Scholarly Roadkill

Mitch’s Blog

The Monograph is Dead! Long Live the Monograph!

Friday, February 17, 2017

It’s been going on for a while, proclamations of the death of the scholarly monograph. Too expensive, no audience, not sustainable economically. Here, I’ll try to explain some of the reasons for this obituary and some of the workarounds scholars, universities, and publishers have been using to try to keep it afloat. This is prompted by a report released last Friday by ace publishing consultants Joe Esposito and Karen Barch and funded by the Mellon Foundation. The report tries to estimate how many scholarly monographs are published annually by American university presses.

What is a scholarly monograph? The term has been used for almost anything churned out of scholarly computers. The one used by the authors of the report: “a book by a scholar for other scholars” is a reasonable one. Their conclusion is that a total of about 4,000 scholarly monographs were published each year (2009-2013) by the 100+ American university presses.   This does not include material coming from European-based publishers, nor US-based commercial scholarly presses, nor the 80% of the university press products that are edited volumes, reference books, text books, or trade books. Esposito and Barch document that the largest disciplinary outputs by university presses are in history (20%), followed by sociology, political science, literature, and philosophy. My own home, anthropology, comprises less than 1%.  Funny, because my experience has been that historians are much more interested in writing books than buying them and anthropologists more interested in buying than writing.

Another report by Nancy Maron et al. from Ithaka S&R (that’s JSTOR), published a year ago, tried to estimate the cost of producing a single scholarly monograph. Though figures varied widely, a good middle number was about $40,000 each, when one adds up not only direct costs for production and printing, but marketing, administration, salaries, office overheads, and the occasional beer bash. [Note, most university presses can’t host a blowout because it is not acceptable to ask their universities to reimburse expenses on alcohol.] With some quick calculator work, it appears that university presses spend $16 million a year publishing scholarly monographs out of a total of about $80 million publishing scholarly books.  According to Esposito and Barch, the average university press monograph will sell about 500 copies at an average of $45 each. That’s $22,500 in income from each monograph, about half the cost of producing one. No wonder UPs publish other products in addition to monographs.

The university press total is likely dwarfed by the output of commercial scholarly presses, both American and international. The big players like Springer (8400 books a year), Taylor & Francis (5000), and mega-university press Oxford (6000) individually dwarf the total university press output.  In contrast, my little Left Coast Press produced about 50 books a year, of which half fit the definition of monograph.  And our cost per monograph was around $20,000.

If there are so many of them published and they’re so unprofitable, how does the system survive?  Here are a few strategies used by publishers, by universities and their libraries, and by scholars.

Mix of titles. As noted above, presses publish monographs as only a fraction of their output, relying on other types of products to bring in the money to pay the bills. No wonder there is a sudden flood of encyclopedias, handbooks, and other reference volumes?

Subsidies and subventions. Most university presses are financially supported by their university, though that figure is regularly shrinking as universities go through their own financial stresses. Just this month, Duquesne University decided to shutter its university press. Some presses will rely on the authors to fund part of the publication cost through subventions.

Changing the publisher/ author equation. Once upon a time, you could expect to get royalties if you published a monograph. Don’t count on it now. Authors are now often asked to produce their own final print pages or to pay for someone to do it. If you want a book signing or to display the book at a specialized conference, sometimes it will be up to you to organize and fund it.

Leveraging new technologies. With print-on-demand technology, lots of publishers don’t print a book until someone has actually buys it.  One publisher I know used this strategy to eliminate their warehouse completely. If a book is returned by a bookstore or library, they just throw it away and print a new one for the next customer who buys one.  They claim it is cheaper to do that than to pay the costs of maintaining a warehouse building, systems, and personnel.

Ebooks.  Getting rid of the printing cost saves some money, but is only a fraction of the overall cost of a book.  If the press publishes all its books electronically, it allows the publisher to also eliminate the warehouse, though that is replaced by the cost of a large, sophisticated platform to host the ebooks. Thus, the cost savings are questionable. Also questionable is if anyone wants to read an electronic monograph virtual cover to virtual cover.

Subsidiary rights. Aggressively seeking foreign translations, selling books an article at a time, raising permissions costs, creating readers out of previously published content-- all secondary forms of income -- can add to the financial return from a book.

Selling aggregated content. Just as journals are being sold as aggregates, so have large publishers and aggregators like EBSCO and ProQuest packaged all their book content in a specific subject area into a collection to be marketed as a group to libraries.  Sold on a subscription model, rather than as one-time purchases, it means continual revenue from the library each year that eventually exceeds the income from single copy sales.

Open access. Following the current models for funding journals, there are programs where authors are asked to fund the cost or for third parties pay for book publication that are free to the reader. U California Press has the Luminos program that will produce your monograph for a mere $7500 and host it on their website. Lever Press, a program funded by 40 universities, promises to produce 90 open access monographs over the next five years. It’s unclear what will happen in year six, and 90 slots for monographs aren’t going to meet even a fraction of the need.

Self publishing. If you’re gonna have to pay for it or do all the work anyway, why not make it free to readers to get broader readership? You can publish your own book through Amazon’s CreateSpace or a dozen other self-publishing outlets, but the books are unlikely ever to be indexed in the normal channels used by academic libraries and may not give the author any academic credit. And how much time do you want to spend learning to be a publisher.

Four thousand monographs a year? Like Monty Python’s parrot, the ailing monograph isn’t dead yet but isn’t moving around much. What can you as an author do to maximize your chance of being one of the 4000? After all, in some fields a university press monograph is the ultimate ticket to tenure and promotion.  I’ve made some suggestions in my Essentials of Publishing Qualitative Research and will add other ideas in a future post.  

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