A Story about a Book

Yesterday I made a pdf of my book Comic Strips and Consumer Culture available for downloading on the academia.edu website. Originally published in 1998 and reissued in paperback in 2002 by the Smithsonian Institution Press the book is now close enough to thirteen years old. Since my university is interested in citation records I have had to track down citations to it and as best I can tell it has been cited about 130 times in published works. A number of academics use or have used Comic Strips and Consumer Culture in courses and it is included on both Oxford and Cambridge’s comprehensive list of books for modern American history. But when the Smithsonian Institution Press shut down in 2005 the book effectively went out of print. And therein lays a tale.

The book like so many began as a dissertation. When I first went shopping for a publisher I took it to a leading academic press in my area. I made this choice partially on the advise of my advisor who knew one of the editors, who had recently been promoted to a more senior position at the press. At the time this press had the manuscript of a graduate school friend of mine and I sent mine to the same editor. The press eventually rejected my friend’s manuscript on one reader’s recommendation. About a year after my submission I received a reader’s report that suggested some areas of the manuscript needed revision and perhaps I needed to recast my ideas somewhat. I sought clarification from the editor, but received no reply. I was a tad annoyed that on one reader’s report they had seemingly rejected the work after being so positive about it. [Some fifteen years later I heard from a colleague that her book too had suffered this fate at that press from that editor. It is hearsay to be sure but she told me that the acquisition editor in question was suffering a good deal of personal trauma at the time from a marriage breakup and perhaps a dose or two too many from the self medication bottle. Both of my friends have tenure and solid academic careers and one of their books won a prize. The press in question has long since parted with this editor and I would love to have a book published with them.]

I took this setback a little hard, but at the same time I had options since the Smithsonian Institution Press was keen for the book particularly given that I had been a pre-doctoral fellow at the Institution. The University Press of Mississippi was also interested, but I went with the Smithsonian because to my mind I owed them. The Press duly sent the manuscript to two readers and in 1994 I received a contract. I had returned to Australia from the USA by this stage and since I wanted to add a chapter I needed to do some extra research. With a full time job teaching three courses a week and a huge administration load running a degree program in a design college this proved rather tough and  I finished the book by getting up at 4am every morning to write before work and of course working at the weekend. I delivered the manuscript in person to the Press in December 1996 and Comic Strips and Consumer Culture appeared in hardback May 1998.

On the evening of Sunday July 26, 1998 I received a phone call from my brother-in-law. He told me he had just read a review of a very interesting book online at the Washington Post. I got online and at speed’s astonishingly slow I discovered that the Post had reviewed Comic Strips and Consumer Culture. Not only that but the review appeared on the front page of the Sunday Book World section.  Given the time differences I saw the review online before most people would have seen the print edition. (Review reproduced here.)

No doubt the review helped sales, but had a paperback edition been available I suspect the Press would have sold more copies. Time passed and I received an email in 2001  from an editor at another Press who inquired about the paperback rights to the book. With his help I prompted the Smithsonian to publish a paperback edition. I should note that the acquisition editor at the Smithsonian was a joy to work with and he constantly championed the book. The paperback edition came out in 2002 and sold about half of its 1000 copy print run by 2004. On October 16 that year I received an innocuous email from the Press stating that they wished to reduce inventory and I could purchase stock of my book at $2 for the hard back and $1 for the paperback. I bought 40 of the paperback. As it turned out this offer was a prelude to the Press shutting its doors and selling part of its catalogue to HarperCollins and after two years striking a distribution deal with Rowman and Littlefield for some other works. My book fell into the latter category. If I had been in the USA I might have seen this coming since the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article July 3, 2003 on the Press’s cutbacks. But at the time I was mostly unaware of all this activity.

As it was I eventually started reading the Chronicle on a regular basis and alarm bells went off went I saw a story about Gregory M. Pfitzer, a fellow Press author, that unpacked the fate of the Press and his book and I realized that my book had entered some sort of publishing limbo.

I then began to track the status of the book on Amazon on a fairly regular basis. For much of 2006 the book remained available at Amazon so I did not worry overly. But in 2007 I noticed that Amazon was unable to provide new copies. In the latter half of 2007 I was in the USA around the time my edited volume Film and Comic Books came out. Looking at Amazon and other sites like Barnes and Noble and Borders I realized that Comic Strips and Consumer Culture was unavailable and listed as out of print. I checked at a Barnes and Noble store and they confirmed they could not order the book. On the Rowman and Littlefield site, however, if you looked carefully you could still get a new copy, but web searches mostly did not locate my book in their online catalogue. I contacted the Smithsonian and eventually received a reply that although the trade publication Books in Print and its online database no longer listed my book the Smithsonian still regarded the book as in print since copies were available to purchase on a web site. I am not sure what was going on between the Smithsonian and Rowman and Littlefield at this stage (I suspect miscommunication and certainly not any ill intention), but to my mind my book was out of print and I reminded the Smithsonian of the clause in my contract that reverted the rights to me if it was out of print for six months and on my request they did not return it to print. It took about a year and some exchanges about what constituted in print at the time I signed the contract (a fine legal point that since the web barely existed when I signed the contract “in print” meant listed in Books in Print to my mind and so that was the contractual obligation). I was so annoying they gave me back the copyright. This seemed a grand victory since other books continued to be unavailable for some time after that except at the Rowman and Littlefield website.

But, and here is the rub, some 500 copies or so of the paperback edition remained when the rights returned to me and I have no idea what happened to those copies. Rowman and Littlefield stopped listing the book naturally enough, but are the copies still around? I suspect they are sitting in a warehouse somewhere and one day someone will realize they have them and offer them as a job lot to a remainder seller like Edward Hamilton or Daedalus Books. Meantime the Smithsonian reconstituted the Press as the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press and the books are distributed by Rowman and Littlefield and once again listed on Amazon. See for instance Gregory M. Pfitzer’s excellent Picturing the Past.

So with a potential 500 copies of the book sitting out there I can not in good conscience take the book to another press and see if they want to republish it. I am not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I pushed so hard to get my rights back. Have I limited people’s ability to get a copy? I have other projects on the boil and it will be sometime before I can do a second edition of Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, which updates the argument and reproduces more comics, so for the moment my solution is to let people download it with a minimal gateway of signing in to academia.edu; not exactly freely available, but available free with about five minutes of effort. Oh and yes there is a benefit for me: cite it in published works, please. Oh and one more thing: despite the title there is a whole chapter on comic books during WWII.

Comic Strips and Consumer Culture

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4 responses to “A Story about a Book

  1. To my mind, this is one of the best books about the business side of comics, which is often ignored, or carried into the weeds of “who was in the Eisner-Iger shop on Tuesday, March 17th?” Comics are, and since Outcault, have been big business and Ian’s book is the best place to see how that all began.

    BTW, I cited it in The Commercialization of Comics: A Broad Historical Overview, Michael G. Rhode, International Journal of Comic Art, 1:2 (Fall 1999) now available online at http://comicsdc.blogspot.com/2011/03/commercialization-of-comics-broad_13.html

  2. Charles Hatfield

    Agreed. This is a great book about comics, about commercial culture, about cultural history period.

    I remember being initially skeptical because the title’s reference to “consumer culture” set off my alarm bells, since I was a strident formalist at the time and determined to offset the various (to my mind untenable) sociological approaches to the comics medium; but to my surprise and delight, I found that the book modeled a new synthesis of social-historical and formal approaches, revealing in the process a great deal I had not known about comic art and its production, distribution, exhibition, and cultural impact. I was proved so wrong about this book that I took the book to heart and have touted it ever since as the best academic study to date of the American newspaper strip.

  3. Thank you Mike and Charles for the kind words

  4. I’m very glad you’ve made it available this way (to be honest, it’s a bit of a shame one needs to have a Facebook or Academia.com account to download it, but it’s indeed great there’s a way to get a copy directly from you).

    I agree it’s a great book and I have also referenced it in both my MA and PhD theses. I always read it in dog-eared copies borrowed from libraries. I thank Matt Shaw, curator of North American History at the British Library , for pointing towards your post on Twitter.

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