‘Group action needed to safeguard the academic book’, warns report

‘Group action needed to safeguard the academic book’, warns report

Publishers and academics must work together to solve the problems that have led to rising book numbers, but falling sales per title, before the viability of academic book publishing is called into question, the Academic Book of the Future policy report has warned.

The report, published today (13th June), has called for greater dialogue and collaboration between stakeholders, recommending that a formal structure should be established to develop a new vision for the sector.

BookScan figures show the total sales of printed academic books measured through its channels falling 13% between 2005 and 2014, and average sales per title dropping from 100 to 60, even while the number of individual titles published rose by 45%.

In a digital environment with an increasing expectation that content "wants to be free", there is a growing risk that publishers are relying on a relatively small number of print purchasers to subsidise a larger number of e-book readers, and it is questionable whether this is sustainable, the report found.

The problem was summarised thus: “The incentives for authors to produce traditional kinds of books are strong, arising from perceptions of the weight given to such books in assessments of the qualities of individual scholars and departments…. There are incentives also for publishers to maintain their output of titles, as they seek to sustain their reputations by building strong lists in relevant subject areas; and to spread risks and overheads. The result is that, in many of the major disciplines and sub-disciplines in the arts and humanities, more titles are published than even the most assiduous scholar could hope to read.

"And with library budgets for book purchasing at best static in real terms, and retail sales declining, the business case for the publication of individual titles is often now based on print sales per title of 200 or fewer. Further falls will call into question the case for publishing individual titles, and indeed the value and viability of the whole book publishing enterprise. Nevertheless the perceived incentives for academics to publish monographs are so strong that only concerted action by all stakeholders, and at senior level, can begin to address the problems they are now generating."    

The report predicted: “High-quality content is at the heart of what publishers provide for authors and readers. But the challenges they already face – to sustain their reputation for the scholarly quality and presentation of the titles they publish; to develop new tools, service offers, and models; to ensure their titles are effectively marketed and distributed; and to ensure they generate the revenues to develop and sustain their services for the future – will become more difficult over the next decade.”

The two-year Academic Book of the Future initiative has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in collaboration with the British Library, and led by Dr Samantha Rayner of University College London.

Rayner commented: "One of our key aims in this project was to engage as broad a community as possible. What the project has above all proved is that those communities which connect through the academic book are willing to work together to continue to bring research to readers as quality-controlled, accessible content. The value of the academic book, in all its many forms, is still very much a key currency in arts and humanities research." 

The Policy Report is authored by Dr Michael Jubb.