Signale celebrates decade of success and welcomes new leadership

In 2020, Signale: Modern German Letters, Cultures, and Thought, a print and electronic book series co-published by Cornell University Library and Cornell University Press, celebrated two major milestones: the 10th anniversary of the first books published in the series and the publication of the 30th book, Forms of Life: Aesthetics and Biopolitics in German Culture by Andreas Gailus.

Having firmly established Signale as one of the chief venues in North America for book publishing in the field of German Studies, founding editor Peter Uwe Hohendahl, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of German Studies and Comparative Literature, announced in December that he would be stepping down as Signale’s editor at the end of the calendar year. Paul Fleming, the L. Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professor of Humanities in Comparative Literature and German Studies and the Taylor Family Director of the Society for the Humanities, succeeded Hohendahl as series editor on January 1, 2021.

It was nearly 15 years ago that the Modern Language Association (MLA) issued a dire warning about a “narrowing of publishing possibilities” for humanities scholarship, a result of increasing market pressures on American university presses. In its report, the MLA noted shrinking humanities lists, loss of book series, and a drop-off in the number of translations published by the presses. These pressures were acutely felt in the field of German Studies, which had lost three longstanding book series in the first few years of the 21st century, an imminent threat to English-language scholarship in the field and especially to the ability of young scholars to establish themselves. This was the context in which Hohendahl began a conversation with Cornell University Library about possible solutions.

“For two reasons in particular,” says Hohendahl, recalling those early discussions, “I was convinced that Cornell was the right environment for the new series: the presence here of the interdisciplinary Institute for German Cultural Studies, which gave German Studies at Cornell international visibility, and the special support of the Library, which was experimenting with new forms of publishing.”

What began as a discussion between the Library and the faculty about electronic publishing options soon attracted the interest of a new editor in chief at Cornell University Press. The Press was looking for new ways to support publication of specialized monographs and was interested, too, in the Library’s recent successes in electronic publishing. Signale emerged from these deliberations. A three-year officers’ grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation helped to launch the series.

Today, Signale is an established venue for publication of new English-language scholarly books on the literature, culture, criticism, and intellectual history of the German-speaking world. Signale also publishes English translations of important German-language works in the Signale|TRANSFER program. A partnership of prominent scholars in the field, the Cornell University Library, the Cornell University Press, and Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, Signale explores the potential of new technologies and new divisions of labor to create economically viable channels for disseminating important scholarship in the German Studies field.

Part of Signale’s distinctive model is the strong role played by the editorial board, made up of Cornell faculty with German research interests from several departments, which—together with the series editor—makes the final decisions about what is published. The Signale partners take pride in maintaining a highly selective approach to identifying and cultivating new scholarship while streamlining the technical side of book production. All Signale books undergo rigorous external peer review. The Signale partners make much of the content available online free of charge, but balance a commitment to broad access with the need to recoup investment in the books through sales. Most Signale books are available on an open-access basis after an interval of four years from their initial publication.

The Library’s director of collections, Kizer Walker, who is also the subject specialist for German Studies in the Library, has served as Signale’s managing editor from the start. “For the Library today,” Walker explains, “it’s critical that we not only collect the finished products of scholarly publishing, but that we engage with the full scholarly communications process. We are learning a great deal from our work with the other Signale partners about the dynamics and the economics of humanities publishing and ways to make scholarly content more sustainable and more open.”

Mahinder Kingra, editorial director at Cornell University Press, is convinced the efforts to launch Signale were prescient. “The Signale model of monograph publishing that we developed with the Library and the faculty 10 years ago anticipated the challenges we would see unfold over the subsequent decade: How to publish the very best scholarship in an important discipline faced with diminishing sales to academic libraries.”

Kingra adds, “That situation is now endemic across the humanities and social sciences.” And Signale has been a productive “test bed” for innovative publishing at the Press. “What we at Cornell University Press have learned from our work with Signale,” Kingra reports, “has informed other publishing decisions we have made since the launch of the series, especially with regard to open access and streamlining workflows.”

“Looking back at the series after the publication of thirty books,” Hohendahl reflects, “I feel that we have accomplished even more than we set out to do. The initial purpose of Signale was, primarily, to create publishing opportunities for young scholars in research fields that university presses could no longer support. In the meantime, the series has become the premier site for senior, junior, and mid-career scholars working in English in the broad field of German Studies.” Hohendahl attributes the success of the series to “the collaborative efforts of the editorial board and the support and engagement of the institutional partners – the Library, the Press, and the College.”

Leslie A. Adelson, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of German Studies and a member of the Signale editorial board, expresses “profound appreciation for Peter Hohendahl’s innovative creation and brilliant stewardship of Signale over the last 10 years,” noting that his work on the series culminates Hohendahl’s “consequential editorial trailblazing over the course of his entire career and his many contributions to the public welfare and even survival of academic publication in our fields.” Adelson adds that “Paul Fleming is eminently well suited to this important new editorial role and Signale will surely thrive in additional ways under his distinctive leadership.”

“I look forward to working with the editorial board to keep Peter Hohendahl’s vision vital long into the future,” says Fleming. He is convinced that “Signale provides a model for publishing scholarly books in the 21st century, not only in German Studies, but for the academy broadly, certainly in the humanities and social sciences.” As key factors, Fleming cites “the collaboration with the Library, the streamlined style, the 100% faculty-driven decision process, the mixture of established and upcoming authors, and the open access component.”

Fleming underscores the importance of initiatives like Signale for scholars early in their careers: “When I entered the field, there was nothing like it, and it was desperately needed.”

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