Why We Do Research, Why We Publish

Ralph Locke

I was recently requesting permission from various museums and music publishers for illustrations and musical examples that I am including in my forthcoming book Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections.

One of the questions I was asked brought me up short: size of the print run.  I contacted the publisher  of my book, Cambridge University Press.  Answer: 600 copies, at least for the first printing.

My only previous monograph (in 1986), which was based on my dissertation, was published in an edition of 2000 copies (500 hardcover, 1500 paperback).  It's still available for purchase.  A book that I co-edited (in 1997) printed 1000 copies, sold out within perhaps four years, was (I believe) unavailable for a few years, but can now be read in electronic form by anybody who wishes to log on (no need for a subscription or password) at:


Does University of California Press get money every year from CDLib.org for renting them this book?  How does CDLib cover its operating costs if it makes its wares available for free?

The gradual emergence of online publication surely explains why Cambridge University Press now thinks that 600 copies might be a safe bet for the initial print-run of my forthcoming book.  A colleague pointed out to me that a number of recent musicological books have come out in hard and electronic form, either simultaneously or in very quick succession.  Two examples: Elizabeth LeGuin's book on Boccherini (UCalifornia Press) and Michael Pisani's on how Native America has been evoked in Western music (parlor song, Dvorak's Ninth, film music, etc.–Yale University Press).

But, getting back to permissions: the exchange I remember most vividly occurred back in the mid-90s, when I was trying to talk a permissions-giver (i.e., a recent college grad at a desk) into lowering a permission fee for a few measures of music to include in an article in a scholarly journal.  I pointed out that I was not going to earn anything for publishing the article.

"Then why did you write it?" the young employee asked–not in an unkind way, just truly puzzled.

It's a question I suppose we all think about at times: Why do we do research at all, and why sweat bullets trying to write it up effectively?  Should we make the argument elaborate and nuanced (for the few who care about all the details and evidence)?  Should we keep it streamlined (so as to hold the attention of the non-specialist)?  What different kinds of readers are likely to be consulting the book or article?…

In this regard, I just noticed an interesting personal statement on From Beyond the Stave, the music-book blog (of publisher Boydell and Brewer) that I mentioned in a post about Elgar's incomplete Third Symphony and the supposed New Musicology.  The post is by Martin Anderson, the publisher of Toccata Books (whose wares are now distributed by Boydell–something I hadn't realized).  He's writing here as a publisher, not an author, but he gives a good sense of what drives him to make high-level writing available on (in the case of Toccata Books) important composers who are not generally considered first-rank.

"I started Toccata Press way back in 1981, basically because I got fed
up waiting for other publishers to bring out the books I wanted to
read: there was nothing published in English on Enescu, nothing on Franz Schmidt or Pfitzner or a host of other important composers."

What a startling way to phrase it!: Write the book or article (or, in Martin Anderson's case, publish the book) that you wish you could read on the subject.

Is that why we write (or should write) about music, musical life, etc.?

I suppose there are all kinds of reasons for writing seriously about music.  But Martin Anderson's reason seems so simple and obvious that I wonder why it never occurred to me in quite this way before.

Would we musicologists find it stimulating (refreshing, challenging) to think more about what we ourselves find engaging and informative on the page?

Might this question help a musicologist decide what to explore next in his or her research . . . and how to write it up for the readers "out there," whether they hold our prose in their hands or click their way through it on their computer screen?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Why We Do Research, Why We Publish

  1. Jack says:

    I think that you made a great observation by quoting the passage about musicologists choosing what to write based on what they want to read. I have never thought of that before, and I most definitely will keep that in mind for future projects.
    For me, a student, the greatest pleasure that comes from musicology is the chase: the hunt for information on topics I love, that excited feeling when a book I’m skimming through has a passage related to my topic of interest, and that transcendent feeling I get when holding in my hand ( or on the screen) a product of my efforts. If it weren’t for the chase, I don’t think musicologists would embark on such a risky and far-from-six-figure business.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I think Jack has it exactly. Combine the pure sensual pleasure of playing and hearing music with the “Quick, Watson! The game is afoot!” intellectual engagement involved in answering questions that no one else is answering (YOUR questions, the article you want to read, however you’d like to put it), and you’ve got a really invigorating way to live. I might add that musicologists tend to be people who don’t particularly value SUVs and whatever other kinds of expensive toys are available, so the six figures aren’t immediately necessary.
    Worth the risk, even if all doesn’t work out in the end; it’s a feeling you really want to have had.

  3. Michael says:

    On the other side, I got to speak with William Dalrymple recently about his new book “The Last Mughal” and his attitude was that by writing in such a way that he attracts a wider audience (and greater sales) he is able to fund independent archival research beyond anything the average academic can imagine.
    He was able to spend four years combing through the National archives in Delhi, uncovering countless overlooked sources, precisely because his advance based on the sales of his previous book was equal to four year’s salary teaching. (I don’t know if he’s exaggerating…but it is what he said).
    It’s partly a question of your own voice. Not everyone can write a historical narrative in such a way that it will hold the interest of a general readership…and not everyone can write in such a way that it will hold up under the rigid “theoretical framework” demands of academia (which are, after all, righteous and reasonable demands, not just arbitrary guild bullying or deliberate clique-isme).
    So, if you’ve found a writer’s voice and audience you’re happy with, and you don’t mind teaching to pay the bills (or, God forbid, you even enjoy it)…then no sweat.
    It is, however, worth remembering that there are other ways to write, and they’re not essentially vapid or empty of solid research just because they aim to ship out by the truckload rather than the modest pallet-full.

  4. Avior Byron says:

    I also love Martin Anderson’s reason for opening a publishing house. To be honest, I am not sure that this is my reason for publishing. It is true that I like to see the result. However, I enjoy more the process of doing research and struggling with music and writing about it.
    Having said this, I do think about my readers. One of the reasons I opened a blog on my web site is to reach a wider audience, and perhaps also a different one than the people who sit in libraries.

  5. MikeB-C says:

    I think I can answer the question about CDLib and UCPress for you. I doubt much money, if any, changes hands here since CDLib and UCPress are both part of the University of California system. If there is money exchanging hands, it is more likely to be in the form of blanket access to out-of-print titles (and probably covered by a grant). Both groups are non-profits with a mandate to disseminate/provide information, so this type of relationship benefits both. CDLib gets to provide researchers with books that are out-of-print (i.e., hard to find). UCPress gets to disseminate its out-of-print books without having to generate another print run. This also helps drive potential sales of print-on-demand books. See Cory Doctorow and O’Reilly Press for corroboration on this. This effect will be even more pronounced for scholarly monographs. Y’all are addicted to books 🙂
    Since the book was published in 1997, I imagine UCPress used XML when producing the book, so the conversion from XML to HTML would require minimal work.
    This is all educated, I hope, guesses on my part, but somewhat born out by reading of this book:
    The first few chapters provide a good history of scholarly monograph and textbooks in the 20th century. All I can say is get used to print-on-demand for any of your monographs. This is ok as your text will then never go out-of-print.
    (I work in publishing, but was a music major in undergrad)

  6. Ralph Locke says:

    In response to MikeB-C:
    I had no idea that CDLib was related to UCalPress!
    This does explain a lot. Though I still wonder why UCalPress gives their wares away free, when other presses get paid at least some money by Ebrary, etc., to lease the html files of their books to libraries that (pay to) subscribe.
    Oh, well–I’m not complaining. Maybe they put the book online for free as a kind of public service because it is “old” (1997) and therefore considered no longer current or whatever (I mean: according to some kind of internal UCalPress guideline–I don’t flatter myself to think that people at UCalPress spent a lot of time debating what to do with this particular book once it went out of print).

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