Books, Business Models, Economics, Historical, Open Access

Guest Post: Richard Fisher on The Monograph: Keep On Keepin’ On*, Part One

Library shelves

Image by Yinghai

(*with apologies to Curtis Mayfield)

Editor’s Note: Richard Fisher worked at Cambridge University Press for over thirty years, most recently as Managing Director of Academic Publishing: as an acquisitions editor, he worked largely in history and politics, publishing several hundred monographs by authors including John Pocock and Quentin Skinner. Richard now works in a non-executive capacity with various public and private organizations, including Edinburgh University Press and Yale University Press, and writes a monthly column on academic publishing for the British Independent Publishers Guild. He is also an Associate Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, with special responsibility for sportsmen and sportswomen.

This is the first part of a two-part guest posting (part two is here) looking at historic trends, current challenges, and future possibilities for monograph publishing in the humanities and social sciences. In particular, Richard aims to address a number of enduring misunderstandings among academic researchers and the failure of publishers to address them effectively. While many of the perspectives reflect the British experience, the posting is intended to be (at least) transatlantic in appeal, and its release is timed to coincide with University Press Week in North America, and Academic Book Week in the United Kingdom.

The permanence of imprints

Many readers of The Scholarly Kitchen will have their own chronologies of monographic decline. I personally attended and spoke at my first conference on ‘The Death of the Monograph’ towards the end of the last century. This particular event was organized by Professor David (now Sir David) Cannadine at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in London, and the IHR was then the nearest thing the UK had to any kind of national humanities center: in consequence, a significant number of historians, publishers and librarians attended. I said what I was going to go on saying for the remainder of my time at Cambridge University Press (CUP) (which ended in December 2014): namely that, whilst the sales and circulation of individual monographs were unquestionably challenged, there was no reason on earth why the supply of long-form research, properly written and professionally published, need dry up. Within the specifically British context, however, there were additional author-supply-side factors (and in particular the impact of the then Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), first held in 1986) which were leading to an unhealthy emphasis on the immediate act of publication, as opposed to the long-term consequences of publication, and that massive cyclical bulges in monographic output, triggered by each RAE, were to nobody’s collective advantage

I also said that the publication format which seemed to have retained its circulation best of all, namely article publication in major humanities journals like Past and Present, ought to be the aspiration for more scholars than seemed currently to be the case, and that an ever-increasing emphasis on books as the key to career and tenurial advancement was not, necessarily, doing the historical profession any great favors. In this context, authors (and their referees) would have to argue much more strongly for their ideas to be presented at book length than was often the case: intrinsic scholarly significance could no longer be simply assumed, and the characteristic, passive refereeing trope that ‘I see no reason to oppose publication’ would no longer suffice. I used the historical analogy (cribbed from AJP Taylor) of the monograph, like the Habsburg monarchy, always being in decline, something which invariably got a cheapish laugh whenever I repeated the talk, which I did with variations in numerous contexts and locations, over the next decade or so. As a general rule, the grander the event and/or host institution, the greater the sense of imminent monographic demise.

And yet, here we are nearly two decades later, celebrating both Academic Book Week and University Press Week, and the salient feature of the book publication framework of the humanities and social sciences (H&SS) that must surely strike the disinterested observer is not its decay and imminent collapse, but rather, the extraordinary resilience and vitality of the imprints and formats that dominated H&SS publishing a quarter of a century ago, and still dominate today. In the University Press sector, OUP, CUP, U Chicago P, Princeton UP, Yale UP, U California P, Harvard UP, etc., etc., all still occupy the same leadership roles, in book publication terms. In the (always under-articulated) commercial sector, Penguin Books, Blackwell-Wiley, Macmillan-SMP-Palgrave, Routledge-Taylor & Francis remain, in their various guises, the major large-scale players, with Sage and Continuum/Bloomsbury snapping at their heels. Obviously, within this there have been individual acquisitions and corporate disappearances, but what has not happened has been the emergence of real disruptors at scale. The lack of a major new intervention like Biomed Central or PLOS in this world is very striking, and whilst there clearly have been important individual experiments like Open Book Publishing which I shall return to later in this posting, a failure to recognize this overall publisher equilibrium often causes the wrong questions to be asked.

The same disinterested observer would also have to conclude, regretfully, that the actual substantive impact of the eight-figure sums spent over the years by various foundations and research agencies ‘exploring new solutions to the monographic problem’ has been nugatory thus far. Turning to particular lists, I would also argue that during this period there have been only two truly significant pieces of ‘new brand creation’, both interestingly from the commercial sector; in the humanities in the eighties and nineties, the creation from a gamut of smaller imprints of the Routledge imprint of the Bill Germano era, with all that it came to represent at the more ‘cultural’ end of (particularly) literary studies and critical theory, and, in the social sciences in the noughties, the rise of SAGE as a truly powerful global force, taking journals seriously and working proactively with social scientific learned societies in a way that historically many H&SS imprints have not. This is not to underestimate (say) the huge growth and success of the Princeton economics list, or the Yale list in art history, or the emergence of Bloomsbury, again from an amalgam of prior imprints, but the truly global impact of each has not (yet, anyway) been of quite the same disruptive order.

This sense of stasis inevitably informs my own perception of ‘the Crisis in Scholarly Communication’, and in what that actually consists. When giving the standard monographic talk described above, the other cheap laugh invariable arose from asking the assembled company if they had actually run out of scholarly things to read. Answer there always came back none. But actually that is, to my mind, the only context for which ‘Crisis’ would ultimately be properly appropriate, and it is particularly important, I think, to differentiate between ‘problems in American University Press publishing’ and a ‘global monographic crisis’, although the two have often been conflated. Geoffrey Crossick in his HEFCE report on Open Access and Monographs (on the advisory for which board I sat, in common with a number of other publishers of all sizes and aspirations) similarly tried to understand more precisely the nature of the challenges that the sector faced, and Professor Crossick’s recent interview with Alison Mudditt on this site about the HEFCE Report was very revealing, from the perspective of both interviewer and interviewee.

As the Crossick Report shows, the output of monographs from the Big Four UK-based imprints (OUP, CUP, Routledge/T&F, Palgrave Macmillan) has more than doubled in the present century. Bloomsbury will issue their largest number of monographs ever, in the current year 2015.

This monographic expansion is not, however (perhaps counter to what is sometimes asserted on The Scholarly Kitchen), a product of a particularly favorable local UK eco-system: rather, the precise opposite, in the sense that the UK ceased to be in any meaningful sense a self-sustaining monographic economy (in terms of its capacity, in a pre-Open Access world, to consume the books it wished to produce) in about 1990. UK-based monographic publishers became, firstly through choice and then through simple market necessity, export- and increasingly US-oriented organizations, with US-based faculty becoming the majoritarian author cohort: Cambridge, for example, sells its monographs in a rough 2:2:1 geographical split, as between Europe, the Americas, and the rest of the word. The last time I saw a version of the tabulated cross-publisher sales of one of the major US library suppliers, about five years ago, it was strikingly clear how preponderant were these UK-based imprints, rightly or wrongly, in the purchasing decisions of US institutions. My point is simply that these imprints are publishing in exactly the same scholarly eco-system as (say) the smaller members of the American Association of University Presses (to which of course both OUP and CUP also belong), but obviously how they choose to publish is rather different.

Technological change, monographic demand and disciplinary health

The timing of that first ‘The Death of the Monograph’ conference in London was also notable for its almost exact coincidence with, ironically, the advent of the very things that were to prove the monograph’s salvation: namely the spread of digital technologies, the development of short-run printing, massive improvements in bibliographic search, and the growth of e-tailing. I do sometimes think that we have forgotten the lessons of those heroic days, and the truly benign impact of certain new technologies. The capacity to generate monographic paperbacks in tens and twenties, and to sell them via Amazon to scholars who could access them with relative ease, was a massive leap forward, and of course led to highly successful paperback-led revival programs (like the Lazarus program at Cambridge or Oxford’s Zombies), as those publishers with the longest tails took full advantage of the fact. This digital revalorization of print helped to ‘save the monograph’, even as unit sales of new releases continued to decline. It also, importantly, made possible very small scale graduate adoptions of monographic texts, de-risking paperbacking decisions of a kind that most publishers had historically found very hard indeed to get right (on which more below). To that extent, this was one of the most author-friendly sets of monographic developments ever. I am not sure that more recent e-monograph propositions and the advent of various multi-publisher platforms have, as yet, had the same transformative impact, although clearly perspectives on this will differ, not least (and importantly) by geography.

I am conscious that I have already said more about demand than is sometimes fashionable in discussing scholarly communication, with its STM-driven obsession with the supply of research. I continue to think that the demand mechanism, whether individual or institutional in its workings, remains a powerful measure of scholarly significance. Self-evidently not the only one, but something that it is neither inappropriate nor immoral to take seriously, regardless of commercial or non-profit status. At CUP, the working mantra was, and I suspect still is, that academic excellence is a necessary but not sufficient condition of publication. That’s why I always feel a bit uneasy when people question ‘academic publication decisions being taken for commercial reasons, rather than purely scholarly ones’. The fate of monograph publishing in, say, modern language studies, is highly illuminating. Scholarly publishers stopped publishing significant numbers of books in this field because individual scholars and university libraries ceased buying them (although how quickly they reacted to this change of course varied from imprint to imprint). The problems of monographic publishing in modern language studies reflected the wider problems of the field, and its declining traction in many institutions, and not the other way round. Hence, as I recall, the furor that greeted the decision of the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge (faculty members all) to close down the monograph series Cambridge Studies in French, prompting letters from senior scholars around the world to the Vice-Chancellor (i.e. President) of the University, stating that such a decision was inter alia a profound slap in the face to a discipline already under significant institutional pressure. The Cambridge Syndics stood notably firm (although interestingly the University itself retains one of the strongest and best-known departments of modern and medieval languages in the world, giving rise to some fascinating internal politics…). The same pressures have also been true of aspects of area studies, although there at least such pressures seem to have been cyclical, rather than (sadly) uni-directional.

It is very instructive indeed to compare the fate of monographic publishing in modern languages with the hugely more cheerful story to be told in classics, a discipline which remains one of the very best academic publishing sectors of all, with very robust (brutal?) refereeing standards allied to a strong tradition of individual scholarly acquisition. Classics is arguably the supreme expression of Gresham’s Law in publishing, and of the belief shared (it would seem) by many within the discipline that Bad Books drive out Good. It is far from coincidental that some of the most cogent criticism of the whole principle of Open Access has come from the Cambridge classics professor Robin Osborne, whose most recent extended piece on the subject is available (in a very pleasing irony) in Open Access form.

Professor Osborne’s contention is that badly written, badly structured, badly researched academic work (which Open Access publishing models in the arts and social sciences won’t do enough to prevent or mitigate) is much the greatest obstacle to reader accessibility, properly defined. This is an argument worth taking rather more seriously than seems sometimes to be the case, and you don’t have to agree with Professor Osborne’s overall conclusions (and personally I don’t) to recognize that it is just not good enough to dismiss his arguments as purely ‘elitist’, and leave matters there.

One thing the Osborne position does do, is to get to the very heart of the monographic challenge: how does the academy best disseminate and consume the massive expansion in long-form research outputs of the past thirty years, a phenomenon in which both scholars, and scholarly publishers are for different reasons complicit? The drivers for this global expansion are an acknowledged mixture of institutional (during this period the UK, for example, has moved from possessing one of the most selective and homogeneous university sectors in the developed world, to possessing one of the largest and most heterodox, with research-driven teaching resource as a concomitant), employment-structural (with the casualization of the academic labor force placing ever-increasing emphases on the research outputs of young scholars), and also demographic: whilst long-form H&SS research has not been transformed by a colossal growth in outputs from Asia-Pacific of a kind that have massively impacted STM serial publishing, there has been a very significant increase in (e.g.) Indian outputs for global dissemination, and similarly, whilst long-form H&SS research remains (very happily) a polyglot publication sector (unlike STM serial publication), the number of non-native-speakers choosing to publish in the English language in subjects like linguistics, psychology, economics and politics has very significantly increased, reflecting in part ever-increased scholarly mobility (especially within the European Union). The ratio of potential academic producers to potential academic consumers is vastly different to that which prevailed at the time of (say) the great transatlantic expansion in higher education of the 1960s. As an interesting and not unrelated aside, the proportion of tenured UK faculty in the arts and social sciences has been growing, relative to that of the STEM subjects, since 1967 (and the advent of the original Universities of Technology, like Bath or Aston).

What constitutes appropriate monographic demand?

This ever-growing disjunction between supply and demand highlights another arena of profound contest, in the discussion of monographic challenges: what should be the legitimate expectations of demand, whether within or without the academy? For a trenchant exposition of one perspective, the recent three-part posting by Dr Rupert Gatti, co-director of Open Book Publishing (the Cambridge-based Open Access monographic initiative established in 2008) is very interesting indeed.

This makes a powerful case that most scholarly publishers have failed abysmally in the print world to satisfy the innate demand for their publications, especially outside the academy. For those of us who have always taken, rightly or wrongly, the pragmatic view that the primary function of a scholarly publisher is to serve the scholarly community, the position is not quite so clear-cut. I have always been a firm supporter of Rick Anderson’s core perception, that the reason for the relative lack of traction of Open Access in many fields outside the biomedical sciences, and especially in the arts and social sciences, is the simple truth that, for 80% of tenured faculty in 80% of research institutions in 80% of instances, the current system works well enough. By no means perfectly, but by no means sufficiently badly for the majority of tenured faculty to bother unduly about changing it. Hence, of course, the location of many oppositional voices outside the ranks of the tenured, or in institutions without significant research library facilities, or within sub-disciplines that (like the Digital Humanities) feel themselves, for whatever reasons, marginalized from the academic mainstream: exemplary in this context is the extended critique of aspects of the Crossick Report, and specifically its interpretation of monographic ‘crisis’ by Dr Janneke Adema of the University of Coventry, to which interestingly Professor Crossick has responded at some length. Hence, also, the transformative importance of state or policy intervention (as in the UK) of a kind that I shall turn to in the second part of this posting.

The long-term decline in sales of individual monographs is of course central to current discussions even though (as the Crossick Report makes clear) this decline is by no means as stark as is sometimes asserted. Every reader of the Scholarly Kitchen who has worked at a scholarly press and served at an exhibit booth will have had the experience of being told by a sardonic graduate student that ‘if you guys charged less, you might sell more books’, prompting a Homer Simpson-esque clutch of the forehead and the confession that, strange to say, such a thought had never occurred to you. Conveying the profound inelasticity of monographic demand is a very difficult thing to do, politely anyway…The most telling statistic, always, in this context seemed to me to be the performance of ‘first-time’ or ‘new in’ paperbacks, routinely and remorselessly selling perhaps a half or even a third of their original $80 hardback numbers in their new $30 paperback guise. Orchestrated campaigns by faculty members to have certain books made available in paperback form almost always ended in sales tears. Naturally there were powerful exceptions, that we all remember with pleasure, and of course we all carried on releasing such paperbacks in very large numbers, but conscious that the act was fundamentally a piece of author-friendly brand marketing, rather than necessarily creating or meeting huge additional layers of individual demand. Salvation finally and happily arrived, of course, with the advent of the very-short-run printing technologies described above, enabling many of the larger monographic producers in essence to promise authors paperback publication of pretty much every monograph they publish within (say) 18-24 months of initial hardback publication.

These historic paperbacking disappointments do highlight, however, the aspect of scholarly book publication that is I think massively under-discussed, in a context where so much of the conversation (as on the Kitchen) is driven by librarians, publishers or individual faculty with strong views. What about the booksellers, library suppliers, sales agents, wholesalers, exporters, distributors, aggregators (private or public), metadata organizations and other intermediaries that currently glue scholarly publishers, authors and readers together (and who may be in receipt of anything from 25% to 50% of the overall sales revenues of a given title)? These are not, on the whole, active participants in debates about the monograph, and yet this whole ‘confused middle’ is arguably something needing attention and redress just as much as the initial publisher proposition. It’s very striking how Rupert Gatti in his Open Book blog highlit above precisely identifies the potential of Open Access online distribution to cut through and indeed, eliminate, many of these intermediaries, thus rendering the OA financial model viable. However, and it is a huge however, the existence of these functions is a product fundamentally of scale, both of outputs and of geography, and failure to engage adequately with them may potentially imply limitation, rather than liberation. Their existence is a product of a mode of publication that is still around the world very largely sold in print (75% – 80% seems the current general estimate for most of the bigger monographic imprints, and anything up to 90% for many of the smaller ones), and is sold in smaller proportions to university libraries and greater ones to individual readers than is sometimes assumed. And thinking further about these intermediary functions, and why we might need to improve and simplify their collective proposition, is something that I shall turn to in the second part of this posting.


Richard Fisher is very grateful to a number of friends and colleagues, and especially to Ivon Asquith, Geoffrey Crossick, John Holmwood, Michael Jubb, Peter Mandler and Chris Wickham, for their comments and feedback on an initial version of this posting. The views and conclusions expressed are entirely his own.




8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Richard Fisher on The Monograph: Keep On Keepin’ On*, Part One

  1. An endlessly (and ‘endless’ for now!) post. Approaching the end of the article, I admit that my heart sank that no mention had been made of the ‘middlemen’ and the chaos they (we!) are managing and often creating or contributing to. Just as I thought our roles had once again been overlooked, under-valued or misunderstood, up rose the final paragraph.
    For at least a century after the appearance of moveable type, business models of book ‘publishing’ struggled – how many sheep would be required for binding, how to size and cut sheets of paper, where to find type? And in the meantime, scriptoria persisted for centuries…
    Every year in Frankfurt, I am struck by the history we the middlemen are part of. And yet, still, the glaring omission in too many efforts is the role of the middlemen (yet even with ‘open access’ publishers such as National Academies, World Bank and Rand to name just a very few, we make discoverable and manageable thousands of titles every year – in exchange for money of course, but who here works for free?).
    Thanks for a fascinating post. I’m looking forward to part 2 – and whatever serial releases may follow… (When we bundle them together would we have a journal or a book?)

    Posted by Michael Zeoli | Nov 10, 2015, 11:19 am
  2. Those who would like more detail on the impact of technology on monograph publishing can read my essay from Against the Grain (2009) titled “The Hidden Digital Revolution in Scholarly Publishing: POD, SRDP, the “Long Tail,” and Open Access”:

    In 1990 in an article in The Chronicle I identified a new trend in American university press publishing where, unlike the 1980s during which the total output of titles was expanding and the number of monographs published did not decrease (see Herbert Bailey’s study on press output for the ACLS and AAUP in the 80s), the midlist titles being abandoned by commercial publishers were being picked up by university presses as trade titles in substitution of publishing monographs, thus resulting in the latter’s decline: From what Fisher says here, it would appear that this was a short-term trend.

    Fisher doesn’t mention what I think is one of the most interesting experiments in academic publishing in the UK: Polity Press, which was started and is still run by three well-known scholars, Anthony Giddens and John Thompson, both sociologists at Cambridge, and David Held, a political theorist at The Open University. I think they’ve done some of the best and most innovative scholarly publishing in the UK. For many years, as an editor at Princeton U.P. and then director at Penn State U.P., I worked closely with Polity in co-publishing books particularly in political theory.

    Fisher also doesn’t mention what has become a major challenge for presses today: whether to include all new monographs in aggregations like those offered by JSTOR and Project Muse or hold some out in the hope that they will become adopted in paperback later. Also, the increasing reliance of libraries on “patron-driven acquisitions” systems has put pressure on presses’ cash flow and inventory, and this poses another challenge for monograph sales.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Nov 10, 2015, 11:27 am
  3. An excellent post! Full of insight! Two points. I believe that scholarly monographs could gain readership through the publication of abstracts so that, in searches, readers could make a quick assessment of the relevance of the work as a whole. I hope to begin some research on that belief in the near future. I am not aware if others have gone down this road. As always, I wish some small awareness of Canada and other countries would inform US/UK-based discussions

    Posted by Rowland Lorimer, Founding Director, Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing, Simon Fraser University | Nov 10, 2015, 12:10 pm


  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Richard Fisher on The Monograph: Keep On Keepin’ On*, Part Two | The Scholarly Kitchen - Nov 16, 2015

  2. Pingback: The greatly exaggerated death of the monograph | Making Book - Nov 17, 2015

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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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