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Academic print books are dying. What’s the future?

Numbered days of the print form of scholar’s book? quattrostagioni, CC BY

Academic print books are dying. What’s the future?

Numbered days of the print form of scholar’s book? quattrostagioni, CC BY

The print-format scholarly book, a bulwark of academia’s publish-or-perish culture, is an endangered species. The market that has sustained it over the years is collapsing.

Sales of scholarly books in print format have hit record lows. Per-copy prices are at record highs. In purely economic terms, the current situation is unsustainable.

So, what does the future look like? Will academia’s traditional devotion to print and legendary resistance to change kill off long-form scholarship? Or will academia allow itself to move from print-format scholarly books to an open-access digital model that could save, and very likely rejuvenate, long-form scholarship?

Sales down. Prices up

First, let’s look at some of the sales trends. Take the book-centric academic field of history as an example.

In 1980, a scholarly publisher could expect to sell 2,000 copies of any given history book. By 1990, that number had plummeted to 500 copies. And by 2005, sales of a little over 200 copies worldwide had become the norm.

From my own field – library and information studies – the numbers are no less bleak. The editor of a major academic publishing house confided to me this summer that, circa 1995, he could expect to sell 1,000 copies of even a ho-hum library studies book during its first year of publication. In 2015, an outstanding book in the field is considered doing well if it manages to sell 200 copies in its first year.

In a classic response to a downward spiral, publishers ended up raising prices of scholarly books. In 1980, in the field of history,the average price for a hard cover history book was US$22.78; by 2010, that price had almost quadrupled to $82.65.

Similar increases were seen in every other academic field. The average price of a hardcover book on the subject of religion went from $17.61 in 1980 to $80.88 in 2010. For education, the price climbed from $17.01 in 1980 to $177.59 in 2010.

Libraries losing buying power

Neither an anomaly or a bump in the road, this total market collapse is the result of a long-term trend from which the print-format scholarly book cannot recover.

A root cause for this market collapse is the loss of buying power among academic libraries, traditionally the biggest customer for printed scholarly books.

Libraries have been hit by a double economic whammy of beyond-inflationary increases in the cost of journal subscriptions and an ongoing drop in governmental support for higher education in the past few decades.

As a result, academic libraries have been forced to choose between maintaining their paid subscriptions to journals, the favored information resource of the STEM fields, and scholarly books, the workhorse of the humanities and interpretive social sciences.

Here are some numbers that tell the story of where academic libraries have chosen to put their money:

In the mid-1980s, the ratio of spending on journal subscriptions compared to scholarly books was roughly 50-50. By 2011, that ratio had shifted to 75-25 in favor of subscriptions to academic journals.

The fact that only about half of the scholarly books in academic libraries are ever borrowed has further discouraged librarian investment in the scholarly book.

Changing nature of market

In any case, in a perfect ivory tower world, the economics of the print-format scholarly book would not be a consideration. After all, university presses were created for the specific purpose of publishing scholarship that, while rich in intellectual value, has little or no economic value.

However, in a higher-education environment in which the subsidies once enjoyed by university presses have shrunk or entirely vanished, editors are left with little choice but to consider sales potential before accepting a manuscript for publication.

Consequently, academic rigor aside, the market value of a scholarly book on a perennially popular historical figure like, say, Theodore Roosevelt or a current hot-button social issue such as racism is simply going to be more attractive to a scholarly publisher than a book on Spain’s Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) or land-ownership patterns in Hungary’s 12th-century Árpád Dynasty, whose sales prospects might be dismal.

Even so, in many academic fields the publication of scholarly books still remains the standard by which emerging scholars are credentialed. Is it acceptable that a PhD student in one of those fields might feel forced to choose a dissertation topic based on how a publisher views its sales potential as a book rather than on its contribution to the field?

Why not consider open access?

Bleak as it may seem, the good news is that this need not mean the end of long-form scholarship.

Facing a dismal market, a number of leading scholarly publishers are taking steps to change the economic model of the scholarly book. This change involves moving from a foundation in print to a foundation in digital, and from a focus on sales to libraries to a focus on open access.

What about going digital? PRORob DiCaterino, CC BY

In a notable example, the University of California Press announced the publication this October of the first five titles as part of its Luminos initiative. Luminos titles are fully peer-reviewed, professionally edited scholarly books initially published as open-access e-books with a print-on-demand option for those who prefer physical books.

Hardly a one-off venture, similar open-access models for publishing scholarly books are being implemented by such presses as The Ohio State University Press, Penn State Romance Studies, Amherst College Press, ANU (Australian National University) Press, De Gruyter Open, and others.

Open-access initiatives such as these are positioning themselves to disrupt the scholarly book market by shifting to a model in which the cost of publication is recouped by upfront underwriting rather than via sales of copies.

Besides rescuing the scholarly book from oblivion, open-access digital books offer many advantages over their print forebearers: The number of potential readers dwarfs what is possible for a run of a few hundred printed copies. Open-access scholarly books can be used, wholly or in part, as course texts at no costs to students.

Additionally, digital formatting loosens constraints on the number of pages and illustrations. Scholars are free to employ tools of digital-age scholarship ranging from timeline-enhanced maps to data visualizations to embedded video. Open-access books can be read in regions of the world where few people can afford First World price tags.

Academic distrust

However, open-access scholarly books can still fail if those senior faculty who make decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure refuse to embrace it.

In my experience, many among the senior faculty harbor a lingering distrust of digital publication. Some faculty consider any underwriting of publication costs by the author and/or the author’s institution as nothing more than vanity press publication, where authors have to pay to get published.

For faculty who take this view, such new models of open-access publication are considered to be academic sins in the rank of plagiarism and “diploma mill” degrees.

In my view, there is no reason why scholarly books published under legitimate open-access models cannot undergo rigorous peer-review and editing processes. Quality peer review and editing are not, after all, functions of paper and ink.

Additionally, with very few exceptions, the cost of publishing a scholarly book has always been subsidized to one extent or another. Circa 1980, publication costs for a printed scholarly book were very likely underwritten by a university press’s campus subsidy.

Arguing that publishing a book under the auspices of a subsidized scholarly press occupies some higher moral ground than publishing under one of the emerging models of subsidized open-access publishing is entirely specious.

If, in the end, the forces of academic conservatism kill the open-access scholarly book by refusing to hire or reward emerging scholars who publish in this way, an unintended consequence will be the death of the scholarly book.

Will the academy stand by and allow the market to determine who succeeds and who fails as an academic? Or, will it move toward open-access publication that offers a viable alternative to a market in collapse?