With the recent publication of the 6th edition of Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, we hit a real milestone and published our 1000th book since the company began. In this post, Tommi reflects on the last 35 years leading up to this point and discusses how the company and wider world of publishing has changed over time.
Tommi and David Singleton at the MM drinks reception at AAAL
At the recent AAAL conference in Portland, OR, we celebrated the publication of our 1000th book, the 6th edition of Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, co-authored by Colin Baker and Wayne E. Wright. Since I remember the publication of our very first book in 1982, Bilingualism: Basic Principles by Hugo Baetens-Beardsmore, this led me to reflect a little on what has changed at Channel View Publications/Multilingual Matters (CVP/MM), in the world of academic publishing, and attitudes to bilingualism since then.
Marjukka and Mike at Frankfurt Book Fair
Many of you will know that CVP/MM is a family business, founded originally by my parents in response to being told by our family doctor not to speak Finnish to my brother and me, stating that “they didn’t know what damage they were doing”. Fortunately, being a formidable combination of a stubborn Finnish mother and an entrepreneurial Essex-man father, they not only refused to take such unwelcome advice, they took it as an opportunity to find and publish world-class research focusing on the many positive benefits of bilingualism. Although we now publish in a very wide range of topics – including applied linguistics and sociolinguistics, educational research, language disorders and translation studies under our Multilingual Matters imprint and, under our other imprint Channel View Publications, tourism studies – language rights and positive attitudes to bi- and multilingualism remain at the heart of what we do. We believe that no mother or father should ever be told not to speak the language of their heart to their children without extremely well-informed reasons for doing so.
Although in many cases attitudes towards bilingualism may have switched towards the more positive and even aspirational, this is often only the case if the languages you speak are privileged western languages, and in many cases only if you are of the majority population. It is fine and admirable to learn Spanish or Arabic if you are white, but society might be less positive about you retaining your Spanish or Arabic if you are an immigrant. There is still much work to do in changing attitudes towards languages where these languages are associated with immigration or are minority indigenous languages.
Some of my first memories include sitting under our dining room table, “helping” my parents stick the mailing labels onto envelopes that would carry our first catalogues out into the world. Among the many addresses we sent catalogues to, 252 Bloor Street West stuck in my mind. As a 6 year old child I struggled to understand how so many people lived in this one house! In the years since then I have come to know the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) well, and have got to know the very many authors and friends who are based there. We no longer pack and mail our catalogues ourselves, this is one of those tasks that computers and automation have simplified, but as the editor of my local orienteering club newsletter I have to pack and mail all the copies to our members, so I like to think that I have retained those valuable skills!
The office in Clevedon before everything was done on computers
In 1982 we were already using computers for journal subscription processing, but all correspondence with authors and editors was by mail. We used to do so much mailing back and forth that the local post office gave us our own postcode! All of our records were kept in large filing cabinets and a system of racks, T-cards and folders would track the process of book and journal manuscripts from initial proposal to published book. Sales reports from our distributor would be couriered once a month to us in a large box, and even as recently as the late 1990s we would wait with excitement to go through the monthly sales reports and see how well our books had been selling. These days everything we do is reliant on computers, the internet and data. We only have to log in to our distributors’ reporting sites to get the sales figures from the day before, and we can communicate easily even while travelling. This availability of data and immediacy of communication brings with it a new set of demands and challenges. There is a sense that we must respond to everything as quickly as possible and that we absolutely have to know how many books were sold in the last 24 hours. A lot of time is taken up by responding to queries that in the past would have waited for a single letter, and of course we put the same pressures on to other people.
In the early days of our company the only reliable way to purchase books was via the bookshop, or to put a cheque in the post with an order form from our catalogue. These days the rise of companies like Amazon, Books etc. and the Book Depository, as well as our own website, means that wherever you are you should be able to order a print copy of our books and have it posted to you quickly. If you choose to purchase an ebook, you can place an order now and have the full text, even in some cases with embedded video files and links to relevant websites and resources, delivered direct to your computer, tablet or reading device within seconds.
Libraries are able to buy one multi-user license of a digital book, which does not degrade with age and usage, and are able to share this with multiple users of the library, even off-site users of the library, at the same time. Shelf space is making way for more computer spaces and learning environments, and university campuses are changing accordingly. Of course the downside of this is that the number of copies required to service the same population has fallen, and so in general across the publishing industry we have seen the total number of sales of any one academic title fall quite dramatically in the past 10 years or so. Since the majority of overhead and fixed costs of publication have not fallen, this means that book prices have risen much faster than inflation in order to cover those costs.
While it is interesting to look at what has changed, it is also very instructive to consider what has stayed constant over all this time. Digital technology and distribution has meant that the barriers to entry into the publishing industry have fallen dramatically. In a world where anyone can write, typeset and publish a book relatively quickly, easily and inexpensively, the role of the publisher in providing a measure of review, revision and quality control is just as important as it was in 1982. It is arguably even more important now, given the recent attention to fake news stories and alternative facts. CVP/MM has always believed in reviewing manuscripts thoroughly and as transparently as possible, and while peer-review is not a flawless system, it is a vitally important step in ensuring that the books we publish can be trusted by students, researchers, parents and policy-makers.
Flo, Sarah, Anna, Tommi, Elinor and Laura
We continue to grow as a business, this year we will publish 60 titles across all of the various subject areas, where just 10 years ago we would schedule 30 titles. But we remain a small and friendly operation with approachable staff. We have fostered an atmosphere where we can thrive and grow within our jobs, and so our staff turnover is extremely low. It is highly likely that you will deal with the same people through the life of your book project, if not your whole career! You will have seen me at every AAAL for the past 19 years, but you may not be aware that Sarah and Anna will this year celebrate their 15th anniversary of working for Multilingual Matters, and Elinor and Laura are not that far behind. Our most recent full time colleague, Flo, already feels like part of the family, and our intern, Alice, reflects the values that we all share.
Although my father, Mike, is no longer around to see the progress we have made since he and my mother, Marjukka, retired, he would still recognise everything that we do and be proud of how we have continued to build on what they started 1000 books ago. We would not have been able to publish 1000 books if it wasn’t for the many authors, series editors, reviewers and readers who have contributed in so many different ways. There are too many to name here, but I hope you know just how important you are to us. It has been a pleasure to work with you all and I hope that you will continue to partner with us, to work with us and to hold us to account when we do occasionally get things wrong, so that as we go on to publish books together we can all grow and improve, and look back on the next 1000 books with just as much pride!