Monday, September 24, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 29

La Grange Chicken Ranch brass token (fake)
This is going to be a "getting up on my soapbox" kind of piece, so if you're just interested funny stories about the Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange, you might want to look away.

Still here? Good.

A few days ago, Friday to be exact, I finished the paper which I'll present this coming Friday (September 28, to be exact) at the East Texas Historical Association's fall conference over in Nacogdoches. The paper, titled "The Last Madam: The Unexpected Life of the Chicken Ranch's Edna Milton (1928-2012)," is essentially a biographical sketch giving context to her life before and after the Chicken Ranch. This kind of material is important, I think, because it moves our understanding of Texas history beyond simple, superficial caricatures. Since paper presentations are limited to 20 minutes, I left a great deal of Miss Edna's personal story out, but the resulting paper is still a solid piece (and don't worry, the rest is in the book).

Unfortunately, this paper may well be my first, last and only foray into academia. If I may allow myself a bit of brazen self-congratulation for a moment, I uncovered a hell of a lot of unknown (and certainly unpublished) history of the brothel and behind the scenes goings-on that have roots growing deeply in Texas politics, society and the evolution of our state. This is the kind of... well, not "secret history," because that treads a little close to genre territory. Let's call it "hidden history." This kind of hidden history is tailor-made for historical journals, right? So I looked up the submission guidelines for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, published by the Texas State Historical Association. And that pretty much ended that. The most prestigious journal of scholarly writing on Texas history not only does not pay contributors (which I already knew going in, because hey, I work for a university) but also claims ownership of copyright as a condition of publication. In essence, they are forcing the author to pay them to publish the piece. Technically, this copyright grab means the TSHA could charge me a fee for the right to use my own work in the future. For instance, if I wanted to include such information in a book on the Chicken Ranch. They might not, mind you, but it's within their legal power to do so. I believe the technical term for this is "a shitty deal."

There is something about the "Publish or Perish" peril university faculty face that leave them open and vulnerable to such exploitation. There's also a vague notion in academia that accepting payment for publication is somewhat vulgar and debases the work (not so prevalent today, but I've still encountered it). Coming up through journalism and freelance writing, as well as my long-time membership in SFWA has taught me the value of the written word, and how many people love what I've written so much they're willing to take it off my hands for exactly zero in compensation. So, I recoiled from the TSHA's onerous demands--it's not like the TSHA is a poverty-stricken press at a tiny regional college doing this only for the love, after all. I've since found that copyright grab is pretty standard operating procedure for these scholarly journals. That's a bridge too far for me. As a journalist, I'm familiar with giving up copyright in work I produce--but you're going to compensate me, by golly.

And it appears others within academia are starting to realize the gross inequity of the current model. Hugh Gusterson has a column titled "Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No" in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. In particular, this bit made me sit up and say, "Yes! Exactly!":

But I get paid nothing directly for the most difficult, time-consuming writing I do: peer-reviewed academic articles. In fact a journal that owned the copyright to one of my articles made me pay $400 for permission to reprint my own writing in a book of my essays.
That is, simply put, an egregious abuse. The Chicken Ranch book is currently under consideration by an academic press (which is a whole other issue entirely) because of the profound disinterest shown by literary agents in my work, which essentially eliminated the possibility of my selling this to major publishing houses (most of which have "no unagented submissions" policies in place). The difference between a major commercial publisher and a university press is potentially tens of thousands of dollars in advance payment (an "advance" in publishing terms is the amount of money a publisher pays an author up front based on how well they expect a particular book to do). The average advance for a first novel is in the neighborhood of $5,000. Non-fiction generally sells better than fiction, and commands higher advances. For my book Voices of Vision, the University of Nebraska Press paid me the princely sum of $1,000, which allowed me to make a house payment with just enough left over to take the family out to dinner.

In the past 3-plus years I've spent working on this book, I've invested several thousand dollar of my own money in research. Flying out to Phoenix for a couple of days to interview Miss Edna back in 2009 alone probably cost me more than I'll see in any advance from a university publisher, and I've had many research-related expenses since then. I'm in the hole on this book, unless it sells really, really well and royalty checks somehow make up the difference. Yes, it is somewhat vulgar breaking a passion project down into dollar amounts, but I've got three kids and a whole separate writing career I put on hold for this book. In light of all that, you can see how having to pay an additional $400 (or whatever) for permission to incorporate my own work in my book (which is what I conducted said research for in the first place) would be an onerous burden for me--both financially and ethically. Gusterson, again, lays it out clearly:

So why not try this: If academic work is to be commodified and turned into a source of profit for shareholders and for the 1 percent of the publishing world, then we should give up our archaic notions of unpaid craft labor and insist on professional compensation for our expertise, just as doctors, lawyers, and accountants do.


We could also insist that these publishers pay a modest fee to acquire our intellectual content if they publish our articles. To prevent chaos, our professional associations could recommend standard fees for refereeing articles and for compensating authors of articles.

Corporate publishers will complain that this suggestion, if adopted, would undermine the profitability of their industry. I will leave this question to the accountants. But I do know that if a factory said it could not be profitable without paying less than minimum wage, decent people would respond that it is indecent to pay people below minimum wage for honest work.
I am not going to pay someone--no matter how academically prestigious--for the honor of having them publish my work. I am not going to go to them, hat in hand, asking "Please" for the right to use my own work. I've not spent all this time and effort and money on the Chicken Ranch just so someone else can reap the rewards. If, when I arrive in Nacogdoches later this week, the conference organizers present me with a contract insisting that I transfer copyright of my paper to them, I will turn and walk out and drive home. Simple as that. I have worked too long and too hard to simply give away my blood, sweat and tears.

I've been published before. And I guarantee I will not perish if I walk away from such exploitative "deals."

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