It seems to be a bit of an overgeneralizing leap to slither from the closing of The University Bookseller in Plymouth to the contention that the academic print book is dying, but here is The Digital Reader last year racing off down that alley with The Bookseller keeping pace with him. His first paragraph has a link to an earlier piece of his “proving” the same point. I rather preferred Richard Fisher’s sober take on the issue.
But is there any reason to think that the online world, whether in its form of ebooks and database access, or in its sales aspect, is killing academic publishing. It’s true that more and more books are sold online, and specialized books are more likely to go this way than popular material — you’d be crazy to turn up at Barnes & Noble hoping to find a copy of The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline. But of course a sale made via Amazon is still a sale.
Publishing Perspectives debates Academic Books and Digital Dynamics. We (or a subset of us) keep hoping that digital development is going to be the white knight galloping up to save the academic book. This assumes, of course, that the academic book needs saving. I question this assumption, while admitting that it is possible that a lemming-like capitulation could turn it into a self-fulfilling prophesy. It was never (Never? Well, hardly ever) easy to publish monographs. They have always been expensive to produce, and by definition are directed at a small, specialized audience. So they are expensive to buy: Duh.
I do think that part of the problem has been the commercialization of the publishing business over the past half century or so. When big corporations buy publishing companies they expect returns, and publishers beaver away to deliver what they can. Maybe, however, most of the book business is by its nature a small-scale operation selling a few good books to a few good readers. Just because trade publishing can (almost) be turned into a branch of the entertainment industry doesn’t mean that this can be done to all publishing companies. But the temptation to grow is hard to resist: what boss is going to have the internal fortitude to say “No. We are not going to increase sales. We are going to make our books better, and if this means fewer and fewer people can afford them, that’s just the nature of the business”?
We all continue to wrestle with the increasing costs of everything, and work away at balancing our books. What has changed in the debate is the arrival of the ebook with its marginal cost of (virtually) zero. This Siren-call has beguiled a proportion of us into thinking that this tool can magically transform the economics of the specialized book. But if, as Kathy Christian asserts, it costs $25,000 to publish an academic book, the fact that the second copy you sell costs you $12,500 + $0 doesn’t put you in a much better place than a printed copy costing you $12,500 + $3.75. The marginal cost benefit only begins to mean something once you have sold enough copies to have amortized your $25,000 up-front cost. The point at which this will happen will depend on what price you’ve put on the book, plus several other variables. (See: Costing.)
Ithaka S+R reports on a study the cost of publishing monographs. (Link via Jose Afonso Furtado). I have commented on this report previously.
The key issue in the future of the academic monograph is however always, always, always what the academic community wants. Publishers, I keep on saying, do not make policy, establish trends, create policy; they are a conduit bringing what their authors write to interested readers. As long as academic discourse takes the form of the monograph (which probably means as long as a PhD requires a thesis) there will be publishers ready to bring the product out and hopeful of making some money by doing so. The question of what format the monograph should take is a separate one. Perhaps unsurprisingly the academic usage profile appears to match the sort of general level of ebook vs. print book sales. Academics find reference searches easier with a digital book, but prefer reading the resultant reference in a print book.
Roger Schonfeld of Ithaka S+R writes a thoughtful piece at The Scholarly Kitchen. Their latest research shows academics preference for print books in most areas continues, and indeed has increased over the past three years. Researching for a particular topic remains the area where digital scores heavily. There seems to me to be no real problem with this. It does increase your origination costs to have to originate for both digital and print, but we have almost all been biting this bullet for quite a few years now.
At such time as faculty review boards stop using monographs, in print, and journal publication records as the measure for assessing academics when it comes to hiring and tenure decisions, then perhaps we’ll see academics stopping writing monographs. Maybe there could be a different way of communicating academic research: it’s not for the publishing industry to come up with that idea. We just serve our public. And what they want (albeit in smaller quantities that they did a few years ago) appears to be what we are doing.