Publication Date

October 26, 2020

Perspectives Section

From the President

AHA Topic

Professional Life

Writing can be agonizing, but it can also be deeply rewarding. Historians get immense satisfaction when an idea finally crystallizes into a book. Although publication proves essential to many academic careers, much more is at stake. Publishing new work, whether as a book or its digital equivalent, is one way historians make a contribution to scholarship and participate in intellectual debate. COVID-19 has made us rethink our teaching, our research, and even our daily household routines. We can anticipate that the pandemic will similarly disrupt publishing. Because university presses and scholarly publishing remain critical parts of academic life, and because publishing a first (and second) book remains critical to the advancement of many academic historians’ careers, these uncertainties are extremely worrying.

I am not sure that my experiences with publishers were or are typical. I never had, for instance, an advance contract, nor, for that matter, did I have an advocate or mentor who introduced me to a press. With the exception of a commissioned volume, I never really worked with a press or an editor in the crafting of a manuscript, and even then the contact was relatively slight. So despite having published five books, I am neither hooked into the publishing world nor able to draw on close relationships with editors and agents. Over the past few months, I have found myself wondering how the pandemic will influence this industry that is so deeply enmeshed with my own career. What does the future of academic publishing look like for historians? What consequences will these changes have for historians just starting their careers?

Changes to scholarly publishing are not unique to this era or only the result of COVID-19. Scholarly publishing is an industry, and like many industries, it went through a tremendous period of growth and transformation from the 1960s to the 1980s. I have no personal experience of what it was like to publish academic work in the 1960s or 1970s, though I understand from my senior colleagues that the era was characterized by the recognition that one would publish a book sometime, even if not before tenure, and therefore the pressure to publish was less. In the 1980s, when I began my academic career, there existed an expectation that a newly minted PhD would publish a book, and many presses seemed willing (if not exactly eager) to publish first books, even in fields without an obvious public or classroom audience. During that same period, press closures or vast reductions in the support of universities for their presses had important consequences for the field. Fewer presses publishing fewer scholars meant that anxiety levels about publication rose considerably. Some, like Robert Coover writing in theNew York Times, even predicted the “end of the book.”

Presses continued to publish, of course, but by the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century, presses seemed to become more worried about their bottom line, more aggressive about tilting toward books that had “a broad readership,” and less willing to consider books that came in over the transom. At the same time, the admonition to “publish or perish” pressed on all academic historians, even at institutions where a historian’s primary responsibility (and time commitment) focused on teaching. And it has remained so.

Changes to scholarly publishing are not unique to this era or only the result of COVID-19.

A decade into the 21st century, some historians and librarians celebrated the arrival of the e-book and the online journal as a solution to this supposed crisis, and university presses have vigorously expanded electronic offerings. Certainly, the lower cost for readers (though not always for libraries) and the availability of vast numbers of texts in electronic forms present undeniable advantages. The widespread adoption of e-books, however, has failed to change the prestige awarded to physical books. Books published only electronically, while slowly gaining respectability among academics, unfortunately are still rarely considered equivalent to physical books in assessing credentials for hiring, tenure, and promotion. However, as the AHA has argued in the Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians,“digital publication can be very nearly indistinguishable from print publication in every respect but its medium.” The electronic form does not create an inferior intellectual product.

Reports of the death of university presses or the rise of the e-book as a permanent alternative to the physical book are, as Mark Twain famously quipped, “greatly exaggerated.” The website of the Association of University Presses lists more than 150 members around the world (including the AHA) and notes that, contrary to widespread mythology, in each of the past five years, these presses have consistently produced between 13,000 and 14,000 titles. Moreover, a senior editor at one of these presses mentioned to me in conversation that these numbers represent “overwhelmingly books in the humanities and the social sciences.” Even more striking is a significant jump in numbers over the past 50 years: in 1970, there were 2,300 new books; in 2000, some 9,000 books; and 2018, about 13,400 books. This may suggest vigor rather than a patient on life support.

While there are reasons to feel that the future is not grim, all is not rosy. Although the number of books being published has increased, print runs have dwindled quite strikingly. The same senior editor explained that while once a typical print run averaged between 1,000 and 1,500 copies, today 300 appears to be far more common. Acquisition editors seem to prefer short books as cheaper to produce and easier to market. I suspect that a manuscript of 100,000 to 110,000 words, especially if written by a first-time author or in a field considered not to have a substantial market, stands a better chance than one of 150,000 to 200,000 words.

Presses are businesses with bottom lines, even when associated with nonprofit or not-for-profit institutions.

Financial realities also have had an impact on the industry. Presses have to survive; they are businesses with bottom lines, even when associated with nonprofit or not-for-profit institutions. This fact is made especially salient in conversations about pricing. Many of us bemoan the prices for academic press books. With some notable exceptions, university press books cost much more than their trade press counterparts, in part to account for the fact that for presses to recoup their costs, they must charge more per unit. Financial considerations also lead many presses to publish more books in some fields (like the American Civil War, modern US, or contemporary European history) than in others. Even still, most university presses lose money on academic monographs.

First-time authors, early career scholars, and those working outside higher education feel the publishing squeeze most painfully. But presses remain deeply, genuinely committed to scholarship and do not merely run after the topic en vogue. An author may get smaller print runs, less effective marketing, fewer illustrations, and a price that takes your breath away, but these presses are still interested in furthering scholarly conversations. Presses have also become more proactive in seeking new authors. A fair number of them now have launched series that aim to publish first books, and many have instituted series catering to less-popular fields.

In the end, however, few things give scholars working in academia as much satisfaction as seeing their work in print. The real rewards are measured not only in terms of acquiring a job or a promotion, but in the sense of being part of an intellectual community and having done well the job you set for yourself.

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.

Mary Lindemann
Mary Lindemann

University of Miami