The Future of the Academic Monograph

This letter was published in the Newsletter of the Royal Historical Society in the autumn of 2006. It was written in response to a letter published in the spring ed. by another Fellow of the Society, who had suggested that teaching historians to write in a more engaging, accessible way was one of the keys to making the monograph sustainable.

Dear Sir,

I was very interested in the letter in the Spring/Summer newsletter about the future of the monograph, and particularly in the suggestion that we might ensure its survival by encouraging historians to write in a more accessible style. As one who writes historical biographies for a living, I am inclined to believe that, broadly speaking, the suggestion is a good one. But to encourage scholars to make their research publications sustainable in this way is to encourage them to enter the competitive literary market place. The implications of this are far more profound than most historians realise. Commercial publication holds many opportunities, it is true, but there are also many dangers.

To begin with the most obvious problem. Not every subject is as attractive as every other, and some are impossible to make accessible to a non-specialist audience (statistical studies of demography, bureaucracy and taxation leap to mind). In the public’s view, as expressed through their credit cards, some subjects are simply not suitable for a book. Yet there are many ‘difficult’ research topics which demand to be published as coherent book-length studies rather than in five or six articles (dispersed across as many journals). This is especially the case if the research is based on a single innovative methodology, which itself requires space to explain. Clearly, the way to ensure that such studies remain available in a monograph form is not in authors making their writing more accessible to the general public but in minimising the financial risk to the publisher. If academic publishers were supported as a priority by university libraries, a limited number of professional monographs each year would be sustainable. With their authors’ reliable academic credentials and easily-targeted niche markets of academic specialists and university libraries, they are relatively low-risk ventures and intellectually justifiable (being more coherent and useful than a series of disparate articles).

The problem here is the ‘limited number’. There can only be so many academic monographs before their separate shares of the total purchasing budget diminishes to an uneconomical level. Across all subjects and genres, we will see a total of 206,000 different titles published in the UK in 2006; more than double the 102,000 titles in 1995. I presume that the number of serious publications has increased proportionately too. In that time the costs of production have forced the prices of books up significantly, in real terms as well as inflated costs. I very much doubt that any institution has (in real terms) between two and three times the book-purchasing budget it had in 1995. I am also certain that individual history buyers do not have two to three times the disposable income, nor the spare time to read twice as much literature. Clearly, more and more books are chasing less and less money, and thus it becomes harder for them all to prove economically viable. Hence the number produced annually by the academic publishers needs to be limited, in order to ensure that the form remains sustainable.

So what of the remainder? It is suggested in the Spring ed. of the Newsletter that ‘journalists and professional writers’ should ‘mount occasional courses for young lecturers in the techniques of accessible writing’. The Royal Literary Fund has operated just such a Fellowship scheme since 1999, although for students, not lecturers. Whether ‘occasional courses’ are sufficient to turn the majority of academics into literary winners is highly doubtful. But even if they are, it is a moot point whether we would want to shift many academic monographs into the mainstream press. Indeed scholars should think very carefully whether doing so is really in line with their ambitions.

The main differences between the traditional academic monograph and a history book produced by a commercial publisher lie in marketplace competition. A commercial book is published in order to make money for someone, primarily the publishing company and its shareholders. Such books are very rarely published with the principal aim of disseminating research findings, even if that is the reason for writing them. Therein lies an obvious clash of priorities. But the implications of competition go much further. You may have written the only book on a certain subject, but space on any publisher’s list is limited, and so your book must prove potentially more saleable than a whole host of tried and tested popular subjects, from the Romans to the Russian Revolution. For the smaller publishers, including history specialists, risk is a key factor, and the preference will be for authors who have already made their name, not newcomers. At the other end of the scale, the most influential commercial publishers are more interested in ‘the next big thing’ than the last near-miss. A decline in sales by an author can in itself be enough for a mass-market publisher not to offer a new contract, or at least not to publish a similar book to one which did not meet commercial expectations.

There are more subtle dangers to presenting the monograph through a commercial publisher. Some of these are editorial. For example, the public prefers battles to be presented as swashbuckling narratives, not as post-modernist deconstructions of individual chroniclers’ moral imagery or institutional patronage. As a consequence, R.A.E. assessment of such volumes is as much an assessment of the editor’s preconceptions of what is likely to sell as the author’s own research. Then there are the marketing pitfalls. Titles are particularly problematic; the marketing division of a major publisher may well decide that a book needs a ‘better’ title, or subtitle only after it has been written. The book you thought you wrote then is labelled as something different for the sake of maximising sales.

This leads on to the issue of how monographs are received differently when presented to the general public as opposed to an exclusively academic audience. Yes, a commercial publication is more likely to be reviewed in the Sunday papers but it is not guaranteed to be reviewed by a specialist, or even someone with an open mind. Non-specialist reviewers are often extremely cautious about accepting ground-breaking new research which threatens common understandings. We expect new ideas to go through an academic filtration process prior to mass-market publication; otherwise the reader has nothing on which to base his or her confidence except his/her own judgement. This caution can include academic reviewers, who may not wish immediately to embrace a radical new hypothesis before having the chance to discuss it in depth with a range of colleagues. Yet a commercial book’s success or failure is often judged by the publisher on its sales over the first three months, and such a cautious reception can damn a book by stifling sales during that critical initial period. Most of all, to publish something extremely controversial with a commercial publisher predictably leads to accusations that the controversial element was chosen solely for the sake of improving sales. The publishers themselves may well hype controversy precisely for this reason (sales); and yet the author might have been doing nothing other than questioning received wisdom, something which would have been treated fairly and carefully had it been propounded in an exclusively scholarly publication where such suspicions do not apply.

To end on a more positive note, it is surely right and sensible to point to the potential of making historical monographs more accessible. The advantages are far greater than just guaranteeing the survival of the form. The freedom of expression in writing for a wider audience is exhilarating, and the flexibility of the commercial form is far greater than in any academic publishing house. (For example, my last book ended up 60,000 words longer than the 150,000 agreed in the contract, and contained eight appendices and 1,209 endnotes, but the publishers did not ask for a single word to be cut.) A commercially attractive monograph is likely to garner a much wider range of media coverage and reviews too, thereby bringing the subject to wider attention and stimulating debate, all of which can only benefit the historian. Another advantage of such publications is that they are not competing for the same limited library budgets earmarked for academic books. At £10 or less for a paperback, they are affordable by all.

The real challenge is thus not one of educating historians to write accessibly but finding the common ground between the historian and the public. If we can do this, there is no reason why the potential popular writers among us should not supplement a classroom of thirty reluctant youths with a readership of thirty thousand enthusiastic amateurs and semi-professionals. How the monograph will compete with digital editions in the future is another matter, especially as ‘googlebooksearch’ and Amazon’s ‘search inside’ facilities increasingly allow free consultation of texts, potentially damaging the research value of the printed book. But in the meantime, the monograph is not a form in decline or under threat but very much alive and evolving, even if economic factors necessitate a reduction in the rate at which academic volumes are being produced.

Ian Mortimer, FRHistS
9 July 2006



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