BY ANDY KROLL
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 23, 2008
After taking criticism for its lack of authority over the content of books it distributes for third-party publishers, the University of Michigan Press released guidelines on Friday outlining its policies for distribution deals. The new rules could impact its relationship with the controversial left-wing publisher Pluto Press.
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The new guidelines say the University Press will only consider distribution deals with third-party publishers "whose mission is aligned with the mission of the UM Press and whose academic standards and processes of peer review are reasonably similar to those of the UM Press."
The University Press's relationship with Pluto first came under fire in August from pro-Israel groups for distributing Pluto's book "Overcoming Zionism," written by Bard College Prof. Joel Kovel.
In "Overcoming Zionism," Kovel argues that Zionism has created an apartheid-like racist state in Israel. He contends that a single democratic secular state is the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The University Press created the distribution guidelines after it admitted to not having read the books it distributed for the London-based Pluto Press. The press has been described as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel by pro-Israel groups like the Michigan chapter of Stand With Us and the American Movement for Israel.
Under the new guidelines, the University Press can now decide whether it will distribute books from third-party presses based on the publisher's policies for reviewing books before publication.
Peggy McCracken, the chair of the University Press's executive board, said Pluto's review policies were not in line with those of the University Press. She said University Press director Phil Pachoda plans to discuss Pluto's review policies with the publisher before its contract expires at the end of May.
"We think they're not reasonably similar, but we're going to look into that further in the coming months," McCracken said.
At the University Press, a complete manuscript under consideration for publication will now be sent to at least two scholars in the same field. Those scholars will evaluate the book's merit and decide whether to send a positive or negative review of the book to the University Press.
With the scholarly reviews in mind, the University Press will either proceed with publication, advise the writer to make editorial changes or reject the book outright.
At Pluto Press, an author submits a book proposal to the press, rather than a complete manuscript. The company then sends that proposal for peer review to other authors who work in a similar field.
After the proposals are reviewed, Pluto will either accept the proposal and offer the writer a contract, ask for changes to the proposal or reject the proposal.
Roger van Zwanenberg, chairman of Pluto Press, said in an e-mail interview that the University Press was aware of Pluto's review policies because the company had provided the University Press with examples of its peer review process since it began its contract with Pluto in 2004.
Anne Beech, managing director at Pluto Press, said the press would, on occasion, have an entire manuscript sent out for peer review. But she said that step wasn't part of Pluto's review policies.
Beech said she thinks the University Press's new distribution guidelines are vague and will do little to clarify the University Press's position on third-party distribution deals.
"There's not a lot there, really," Beech said. "I think Pluto will look forward to a period of clarification and discussion with the (University Press) over the next few months to clarify what these guidelines actually mean."
Although "Overcoming Zionism" doesn't bear the University Press's seal, the University Press halted distribution of Kovel's book in August. It resumed selling the book a month later after some accused the press of suppressing free speech by refusing to distribute it.
Upon resuming distribution of the book, the University Press's executive board released a statement saying that it had "deep reservations" about the book but understood that not distributing it raised First Amendment and censorship concerns.
In October, the University Press's executive committee announced plans to continue its distribution contract with Pluto Press. It has since faced considerable pressure from both inside and outside the University.
At the November meeting of the University Board of Regents, regents Laurence Deitch (D-Bingham Farms), Andrea Fischer Newman (R-Ann Arbor) and Andrew Richner (R-Grosse Pointe Park) delivered a letter to the other regents advocating for the University Press to cut ties with Pluto Press. The regents said their desire to cut ties with Pluto had nothing to do with free speech and censorship, but rather was focused on the University Press's lack of review authority over the books it distributes.
The University Press will decide whether to renew its contract with Pluto Press when it comes up for renewal in May.