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The Specialized Scholarly Monograph in Crisis: Or How Can I Get Tenure If You Won't Publish My Book?

Reaching Specialized Audiences: The Publisher's Conundrum

Joanna Hitchcock, Director, University of Texas Press


Some of you will have seen a cartoon that appeared last year in The Chronicle of Higher Education: a circle of elderly people is gathered round a grave; the caption reads, "It's heartbreaking. He had at least three or four more comprehensive and utterly stupefying monographs in him." I hope we will discover that bringing about the demise of the assistant professor is not only a rather extreme way of dealing with the overproduction of manuscripts for which there no longer seems to be a market--but also premature. But before we attempt to find solutions, we need to have a better grasp of the nature of the problems of monograph publishing, which may appear differently to the different groups involved in the process of scholarly communication as well as to individuals within each group. So rather than start out by assuming that the life of the monograph is in danger or that, if so, heroic measures are required to save it, I prefer to set the question of specialized publishing in the broader context of the future of scholarly communication--a process that involves faculty, university administrators, librarians, and scholarly societies as well as publishers--to compare our perceptions and to try to figure out how we can work harmoniously together as part of a single system to serve our common ends.

The Ups and Downs of Monograph Publishing: Historical Background

American university presses were first founded in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when American graduate study took its inspiration from the German universities, where strong emphasis was placed on research and publication. University presses have published many other kinds of books over the years besides works of advanced scholarship, but communicating the results of one scholar's research to his peers has remained at the heart of their mission. For this purpose they were set up as integral parts of their universities, which expected to provide financial support to enable them to publish books for small audiences.

The monograph, a learned treatise by a single author focusing on a single subject, remained the bread and butter of university press publishing until the early seventies, when a series of crises brought its golden age to an end. Not that monograph publishing had always been plain sailing. Even in its heyday, publishers attempted to be fairly rigorous in selecting from the flood of manuscripts submitted to them the relatively few that combined empirical data with new ideas, drew broader implications from case studies, or provided new readings that genuinely enhanced appreciation of a literary text. Unrevised dissertations, workmanlike studies that simply filled a gap--for the most part, these were rejected. But even so, university-press lists were full of narrowly focused studies. In literature, for example, a large university press might publish a couple of books a year each on Shakespeare and Spenser; I recall one manuscript on The Faerie Queene in which the footnotes alone were longer than the poem. One couldn't help wondering how anyone could read all these books of criticism and still have time for the original texts. By the early seventies, even scholars were becoming impatient. Looking back over a decade of service on Princeton's editorial board in 1981, the historian Robert Darnton wrote: "I felt oppressed by creeping monographism, the tendency to write more and more about less and less, to smother subjects in erudition, and to reduce the idea-to-footnote ratio to the vanishing point."

Along with this questioning of the faith came the beginning of a downward trend in the market. For a while the problem was concealed, as university-press editors tried to explain away low sales as a temporary aberration or the problem of a particular book. But with the facts staring out at them from their sales reports, presses were eventually forced to confront the problem by lowering print runs, raising prices, seeking title subsidies, and reducing the total number of monographs on their lists. Taking a hard look at the kinds of books that were not selling, they began to move away from studies of single works, secondary authors, artists, and historical figures, short time periods, foreign-language and pre-modern literatures, and linguistics and technical philosophy. Concerned to prevent a further decrease in their monograph output, many presses expanded their lists to bring in more marketable titles to support the specialized ones, and between 1978 and 1988 this strategy worked pretty successfully and the total number of monographs published suffered no further decline. But in a study of the monograph during this decade, Herbert S. Bailey, Jr., former director of Princeton University Press, discovered another problem--one of balance, not numbers. While scholars were focusing mainly on history and literature, on America, and to a lesser extent Western Europe, and on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a large number of important fields of study, geographical areas, and time periods were getting relatively little attention. "Would it not be better for the world and for our nation if much more of the energy, in scholarship and in publishing, that now goes into studies of America and Western Europe went into studies of other areas?" Bailey asked.

The Problem Today

The situation has changed dramatically in the last nine years. We've reached the point where the kinds of adjustments to our publication plans and strategies that we made in the past to cope with the problem are no longer working--or, if we are lucky enough to be managing to cover our costs today, we are unlikely to continue to be able to do so if the market suffers further erosion. Anyone looking at university press catalogs over the past few years will have noticed that, while the total number of books published has increased, there are fewer and fewer monographs among them. The range of subjects has broadened to include area studies, gender and ethnic studies, urban studies, religion, and film, media, and cultural studies, in addition to the traditional subjects of the old curriculum. But with so much diversification, audiences in any one area have inevitably become smaller, a problem that is only partly offset by the growth of interdisciplinary studies that appeal across departmental boundaries to several audiences. The fragmentation within fields has come at a time when libraries, which form the main market for monographs, have had to scale back their purchases to pay for electronic equipment and high-priced scientific journals; whereas we could once count on selling about 800 copies to libraries worldwide, we are now lucky if we can sell 200. And scholars are no longer buying as many books for their personal libraries, either. (Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the cereal manufacturers' book and require every scholar who wants to submit a manuscript for publication to send in a couple of proof-of-purchase seals from already published monographs.) If print runs get much smaller, the question arises, Why publish at all? And if prices go much higher, scholars, who are already complaining, may simply refuse to buy our books.

Presses are adopting different strategies to cope with the situation. At Texas, we are managing to cover the costs--at the moment, just--of a small number of large highly specialized works by publishing as few as 750 copies in hardcover only and charging a reasonably high price for them, but we must often first find title subsidies from increasingly scarce outside sources; and, for the long term, we are building endowments to support their publication ourselves. Other books, especially those with some classroom potential, we are publishing in split runs--300 cloth copies, say, and between 1,500 and 2,000 paperbacks. For the moment, these strategies seem to be working, but the future looks less promising. And whereas the old-fashioned monograph was not intended for use in the classroom, today we are encouraging authors to write up original material with graduate students also in mind. The problem was well stated by one of our acquisitions editors recently in a reject letter to the author of a manuscript on land-tenure and agricultural transformation in a Latin American country: "For us at UT Press, your manuscript represents one example in a long tradition of monographic studies that are generated not just in the discipline of geography but in history, and, especially, in anthropology. While these kinds of studies used to form the backbone of scholarly publications, we now know that libraries do not buy these books in the numbers they formerly did, and your colleagues likewise don't buy or assign them in their classrooms. Every book of this kind must have some hope of finding its way into classrooms for a steady and long life, and I'm afraid this may be too narrow a focus and too scholarly an approach to be useful as a teaching text. As these three audiences--libraries, colleagues, and students--constitute the market for the book, without them the project isn't viable."

The Scholar's View

So there's the problem. Or is it? The decrease in funding for higher education has put pressure on university administrators to cut press subsidies and library funding: we were treated to a friendly little homily from a university president a few weeks ago telling us to stop expecting any more subsidies but at the same time not to forget our high mission to scholarship--we noticed that the president did not inform us how we were expected to bring this feat off. Publishers and librarians have been wrestling with each other over the free reproduction of published material. Yet scholars themselves have been noticeably absent from the debate, and they most of all are the people we should be talking with. At Texas, we have taken the opportunity provided by our monthly Faculty Advisory Committee meetings to ask each of our eleven members in turn to share their observations on what they see happening to scholarship and publishing in their own field. None of them believes that too few monographs are being published. The art historian, media scholar, anthropologist, and Latin American expert admitted that the difficulty of getting the old-fashioned type of monograph published had helped to bring about changes in the direction of scholarship and the kind of work they recommended their graduate students to pursue, but they argued that, whether university presses had helped set trends--as they have done in cultural and media studies--or simply responded to changes that were happening independently, their insistence on better-written manuscripts for broader, more interdisciplinary audiences has had a healthy effect on the research and writing style of their students and younger faculty. They reassured us that work that is no longer finding a home at university presses is being published by independent publishers, scholarly societies, institutes, and journals, some of it electronically. It's no fun if you are trying to solve a problem to have people tell you it really doesn't exist, but as one of the purposes of this conference is to explore the differing perceptions of the participants in the process of scholarly communication, I have to report that, if this small sample is representative, scholars are not the ones who are lying awake at nights worrying about the fate of the monograph.

Until, of course, one of their students comes up for tenure. Many departments and universities still require one book per promotion, and in some cases more than one. Books are indeed one measure of a scholar's ability and productivity, but the criteria used to determine the publishability of a manuscript are different from those used to evaluate its quality as a piece of scholarship or the promise of its author as a scholar and teacher. University presses are influenced by the marketability of a project as well as by its intellectual quality. A scholar working on a subject in cultural studies is much more likely to get a favorable decision on his work from a university press--the author of a manuscript on Milton, Shakespeare, or Aulus Gellius will find herself out driving a cab. And in time these decisions will help determine what subjects scholars study and what body of knowledge is passed on to the next generation. University presses should not wield this much power. If senior faculty and administrators would rely on their own judgment, based on the reports of carefully selected advisers (after all, we draw on the same pool of specialists) in making promotion decisions instead of looking to us for validation, one of the main problems the monograph presents to publishers and faculty would actually be solved.

Alternatives to the Codex Book

While the book has served well for hundreds of years as the preferred medium of publication and is likely to remain so, university presses were founded to disseminate scholarship, not to preserve the book as artifact, and electronic technology has opened up new possibilities for alternative methods of delivery. We will be hearing about them during the course of the conference, as well as the latest efforts to solve the problems of copyright and cost recovery. Now we will have choices that will enable us to select the medium that is best suited to the presentation of each particular kind of material and its audience. These alternatives eliminate some of the practical difficulties of monograph publishing, not only the expense of manufacturing multiple copies, but the risks and guesswork involved in deciding how many to print and the cost of warehousing. Even so, the codex book is likely to continue for a long while to be the best medium for most scholarly writing. In any case, the publisher's job of selecting, i.e., validating, and then editing and designing the material remains as exacting in an electronic manuscript as in a book.


We should recognize that publishing the monograph is not a matter of survival for most university presses. Collectively, we are publishing a wider range of important books today than at any time in our history, and the abandonment of serious nonfiction by many trade houses opens up to us new opportunities for general-interest publishing. Still, the idea of giving up the kind of scholarly publishing that has been central to our mission in the past is not one that appeals to many of us, and I feel confident that the best hope for overcoming the present obstacles lies in sharing our different points of view and recognizing the importance of working together on the entire business of scholarly communication.