III. The Monograph
At the center of the debate over the future of scholarly communication – and the future of university presses – lies the humble monograph, of which libraries complain they do not get enough use and presses complain they do not get enough sales. Someone always seems to be to blame for the monograph – authors for writing them, publishers for publishing them, libraries for not buying them. A recent blog post from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s estimable Jennifer Howard carried the impatient headline “Ditch the Monograph.” Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in her book Planned Obsolescence proposes that scholarship could be better carried out in blogs than monographs. And my own author, the media scholar and philosophical provocateur Ian Bogost, diagnosed in his recent Alien Phenemonology that too often scholars write “not to be read, but merely to have written.”
This concern is not a recent one. An early, almost annoyingly charming promotional piece from 1937, “Some Presses You Will Be Glad to Know About,” profiled ten scholarly presses – one based at a library – and cites the origin of the modern university press as coming from the universities’ realization “that it was unfair to expect the average publisher to market books possessed of such little popular appeal but at the same time such real importance.” The University of Chicago’s Andrew Abbott confirms that as early as 1927, there were complaints about “the overproduction of second-rate material,” scholar’s “excessive specialization,” and the difficulty of publishing “important work with such small audiences.” There it is, the monograph crisis in utero, some eighty-five years ago.
So what is the scholarly monograph and why are we still publishing them? The Webster’s definition of a monograph is “a learned treatise on a small area of knowledge” and most other dictionaries follow suit. But for scholarly publishing purposes, I have my own definition: “a monograph is a scholarly book that fails to sell.” At the time when the University Press Ebook Consortium (now part of Project Muse) was forming, I found myself in a heated argument with a fellow university press director on whether there was any such thing as individual, non-library purchasers of scholarly monographs. After an hour, I finally realized that he exempted from his definition of “monograph” any book that actually sold or had significant course use or bookstore sales. Monographs, thus, are what we in university presses call the books that don’t sell.
As that anecdote suggests, I could talk about this for an hour. But let’s look at the sales profiles of two revised humanities dissertations by untenured authors, published the same season by my press. As you can see, one sold twice as many copies as the other, and while library sales made up an overwhelming total – over 2/3 of the sales of the money-losing “monograph,” they were well under half of the successful “scholarly book.” Again these are both revised dissertations by untenured faculty in English departments.
Now look at a non-monographic scholarly book by a senior academic that came out the same year – one of those “midlist trade books” – and you’ll see the library share of sales goes down to below 20%. So where we’ve relied on libraries the most is with the books that don’t recover their costs – the books we publish for reasons of mission rather than sustainability.
In the economics of university presses, the two “scholarly” books helped pay for the “monograph” and others like it. When Open Access advocates make the point that most scholarly authors do not benefit monetarily from sales of their works (they do, of course, benefit significantly from the status of having published them with university presses), that criticism is, strictly speaking, accurate. What happens, rather, is in the manner of the scene of the bank run on the Bailey Savings and Loan in Frank Capra’s beloved “It’s a Wonderful Life,“ the money made from Author B and Author C’s books are reinvested by the Press in the one by Author A. Unlike the predatory bank owned by the magnate Mr. Potter (by which we might read Elsevier), university presses do not exist to make a profit or serve shareholders, but rather to allocate investment and distribute risk. And when you consider that the AAUP, and the modern university press, was founded at the height of the Great Depression, this all makes sense.
The Bailey Savings and Loan did not provide “Open Access” to money – it was not part of a pre-Capitalist “gift economy.” Rather it distributed costs and reinvested revenues across the community of Bedford Falls much in the manner of Social Security and Medicare or, for that matter, JSTOR or Project Muse. And ask a scholarly publisher – you can hear a bell ring every time a monograph sells well-enough to be gain its wings as a scholarly book.