In a previous editorial (Gelfer, 2009), I wrote about the economics of open access journal publishing. Specifically, I noted how a particular viewpoint expressed by Conley and Wooders (2009) glossed over some of the skills involved in open access publishing, and how this resulted at once in a devaluation of the publishing profession, and the co-option of free labor from academics. The outcome of this combination is that open access publishing can be seen as the privilege of those who can afford to support a volunteer economy. However, I am still an advocate of alternative publishing models, as demonstrated by JMMS being an open access journal. In this editorial I want to assume that we have made peace with the nature of volunteer economics, and offer some further practical thoughts not in the domain of journals (because this has been done in many other places), but books. Further still, I want to talk not about open access books in the increasing number of institutionally-supported open access monograph initiatives (important though they are), but genuinely independent publishing that is delivered not just online as open access content, but also via other channels such as print and Kindle.
My thinking on this subject was encouraged by the idea of writing a nonacademic book about masculinity that could be written exactly as I wanted (in other words, not mediated by what a publisher believed they could sell), and that I could give away online. I was interested in the kind of impact that such a book could potentially have more than the cultural and professional capital that could be derived from a traditionally published book (whether academic or trade). With this in mind I drew up a plan for a book called The Masculinity Conspiracy (Gelfer, 2011), which I intended to give away for free online, posting each chapter as it was written and soliciting comments along the way that could directly result in the text being revised and inform the chapters that had yet to been written.
I started by registering the domain name masculinityconspiracy.com with a small hosting package (which cost about $50 in total). After investigating several publishing platforms I settled on WordPress to deliver the content of the book. There are plenty of other possibilities, but I already used WordPress for a blog, so knew how it worked, and there are many people with WordPress accounts who could comment on the blog using their existing online identity. I posted the text of the first chapter online, breaking the text up across pages with somewhere between 500 and 700 words, so readers could comment on specific sections of the text rather than a whole chapter. I then went and let people know about the website, whether they be in my personal network, or by posting messages on subject-related discussion boards.
From the beginning the site received a modest but steady number or readers, some of whom left interesting comments which often took the text on unexpected tangents, and some directly went on to influence the text of later chapters. Indeed, for the first four chapters, everything went exactly as I would have hoped and expected. And then the site was hacked. I was unsure if this was a random occurrence, or something aimed specifically at me, but the text and comments were all deleted, leaving pictures of skulls and "got to hell" messages. My Internet Service Provider rolled the site back to a restore point before the hack, recovering the content, but claimed this was my problem (despite the fact that I was using the WordPress software they provided). One month later the site was hacked again, this time leaving messages in Arabic and pictures of Saddam Hussein. I took this hack more personally, as it was accompanied by emails questioning the size of my penis. Clearly, someone had taken significant offense to The Masculinity Conspiracy, which was at once most annoying in terms of the hack, but also rather exciting in terms of having clearly touched a nerve in the public domain in a way that is rarely achieved by orthodox academic publishing. …