January 26, 2016

A better kind of discoverability: An interview with the creators of Backlist

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backlistIn publishing, you often hear about “discoverability,” a rather long word that refers to a book’s opportunity to be discovered by readers. There is, of course, no better machine for discoverability than the physical bookstore—at a bookstore, a reader can browse and ask questions and get recommendations. But is it possible to create these kinds of interactions online?

One interesting new experiment is a website called Backlist, whose creators—Chris Heaney, Brian Jones, and Amy Kohout—solicit themed recommendations for books and lists of titles from historians. I was excited to see the site, which brings readers into contact with books they may not otherwise come across, and which strikes me as an appealing model for similar kinds of projects: who doesn’t want to hear about cool books from a professor? I spoke to Heaney, Jones, and Kohout over e-mail about how Backlist was born, and about their plans for it as it grows.

How would you describe Backlist in your own words? In publishing-speak, it basically seems like a discoverability tool involving curation (a word I hate, but one that seems accurate here). But how would you yourselves categorize it?

We all happen to be historians, recently out of graduate school, or about to be. There’s an experience all three of us have had—maybe you’ve had it, too—that we’ve been using to explain what we want Backlist to be. It’s like going into the office of your favorite history professor. She’s got piles of books sorted according to her current projects, and the shelves are lined with volumes all organized according to her own system. You leave with an armful of the books she’s excited about—and now you’re excited, too.

That’s what we’re going for. We describe Backlist as a collection of recommended reading lists. We ask scholars to put together (or curate!) lists on particular themes, and to organize them in a way that introduces an interested general reader to how historians have approached a particular place, time, or theme. These aren’t top ten lists; rather, they are the ways individual scholars might trace the development of their areas of expertise.

“Discoverability” is certainly something we’re thinking about—we want to help general readers find books they might not encounter otherwise. Our contributors apply their expertise on a subject to distill a potentially overwhelming amount of choice into a clear path (or several) through the historiographical conversation. And then ideally, Backlist readers can follow these recommendations to an online bookstore (via the links we add) so that they can expand their own libraries, and support writers, publishers, and—to get dramatic here—the cause of history itself.

How did the co-creators of Backlist come together? Is this your first collaboration?

Brian and Chris went to graduate school together; Amy and Chris went to college together; the three of us worked together as part of a larger editorial team at The Appendix (2012–2014), a digital journal of narrative and experimental history aimed at a wide audience. With Backlist, we’re drawing on some of the same core values of The Appendix. We want to share the history books that stick with us, the ones that inspire us, that move the field in new directions.

Are you consciously trying to connect academics with non-academics, or do you ultimately envision Backlist as a tool that will appeal most to graduate students and college students?

We hope Backlist is for everyone—maybe especially for the person interested in reading more history but unsure of where to start—but definitely for everyone.

For the site as a whole, our goal is to connect academics and non-academics by providing guidance for the general interest reader looking for ways into a particular historical subject. Of course, an expert in a particular subject will always be a relative novice in another, so ideally students and scholars will find the site useful as well. We’re already hearing from people who are planning on using our first lists to plan syllabi. (And hopefully our lists will be read by publishers, too!)

Big picture, we hope this project will contribute to efforts to pull back the curtain on academic history; there’s so much wonderful scholarship out there, and we want to help more people find it.

Did you have any models for Backlist? It reminds me less of sites like Bookish and more of academically minded blogs like Crooked Timber or Edge of the American West, which have done a wonderful job of bringing academic and non-academic audiences together.

Our models for Backlist come from both our academic practice and from recent ideas in online publishing. Backlist lists are, from one perspective, short annotated bibliographies, which in the academic context can be useful tools for scholars looking for a way into a new subject area. While that foundation is embedded in the site’s concept, format-wise we are also inspired by product review publications such as The Wirecutter. As you know, The Wirecutter simplifies a busy marketplace by applying a great deal of analysis and a specific, opinionated stance on a single product or small group of products rather than simply slapping a rating on every new thing that comes through their office. Our hope is that we will be able to connect with a broader audience and get people reading some of these less widely-known books. An accessible reading (and buying) recommendation might define our presentation more than bibliography does.

We’re also interested in the ‘emergent’ possibilities of the form. Bibliographies and buyer’s guides are both lists, and one of the nice functions of an interesting list is that it has the potential to juxtapose things in a way that suggests new connections between them. This is the sort of work that a historian might do in far greater detail (and at far greater length) in reviewing the literature related to a particular subject, but our hope is that putting these works together in curated lists can work as a sort of shorthand for providing a lot of the same connecting insights for the general reader without requiring them to engage the subject at academic levels of detail.

In terms of the writing, of course, we hope the lists will be readable and interesting on their own terms, so your comparison to these blogs is encouraging. (And yeah, we’re fans of EOTAW and CT for sure.) I think our background with longer form content at The Appendix also serves us well in this regard, so we selected our original models more to drive our format and structure than to define our voice.

How are you selecting your contributors? And are you looking for particular topics and themes, or are your contributors completely free to come up with any list they choose?

Yes to all of the above. We started by reaching out to historians we respected, whom we knew were experts on particular themes. What we do is then pitch them on the idea of Backlist, and a possible list they could write, while noting that they would certainly be able to come up with an idea more suited to their current interests. Our first set of lists ranged from a history of U.S.-Cuba relations to a list focused on graphic histories and memoirs.

What’s changed, now that we’re live, is that people have already started coming to us with ideas of their own, which is very, very exciting, but presents its own conditions. As we populate Backlist with more and more lists, we want to make sure that we’re broadly distributed, geographically, temporally, thematically. If we’ve got seven lists up on Peruvian history, and one up on China, we haven’t been doing our job. So we want to see scholars reach out to us with a broad range of ideas, from the powerfully broad—Race in America—to the fascinatingly specific: the History of Early Modern Sailing in the Indian Ocean would be badass (can we say badass?), for example. If an idea isn’t quite right, we’ll work with them to refine it.

Also—and this is probably the best place to emphasize it—we’re focusing on contributors who are historians and scholars, experts in their fields, who can offer a much wider range of history book recommendations than one might find at their typical big-box bookstore, or on the Amazon bestseller list. We love books that were published in the 1970s but are still in print because they’re that good just as much as we love the book that came out with a smaller academic press in 2013 and is already quietly changing the field.

What kind of promotion are you looking to do? Do you mostly plan to use social media and spread word through your and your fellow historians’ networks, or do you have new tricks up your sleeve?

To start, we hope that our existing networks on social media and those of our contributors will help to build some initial momentum for us. Our rather narrowly defined format means that all of our content will be short and digestible and educational; our hope is that that combination will mean that it’s eminently shareable. We’d also love to partner up with larger media outfits—each list is usually no longer than 1,200 words, very intentionally.

Do you have wild, ambitious, utopian dreams about how the site might spread? I think it’s an exciting model, so I encourage utopianism!

One ‘utopian’ idea we’re already pursuing is to pay our writers for their contributions to the site. Sad that paying all of our contributors is ‘utopian,’ perhaps, but it’s rare in our field, and we’re proud of it. We don’t have a large budget yet, and whether our model for bringing in revenue allows us to continue publishing remains to be seen. But it is important to us to value the work of our contributors, and to do so in this way from the start. With the increased precarity of the academic labor market these days and so much online and academic expert labor expected for free or in exchange for ‘exposure,’ it matters to us to try to find ways to support historical writing and writers.

We’re still working on developing another goal of the project: for it to serve as a technical demonstration of low-cost, low-tech ways scholars can publish their work to the web in open access formats. Our content is all licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons license as long as it is attributed to the original author. We use open source tools and make the code for the site available on GitHub. We also host the site itself on GitHub at no cost to us, which is an option made available to us by some of the engineering and design decisions we’ve made. The custom plugins we’ve written are also open source and available for anyone to see, reuse, and alter for their own purposes. Once we’re past the startup phase, we will go through the process of documenting all of this so that it may be useful to others looking to build similar projects.

Any parting thoughts?

Thanks, Mark, for inviting us to answer some questions about this new project. We’re fans of the work you all do at Melville House, and we appreciate you sharing Backlist with your readers!

 

Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.

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