From where I sit - Why is a bestseller worthless?

November 20, 2008

"Those who can't do, teach; those who really can't do, publish" - so said Australia's best-regarded talk-show host, Andrew Denton. He was speaking rather cheekily on his show, Enough Rope, to Jann Wenner, the founder of Rolling Stone magazine, in October.

It got me thinking about publishing and the emphasis universities place on the value of scholarly books. Being a full-time academic for the first time this year, I was astounded to learn that most authors of scholarly books are paid nothing - no royalties, no one-off payment and definitely no advances. In addition, they have to buy the copyright themselves to any illustrations they want in their book, which can mount up to hundreds and even thousands of pounds.

Many academic books sell only 200 copies, and it is rare for one to sell more than 800 in Australia.

Yet in an academic career, a scholarly book counts more than anything else in the points system by which universities glean their funding. Commercial books do not count in the funding system and hardly count when you are trying to get a job in academia.

This point is made in the handy guide Building Your Academic Career (2005), by Rebecca Boden of the University of the West of England, Debbie Epstein of Cardiff University and Jane Kenway of Monash University in Australia. On books other than scholarly research-based books, they say: "This is not a category that you should seek to fill with any urgency. It attracts little academic kudos, even if the books are very useful and sell well." Boden et al include Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and textbooks in this category of academically worthless books.

The academic world seems rather behind the times in this matter, from the days when academics lived in a lofty world set apart from the ordinary person. Today, however, particularly when serious academics work in such populist areas as media studies and related vocational areas such as journalism, those stuffy old ideas about scholarly publications should be changed. It is bizarre, for example, that an academic lecturing in creative writing cannot use his or her published novels to attract academic points. Similarly, a lecturer in journalism gets more points and standing from writing without remuneration a journal article that no more than a thousand people might read than from selling a newspaper feature that a million people will read.

While I agree that research monographs have their place - I am the author of one, as well as of a popular commercial novel - I think academia should accept that commercial gain does not necessarily preclude a book or article from academic value. These days, when Australian students have to pay so much to go to university, most are there to train for the workplace, and highly theoretical tomes have little relevance to them - or to just about anybody else, come to think of it. That is why they sell only 200 copies.

Andrew Denton, by the way, is quitting Enough Rope to move behind the cameras ... and, perhaps, to publish. I am sure he expects an advance.

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