Publication Date

October 1, 1995

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

Editor's Note: The following observations are intended to accompany those of David Ransel, which appear on pages 5–6 of this issue of Perspectives. We hope that these two companion articles will prompt further discussion as the AHA begins to plan for the future.

In sadly repetitive conversations over the last two months, six different scholarly publishers have raised the same issue with me: their fear for the demise of the scholarly monograph. This fear is prompted by dramatic changes that have occurred in the economics of publishing in recent years. Not long ago, presses could do 1,000-copy print runs, trusting to a library market for the bulk of their orders, and to individuals to fill in around the edges. Since that time, however, a crisis has developed in journals publishing, prompted especially by wildly escalating prices for commercially published science journals, and severe cuts in library acquisitions budgets.

To cope with their reduced purchasing power, libraries established new priorities and often even new strategies. One strategy significantly reduced the priority assigned to monographs in the overall universe of scholarly knowledge, or reduced acquisitions in particular areas of specialization. (In general, humanities suffered so that science acquisitions could remain high; within humanities, larger fields like American studies and women's studies received priority while smaller fields were removed from the library's list.) Another strategy—to use the vocabulary of the field—was to begin shifting from "just in case" acquisitions to "just in time" policies. In this latter approach, libraries ensure that they can help faculty (and only sometimes, students) to find and acquire material when they want it. Acquisitions in this case may occur through document delivery services, interlibrary loan, or in electronic form.

Presses, in their turn, have used several strategies to cope with these changing circumstances. The first strategy is often to cut print runs. Many presses have reduced their typical print runs from 1,000 to 750. When titles only sell 350 to 450 copies in the first three years, however—and this is now often the case—this strategy does not allow presses to recoup their production or inventory costs. An allied strategy has been to shift to other production techniques such as "docutech," which makes it possible to do extremely short print runs (5, 10, or 200 copies rather than 750). (With docutech a single machine uses digital scanning, laser imaging, and xerography to produce a bound book from a disk original.) Although technologies like docutech cut many traditional production costs (and usually result in less attractive books), they nevertheless still result at present in discouragingly high per-unit costs. So while a press may avoid inventory costs and the pall of hundreds of unsold copies of a monograph, it has done so only by raising the cost of a title so high that, generally, the market will not bear it. The vicious spiral continues.

The bleakest (and most prevalent) press strategy has been to simply cut back or cut out smaller market fields as areas of emphasis on a press's list. (In order to successfully market a book, a press needs to be able to fit it into a larger cluster of titles. Once a press has a presence in a field, readers interested in that subject know to look at that press's catalog. Also, having a cluster of titles makes it financially more rewarding for a press to have ex hibits at scholarly meetings, to advertise in related journals, or to do direct mail marketing to names selected for their interest in that topic.)

Increasingly, presses are saying that they simply cannot afford to publish monographs. Over the last five years, for instance, the list for one of the top five academic presses in the country moved from 70 percent monographs to only 30 percent and falling. What are presses publishing instead? Most would like to publish the broader sec ond or third books by well-known authors of monographs, or the more general books aimed at classroom use. The problem with this switch in emphasis is that it works against the grain in the production of new knowledge. The book with the grand sweep, and the classroom text, need to build on the knowledge gained through monographic studies.

When I have talked to presses concerned with this issue, they generally suggest that scholarly societies help solve the problem. One solution they propose is for professional associations to provide publishing subventions for monographs. In this context it might be noted that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the chief source of publishing subventions, did not prove very helpful on this issue as it insisted that the titles submitted for support be broad in their audience appeal. Such books, of course, will sell well enough to cover their costs. Much more useful would have been a recognition that it is the small-market monograph that needed support. The point is now moot as far as the NEH is concerned, since the publications subvention program will disappear under the new funding austerities faced by the endowment. The AHA, however, has the opportunity to explore this proposed solution, as a new donor has indicated a willingness to have her gift used for publication subvention rather than as a prize for a completed book. But we will never be able to provide the amounts available from sources such as the NEH, and it is unclear whether smaller amounts can stop the trend toward abandonment of the monograph.

In print and oral presentations, at least one press director—Sandy Thatcher of Pennsylvania State University Press—has called on scholarly societies to take over the publication of monographs. His assumption has been that monographs will eventually be published only in electronic form, and that this could be done as easily by scholarly societies as presses. This may well be one solution that emerges in coming years—but we do not yet know how monographic materials will be used on the In ternet. Will chapters be pulled out and treated as stand-alone journal articles? Will readers browse the electronic version and then order a printed copy from the press? A few cautious experiments are under way (perhaps most notably the work by Oxford University Press in New York to put monographs up on the Columbia University local area network), and they will tell us more about emerging scholarly use.

Given the centrality of the monograph to the production of new knowledge, and the need to ensure scholarly communication around new knowledge, this problem will loom ever larger in the foreseeable future. It must surely be identified as one of the key issues that scholarly societies should address as they envision changing roles for themselves in service to their members.

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