A monograph is sensu stricto a work of a certain length on a single subject by (ideally) a single author. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us its origin in botany and zoology: “A separate treatise on a single species, genus, or larger group of plants or animals. Later more widely: a detailed written study of a single specialized topic (distinguished from general studies in which the topic is dealt with as part of a wider subject).” The monograph is the way academics (especially in the humanities) communicate with one another.

The publishing of them has been a problem pretty much all my working life. The academic community can’t live without monographs, but academic publishers can hardly afford to live with them. By definition specialized, most monographs can expect only a small sale. Small in this context may mean as few as 300 life-time though there are obviously going to be monographs which do better, aspiring eventually to classic status and becoming required reading to students. E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer (1940) is a case in point. A specialized study of a pastoral people (caught up now in the middle of the South Sudan conflict), it came to be regarded as a type of its kind and is still selling in paperback to social anthropology undergraduates around the world. Given that the content is quite likely to be complex, with tables, quotation, notes, diagrams, lots of subheadings and often lots of special sorts, monographs are more expensive to bring to press than a novel of the same size. The double whammy of expensive preparation and short run means that the unit cost is going to be high. So a monograph of a certain size might cost $90 retail, while a similar novel might be selling for $27.95. The higher the price the lower the sale, but with most monographs the opposite just doesn’t apply. If there are 300 people in the world working on the Dyirbal language then printing 3,000 copies and offering a monograph on the subject at $35 isn’t going to have any effect other than leave you with 2,700 unsold copies on the warehouse shelves, and a significant loss on your books.

Decisions on academic tenure are at least in part driven by the monograph. Tenure committees look for a publishing record, preferably with as prestigious a press as possible, and tend to give such publication preference over journal articles. You can see some logic in this: it clearly takes ability to get a book approved at a top university press: all such books are refereed in a peer-review system before they are accepted for publication. Parenthetically one might note that tenure committees tend to privilege the p-book over the e-book. So without monographs tenure committees are up a gum tree. There’s a slight circularity at work too: many monographs, especially first books, are revised versions of the PhD thesis, which of course is the major tangible product to these academic departments.

Now an additional ingredient has been tossed into the pot: over the years politicians have been being dissing the humanities more and more as an unaffordable excess, indulged in by a liberal-driven university system. Get rid of such foolishness, and make all your students read science (preferably applied), economics or business studies, and the world will suddenly become a better place claim these forward thinkers. Following this advice would also make the monograph problem go away; it has become tough to persuade scientists to write monographs. Science advances by experiment and reporting on experiments, usually in the form of a journal article. If you are studying the history of Rome in the first century BC/AD you can hardly run an experiment to see what might have come to pass if Octavian hadn’t prevailed over Mark Anthony. Your thought experiment would fall naturally into a monographic mode rather than a scientific report. The humanities just seems “trivial” to results-oriented politicians. Training young people to read novels, to think about classical Greece, to discuss ethics and generally luxuriate in the decidedly non black-and-white world of not-science just seems to them to be a good way to waste money (and of course to promote liberal values which more and more seem to be regarded as a subtle form of sin). Anyone who wants to do this sort of thing should do it on their weekends after expanding the economy during the week.

Many university presses have received subsidies from charitable foundations to enable them to publish monographs, either singly book-by-book, or more generally as support for a program. Such funding is not easily to be found, and makes considerable time demands on press directors. Here’s news of a collaborative venture which is directed towards solving the problem of the monograph. The Open Library of Humanities is an open access non-profit. I guess the idea is that if we can just take these pesky unprofitable monographs and all agree to turn them into open-access works, all our problems will be solved. But of course open access does have costs, and someone has to cover them. With many open access journals these costs have been passed to the authors who have to get funding to pay for publication as well as their research. Naturally this has proved easier in say biochemical research than in the classics.

In the end it seems obvious that something has to change: either publishers will find some magic bullet subsidizing the cost of producing monographs, or the academic world will decide that criteria different from “publish or perish” can be used to establish the effectiveness of scholars. But it seems unlikely that the monograph will just disappear — at least until the thesis goes too.