It’s a bit much for Education Dive to publish a story headlined “University press humanities publishings [sic] on the decline”, a report on a Mellon research project by Joe Esposito and Karen Barch in which the authors state the opposite: “We do not believe that there is sufficient evidence for the five-year span of this study (which may not be long enough to extrapolate trends) to assert that the level of humanities monograph output has decreased. Our view is that it probably has not, but to prove this point one way or the other would require a study over a longer timeframe. A potential project for 2019 would be to add five years of data to this study (2014-2018), which would enable more meaningful trend analysis.” And the very fact that the report is coming from the Mellon Foundation, long-time supporters of university press publishing, especially of the monograph, surely hints that the doctor may be at the door, not that death is imminent.
The study, which you can find here, groups the publishers into four categories, following the practice of the Association of American University Presses, ranging from smallest to largest, with an additional group of Associate Members of the AAUP. Group 4 for instance contains the nine largest U. S. presses, California, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Princeton, Teacher’s College, and Yale. (Because they are so much larger than Group 4 presses, Oxford and Cambridge, although they participated in the survey, are not included in the numbers analyzed, as their numbers would distort the picture.) The AAUP has 85 member presses, plus 16 Associate Members. Mr. Esposito introduces the project at The Scholarly Kitchen.
Monograph sales are unsurprisingly small — interesting how little difference there is between hardback (not cloth please) and paperback sales. The report’s authors mention that they also have knowledge of “Macmillan and Taylor & Francis (Routledge), both of which have academic book programs that do not look very different from that of many university presses. The sales are almost entirely institutional. These commercial programs are significantly profitable. Is there a crisis in the monograph or is the crisis in the marketing departments of university presses?” This strikes me as a bit of a non-sequitur: who says a university press humanities monograph with an average five-year sale of 347 is not profitable? (Just because the sale is small doesn’t have to mean the book is making a loss, though it may make that more likely.) Certainly this report is not making that claim: as far as I can see doesn’t look at costs and profitability. I suspect that there may just be a tiny bit of rhetoric behind the claim that monograph publishing is so hard. After all, if you say it’s not too bad and we’re managing to get by, Mellon’s response might be expected to be less generous. Whereas in the commerical world, if you admit that your monographs are mostly dogs, you may find them being put down, so your very job depends on putting forth an encouraging picture.
Can e-books and open access come to the rescue? This may turn out to be less likely than we’d imagine. A collaborative AAU/ARL/AAUP research project into open access for humanities and social science monographs, proposes the provision of grants to publishers on condition that the monograph is made available for Open Access. However as Peter Berkery of the AAUP says in his Book Business write-up, it all depends: “without the embrace of scholars OA monographs cannot proliferate.”
Will this all turn out to be another solution in search of a problem? Monograph publishing has never been easy. Sure, it’s no doubt harder now, but technology, especially in the form of print-on-demand or ultra-short-run printing (leaving the e-book on one side for the moment) is busily providing help.