Publication Date

October 1, 2003

Perspectives Section


The Endangered Monograph and Gutenberg-e

A recent television advertisement for the Xerox Corporation opens with a "typical" university professor lecturing to students seated in a large amphitheater-style classroom. The professor, chalk in hand and old-fashioned blackboard in plain view behind him, has the appearance of an individual who is not quite comfortable in the 21st century. Nevertheless, he is energetically lecturing the students on the practical problems of book publishing in the current market, and he proceeds to make clear that, because of the great expense involved, publishers will not publish just any book. The unspoken implication, of course, is that unless a book offers the promise of large sales, would-be-writers can expect publishers to dismiss their work. At this juncture, a technically savvy student stands up and informs the professor that, thanks to the wonders of on-demand publishing, his assertion is no longer true. The professor, who apparently has never been visited by any publishers' representatives, gives the student a look of complete incomprehension as the members of the class applaud the remarks of their classmate.

Academic historians may not fit the comic Madison Avenue image of the technologically challenged professor, but they are all too aware of the economic realities of book publishing. Assistant professors, trying to establish their scholarly credentials in an era when academic publishers are producing fewer and fewer monographs, are especially aware of these realities. In 1999 Robert Darnton, in his capacity as AHA president, proposed that the Association attack the problem of the high production costs of books and the resulting crisis in the publication of scholarly monographs by sponsoring the production of electronic books on the Internet (see Robert Darnton, "A Program for Reviving the Monograph," Perspectives March 1999, available online at Darnton envisioned an electronic book project that would subject manuscripts to the same scholarly critique as work submitted to traditional publishers. Not only would these monographs be the scholarly equal of their printed counterparts, but they could even be designed in new ways to take advantage of the flexibility of the electronic medium. Such books presumably would be cheaper to produce, and, if their scholarly quality could be ensured, they would serve the discipline of history in the same way as printed works. After several years of development, Darnton’s proposal has reached fruition in the form of Gutenberg-e, a collaborative project of Columbia University Press and the American Historical Association, which receives funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

E-Publication and the Historical Profession

Of course, if all professors were as far removed from the digital age as our fictional colleague in the Xerox advertisement, Gutenberg-e would have a very hard time establishing itself in the world of historical scholarship. But evidence indicates that historians are already growing comfortable with e-publication. Under the auspices of Project Muse, a large number of important journals are now available online. JSTOR, the web-based scholarly journal archive, permits historians to undertake sophisticated searches through its online database and to print out articles found in journals published decades ago. Even the venerable American Historical Review is available in an electronic version through the History Cooperative (a subscription-based collective that also offers many other academic journals in an electronic format). However, Gutenberg-e and the electronically published books that it produces raise a number of issues not present in other electronic publishing projects. Because the writing and reading of books is such an integral part of the historical enterprise, tampering with the character of these publications might seem to threaten the very integrity of the discipline. Will books published electronically really be the equivalent of the traditional hardcover volume? Will historians even read books that only exist as web pages? Perhaps more important is the issue of permanence: will these books last? There is a very significant difference between printed journals, like the American Historical Review, which also produce online versions, and electronically produced books that exist only as long as the publisher deems them worthy of space on its server.

Reading a Gutenberg-e Book

I have just read my first e-book, Gregory S. Brown's A Field of Honor: Writers, Court Culture and Public Theater in French Literary Life from Racine to the Revolution, the first Gutenberg-e publication dealing with Old Regime Europe, and I have recently reviewed it for the American Historical Review. Having given some thought to e-publication in the process of writing the review, I thought readers of Perspectives might find useful a field report of one reader’s experience and reaction to this new publication form. Although my remarks are necessarily focused on the book I read closely, they could quite easily be extrapolated in general terms to the others on the Gutenberg-e web site.

As one would expect of a highly publicized project sponsored by a major scholarly society, Gutenberg-e has sought to attract very good manuscripts for publication. Currently individual scholars submit manuscripts in specified fields, and these are judged by a panel of eminent scholars who determine the six Gutenberg-e prize winners for a given year. Once selected, the authors collaborate with the Gutenberg-e staff and the other prize winners in workshops at Columbia University designed to improve the manuscript for electronic publication. Prizewinners receive $20,000 to assist in manuscript preparation. These efforts have yielded impressive results in the case of A Field of Honor, which is in every way the scholarly equal of books published in the traditional manner by university presses.

The experience of reading a Gutenberg-e book is certainly different from the traditional printed book. First, I should point out that the Gutenberg-e web site is well designed and extremely easy to use. The text on the screen is easily read, and the notes are readily accessed, as they are in many e-journals, simply by clicking on the note number. In the case of A Field of Honor, the author has provided links to contemporary illustrations and many primary source documents that reside on the Gutenberg-e web site. (In contrast, high publication costs of printed works usually dictate that additional documents and illustrations be kept to a bare minimum.) The texts of some of these sources have been copied by the author from archival originals and make a valuable addition to the volume. Other links take the reader to published sources, in this case primarily the texts of 18th-century plays, found on other web sites. However, these sites, which are not on the Gutenberg-e server, may very well degenerate over time, thereby reducing the initial integrity of the book.

One clear advantage of e-books over traditional publication is that the length of the manuscript poses few concerns to the publisher. Thus Gutenberg-e books have appendices, glossaries, and more comprehensive bibliographies (a welcome addition at a time when many traditional publishers are eschewing bibliographies altogether). Authors also have more freedom to construct the text in the manner they think best. Of course, lack of length constraints can also reduce the editorial imperative to encourage authors to excise superfluous material in the interest of readability and cogency of the argument.

Some readers may believe that any positive features of electronic books are more than offset by the inconvenience of sitting before a computer screen and scrolling through the equivalent of hundreds of pages of printed text in order to read the book. To avoid long hours of reading online text, I opted to print out the entire book and read it the old fashioned way. But when my printer finally spit out the last page of the book, I had more than a ream of paper before me, a considerably more cumbersome package than the ordinary printed volume. More problematic was the book's very small font, which could not be enlarged in the printed version. However, the Gutenberg-e staff has now eliminated this problem with the introduction of a printable document in pdf format. I found the choice between reading on screen or through a large stack of loose sheets of printed text less than fully satisfying, but hardly unacceptable.

Because html-formatted text is displayed by a Web browser in a unique way, page numbers are often meaningless for e-publications. In their place Gutenberg-e books number every fifth paragraph in a chapter, much like the American Historical Review numbers paragraphs in its online version. (This numbering scheme remains consistent in the printed PDF version of the text.) Obviously, citations of Gutenberg-e books will require some alteration of the traditional form to accommodate this format, but Meagan Cooke, the Gutenberg-e production editor, promises a forthcoming users’ guide containing suggested citation forms.

In the place of the traditional index, readers use the search capabilities provided by the Gutenberg-e site and the reader's Internet browser. One simply clicks on the search feature in the on-screen menu of the book, types in the item to be located, and reads on screen a list of the chapters containing the item which has appeared. The reader then clicks on the appropriate chapters and proceeds to use the find feature in the browser software to locate the item in the text.

Accessing Gutenberg-e Publications

How does one obtain access to Gutenberg-e publications? At present a reader may sample Gutenberg-e by acquiring a free, trial subscription, but ultimately the publisher hopes to encourage access through academic libraries, which will pay a $195 annual subscription fee. Libraries subscribing this year will acquire a site-wide license for the nine volumes published to date for a modest price of less than $25 per volume. Since 11 more volumes are in the process of publication, libraries maintaining subscriptions would continue to receive additional books at a very low per-book cost. Nonsubscribing libraries and individuals, however, can purchase individual volumes for $49.50 each.

The Permanency of E-Books

Are these books as likely to survive as those volumes currently lining the shelves of academic libraries around the world? Of course any book is subject to damage or destruction, but electronic publications exist only as long as the computer files on which they are stored remain intact and available. According to Meagan Cooke, Gutenberg-e expects to continue the publication of these monographs indefinitely. However, the skeptical historian may still suspect the permanence of these virtual books. What would happen to the books published if Gutenberg-e went the way of so many of the phenomena of the late 1990s? Traditionally printed material in a particular library may be destroyed or lost, but, in most cases, additional copies exist in other libraries. In the case of Gutenberg-e publications, libraries subscribing to the service retain ownership of titles that were published during the period of their subscription, and library officials, determined to protect their investment, can download the files for each publication and store them on their own computers. Anyone with access to the publication through a subscribing library can likewise download the files and save them on a hard drive or CD-ROM. Structured in this fashion, the web site offers reasonable assurance that the Gutenberg-e books will not simply disappear if the project does not prove to be viable over the long term.

The End of the Monograph Crisis?

Is Gutenberg-e the answer to the monograph publishing crisis faced by historians? The project is certainly off to an excellent start and offers much promise for the future. Although many readers may always prefer traditional, printed books to electronic publications, e-books can deliver very high-quality historical scholarship that will serve the profession well. Whether electronic book publishing in fact solves the publication crisis depends on a number of variables. One is the acceptance of the medium by the profession. If the quality of A Field of Honor is typical of the early publications, this hurdle will be quickly overcome as historians will be eager to utilize these monographs. A second variable is the financial feasibility of the project. Currently funding by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation makes Gutenberg-e a financially viable project, but that funding may not continue indefinitely. Can the project survive solely on the income from subscriptions? Will enough libraries subscribe to cover the cost of future publications? Furthermore, Gutenberg-e by itself will never be able to publish enough books to end the current academic publishing crisis. But if other publishers, encouraged by the early success of Gutenberg-e, adopt similar electronic publishing projects and undertake to sell subscriptions to academic libraries, will the costs of these subscriptions merely deepen the funding crisis for traditional monographic publications? The American Council of Learned Societies’ History E-Book project—also supported by the Mellon Foundation—which originally started with a set of backlist books, and which is also evolving fairly quickly, has adopted a different business plan; but here again it is too soon to forecast what the long-term implications might be.

Time will reveal the answers to these questions. However, as presently constructed, Gutenberg-e offers the promise of a more cost-effective means of publishing scholarly monographs that will meet the needs of the profession. Given the endangered status of the monograph, the profession should embrace Gutenberg-e and encourage the expansion of e-publication by other academic presses. Perhaps, if Gutenberg-e helps initiate the general development of e-book publication in the historical profession, the time may come when the Xerox Corporation will have to look elsewhere than the American professoriate for foils in their advertisements.

— is professor of history at Texas State University. He is currently researching the Compagnie des Indes and French public opinion during the 18th century.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.