wiry, neurasthenic Scotsman who graced a Routledge placard in 1989 is running a cultural studies center today. “Now all my authors want me to make them celebrities like Andrew Ross,” one university press editor grumbles.

Germano’s devotion to the culture of academic celebrity remains strong. “When I go to MLA,” he says, “I don’t go to hear papers. I go to ask people whom I respect who’s hot, what’s going on, what are you really excited about? That is much more important than spending two hours listening to a lecture.” And, apparently, what people are really excited about is Tonya Harding: Routledge’s most- hyped forthcoming title is Women on Ice: Feminist Responses to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle. Can Reading O.J.: Engendering the Juice be far behind?

Under Germano’s auspices, cultural studies has traveled a long way from its origins in the dreary British Midlands, attracting an army of followers en route. But for all of Routledge’s enthusiasm for high-profile kulturkampf, not everyone believes that Germano’s massing of cultural studies capital has had an intellectually emancipatory effect. “It is perhaps the saddest story in academic publishing,” laments Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals. Routledge once published Wittgenstein; now, in Kimball’s view, they “have become aggressively faddish and completely caved in to the radical imperatives of the farthest-out fringe.”

And even those less alienated from the academy than Kimball have second thoughts about Routledge’s prolific ways. “There’s a tendency to spread certain received ideas and cultural viewpoints that one doesn’t have to question,” says David Damrosch, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia. Alan Thomas, an editor at the University of Chicago Press, adds that “there isn’t yet enough really first-rate cultural studies work to keep even the three hungriest presses-Duke, Minnesota, and Routledge-supplied.”

Of those three, Routledge is by far the hungriest. Last year, according to Germano, Routledge posted $20 million in sales for its Canadian owner, the Thomson Company. As Andrew Ross points out, the company’s proprietor, Lord Thomson, “was the person who introduced commercial television to Englandâ€? He was famous for saying “a television license is a license to print money.'” Has cultural studies, one wonders, become Lord Thomson’s new cash cow? It’s the kind of thought a Routledge author might entertain. Off the record, one Routledge editor says that Thomson is projecting the house to increase its revenues by 16 percent this year (a figure that Germano confirms is “in ballpark”). “Publishing just doesn’t grow by 16 percent a year,” the editor complains. “We have these quotas. We have to put out so many books in each discipline a year. It’s gotten really crazy lately.”

Overpublishing or not, Routledge still has its defenders. “A lot of the most important ideas in any field are partly-baked ideas,” says Lindsay Waters, the executive editor of Harvard University Press. “When everybody is waiting for everything to be fully baked, that waiting process has a stultifying effect in which the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Even if there is sometimes a trade-off between quality control and getting ideas out quickly, there is an advantage to saying, ‘Okay, this formulation doesn’t completely work, but let’s see how we should begin the conversation and then go from there.'” Andrew Brown puts the point a little differently: “Bill likes taking these kinds of risks; he doesn’t mind kissing a few frogs that don’t in the end become princes”

One wonders what would have happened had Germano decided to dissect rather than kiss frogs by pursuing his first love- biology. Raised in an Italian-American working-class section of Yonkers, New York, Germano turned from science to literature while at Columbia, where he studied with Edward Said. In 1968, the smell of tear gas was still in the air when Germano and his father, distraught that his son wouldn’t go to the (temporarily) more placid Cornell, came to campus. Although affected by the unrest at Columbia, Germano is better remembered by classmates for his early passion for opera. “We’d be throwing bricks through windows and Bill would come back from Lincoln Center and tell us about Verdi,” says Harold Veeser, now a professor of English at Wichita State.

After Columbia, Germano got a Ph.D. in English at Indiana, where he became interested in feminist theory and the New Historicism movement. He was still finishing his dissertation- on seventeenth century English literature and the patronage relationship between writers and the crown-when he returned to New York to work as an editorial assistant at Columbia University Press. The dissertation topic was, in retrospect, good training for his future role as publisher. “I was fascinated by the way writers tried to get in the good graces of the crown after Elizabeth’s death,” he says “In a funny way, I guess it was a study of literary politics.”

After a rapid rise, in 1982 Germano became Columbia’s editorial director and further explored the burgeoning fields of feminist and cultural theory. He quickly established himself as a heavy hitter, signing up authors like Nancy Miller and Gayatri Spivak, as well as acquiring Paul Bove’s Intellectuals in Power, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men, and Paul de Man’s last book, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, in which the author included a lengthy acknowledgment of Germano’s editorial guidance. Germano has few regrets about leaving the academy: “I would have been a terrible academic specialist, working away on a Johnson monograph for twenty years. At Columbia, I found it completely exhilarating to be in a job where I could just call up someone like Harold Bloom and talk.”

Routledge hired Germano in 1986, at a time when the publisher, like other British houses, had its eyes set on the American market. Before Germano, Routledge had already aligned itself with the tradition of British cultural studies, putting out Dick Hebdige’s New Accents series and various studies of working-class ritual. Once Germano arrived, however, Routledge’s New York operation immediately began capitalizing on cultural studies’ American twist- pop culture was in, class struggle was out. For the first year, Germano and his assistant, Cecelia Cancellero, now a senior editor, worked on every aspect of their books from acquisition to copy-editing and design. “One day we realized that we needed an author’s photo for Gayatri Spivak’s new book of essays,” Germano recalls. “So I brought in my camera, Cecelia bought some film, and we took a role of film during an editorial meeting.” Today, Routledge’s New York office has nearly one hundred employees (there are twice that many in London), seven of whom are editors. Though only a few short years ago Routledge books were restricted to standardized cookie-cutter covers, they now stand out from their academic counterparts with the heavily designed jackets more commonly associated with trade paperbacks. The cover of Spectacular Bodies, a study of gender and race in action movies, is typical of Routledge’s hunky, puff-‘n’-pant aesthetic. It features a muscle-bound and tattooed Jean-Claude Van Damme. Arresting Images, a collection on art and censorship, juxtaposes an image of the artist Leon Golub dressed as a cardinal with a bound torture victim, her nude chest dripping with blood.

Like most successful culture impresarios, Germano is a practitioner of the high/low two-step, attracting media attention by publishing hip scholarship on the margins of the academy, while covering his flank by pointing to Routledge’s more traditional backlist of titles in geography, linguistics, and kindred fields. And while other leftish editors complain about the degenerative effect of market forces on the kinds of books they can pursue, Germano says he relishes the challenge of simultaneously making money and selling interesting. “I like having to balance commerce and culture-I have no problem with that. The presence of one reminds each of the necessity of the other.” As Germano knows, the only thing better than critiques of commodified culture may be commodifying critiques of commodified culture.

Of course, making a healthy profit from academically oriented titles isn’t as simple as adding a few blockbusters to your theory list. And, in fact, Routledge isn’t trying to sell blockbusters at all: Its success stems from identifying a particular academic audience and selling to it relentlessly. “The miracle of publishing isn’t in making a profit when you sell 25,000 copies-anyone can do that,” Germano says. “The miracle is when you can make a profit when you sell only 3,000.” Call it niche marketing to the interdisciplinary crowd.

Routledge owes its well-tuned business machine to several factors, among them its sheer size. Producing between 700 and 800 books a year, of which only 125 or so are acquired in New York, Routledge is one of the largest publishers (after St. Martin’s Press, Cambridge, and Oxford) around. The firm also distributes titles for Verso, the well- respected British publishing house founded by the New Left Review in 1970. “You have to be pretty big to do the kind of publishing we do because you have to have critical mass in a whole range of fields,” says Germano.

These economies of scale give Routledge greater flexibility in distributing its costs over an entire list. That the press produces so many books in each subject also enables its staff to attend a wider variety of professional meetings than would be possible for a smaller publisher with only a few titles in each categoty to display. This is especially important for the interdisciplinary titles typical of cultural studies, where a book might be relevant to anthropologists, literary theorists, historians, and philosophers. “In many cases it is hard for a university press to do as much for an individual as we can,” Germano asserts. “While they might be able to sell the hell out of a work of history, they may not sell much in film studies, or they might do well in philosophy, but not go to the MLA.” Routledge’s abundance of books in each area also helps with direct-mail offerings, which are a crucial means of selling to the academic market.

Another commercial boon is the marketing and sales operation. Routledge’s independent sales force (most university presses are sold by sales consortiums) is known for keeping in touch with booksellers and anticipating their needs. “When Routledge was deciding whether they should publish two Bell Hooks books at once, I got a call from the sales manager asking me my opinion,” says Robert Contant, owner of St. Marks Books in New York City. “They are savvier than the university presses. They do more advertising, which is important because cultural studies books don’t get many reviews, and Routledge understands how to get at a lay audience.” Contant also notes that Routledge gives discounts to booksellers that are more in line (45 percent and up) with those being offered by trade publishers.

And, finally, there’s Routledge’s efficiency-minded editorial process. As a commercial academic press, Germano encourages his editors to let their trade instincts guide their intellectual agendas. By avoiding the inherent conservatism of university presses, Routledge has been more easily able to sign up talented authors in developing fields where the norms and standards of evaluating scholarship are in flux-or perhaps nonexistent. Whereas a manuscript submitted to a university press must usually pass through a lengthy and onerous evaluation, Routledge doesn’t even have an editorial board.

“Our structure of validation is completely different from a university press’s,” Germano says. “An editor can walk into my office and say: ‘I’ve been talking to some smart people in this field and they are excited about topic X. There are only three articles available on it, and I think we should commission a collection.’ We’ll consult our marketing department, and if they think it is a good project being done by the right people and that they can sell it, we’ll send out a contract. When the book comes in, then we might get a reader’s report to see whether it is correct in all its details.”

As a result of Routledge’s less-formalized decision-making, a book that might take a university press a year or two to publish can often be produced by Routledge in less than half the time. Indeed, speed is one of the tangible differences between Routledge and university presses-its first enormous collection of papers on cultural studies, called simply Cultural Studies (1992), was produced in barely eight months from the time its 1,800-page manuscript was delivered. And why was it so important to get the book out so quickly? “We knew it was fresh, and we wanted to be certain it was the first book of its kind to come out,” Germano explains. “We also knew it was going to make us a lot of money, and I wanted to get our hands on that cash flow as soon as possible.”

Of course, this rush to publish instant books has its costs. The editors of Cultural Studies did little to contain the unruly sprawl of the University of Illinois conference that their volume documents. Columbia’s David Damrosch complains that “a lot of the stuff in there is just circulating at a third order of scholasticism.” Routledge’s 1994 redux, The Cultural Studies Reader, herds together mostly fragments of larger works-some even culled from Cultural Studies itself. Despite their considerable popularity on cultural studies reading lists, neither book holds up very well next to similar anthologies, like Princeton’s Culture/Power/History, which went through a slew of revisions over the course of three years before it saw print, or California’s Rethinking Popular Culture, which features a broad selection of essays in history, anthropology, sociology and cultural criticism that don’t represent only these disciplines’ more postmodern acolytes.

Many also wonder whether Routledge’s willingness to publish quickly has had a detrimental effect on the actual production of its books. Even by the standards of academic publishing, many Routledge titles are conspicuously turgid and jargon-clotted. Nor are they immune to typos and design flaws. “They have sometimes cut comers on copyediting and proof-reading,” a sympathetic editor at a university press says. A librarian at NYU notes that Routledge sets rather low standards for “typeface, the quality of the paper, things like that.” Although Germano acknowledges that Routledge has had production problems, he insists that they are a thing of the past and that the press is now using other timesaving methods to help speed its books to publication. “In recent years, the quality of our books has increased dramatically,” he says.

Still, whatever the risks of the Routledge model, it’s a model that university presses are increasingly likely to imitate. (Indeed, Johns Hopkins University Press is currently courting Germano himself for the position of editorial director.) As academic houses find themselves bereft of subsidies and in need of raising revenue, many have begun thinking more like commercial publishers. “Although Routledge operates with a very different level of financial pressure from us, that pressure is nor something we are going to be able to avoid for long,” says Janaki Bakhle, an editor who acquires cultural studies books for the University of Minnesota Press. “We are going to have to operate more with an eye toward the market, something you can already see in the fact that university presses are offering more crossover books. The logic of capital runs through us all,” she concludes dryly.

One route into the Routledge universe is through The Cultural Studies Times (subtitled A Post-Disciplinary Intervention), an in-house organ with features on Routledge authors, lists of key players, and explanations of the vital importance of cultural studies. Homi Bhabha trading cards may be next. The first issue included a Lettermanesque list of the “top-ten reasons why you need a cultural studies section in your bookstore,” with such motivational nuggets as “#6-To Create a hip pick-up scene” and “#8- Where else would you find Barbie, Disney, and Madonna next to one another?” Aping the efforts by commercial publishers like Random House and Doubleday to create magazines (At Random and D) that push their own books, Routledge has shown, once again, its willingness to employ trade-publishing tricks to sell academic books.

But there’s more to The Cultural Studies Times, than marketing gimmicks, and in many ways the publication highlights the press’s most glaring weaknesses. Given that this is Routledge’s main effort to explain itself to a nonacademic audience, it is ironic that The Times is such an inept product.

Take Henry A Giroux’s essay “Why Cultural Studies?,” which ran on the front page of the Times’s second issue. Those looking for a cognent explanation of what cultural studies is all about will be sorely disappointed. Giroux’s article is a small masterpiece of evasive assertions and jumbled antitheses: The fight to provide the institutional space for public intellectuals to have a voice must be matched by a cautious pedagogical regard for striking a critical balance between producing rigorous intellectual work, on the one hand, and exercising authority that is firm rather than rigid, self-critical and concretely utopian rather than repressive and doctrinaire on the other. Rather than denouncing authority, those who engage in cultural studies must use it to organize their cultural work but at the same time they must avoid committing pedagogical terrorism by allowing their own forms of authority to be held up to critical scrutiny.

In other words, professors ought to exercise authority, but not too much. The Cultural Studies Times also reflects the ambivalence at the core of cultural studies itself. Enamored of its marginality, cultural studies is uncertain what it wants more-the legitimacy of success or the dignity of failure. The resulting confusion is often comic. In one Times essay, for example, Gordon Massman, the cultural studies editor at Westview Press, complains: “Due to a serious lack of vision or something perhaps much more insidious, there seems to be almost no room in the American system of higher education for what is called by its practitioners [sic] ‘Cultural Studies’â€? This hybrid discipline finds itself alternatively orphaned, disenfranchised, or begging in the streets.” Yet Giroux’s essay paints a quite different picture: “Within the last five years cultural studies has become something of a boom industry. Book stores are scurrying to set up cultural studies displays. Within universities and colleges, cultural studies programs are appearing with growing frequencyâ€? Cultural studies has more recently attracted the interests of both the popular media and the established press.”

Whatever its cognitive dissonance, Routledge continues to grow. But the expansion may not last forever. One present danger for the firm is that its authors will move on to greener pastures. After publishing Vested Interests to great acclaim with Routledge (and a lucrative paperback deal with HarperCollins), Harvard professor Marjorie Garber was paid $180,000 by Simon & Schuster for Vice Versa, her new book on bisexuality, Bell Hooks, Routledge’s lead author on its fall 1994 list (“I was already a star when I signed up with Bill,” she says), recently signed a two- book deal for $85,000 with Holt. Even Andrew Ross, an author virtually identified with Routledge, has published his last two books with Verso. While Routledge’s intellectual cachet within the cultural studies world is indisputable, these writers have had to look elsewhere to be paid well.

And, indeed, losing authors to wealthier trade houses points up a central dilemma for Germano. If the academic stars Routledge banks on really take off, it gets priced out of the bidding. But, on the other hand, if the fields its writers are associated with begin to ebb, Routledge had better come up with a new trend-fast. Either way, it can’t count on the secure staying power of the traditional disciplines that keep university presses afloat. What’s more, even Routledge can’t publish fast enough to keep up with the breakneck pace at which popular culture moves. Sandra Gilbert, the influential feminist critic and co-author of The Madwoman in the Attic, laughed approvingly after hearing about the forthcoming Routledge book on the Tonya Harding affair. Laughed, that is, after a few moments spent racking her brain. “I had to think for a minute to remember who Tonya Harding was.”

Right how, the topics Germano likes to discuss are somewhat less ephemeral. After the obligatory nod toward the grail of electronic publishing (Routledge’s catalogue has just gone on-line and the press is exploring a variety of CD-ROM projects, an interactive Bell Hooks disk among them), Germano talks about his latest enthusiasm-religion. “Over the past several years, there are two things I keep encountering: Almost no academic I know believes in God, but they all think religion is the most profound and underexplored dimension of American life,” he says. To satisfy this audience, Routledge has several titles in the works, including African-American Islam; a reader on religion and the environment called This Sacred Earth; and books on Native Arnerican Christianity and “post-Zionist” culture.

Any other plans? “We are very excited about the family and maternity,” he replies. “If we cede the ground on these issues to conservative know-nothings, we are just rolling over and playing dead. We on the left have got to really engage these issues and ask some uncomfortable, critical questions about the kinds of phenomena that the right has tried to take over.”

In many respects, the prospect of Routledge focusing its attention on home and hearth, rather than cyber- punks and ice queens, may be heartening. Having lavished attention on the first half of the phrase “cultural politics,” it would be nice to see Routledge publish more analyses of the day-to-day political issues that are being fought over outside the seminar room. But will this shift to God and family-tentatively tided the Religion/Representations series-turn up anything new? Or just a repackaging of familiar theoretical gestures and opaque language games? Might the recognition that individuals “construct” their identities through religion and family-as well as through ethnicity and sexuality-alter the cultural studies enterprise in some fundamental way?

Like any good player, Germano won’t show his cards “Just watch this space,” he says. “For the last few years, we have excelled in the areas we were already geared up to handle. Now we are going to use the energy of those parts of the list to address these other fields. In three years, I want people to say, ‘How the hell did Routledge know that religion was going to be as big a part of the culture as it has become?'”

And for now it’s Routledge Family Values time? “Believe me,” Germano says, “when Routledge does something about the family, it sure ain’t gonna be a celebration of Ozzie and Harriet!”