Contractual Mayhem: On the Absurdities of Moving from Paper to Digital in Academic Publishing

June 11, 2010

I am currently negotiating my contract with MIT Press to “publish” my “video-book” about YouTube this Fall. The enlightening, confusing, crazy, friendly, and productive conversations I am having with my editor, Doug Sery, and my production team at USC’s Vectors and IML are a telling indication of how far academic publishing (and writing) has to go to match the technological possibilities for writing, research, and public intellectualism afforded by new media. My project will be the first publication supported (in part) by a Mellon Initiative “The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture,” which set out to re-think academic publishing (in conversation with UC, MIT and Duke University Presses) in light of media archives (including the USC Shoah Foundation and Institute, The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, Critical Commons and the Internet Archive) and digital humanities. With Doug’s kind permission, I will be presenting some of our conversation here as a way to network these sorts of negotiations, and the questions they raise for digital humanists, new media scholars, and academic presses:


Thanks for making a first pass on the contract. I am thrilled to be working with MIT, and realize “The Work” (what I am currently calling a “video-book” until a better name is found) is the first of its kind, and we’re making this happen as we go. Towards this end, here are the notes I promised about the concepts in the first draft of the contract that don’t align well with my understanding of this born-digital publication. I think the conceptual issues for us to tackle are:

1) Delivery of the Work: what form is acceptable given that the Work lives only on-line (or in a data-base) and not in “word-processing files”

2) Author’s Warranty:
a) I am wondering about urls and YouTube videos that constitute a large portion of the Work. Of course, the writing is all mine.
b) Also, regarding credit: It is not clear to me, contractually, how to credit the design team who built the Work which holds my words and points to other’s videos.
c) As for Previous Publication: a significant amount of the Work has been “published” already on my blog, although reformatted and designed for the Work.

3) Size of the Work: Do you actually want a word count for the Work? This will not account for the videos, which take up a significant portion of its content. Should there be a video count, or a time count, too?

4) Royalties: There is currently language about royalties that gives me 0% of all books sales, which makes sense, as there is no book. The language in the separate portions called Electronic Rights and Royalties from Other Sources (i.e. “if the Work is sold electronically”) both seem to be written for a paper book (i.e. “we might make the Work as a whole available via the World Wide Web)” and seem to be in some contradiction or in uneccessary parallel with each other.  Given that on-line, electronic distribution would be its primary (only?) possible revenue stream, if there is to be a revenue stream at all, since it is my current understanding that the Work will be free on the MIT site (although this is not stipulated in the contract), I’d like this all to be clarified and probably re-written.

5) Materials Created by Other Persons: To be clear, I do not have permissions for most of the YouTube videos the work points to, which sit on YouTube and not on the Work.

6) Upkeep, repairs, hosting of the infrastructure, database and Work: Who is responsible for this? Where does it sit? Where does it go after three years? How is it preserved?

7) Editing, Proofing: Unclear how this will be done given the unique quality of the material in the Work: i.e. design, words, videos. I certainly want it to be edited and proofed but how and by whom?

8. Author’s Alterations: We need to decide whether the Work will be adapted, in that it is live, and easily updatable, added to, commented upon etc. or if it stays still once delivered (more like a paper book).

9) Promotion: given the unique nature of the Work, its economic model, and its final shape and home, I am interested in thinking through where and how the Press will promote it and otherwise let its audience know about its presence and availability.

10)  Index: The Work has a search function and thus I will not need to make an index.

I look forward to working all this through. I understand that most of these concepts are new for the Press (and me) and am open to hashing them out in ways that make the best sense for all concerned. Meanwhile,  I am busy revising the Work as we speak. All the best, Alex

PS: I would like to ask your permission to “publish” some version of this (and other emails) concerning our ongoing discussions about publishing the Work, first on my blog, and then perhaps in the Work itself. As you know, the self-referential quality of the Work, discussing its own status as an object of writing, pedagogy, social-networked scholarship, activist intellectualism, and digital humanities publishing would be well-served by including this final stage of its production, process, and conceptualization within itself.


2 Responses to “Contractual Mayhem: On the Absurdities of Moving from Paper to Digital in Academic Publishing”

  1. […] anyone out there interested in digital academic publishing, I am quite pleased to report that the slow and complex negotiations to create a useful and meaningful contract with MIT Press for my “video-book” are at […]

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