Wednesday, November 24, 2010

34. There is too little academic publishing.

Ironically, while academic journals proliferate (see Reason 33), there are fewer and fewer opportunities to publish scholarly books. This is a major problem. To earn tenure in most any humanities department at most any research university requires publishing a book. At the most prestigious universities, it may require publishing two books. Therefore, on the part of academics, there is a desperate need for scholarly books to be published. However, university presses (generally the only publishers that subject manuscripts to peer review) are much like graduate students; they occupy a strange place within the university and find themselves near the bottom of the university’s priority list.

The staggering number of journals is actually partly to blame for this problem. Traditionally, the most reliable purchasers of scholarly books have been academic libraries, but as libraries spend more and more on journal subscriptions (some of which are outrageously expensive), they have less and less to spend on books. As scholarly book sales spiral downward, university presses are increasingly reliant on grants, donations, and university resources to stay afloat. They can publish fewer books, and the books that they do publish are printed in ever smaller numbers. (A total print run of 300 copies is not atypical for a scholarly book today.) But to see your manuscript in print at all is a formidable challenge. While the customers for these books are disappearing, the supply of authors who need to publish does not diminish. Out of necessity, university presses can accept only a small percentage of the manuscripts that are submitted to them. Assistant professors who cannot find a press to accept their work for publication will not be professors for long.


  1. What role, if any, do digital technologies have in this problem/solution? Specifically I'm wondering about the rise of e-books and if this translates to cost effectiveness for presses in any way.

  2. Any thoughts on this -
    Yale University Press recently put out an "Anthology of Rap", containing classic rap lyrics, and it's been selling very well.
    However, it has come to light that they have got loads of the lyrics wrong because they copied the transcriptions from fan sites on the internet -

    But rather than come out and admit the errors throughout the book, Yale are just repeating the same line that it doesn't have errors, which is hilarious seeing as the rappers themselves have gone through the book and pointed them out.
    I'm not an academic myself, but what do academics think of that? Should Yale pull the book? The editors are both Harvard grads and professors, and are meant to be rap experts as well.

    If YUP aren't making much money in general though, they will be trying to sell as much as possible while there is still interest.

  3. I don't understand why this book norm in the humanities doesn't change to reflect reality.

  4. "What role, if any, do digital technologies have in this problem/solution? Specifically I'm wondering about the rise of e-books and if this translates to cost effectiveness for presses in any way."

    I'd be interested in seeing someone address this question empirically too. I have a hunch that digital technologies do play a role in the problem, though I've got only anecdotal evidence to support that.

    I'm a poor ABD who purchases few academic monographs, as they can easily cost $75-$150 each. Honestly, I don't always use the library either, as my school's library can be a headache to deal with. Instead I tend to rely on Google Books preview a lot. You can usually get a general idea of a book's argument just by reading the introduction and skimming the rest--and if the book is only tangentially related to my work and doesn't merit more than a passing reference in my dissertation, all I really need is a general idea.

    So I think book purchases by individuals are becoming less necessary. Between libraries and Google Books, individuals can use most books without buying them. And we might even see book purchases by libraries become less necessary, as more people may choose to read books online rather than visit the library in person, check out an actual physical book that takes up space in the apartment, and incur possible fines or bureaucratic hassles. Libraries may choose to compete with this convenient option by providing more e-resources, which are probably cheaper for them to acquire and maintain anyway.

    So academic book sales go down and academic publishers respond, quite reasonably, by publishing fewer of them. Which is a problem, because we all need to publish in order to get a job and get tenure. We can publish journal articles, of course, but those are generally seen as less prestigious than books, so you need more of them if you want them to really count. As a result, there aren't even enough established journals to publish everyone who wants to be published, so now we're seeing a proliferation of new e-journals that spring up to handle the excess. And so we travel even further down the road to paperless academia . . . but whether this will be a good thing for the academic publishing industry remains to be seen.

  5. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a huge problem here is that certain academic presses (coughBrillcoughAshgatecough) are ridiculously expensive. I had a professor I really liked several semesters ago (I'm an undergraduate history major), and I wanted to read her book. It was $40 from a regular university press, and I was up for it - a little steep, but I really liked her, so I bought it instead of getting it from the campus library. I had another professor I liked a lot a few semesters later, and so I thought I'd buy a copy of one of her books as well. $120 from Ashgate. The book itself had a full 220 pages before footnotes, though, so I guess this is a bargain. I didn't buy it - who would? And, again, I liked this woman and would prefer that she make some money from her books; I can only imagine how someone who didn't know her would react to the price tag.

    The sad thing is that a lot of these academic monographs are really good and deserve to be read, but they're very expensive and not carried by regular libraries. Inexpensive books, such as those sold by Harvard UP or in paperback by Cambridge or Johns Hopkins or whatever, have the chance to do much better among buyers who aren't academic libraries.

    Although sometimes I wonder why I even bother buying these books - after talking to a few professors, I get the feeling the fact that someone actually read his book of her own free will means more to a professor than the money.

  6. emn8, those expensive monographs (which make up a sizeable chunk of academic publishing, if not the majority) are essentially intended for library sales. In any case, author royalties from academic book sales are pitiful and no serious money can be made from anything but the few best-sellers. So yes, most academics would place a higher value on having an extra reader, regardless of the conduit by which he/she arrives, than on the tiny income a book sale brings in.

  7. I just mentioned the library issue because it was part of the point of the blog post - that because so few copies are sold since libraries are becoming less and less likely to buy them, fewer books can be published at all. I think that if they were published more cheaply (say, in paperback, even) they'd sell better. It's easy to buy a $25 or $30 book on a whim because Amazon recommended it based on your recent purchases; no one buys a $150 book except the students whose professors insist on it. And some academics (not necessarily the majority, but enough) are good enough at writing that their books are accessible to people who are not professional academics but who are interested in the subject. After all, not every undergraduate who majors in a humanities field goes on to an academic career, but most of them probably enjoyed the reading at one point.

    And yes, that was me above - I only recently realized I could change the profile name I gave myself when I created the account.

  8. Eileen, I agree it is a shame that academic books cannot get a wider diffusion because of prohibitive hardback prices but I believe this is a business calculation made by risk-averse publishers i.e. they know they can ensure a fairly guaranteed (if small) return from library sales of these expensive books. Publishers will then consider a paperback if sales of the hardback are such that they suggest a wider market.

    Hopefully all this will change in the future with the development of ebooks.

  9. The University of Missouri Press just announced that it will be closed in July 2012 after publishing more than 2,000 books over the last 54 years.

    That inspired a piece in Inside Higher Ed, "When University Presses Fail" by Jeffrey Di Leo, in which he writes:

    "University presses are nonprofit enterprises. Though these presses may reach a level of financial self-sufficiency in their operation, they are by and large underwritten by their host universities. This is part of the investment of higher education.

    Most of the monographs produced by scholars have a limited audience — and very few make their publishers any money. However, their publication is still an important aspect of scholarly activity and knowledge dissemination.

    The University of Missouri system afforded its press a $400,000 annual subsidy.

    To gain a perspective on this figure and the value of the press to the university, one only has to consider that the head basketball coach at Mizzou makes $1.35 million per year — and the head football coach makes $2.5 million per year.

    The interim director of the press makes just under $75,000 — less than an assistant baseball coach. The acquisitions editor makes just under $35,000 — less than an athletic trainer."

  10. Libraries everywhere are dumping books that have never or rarely been checked out. It is typical to see several new copies of a University Press book on Amazon selling for $50-100+ and one or two copies culled from libraries selling for $1 plus postage.

    In fact there is still too much academic publishing, but it will diminish even more quickly soon, along with teaching positions in the humanities.

    1. This is because libraries have become pockets of Bureaucrats whose primary function is to ensure their ongoing employment. Eventually the books will be sold to pay for the Bureaucrats.

      I am still furious that my major city library has two copies of "The Republican War on Science" but can't be bothered to stock an organic chemistry text or anything on differential equations. This is basic, basic stuff. However, I've got a pretty shrewd idea how the acquisitions department votes.

  11. Like medicine, universities and publishers should not be concerned with profit (they technically don't, but in reality they really do). This is what happens with ideological capitalism and petty greed. We no longer have a society but a bunch of petty careerists who serve the administration. The administration is supposed to serve the U.

    1. Say what?

      The establishment of administration as a fundamentally separate professional class, along with the astronomical rises in tuition, have nothing to do with "ideological capitalism" and everything to do with the intrusion of the liberal state into higher education.

      Why are tuition rates up? Because of the vast influx of money poured into universities through student loans. This money has largely gone to expanding administrations - which are largely selected from outside academia - but increasingly these jobs - especially at upper levels - are configured as rewards for *Democrat party service.*

      Think I'm talking through my hat? How the hell did Janet Napolitano ever get chosen as president of the UC system, for which she is paid $570,000/year *PLUS* housing PLUS benefits? You know, one of her first acts was to increase salaries for each of the Regents by $90,000/year? Not bad for someone whose primary accomplishments include bankrupting a state, overseeing the wreck of the southern border, and serving as Anita Hill's counsel. How is it that Arizona State has the money to spend $500,000 on the Clinton Foundation and close to $1,000,000/year on President Michael Crow in a major recession? Make no mistake, this is not "capitalism" - it's the Democrats' pigs' breakfast - and it is being eaten at the expense of the nation's students and the nation's taxpayers.

  12. This, like many features of the job market, is straightforwardly driven by the way economic markets work (supply and demand, etc.). Nothing surprising or unpredictable if you remember Eco 101. Publishing will almost have to move much more online, for the academic system to work. This is one of the few problems with a visible (which is not to say easy) solution (compared, say, to the overproduction of PhDs).

  13. "A total print run of 300 copies is not atypical for a scholarly book today."

    Why would even 300 people read a copy of my hypothetical book?

    I'm doing Medieval History - one of the "sexier" fields of study because people outside of academia can at least understand what you're talking about. And there's a romance and broad appeal to it.

    Nevertheless, if I write a book about Taxation policy in the Italian Countryside in the 1300's - who in God's name would read it?

    Anyway, I love this blog. No plans to quit academia, but I'm a routine visitor to this blog every few years, because its comforting to discuss the realities and futilities of academia. Without the head in the sand approach. This blog has a lot of detailed descriptions of our frustrations, and it's honestly more in depth understanding of our situation than we can realistically expect from our well-meaning loved ones.

    I've taken 10+ office jobs to fund my academic career. And I'm one of the lucky ones because at least those jobs mean I've seen the "outside" world. But dearest Academia, I cannot quit you... Siempre Avante - always forward...