Take away the books and chairs collapse

November 8, 2002

Is the monograph dead? Stephen Phillips reports on US scholars' search for alternative publishing opportunities on the route to tenure.

Tracing the academic food chain back, most US humanities professors with tenure ultimately owe their position to campus libraries. These have supplied a ready market for the 10,000 or so volumes cranked out annually by university presses. For much of the past century, publishing books has been the mark of academic merit and a passport to promotion.

Not any longer. The cornerstone of this triangular relationship is crumbling and with it the whole edifice of career advancement in many humanities departments. Libraries, the sharp end of the cost-cutting gripping US campuses, are drastically slashing book purchasing and ripping up standing orders for every new release from academic presses as they cherry-pick what they view as the most important titles. Their primary market fast evaporating, academic presses are slashing commissions. Caught in the backdraught are young academics brandishing their theses and seeking a permanent faculty foothold.

In May, the Modern Language Association, representing US language and literature faculties, issued an open letter for members to pass on to their tenure committees. "Most departments of language and literature have come to demand that junior faculty members produce, as a condition for being seriously considered for tenure, a full-length scholarly book published by a reputable press," MLA president and Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt wrote. "Some junior faculty members who will be reviewed for tenure this yearI find themselves in a maddening double bindI no matter how strong their scholarly achievement, because academic presses simply cannot afford to publish their books," he added.

The issue is expected to be debated at the MLA's annual conference in December. The focus is on alternative tenure criteria to books. Ideas being discussed include attaching equal weight to peer-reviewed electronic publications or offering book subsidies for junior academics to partially offset the cost incurred by presses in publishing their books.

Columbia English professor James Shapiro says the need to find a solution is urgent, comparing the toll on appointments with musical chairs. "If you can't publish books a lot more people can't get tenureI all of a sudden a lot of chairs are getting removed for junior academics," he says.

The economics are clear-cut. The University of California, home to Berkeley and UCLA, is typical. Instead of stocking each of its eight campuses with copies of books, it buys one volume to share university-wide.

Casualties are mounting at presses. California has axed its renowned philosophy series, among others, while Northwestern recently dispensed with its director for failing to meet budget targets. More marginal imprints, in particular, are reeling. New Mexico recently discharged six of its 26 staff to ease a more than $1.9 million (£1.2 million) shortfall. Other austerity measures include enforcing strict word limits on academic authors to minimise editing and production costs.

Many publishers are placing their faith in more commercial academic tomes at the expense of monographs with narrow appeal. Literary criticism and Latin American history have been particularly affected by such populism. Barring the very biggest names, "the word is out that literary monographs on single authors will no longer be published", Shapiro says.

An obvious candidate to supplant monographs as a tenure criterion is the academic journal article. "Tenure is supposed to (reflect) competence, originality and professional grasp - articles exhibit this as well as books," says Phil Pochoda, director of the University of Michigan Press.

But it is not that simple, Shapiro warns. The proliferation of learned periodicals is diminishing their currency and encouraging universities to demand more publishing credits of those seeking tenure. "It is like the deutschmark in the 1930s, you need a wheelbarrow of publications to get in the door."

There are other factors supporting the academic primacy of monographs, argues Bonnie Collier, associate librarian for administration at Yale University Law School. Her 1999 survey of the provenance of information in a random sample of 600 American history books found monographs were the overwhelming mainstay of scholarship in the field - constituting one-third of referenced sources versus journal articles' 11 per cent share. Collier sees the crisis in monograph publishing as a "blip" and says its resurgence is guaranteed by the "thump factor of a faculty member dropping an artefact on the dean's desk".

But Pochoda is adamant. "The market for academic books will not recover."

He adds that even sales of textbooks, which some academic publishers have branched into to boost revenue, are being eaten into by secondhand bookstores and internet merchants.

He is also pessimistic about the internet digging academic publishing out of its hole any time soon. He says it is still unproven as a cheap replacement for print, given people's ongoing aversion to peering at text on computer screens.

For Shapiro, salvation lies in academics recognising the harsh new economic realities and pitching topics with crossover appeal to editors. There needn't be a trade-off in quality, he says, pointing to the best-selling efforts of Columbia colleagues Edward Said and Simon Schama.

Shapiro, for one, doesn't lament what he sees as the passing of the monograph era and the advent of market forces too much. He sees the somewhat "cosy" relationship between universities and presses as having "not been the cleanest".

Pochoda echoes this criticism. He would like to see the old system replaced by an economically viable and culturally relevant university publishing industry that could fill the vacuum in serious popular discussion of policy issues created by the soundbite-obsessed US media.

Collier, however, is worried about what she sees as "the shade of a threat to academic freedom" if academic presses cleave to popular tastes.

The shifting economics of US academic publishing is clearly forcing a reckoning on fundamental issues. More pressing, though, is the fate of tomorrow's Saids and Schamas. At stake, according to the MLA's missive, is nothing less than the "careers [of] a generation of young scholars".

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