Expert speakers disagreed on whether a "crisis of oversupply" exists in the academic monograph market, at a debate held to mark publication of the Academic Book of the Future policy report in central London last night (20th June).
Dr Michael Jubb, author of the newly launched report, said that around 63,000 academic book titles in the arts and humanities had a retail sale in the UK print market in 2015, up from 42,000 a decade earlier. Meanwhile the average sale title has dropped from 99 to 59 over the same period. “This is a very significant decline,” he said. “The key question is whether too many books are being published, or whether enough effort is being made to turn potential demand into actual demand [for them].” He added: ”Not every book an academic wants to publish needs to be published.”
Key issues affecting the situation, he noted, included a decline in the stock numbers held by bookshops, even campus bookshops – “It is more difficult than it was 20 years ago to find the book in print you might be interested in”- as well as ever-changing acquisition models by academic libraries which left “no-one satisfied with the result”, and an “almost comically complicated” supply chain. Jubb dubbed discoverability “a disaster area for academic books” requiring “urgent action”, with “very poor” metadata and two separate systems, ONIX for retail and MARC for libraries, which don’t talk to one another.
However Professor Geoffrey Crossick of the University of London [pictured], author of the influential "Crossick report" on monographs and Open Access, took issue with the concept of oversupply, saying the long structured analysis represented by the monograph is "fundamental to the research process" and can't be replicated in a series of articles. He said: “The value of the book lies not in the object but in a process in which both authors and readers play a part – the process of writing and reading. Part of the research process is thinking. I’m not sure there is a crisis of oversupply. In a report that will be read by policymakers, the centrality of the monograph needs setting out clearly.”
Frances Pinter, founder of the Knowledge Unlatched project, agreed, arguing that broad publishing is important. “We need to ensure the milk from which the cream emerges is out there," she said. "Find me the publisher which has always been right [in selecting which book to publish], they don’t exist.”
But Pinter also picked out the report's "excellent" chapter on intermediaries, saying the revelation that the "cut" given to vendors selling books to academic libraries is up to 50% of what libraries pay was one of the most striking findings. "An open and transparent discussion of what libraries need, and pay for, needs to be had," she said.
UCL's Samantha Rayner, principal investigator of the Academic Book of the Future, stressed that the final report, coming at the end of the two-year project, was "not gloomy". The main recommendation is that a new body be set up to facilitate dialogue between the many stakeholders in the complex academic monograph ecology, "and there are plenty of talented, practical and visionary people out there," she said. "There have been extraordinary levels of engagement from all our partners."
Co-investigator Professor Marilyn Deegan said research findings had included that academic monographs are greatly valued, and that many scholars at all stages show a preference for print for sustained reading. The future is likely to be a mixed economy of print, electronic versions of print, and networked enhanced monographs of greater and less complexity, she noted. It's "a very healthy environment and not bleak at all, but there are pressures," she said.
Publication of the report ends the two-year, AHRC-funded Academic Book of the Future project, which has produced a number of initiatives including Academic Book Week.