Literary History: Business Arising

In November 2017, we ran a promotion for themed bundles of issues of Canadian Literature and called it a Black Friday sale. University of Saskatchewan professor Kevin Flynn responded to the promotion on our Facebook page saying, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, “Am I allowed to be slightly offended that *Canadian Literature* has adopted the VERY American ‘Black Friday’ tradition to peddle its wares? The optics on this one are not so good, methinks.” I have to admit that my cultural nationalism was not on high alert when I agreed to the promotion. I was, however, thinking of how we need to sell some issues. Plain and simple. I was trying to “peddle” our “wares” because without peddling them, we won’t be able to produce them. If you want to maintain a notion of the purity of academic inquiry without sullying it with financial details, then you might want to stop reading here. I can’t ever stop thinking about the budget, though. It is fundamentally tied to Canadian Literature’s ongoing feasibility and that important question pressing upon this and other journals, especially in the humanities: What is the future of academic publishing?

As we begin to plan to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the journal in 2019, the pressures exerted on our operations in a shifting climate of scholarly publishing mean that we also need to stop and take note of what it is that the journal does, how it does it, and why we do it at all. We need to ask the big existential questions like has Canadian Literature run its course? Is it still tenable to have a journal dedicated to the study of CanLit in the twenty-first century? Is it really possible to host a bilingual journal in British Columbia? Is UBC still the place to do this? If we answer yes to these in principle, which for now I am, we need to ask further questions about content, production, distribution, and reception.

I’ll begin with the how of production: How will we produce an academic journal in 2019 and beyond? When the journal began in 1959, a subscription model for a print journal made sense. Does it still? Print or digital? There is extraordinary pressure on humanities journals to follow the trend in STEM publishing and move towards Open Access (OA). What funding models actually work with OA? Do we consider author-funded article processing fees? Commercial platforms? What is gained and lost if we go in that direction? Who is willing to financially support the journal? Could we be more efficient in our production and operations? The circulation of academic knowledge, as it now occurs, depends on the dissemination of research in peer-reviewed forums. Is double-blind peer-review vital? Is it sustainable, given the amount of time and work it requires (both in-house and from the academic community)? How do we attract more submissions? Should we try to collaborate with a scholarly association? Given the volume of labour it takes to produce an issue, how long will it be possible to continue to publish four issues a year (approximately 800 pages)? Might we move to bi-annual production? Can we afford to continue mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in academic publishing at our current rate? How do we balance slow thinking with an obviously increasing desire for fast production? Is there another model of academic publication and dissemination we should look at?

Moving on to the what of content: What could the journal look like? Canadian Literature is distinct within the field in the quantity of reviews and original poetry it publishes in addition to articles, and in our production of the CanLit Guides (, an OA teaching resource). Is this the right combination for our energies and budget? What are the most productive kinds of articles? Are we missing some important scholarly conversations? What is the best format for an article? Is 7,000 words too short? Far too long? Is an article too linear? Should it be multidimensional on a digital platform? Interactive? Do we continue to try to do a large number of reviews of a cross-section of the books being produced in the country? Or, is that too ambitious given the sheer volume of creative and critical work out there each season? Again, when Canadian Literature began in 1959, it was possible to keep up with what was being published in Canada. It is now completely impossible. We are currently the third largest venue for reviews of Canadian writing in the country (behind the national newspapers). Is this sustainable? Would it be more productive to publish fewer but longer and more scholarly review essays? Should such review essays be peer-reviewed? Would that increase their cultural (and academic) capital? Do we continue to try to cover a range of genres? Should we just move to reviewing criticism and leave poetry, drama, and fiction to other venues? Further, should we continue publishing original poetry? Are the poems really gravy to the meat of academic articles (the only things SSHRC currently funds us for)? Or, are they still a fundamental part of what we see as the ongoing mission of the journal—to unite creative and critical work? Do we keep building the CanLit Guides? With seventeen new chapters launching in spring 2018, should we celebrate what we have already contributed to Canadian literature classrooms and public pedagogy and leave it there? Should we invest in more chapters?

The questions in this long list are not rhetorical. These are real questions that we need to consider in the coming years. They arise out of some of the realities we are facing, mainly relating to lost subscriptions, labour shortages (the problems of relying on volunteer service for key positions from editing to reviewing), decreased submissions, and the pressures of OA, not to mention a field in turmoil. Nothing is off the table as we rethink everything.   

Let me pause here on two of the reasons I am asking these questions now: Subscriptions and OA. With library and educational cutbacks in Canada and the US, our number of institutional subscribers has decreased by half over the past five years. This includes having subscriptions cancelled by large provincial and state universities and small institutions alike (including Douglas College, and the Universities of Illinois, Ottawa, and Regina, for example, as well as Athabasca, Concordia, Georgetown, Loyola, Rutgers, Thompson Rivers, and Trent Universities, among others). We have also lost subscriptions from many public libraries and from secondary schools across the country. Our number of individual subscribers is shrinking too. At the same time, though, our web traffic has increased dramatically. I am confident that people are reading the journal, just not accessing it in the traditional ways. Our downloads tracked from aggregators (EBSCO, ProQuest, and Gale) have increased greatly. Our top article has been downloaded over 7,000 times. Over the past two years, the Canadian Literature website itself has had almost three-quarters of a million (719,000) page views from 206 countries, proving the international reach of the journal (and the reach of the reviews in particular). Unfortunately, even with some ads on the site, web traffic does not pay the web developer’s salary or production costs of the content. We made $35 last year from the Amazon links we have on book reviews.

We currently have a rock-and-hard-place problem when it comes to access: On one hand, aggregators pay us to disseminate our current content and require that we have a moving wall of accessibility (currently a five-year paid-access embargo before issues become freely accessible on our website and join the fifty years of articles already archived), and, on the other hand, SSHRC (from whom we currently have an Aid to Scholarly Journals grant) is pushing for OA (with a limited embargo period). The two hands don’t co-exist well as OA would cut deeply into our revenue streams from subscriptions and aggregators. It is a common misconception to think that a move to digitization will greatly decrease production costs. In fact, there is a great deal of unpaid academic and paid administrative labour required at each step of the production process of an issue of Canadian Literature, only a fraction of which involves actual printing and mailing of the print journal. If you think of the submission-to-publication process as fifteen steps, as I do, only the final two are cut with digitization. The rest of our budget would remain constant. Last summer, Canadian Literature participated in a study by the Public Knowledge Project at Simon Fraser University about alternative forms of funding for journals to go OA, including a variety of payment options. I will leave it to them to detail their findings, but suffice to say that the project showed that people are trying to find creative solutions to the question of how to make OA work financially. That said, we are still a long way off from that point on a practical, day-to-day operations level. Finally, with OA, I wonder if the complete loss of the material object of the print journal and the permanent archive of issues is inevitable. Budgetary issues, combined with a real shake up in the field at large, mean that it is time to rethink the core operational policies as well as the philosophical values of the journal. As we approach our 60th, I look forward to consulting with the editorial board and readers of the journal to discuss the questions laid out above and to figure out what the future could hold for Canadian Literature.

To look forward, it is often useful to look at where you’ve come from. This issue does just that. It also illustrates one of the reasons why reading articles bound and published side by side is productive. Although this is a General Issue, a clear theme has emerged—literary history matters. The articles span texts and topics from the 1930s to the present, and deal with a remarkable series of significant moments in Canadian history. They help us think about post-war cosmopolitanism, refugee narratives, Quebec separatism, Indigenous self-representations, and institutional formations in ways that nuance and complicate decades of cultural history in Canada. Our commitment to sustaining a space for such conversations in the future is why, for the time being, we keep peddling our wares.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.