Back in the mists of time and irritated by something I can no longer remember, I started editing a series of working papers called ‘Studies in Sexual Politics’. The titles were all research-based, the first ones featuring papers given at seminars and conferences, then others originating in dissertations and oral presentations of research. The series started in 1983/4 and the last title appeared in 1993. Over this period 37 titles were published. Initially they were printed by the Communist Party printers in Manchester, Progress Printers; and then by a Rochdale-based printer who had earlier worked for the University, Cedric Hardcastle.
Copies were taken to conferences and seminars, including to meetings of the BSA study group on Sexual Divisions, word went round about them in various women’s movement and gay groups, students heard about them, professionals working in the organisations that these research-based titles were concerned with also heard. From printing 25 or 30 copies at the start, by the end the print-run was 500 copies, and for some high-selling titles over 1000 were eventually produced and sold. They cost £1 each, a no-profit amount to cover just basic costs. As well as me, other people became involved in what turned into a time-consuming process of production and distribution (talking, encouraging, typing, editing, re-typing, letraset-ing covers, collecting huge boxes of printed titles, addressing labels, stuffing envelopes, trips to the post), including for varying periods of time Marilyn Porter, Sue Wise, Sue Scott and Olivia Butler among others, all of us associated with the Sociology Department at the University of Manchester as staff or undergraduate or postgraduate students.
The SSP working papers morphed into a related series called ‘Feminist Praxis’ (which in turn produced an edited collection published by Routledge). They were intended as an alternative to mainstream publishing, which I viewed then and view more strongly now as creaming off its profits from academic labour and giving relatively little in return. This is not to say that I did not publish in the mainstream, or relative mainstream, for I did and do. These were also the days of Virago, he Women’s Press, Pandora. High-profile feminist publishers were also working in mainstream publishing houses, and I had productive encounters with them all, not to mention the rise of the academic feminist journals that so encouraged us in academia. But even so, ‘hot off the press’ was not their strong suit, and also their referees could be conventional and timid or just not very knowledgeable. This is where SSP was such a joy, for there were many women (and a few men) with much that was interesting to say, nobody could say no, nobody could say you can’t, other than readers by not forking out that magnificent sum of £1. And the readers kept coming, indeed they increased in number.
Along the way I was told by some feminist academics that energy should not be put into working papers, for this would mean that the women involved would be deflected from publishing in mainstream outlets, which latter would benefit their careers much more. A sensible comment to make. However, when I review the SSP authors now, I can see no sign that any of the people concerned were deflected any more than I was. We all had things to say, and to say loudly, and we were saying these things in an array of outlets. A large proportion of the authors indeed became high profile academics or similar in other organisational contexts. I thought that the comment was misplaced at the time and still do now. And I still continue to publish in DIY places as a point of principle.
The SSP project came to a natural end, for its very success meant it became impossible to deal with the ever increasing print-run without it taking on the attributes of a ‘proper’ publishing enterprise, albeit one that did not actually make money, while my commitment was to my day job as an academic and regarding the family deaths that occurred at the time. No decision that ‘the end’ had been reached was made, it just became too difficult to do another title. The final title no.37, was concerned with feminist research in and on the Mass-Observation Archive.
So what is the relevance of remembering these things now? A mainstream corporate academic publishing empire is still with us and is more rapacious than it was back then in dominating the forms that academic publishing takes, in journals and monographs and textbooks, and also in gobbling up anything else we might do. There is no high profile pro-active feminist publishing that stands between us and ‘the empire’ anymore, alas. But, there is a larger reading public existing across a whole variety of platforms than ever before. And, there are technologies available that can help prevent energies being siphoned off into the distribution side of things. And, these technologies mean we can do our own thing and not be led by a publisher interested primarily in profit. And, there are still things that can best be said in forms that are not books or articles or chapters, and which have many of the attributes of old-style essays or working papers because they have an open-ended and provisional ‘for now’ character. And, in the UK at least, our academic research assessment framework is neutral about any specific publishing outlet and cares instead about the significance and reach of the work itself. And, readers are more likely be and to remain interested if things are said that are not just the same old yawn stuff that everyone else is doing, but work which takes chances and pushes at the boundaries.
The day of the hugely selling working paper may be over but its heirs are around us and, regarding my own activities, the Olive Schreiner Letters Online and the Whites Writing Whiteness projects do some similar things (and I am also Impressed with the Discover Society venture). What these activities of my own don’t do is to bring together a large and diverse group of people, all with something to say, all saying something different, and in many cases disagreeing. This is what academic journals are supposed to do but rarely achieve because they strive for respectability and conformability. And so enter here the blog, the vlog, the podcast, and yes, the downloadable working papers that can be published on research websites. Not all blogs need be the length or sub-substance of a tweet, podcasts can act as a useful introduction or addendum to a piece of written work, working papers can presents ideas in progress and encourage debate, and people can agree, disagree and productively coexist while doing so. In short, more interesting and more innovative use could be made of the possibilities presently available – aspects of medical journals and related publishing are of considerable interest here. The now ready availability of the means for DIY publishing should be grasped and made full use of. Go for it! Let a thousand projects bloom!