Recently I posted on the Scholarly Kitchen a report I wrote with Karen Barch on university press monograph publishing. Working on that project led me to ponder some aspects of professional and academic book publishing, which have as their common theme the observation that this segment is under a great deal of pressure. For people in the university press community, I don’t know if it is heartening or disheartening to hear that many of the challenges they face apply equally to other publishers — kthough not, at least not in the same way, to trade and college textbook publishers, which have their own sets of challenges.
Before digging in, I want to assert that I don’t belong to the school of thought that has it that academic books and university press publications in particular are about to disappear anytime soon. Outside the contemplation of nuclear weapons, I am pretty much immune to “end-of-the-world” thinking and find the apocalypticism surrounding so much discussion of books to be out of line with the facts. University press publishing is mature: it is not growing, but neither is it collapsing. Mature businesses can stick around a long time. Think of that when you apply a Band-Aid, which was invented in 1920, to your kid’s skinned knee.
It’s not just university press book publishing that is mature. Many of the forces that we see in academic journals apply equally to books. A diverse ecology of books has trended toward consolidation, with a small number of large publishers (e.g., Springer) dominating the field. Distribution channels have tightened up, a situation for which Amazon is the principal agent; but it applies as well to distributors to institutions, where ProQuest and EBSCO sit between a great number of publishers and the libraries they seek to serve. Within living memory there were about 750 general bookstores that carried professional books (think of the McGraw-Hill Bookstore in Manhattan, Kroch’s & Brentano’s in Chicago, and Stacey’s in San Francisco). That figure is now closer to 50, mostly museum stores, plus a smattering of university bookstores that have a shelf for the books of the local faculty. Where there is end-user demand for their books, publishers have had to find new ways of satisfying it, with Amazon, and its punitive business terms for its suppliers, both creating and filling the hole in the marketplace.
Since we published the report on university press monographs, we have gotten a fair amount of feedback, mostly offline, about certain aspects of the report and their implications. One item that will never go away is the debate over just what exactly is a monograph? We used a definition from John Thompson’s Books in the Digital Age — a monograph is a book by a scholar for other scholars — to which we added: but not including collections of essays. We used this definition because we were trying to get at the number of original works of long-form scholarship, whereas books that consist of a collection of essays often reprint chapters that first appeared elsewhere. But this does not mean that any book that is not an original monograph is not an important piece of scholarship. Collections of essays have value, as do works that are intended for classroom use (for university presses, this typically means books for upperclassmen and graduate students) and even regional titles on the geographical area where a press is situated. Indeed, one implication of the study is that while original monographs may be the academic center of many if not most university presses, they rarely are the business center of the program.
University presses, in other words, are much more than the publishers of monographs. That is their genius. A university press that publishes an original monograph has made a contribution to scholarship. When the same press publishes that book in different editions (most often as an ebook and a paperback for classroom use), the work reaches new audiences and, not incidentally, provides an additional contribution to overhead, thereby improving the press’s business performance — and helping to underwrite further original monographs.
What distinguishes the larger presses from the smaller is how much more the larger presses get out of their programs. The larger presses not only publish more books (which, by definition, makes them larger) but also sell more copies of the books they publish and in more formats. Thus the larger the press, the smaller the percentage of original monographs in the overall program. A surprising corollary to this is that the smaller university presses (because there are so many of them) actually play a larger role in the production of monographs, a fact that some university administrators may wish to bear in mind when they contemplate cutbacks.
University presses, in other words, are much more than the publishers of monographs. That is their genius.
A question that a prospective director might want to put to the hiring committee is this: Is it your goal that the press become successful as a business, or is the goal that the press continue to support the areas of scholarship it traditionally has? Even a casual glance at the lists of publications of almost every university press (Oxford and Cambridge are the conspicuous exceptions) will find that although presses publish in many areas, STM publications are conspicuously lacking. This is true even when you factor in a press’s journals program. STM publishing is the province of the large commercial firms and professional societies. There is much more money in STM, of course, and a university that wants its press to be successful as a business may seek a way for the press to increase its activity in some aspect of STM publishing. On the other hand, does the success of a press mean walking away from works in literary criticism, women’s studies, history, and anthropology? That would leave a large swath of academic study poorly supported by a robust network of publishers. We should not have to choose.
My own view of where academic book publishing is heading is that it will mostly continue to publish the kinds of things it does now, but there will be increasing experimentation with formats, a renewed interest in selling directly to libraries, and enlarged activity in D2C — selling directly to end-users. In many cases the editorial nature of the products will be modified to meet new market requirements. For example, a good illustration of a successful migration from print books to online service is the McGraw-Hill Access Medicine series. While not all fields lend themselves to this kind of treatment (it is perfect for medical reference), McGraw-Hill has taken stand-alone books and united them as a linked database. The service is now marketed on a subscription basis to libraries and hospitals. It has been a huge success. Recently I saw another example of a product reformatting strategy in which books that were originally collections of essays, with each chapter by a different author, were redeveloped as a review journal and sold as a subscription. The core content has not changed but it has been enhanced through digital means; and the business performance has improved through the switch to subscriptions. This is a good lesson for the managers of a mature business, that carefully targeted innovations can not only extend but also enrich the life of a book.