Rumours of a death that may be true

December 10, 1999

The monograph has been in crisis for a generation and is now in meltdown. For publishers, the specialist book has long been an open wound, haemorrhaging capital. A lifetime sale of a serious monograph in the UK can be fewer than 150 copies. Even those publishers who have specialised in the low-run, high-priced monograph are pulling out of the market or disguising them as textbooks. At the same time, the research assessment exercise has made the publication of doctoral theses, edited collections and conference proceedings critical for individual scholars and their university departments.

The solution is electronic. The microchip has instigated a revolution that will not only change the ways books are written, published and bought, but the way scholarly achievement is evaluated. The internet makes a good deal of conventional publishing labour superfluous. There is no need for the average academic monograph or specialist study to be printed at all; indeed 90 per cent of all scholarship need have nothing to do with a bound book.

The number of publishers offering new monographs, as distinct from research materials online, remains small, and most duplicate rather than replace the conventional format. But in the United States university presses and library organisations have been exploring the e-monograph. An article by Robert Darnton, "The New Age of the Book", published in the New York Review of Books earlier this year has had a galvanising effect. Darnton, a distinguished cultural historian of the book, and current president of the American Historical Association, has secured funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to launch the Gutenberg-E Project, enabling distinguished historical monographs that no press will take to be published on the web. A parallel initiative, headed by the American Council of Learned Societies, has raised $3 million to help establish the credibility of the e-monograph.

Darnton's intention is to show that electronic publication is not to be feared. But he clings to the view that the book has no rival in terms of convenience, cost and user-friendliness. The electronic revolution questions even that. Books are costly, bulky, complicated to produce, expensive to distribute and accessible to a relatively small proportion of the world's population. When a scholarly author can write a chapter and send it instantly and at virtually no cost as an email attachment to unlimited colleagues across the world, the technology of the conventional book looks inefficient and environmentally greedy.

University presses will soon establish formal programmes to publish scholarly work in electronic format alone. Electronic monographs will be commissioned, evaluated and contracted in the normal way. The author's disk will be edited, converted to hypertext format and released on the publisher's website. By maintaining high quality control, the electronic imprimatur will come to be seen as the purest form of scholarly publishing, making quality work available to the widest market, swiftly, permanently and at modest cost. Electronic books that are particularly widely cited or made fashionable through changing scholarly trends can easily be converted to conventional publication using new techniques of short-run, "on demand" printing.

As Darnton argues, the web also makes possible a kind of multi-layered scholarly enterprise - a pyramid of text, progressing from a bare narrative, through layers that amplify specific arguments within the text according to the depth of the reader's interest, to discussion of references, sources and apparatus, even to an exchange between author and readers. Electronic publication can also accommodate the fact that most scholarly books are never definitely finished: a digital book can be improved, updated or wholly rewritten far more easily than a printed book can have a new edition. And no e-book need ever go "out of print".

What higher education - and the RAE - must do is adjust assessment procedures to cope with electronic formats. Until now, the printed book has been the watchword of promotion, tenure and salary - the only means of acknowledging research. Publication of specialist academic work on the internet will enable scholars to take back into their own hands judgement of their and their colleagues' worth, traditionally ceded to commercial publishers.

Soon monographs will disappear from terrestrial bookstores. Libraries will become repositories of electronic product alongside an ageing stock of books, gradually scanned into hypertext format. The fundamental work of scholars will be published only in digital form, but still by publishers and under, as it were, controlled conditions. The business of scholarly publishers will be the packaging and distribution of intellectual product - held in hypertext and released in whatever format, printed or electronic, the market sustains - and the attempt to control access to it to their advantage. The conventional scholarly monograph is dead. But its death brings the liberation of scholarship.

Robert Baldock is an editorial director at Yale University Press, London.

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