The "Endangered Monograph": Why Aren't Scholars Lying Awake Worrying?
Sandria B. Freitag, November 1997
For two days in early September, representatives of learned societies, university presses, and campus libraries examined the changing circumstances of monograph publishing from their different perspectives. The conference was organized to bring these groups together in search of solutions to the problem posed by the dwindling number of monographs on the lists of major scholarly publishers.
Underlying the presentations by the participants—presses, libraries, and scholars—was an oft- repeated lament; as Joanna Hitchcock, Director of the University of Texas Press, put it, "Scholars are not the ones lying awake at night worrying [that fewer and fewer monographs are being published] ... until, of course, one of their students comes up for tenure." It was not, as other speakers noted, that this problem was new; it had been developing for a number of years, and presses in particular had been struggling for more than a decade to remain true to their mission while producing books that lost money with virtually every title. Why hadn't scholars noticed and allied with their campus libraries and presses to underscore the significance of the problem? Indeed, one press director even noted that the faculty on her editorial committee insisted that there was no problem.
The proximate causes of these circumstances were identified easily enough. First, the bottom dropped out of the market for monographs when libraries were forced to divert their resources to meet the escalating prices for commercially published science journals. Second, this development was accompanied by the issuance of contradictory messages to the three sets of actors by campus administrators, who—after telling librarians to purchase fewer books in order to protect their serials budgets—then told presses to get along with less subsidy, and insisted to faculty that they must publish to get tenure. For their part, the administrators issued these unpalatable instructions because campuses struggled with rising costs while receiving less funding from legislatures and facing stringent limitations on the extent to which they could raise tuition. From the campus perspective, then, the monograph sits at a conjunction of distinct institutional interests—marketability for presses, and acquisitions, storage, and usage issues for librarians. And in the middle of this critical conjuncture sit scholars as producers, consumers, and evaluators of monographic scholarship. Shouldn't they be concerned?
Defining the Monograph
Actual definitions of "the monograph" varied from speaker to speaker, and it became clear that an understanding of monographic scholarship differed from one discipline to the next, and even among fields and specializations within a particular discipline. Stanley Chodorow, historian of the medieval period (and now provost at the University of Pennsylvania), distinguished between the monograph, a "large, specialized study that treats a narrow topic in great detail" to establish the facts that will enable broader general explanations, and "the book," which provides a broader narrative in more concise manner. Stephen Humphreys, historian of the Middle East (University of California at Santa Barbara), relied on his experience on the editorial committee of the University of California Press to define monographs as "small market books." Book or traditional-style monograph, all agreed that the studies of concern had narrow enough subject matter that the size of their audiences precluded selling the number of copies needed to cover their costs. In this context, the size of the audience for a potential monograph or book is what distinguished the endangered topics from the safer ones; thus area studies and ancient history were disappearing from press lists, while women's studies and American history generally remained strong. (The latter suggests one curious anomaly for the history discipline, in which recent Ph.D.'s in 20th-century American history, for instance, might see four book contract offers but be unable to land a tenure-track job; see October's article on mismatch between fields and job openings.)
Whether "book" or monograph, irrefutable evidence was produced by both presses and libraries about these small markets. Marlie Wasserman, director of Rutgers University Press, noted that most monographs now sell only about 200 copies to the library market. Working through the numbers of a financial plan for a hardcover monograph still optimistically projecting sales of 600 and priced at $40, she calculated a net loss for the title of $13,628. She commented dryly that Rutgers published 60 titles per year. They could hardly afford those kinds of numbers for every title—"I see the provost frequently enough as it is"—but did still devote a portion of the list to money-losing monographs. Robert Wedgeworth, university librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led the audience through the ARL's statistics for 1986-96, in which serial prices and expenditures were graphed against monograph prices and expenditures, and the acquisitions libraries actually made. The gaps were dramatic. The role of scholars in these trends was also critical: it was scholars who insisted, for instance, on "fair use" access to materials for their classrooms; they wanted to use this material without paying the presses who had worked to place the content into the system of scholarly communication.
All analysts agreed that technology alone could not solve these problems. Electronic dissemination would reduce costs no more than 20–25 percent, as only inventory, paper, and shipping costs were affected. Still remaining were all acquisitions costs (since everyone agreed that among the most valuable contributions added by presses were peer review and gatekeeping), the remaining editorial expenses (though presses had been forced to reduce these to a minimum), and marketing costs—and these activities constituted the main elements in overhead, as well. Moreover, as Colin Day, director of the University of Michigan Press noted, neither readers nor authors were exerting pressure on him for new forms of publication. On the contrary, as many speakers observed, one of the greatest impediments to innovations in scholarly publishing remained the reluctance of campus groups—some said departments, others said provosts and deans—to recognize any form of publication that was not printed and traditionally bound.
Who Abandoned the Monograph?
Scholars at other times and in other places have approached the problem most frequently by blaming the presses for abandoning the monograph to play to more commercial interests. Virtually all of the presses present admitted to significant shifts in the composition of their lists, relying more on "midlist" books that will sell in the superstores and supplementary texts for the classroom, forms of scholarship more likely to sell sufficient copies to cover their costs. At this conference, however, those voicing scholars' interests sought the sources of the monograph's problems in the conjunction of scholarly practices and the new economic realities. Both Humphreys and Chodorow, for instance, commented on the scholarly shift toward more theory and less emphasis on building up a body of knowledge. Chodorow attributed this to the diversity of American society and student bodies: "'knowledge' based on a canon is indefensible now, and so scholars reach for universals through applications of theory." Humphreys lamented that theoretical approaches have short shelf-lives, and scholars are less likely to refer to a work five years later when few of the trendy theories have much staying power. Such work also tends, he noted, to be written in specialized jargon that is difficult to penetrate and seldom sustains the reader's interests. These characteristics, coupled with the explosion of information, mean that "I read differently now-in fragments and sporadically—rather than applying sustained attention to a small core of classic works." It seems likely that this fragmentation has also affected the size of audiences and markets for monographs (and will even affect the forms in which monographic research will be sought and used if mounted electronically).
The ratcheting up of standards for tenure (with many campuses now demanding two books) and inflexibility in measuring accomplishments—only books, not articles, are viewed by many departments as acceptable, and even these have to be published by a small pool of prestigious presses—repeatedly became linked to the monograph crisis in the rhetoric of the conference. Not until Scott Bennett (University Librarian, Yale) offered an iconoclastic inquiry, "Why are we devoting so much energy to an inconsequential question of credentialling—why not let the departments do their own work?" did participants decouple tenure considerations from the processes of scholarly communication. And they sundered the two with considerable passion. Press directors were especially vocal in disclaiming a role in "personnel" issues—"we ask reviewers about the quality of the work, not whether someone should be kept on the faculty," Colin Day insisted. However much they must consider the market in their deliberations, others argued, they are in the business of scholarly communication, and that is where the emphasis must lie if the monograph problem is to be successfully addressed.
The Crisis for Scholars
The scholars present brought scrutiny back to credentialling in two critical respects. First, virtually all of them commented that greater flexibility was needed in review processes, so that young scholars could secure tenure by presenting evidence of intellectual contributions other than books between covers. They, too, however, linked this to scholarly communication rather than personnel issues, insisting that many young scholars were not, at the tenure decision point, at a stage of intellectual development where a mature book was the natural product. Also acceptable should be articles, electronic experiments, and other formats that linked teaching and research. Second and equally important in this context, argued more than one participant, was the need to train scholars to write more accessibly-to build the body of knowledge by linking one's own work to broader questions; to write shorter and more clearly focused books; and to make this writing accessible to students as well as peers ("those four other specialists who understand the significance of your work"). This kind of training was not merely a matter for the market, as the presses needed, but for good graduate preparation for future participation in the world of scholarly communication. John D'Arms, incoming president of the ACLS, pushed the training issue one step further, arguing that one reason dissertations seldom made good books is that graduate students did not receive close mentoring. He proposed another part of the solution, calling for postdoctoral centers where future book-writers could work closely with a cluster of scholars deeply involved in their work and united around a common thematic or theoretical approach. It was at this point in an intellectual career, D'Arms urged, that scholars could be trained to use broad synthetic views.
Beyond credentialling, however, scholars still located many of the problems on the campuses. Humphreys commented, for instance, that universities generously support research but not the publication of it. This observation placed in sharp relief Chodorow's points that deans and provosts don't care about monographs, and if they have to replace part of the process because of the demise of the monograph, they would use campus resources to replace peer review, not for the support of scholarly communication. Ironic in this context, then, was the remark by Charles Beitz, academic dean at Bowdoin College, that studies of liberal arts college faculties have documented the correlation of good teaching and research, and that this association got stronger with age, suggesting that institutions who wanted good teachers for their students would facilitate active research careers for their faculty.
Experiments and Solutions
If these are the problems implied by the decline of monograph publishing, what might be the solutions? The second day of the conference concentrated on present and potential experiments for scholarly dissemination. None are advanced enough to be adjudged "successes" in resolving monograph issues, but they do imply some promising patterns for the future. However, among the more noteworthy characteristics of the presentations were the fact that only one involved scholars directly (despite scholars' implications in the creation of the problem), and very few could promise to obviate the more dramatic economic and marketing implications sketched the day before. Clearly, scholarly communication will be an issue high on our agendas for some time to come.
Nevertheless, some encouraging signs emerged from the projects underway. First and foremost, the use of electronic clusters of monographic materials suggests that this may form a new way to "browse," and that such browsing leads more scholars than ever before to want these materials. They also want such materials in print form when they begin to really use them. Moreover, a number of these scholars move across usually impermeable specialist boundaries to find these materials. Thus it seems clear that if electronic clusters (or "databases") of specialized monographs are formatted and mounted in accessible ways, they can reach—and create—broader audiences than the "small markets" that now doom them. Furthermore, because electronic storage does remove the costs of inventory, some combination of print-on-demand (or very short print runs) and electronically browsable databases promises economies as well as larger markets.
In addition, while librarians resist the offer of electronic-only books (as do tenure committees!), mixed-practice publications (both print and electronic formats) and combinations of monographs with other materials, appeal to librarians greatly because they offer additional services and materials for users. Significantly, several speakers from the press community echoed the observation of Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information, that the most efficacious combinations will be those around a disciplinary base. Given that current experiments are being organized by presses, often in collaboration with the libraries on their home campuses, but in competition with other such combinations, they do not provide either a discipline-wide focus or the technological capacity to link together around such a focus.
The one exception to these experiments is the proposal being shaped collaboratively by the AHA and the ARL, in consultation with other scholarly societies, presses, and libraries. Over the last two years, AHA and ARL have worked this project proposal through their governance structures, revising the shape of the proposal and gaining approval to pursue additional partners. The resulting proposal was presented to the conference, and a follow-up meeting was held at the end of the conference to enable potential participants to brainstorm together on how such a collaboration might work. High enthusiasm marked the reception by libraries and, especially, presses to the proposal to collaboratively mount and distribute a range of historical studies (including area studies).
The project is designed to create a large digitized collection of historical studies formatted to enable searches across the database, with monographic research at the heart of the collection that will also include out of print classics and, eventually, many other forms of historical materials for teaching and research (and links to still more, especially journal articles). A number of basic premises inform the design of the project. Key attributes of the current system of scholarly communication must be preserved, most especially the quality control and gatekeeping functions (both in terms of peer review processes and the use of imprimaturs of presses and societies through a "joint publication" rubric). The actors important in the current system of scholarly communication would all be in the enterprise together, thus spreading risks, costs, and contributions to the shared goals.
In order to turn this proposal into a concrete reality, the expressions of interest at the follow-up meeting will need to be fine tuned, both to delineate roles for each actor to play, and to define the economic needs (to be met creatively through in-kind contributions and some fundraising). In addition, the participants will need to build a consensus over how to present and disseminate the scholarship, which will involve discussions of scholarly needs in using the materials as well as technical work on standardization of the preparation. The partners will need to be innovative in addressing the challenges in assuring broad access, and creative about how to cover costs (clearly no current model will meet these new needs). But scholars and their partners in communication have been creative and innovative before: the challenges may be greater than ever, but the kinds of partnership proposed here harnesses a heartening range of skills and talents. We will report further on this project and other follow- up to the conference as these develop.