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.

stack of books

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.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


11 Thoughts on "Some Reflections on Professional and Academic Books"

Hi Joe:

We know that there are shrinking numbers of academics in US institutions, particularly the humanities (for many reasons). The question is can this shrinkage of tenure track faculty in the US, in particular track with the decrease in scholarly publications, including monographs? or in the sale of these in any format (print, e-prints, etc). Or is there a rebalance with academics outside of the United States?

I tend to often look forward and wonder about where this might happen.

Also, you have a good definition of a monograph. In the STM/STEM area, there are an increasing number of such materials not necessarily being published in the academic journals, which I have noted, might be classified as “grey” literature but of scholarly merit (ignoring peer review for the moment). These are being tracked by search engines that also cover the conventional academic literature. That represents only a partially tracked sector.

Joe, you raise the point of a “A diverse ecology of books,” and yet then say that STM is conspicuously missing from the ecosystem of university press publishing. I would strongly counter that, as science publishing is holding a very significant niche for a lot of UPs–Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, California, Columbia, Hopkins, to name just a few, and you could also fold into that the invaluable role–financial and reputational–that natural history guides have played on the regional lists of presses like Iowa, Georgia, Texas. It’s dismaying to me to know of the vibrancy of the science programs in the UP world, only to see it so publicly dismissed in this piece.

I disagree. The numbers don’t support what you are saying. Additionally, a lot of science titles are about non-science extensions of science, such topics as bioethics or the social impact of technology.These are important topics, to be sure, and it’s great that the presses are covering them with characteristic brilliance, but this is an entirely different kind of science publishing that you would see in, say, the publications (journals) of the American Chemical Society or the Institute of Physics. Indeed, I recall that IOP “poached” a Chicago journal in astrophysics a few years back. The presses are very, very good at what they do, but their range–and imagination–remains limited.

” 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.”

It’s worth noting that there are examples of STM publishing at university presses that are substantial enough to make a notable difference to revenues and strategic direction for a press. MIT Press’s journals program is 35% STM and has seen much of its recent title growth come from starting OA journals like Open Mind: Discoveries in Cognitive Science and Network Neuroscience. As expected, the revenue from the science titles outweighs (but does not completely dominate) that from the HSS journals that make up the rest of the list. It’s perfectly possible for university presses to make a go of STM publishing on the journals side. And if the volume of STM proposals that I receive is any indicator, there are quite a number of scientists who would welcome the chance to join a non-profit publishing program, either at MIT or at another UP. I hope it’s the beginning of a trend.

This is a very helpful and hopeful comment. I was delighted to read it.

It may also be worth pointing out that acquiring books in the sciences is a rather different enterprise than acquiring books in the HSS fields, mainly because scientists are not rewarded for publishing books the way they are for publishing articles and therefore often have to be persuaded and prodded to work on a book, and even given special incentives like advance contracts with monetary advances. From my experience at Princeton, I know that acquiring books in the sciences simply costs more, in terms of staff time, travel, and advances than acquiring books in the HSS fields. So it is not surprising that smaller presses cannot afford to publish in the sciences, not to mention the competition they face from better funded commercial publishers.

Joe might want to recall that university presses started out as STM publishersd. The first publications of The Johns Hopkins Press were journals in mathematics and chemistry. Yes, many of these eventually migrated to commercial publishers, especially after people like Robert Maxwell got into the business after WWII. But science, and I mean hard science, has hardly disappeared from university presses. I worked at Princeton university Press for 22 years, and its science program produce about 20% of the Press’s output over those years, and even a higher percentage of its revenue, and this remains so today. PUP publishes the Papers of Albert Einstein, published books for people like Richard Feynman, had strong lists and series in mathematics, biology, physics, etc. What is true is that science publishing has been the province mainly of the larger presses. Relatively few of the presses lower than the top tier (the AAUP uses four categories for size of presses) have any extensive lists in natural science. Another area in which few presses engage is professional publishing (law, medicine, business). Stanford is probably the notable exception here. Presses will dabble in some subareas of professional publishing, but more in those subfiuields where academics are doing serious work, like international law and the philosophy of law, the history of medicine and bioethics, and the like.

Thanks for your thoughts here, and your further explanation of the thorny issue of defining–for the purposes of your output study–what constitutes a monograph within the corpus of university press scholarship. That’s some very helpful context for those reading the public report.

I did want to respond, though, to your assertion about STM publishing, Christie Henry’s comment above, and your comment back to Christie. When Christie counters that science publishing is “a very significant niche for lots of UPs” you reply that you disagree because the “numbers don’t support” what Christie saying.

To what numbers are you referring? In this article, the evidence you offer is that “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.” I’m sure we can all agree that a casual glance does not constitute empirical findings.

The good news is that you and Karen Barch have actually conducted empirical research on the subjects in which university presses publish, and I happen to be the recipient of data from that research as a contributing press. The fact of the matter is that when you combine STM-related BISAC codes (your categorization tool), the data underlying your report indicates that university presses, taken together, publish 9.9% (can we just call it 10% for our purposes here?) in Computers, Health, Math, Medicine, Nature, and Science. I think we can agree those are, in the broad sense, STM fields.

Given that not all university presses publish in those fields and that the 10% noted above is for combined university press output, for those presses that do publish in science, the investment and percentage of list is likely higher, as Sandy Thatcher indicates in his comment above on this piece. So we know that some university presses may publish _no_ STM, but that others may publish more than the average of 10%, maybe even considerably more. If some presses have STM programs that represent 10% of more of their lists, that suggests to me reasonably active publishing programs. 10% or more doesn’t happen by accident. Unfortunately, I only have access to my own press data (Colorado) so I cannot confirm the percentages for the presses Christie notes in her comment. At Colorado, our combined percentage in STM areas by BISAC is 11%, although I will concede your point that some share of our titles in those areas straddle other categories and are not STM in the truest sense. Thus our actual percentage is likely a little bit lower.

So to return to your point that the data does not support the idea that STM publishing represents “a very significant niche for lots of UPs,” to me _your own_ data supports exactly that, that it is a significant _niche_ (not main or primary) area within university press publishing.

Darrin, if you believe 10% is a big number, then we have nothing to discuss. But let me be absolutely clear about one point: I am not for a moment suggesting that U. presses should stop supporting the humanities areas where they have long done an outstanding job; nor am I suggesting that they should do any less than they now do (and why should they not do more?). This comment is beyond the scope of the report, but my interest in STM *for U. presses* is that a program that includes a greater proportion of STM publications would invite greater support from the many research institutions that have a huge presence in STM.

Having worked in STM publishing before moving the a UP, I would not consider general interest pop science books (e.g., something by Neil deGrass Tyson or The Illustrated Guide to Birds of North America), which is what most counter examples here and in the Twitter hashtag #ReadUPScience are, to be part of the STM publishing industry segment that the original post seems intended to be discussing. There may also be good money in these trade science books, but that would be because of their appeal to the general public (like a trade book on any topic) not because of their interest to communities of STM scientists. (As Sandy points out above, these books play little or no part in the science tenure and promotion system, which is because they are generally secondary sources not original research.) Because of this, I don’t think that it can be said that these books tap into the STM publishing fount of money in a significant way, which was the original point of the post.

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