Academic Book Week begins with debate and discussion

Academic Book Week begins with debate and discussion

Debate about the future of the academic book will rage across the UK this week, with widespread support among publishers, academics, booksellers and librarians for the first Academic Book Week (ABW), which starts today (9th November). But there are fears that more turbulence could be just around the corner for the sector, with the publication of the government’s spending review on 25th November.

ABW is the brainchild of The Academic Book of the Future, the two-year research project led by Samantha Rayner of the Centre for Publishing at University College London, with funding from the British Library and the Arts & Humanities Research Council. One hundred and fifty bookshops are taking part in ABW activities and promotions; there will be media coverage focused on the winner of a public vote to decide the best book from a list of “The 20 Academic Books that Changed the World”; and more than 50 events will run across the country, debating the form the academic book of the future will take and the changes that the academic production, publishing and retailing ecosystem will see in the coming years.

Publisher activities range from Cambridge University Press offering free access to its 20 most influential books—including works by Plato, René Descartes and Eric Hobsbawm (through; to Palgrave Macmillan’s new Palgrave Pivot title, The Academic Book of the Future, edited by Rebecca E Lyons and Rayner, with contributors including Frances Pinter of Manchester University Press and Jaki Hawker of Blackwell’s. Jenny McCall, editorial director for humanities at Palgrave Macmillan, said she hoped the book—in Pivot’s digital-first format, which represents one exploration of what the book of the future might look like—would be “a thought-provoking contribution to the debate”.

Richard Fisher, academic correspondent of the Independent Publishers Guild, who is participating in four ABW events, said: “It’s an excellent initiative at a time when there are lots of challenges to academic books. The UK is a massive net exporter [of scholarly work, which is] a successful part of UK PLC, and this showcases the breadth and excellence of the sector. The problem is that so much discussion of scholarly communication is centred on journals at a HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England] and government level; the whole Open Access agenda is driven by science journals, and books are an afterthought.”

Andrew Lake, academic range buyer at Waterstones, said the chain’s six academic stores, in addition to its regular branches in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, were all engaging with the Top 20 list, the idea of the Booksellers Association’s Academic, Professional and Specialist group. “It’s a great chance to raise the profile of academic books and the academic book market,” he said. “The timing is also helpful—just after school half-term and just before the move into peak [sales] for Christmas.”

Peter Lake of John Smith’s added: “It’s an opportunity to see if you can spark engagement with the varieties of research—we are holding events on war poetry, Scottish politics and Einstein. It’s nice to be seen as part of the academic community and to reinforce those links.”

The bookseller–friendly Top 20 (see sidebar right) has sparked controversy among academics, with some objecting that the books chosen are not academic-authored. But Dr Sarah Barrow of the University of Lincoln, who sits on the Academic Book of the Future advisory group, said: “It’s good to provoke discussion; I can understand [the objections], but there are some great books on that list.”

Meanwhile, publishers say they are looking forward to the debates ABW will generate, which will help to inform their future path. Kiren Shoman, executive editor, editorial at SAGE, said: “Asking how the academic book is changing, and probing today’s audience/readers of the academic book, will help us all in terms of understanding how this type of book is developing. As technology enables new outlets for, and responses to, academic work, it’s really good to ensure we’re checking in on the accessibility of the academic book too.”

Liverpool University Press m.d. Anthony Cond said: “Discussing these ideas in public gives you a chance to think about them seriously. There’s a sense that there is not one future, there is an awful lot of choice: once there was hardback and paperback; then hardback, paperback and digital; then hardback, paperback, digital and Open Access. [The future] might be rich media. The likes of Palgrave have been very forward-thinking from the commercial publishing sector and the Mellon Foundation in the US has funded initiatives from US university presses. There’s a lot going on.”

Maja Maricevic, head of higher education at the British Library, said there was “an element of horizon- scanning” going on from libraries, working out how they might need to adjust their systems in future. “There is the potential for the emergence of something more like multiformat work—sound, video, animation. We want to know from the academic community if there is potential in that, as libraries we want to know how it will affect systems and capacity.” Another key issue is: “Does digital change the opportunity for wider engagement with different audiences for academic books? This is of great interest—digital formats can be scaled up and down and presented in different ways.” A third important element is the cross- community collaboration between publishers, booksellers and academics. Maricevic said: “If we are seeing change, it will affect the whole system.”

Rayner said: “The concerns coming out are still very much in line with the Crossick Report [into Open Access monographs, published in January]: Open Access and what it means; from a publisher point of view, the different business models; the whole nature of peer review. A lot of activity is coming through the bookshops: not just promotion, but debate and opinion. Booksellers collect very useful consumer data in ways publishers cannot yet capture: How much of an OA book do people read? Where do they buy them? Booksellers want to sit down with publishers and explore what opportunities are out there.”

But ABW is taking place just ahead of publication of the latest Spending Review, with strong hints that universities minister Jo Johnson may disband HEFCE altogether in favour of a new standards body. Richard Mollet, c.e.o. of the Publishers Association, said such a move would be “momentous” for the sector: “If HEFCE disappears, who is in charge of the Open Access mandate? What is going to happen to policy? Will it be assumed by the new assessment body, or revert to [the Department for] Business, Innovation & Skills? Who knows? We will have to wait.”

Key events

9th November

Representatives from the industry will discuss where the book of the future might be created, discovered and consumed; how books might exist in relation to authors, libraries and other discovery mechanisms.
2.30 p.m., Stationers Hall, London

10th November

Seminar on digital text and publishing featuring Nicola Ramsey of Edinburgh University Press, Paul Cunnea of the National Library of Scotland, Kieron Smith of Blackwell’s and Laurence Patterson of Edinburgh Napier University.
6.30 p.m., Blackwell’s Southbridge, Edinburgh

10th November

Rowman & Littlefield International are offering a panel event on interdisciplinary publishing and research.
6 p.m., The Maughan Library at Kings College, London

11th November

One-day colloquium on “The academic book of the future: evolution or revolution?” Speakers include Richard Fisher, Rupert Gatti of Open Book Publishing and Anne Jarvis of Cambridge University Library.
9.30 a.m., Pitt Building, CUP

11th November
“What is the future for the academic book?” a discussion with Sage’s Kiren Shoman and Martin Eve, director of the Open Library of the Humanities
12.45 p.m., The Library, University of Sussex

11th November

An event on Edwin Morgan and Scottish war poetry, one of three events at Glasgow University’s John Smith’s bookshop to mark Academic Book Week.
6 p.m., John Smith’s, Glasgow University

12th November

“Opening the book: The future of the academic monograph” features Bodley’s librarian Richard Ovenden; Chris Wickham, head of humanities at the University
of Oxford; and Professor Kathryn Sutherland of St Anne’s.
1 p.m., Weston Library, Oxford

9th-12th November

From 9 a.m. on 9th November, Liverpool University Press is encouraging academics to “Tweet your academic book” in 140 characters, with the best entry winning £100 of LUP books.

13th November

The British Library will host a showcase for the Academic Book of the Future project, with highlights of activities and research to date. (Invitation only)
6 p.m., The British Library