Monograph Musings

As the scholarly communications landscape shifts and changes, what’s the role of traditional academic monograph publishing? That’s a question much on my mind of late for a number of reasons. About a week and a half ago was the American Association of University Press’s annual meeting, which filled my Twitter stream with the hashtag #aaup13. With the slower summer days I’ve been making time for weeding at work, considering which books should stay and which should go, and beginning to plan for purchasing new books starting in the fall. And I’m also thinking about academic books from the perspective of an author, as my research partner and I finish the draft of the book we’re writing and have sent out proposals to a couple of university presses.

Books are for reading — presumably anyone who writes a book feels that their book offers useful and insightful information that they want to share widely with others. But there are lots of possibilities for sharing our work, even a piece that’s as long as a monograph (rather than short like an article). There are websites and blogs, relatively easy to use tools for creating and formatting text into ereader- and print-friendly formats. Add in print on demand, and it’s easy to wonder about the role of scholarly presses. Having worked in publishing for a few years before I was a librarian I’m familiar with the huge amount of work that goes into preparing books for publication (not to mention publishing them). Academic presses definitely add value to monographs, from copy editing to layout and beyond. Scholarly books are also often peer reviewed, which for a book manuscript is a non-trivial undertaking, much more labor-intensive than for an article. I’m a firm believer in peer review — when done well, the resulting publication is much stronger for it.

But academic publishing, especially at university presses, has become more challenging — costs keep rising, and sales (to academic libraries and others) aren’t as strong as they once were. Jennifer Howard at the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote two good overviews of the AAUP meetings, in which presses discussed strategies for ensuring their survival in a time of lean budgets while expanding into new formats and modes of publishing. Facilitated by the meetings’ active Twitter presence, Ian Bogost, professor of Media Studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, who was not actually at the meetings, tweeted a 10 point “microrant” about academic publishing. Among other things, Bogost notes that publishers might put more resources into editorial development for their authors, because scholars are not necessarily the best writers. Bogost also points out that university presses could help fill the gap between highly scholarly works and popular publications.

The relationship between academic libraries and presses is changing, too. Collaborations are on the rise, as was discussed at the AAUP meetings, which has been exciting to watch — I think there are lots of natural affinities between the two. But as the scholarly book landscape changes I can’t help but think about my library, and the college and university we belong to. There’s no university press at the large, public institution my college is part of. I’m at a technical college that offers associates and baccalaureate degrees, and there’s also not a huge market for many of the more traditional university press publications at my college, the highly scholarly monographs. Not that university presses publish the works of their own faculty (though perhaps they should?), but of course we have faculty who write academic books at my college, too, as do faculty at lots of colleges that are unlikely to have presses, like community colleges.

Where does my college fit as scholarly monograph publishing evolves? I think the students I work with are a perfect audience for books that fill the gap that Bogost pointed out — academic works written without highly specialized language that are accessible to novices, something smarter and more interesting than a textbook, an overview that includes enough detail to be useful for the typical undergraduate research project. But what about getting into publishing ourselves? It’s easy to think of the differences in collections between large research university libraries and college libraries like where I work: they have more stuff (books, journals, etc.), and there are ways for us to get the stuff we don’t have if we need it. If university publishing and academic libraries become more closely tied together, where will that leave those universities and colleges without presses? And will that impact the opportunities that our faculty have for publication?

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

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