Problem or Solution? The Power of Prestige

ACP intern Katie McMaye ('23) dives into publishing's status systems

Take a moment to imagine yourself as an acquisitions editor. You’re scrolling through emails, going through book proposals from prospective authors. You open one that you really like–the author does great research, the writing is phenomenal, the concept intriguing. There’s only one problem: the topic doesn’t fit with your press’ lists. Unfortunately, you have to write back with a rejection, wishing the author luck publishing elsewhere. 

Now imagine yourself as a scholar. You’re looking to publish your research in a new, experimental field. You’d like to publish with an open access press so people can read your groundbreaking research with as few barriers as possible, right? Not quite. You have to consider the amount of recognition a press has. Some would argue that it would even harm you to publish with a small OA press over a traditional scholarly press. But how?

I never fully understood this aspect of publishing until I worked on a project over J-term compiling data from book proposals that came through ACP’s email transom (“transom” describes any unsolicited book proposals sent in to a press). Working on this project, I often found myself in the scenario I asked you to imagine earlier: some proposals sounded fascinating, and I wished that I could read a fully published version of them. Yet almost all of them were rejected, usually because they didn’t fit ACP’s lists. 

A list is like the “personality” of a press. Each press has certain subject areas they tend to publish in. ACP’s lists include subjects such as Art History & Visual Studies, Literary Studies, and Latin American Studies. These lists serve an important function: if a press carves out a specific niche within the publishing world by having clearly defined lists, they become recognized for their work in those specific areas. This is why ACP can’t accept every single proposal that sounds interesting. Scholars who do research in ACP’s list areas seek us out because they stand to gain more recognition by publishing with a press well established in those subject areas. Lists give both the press and authors a mark of legitimacy. 

But authors also have to consider other factors–the most important of which may be prestige. Prestige functions similarly to lists: if an author publishes with a prestigious press, their work is automatically viewed as more legitimate. Presses gain prestige by building up a repertoire of high-quality published works. Since academics don’t have enough time to individually determine the quality of every book, the prestige, or reputation, of the press that publishes it serves as a proxy measure for quality. It’s like an automatic stamp of approval–if a book is published with a prestigious press, that initial vetting process has already been done for them.

But this system is a double-edged sword. Authors are motivated to seek out the presses with the most prestige, because doing so will afford them more recognition in their fields. So a huge number of authors are all competing to publish with a relatively small number of prestigious presses. And because there are so few presses at the very top of the hierarchy, they have ultimate control over prices. Since libraries and readers want access to the highest quality books and journals, there’s a strong incentive to buy from these presses even when they increase costs.   

Not only does this concentrate all the power, money, and influence within a small number of presses, it’s also difficult for smaller or newer presses to climb up the ranks and establish themselves in academic publishing. Does this situation sound familiar? The publishing industry is one of many microcosms of the very same capitalistic system that leaves 68% of the total wealth in the U.S. in the hands of the top 10% of earners, and only 3.3% of wealth with the bottom 50%. While prestige serves an important function, it is still deeply flawed and often unfair. 

Open access exists almost in direct opposition to the prestige model. Prestige is built through selectivity. It exists precisely because very few works are admitted into top presses, since the more work they accept, the more diluted their prestige would become. Meanwhile, open access’ main goal is not scarcity, but the wide dissemination of research. OA presses hope to get their authors’ work into as many hands as possible. The way that smaller OA presses gain their own legitimacy (by building lists and becoming well-respected in certain subject areas), compared to how prestigious presses gain prestige (through exclusivity) is telling of their values and priorities. How much work is being discarded each year because it’s not deemed as “high-quality” according to often outdated standards and conventions? How many readers are missing out because of this?

By the time I finished the transom project, what I’d learned about prestige completely changed how I viewed scholarly publishing. I realized that none of the scholarly works I read exist in a vacuum. There is so much that lies beneath the finished product, and it is all intricately tied to a larger system that is not divorced from the same problems that plague the rest of society. While I don’t hold the solutions to these problems, I’m grateful this project allowed me to take the first steps in recognizing them and acknowledging the wider issues they are connected with.

Katie is a senior English and Psychology double major from California. Over her years here at Amherst, she has deepened her love for creative writing and literature. On a typical day, you might find her listening to indie music, watching YouTube video essays on obscure topics, or studying with friends in Frost.