Will monographs fall victim to the marketing men?

November 8, 2002

Helen Hague finds that, in the UK, the hybrid textbook is knocking the traditional tome off the library shelf.

Research in arts and humanities in British universities is proliferating, fuelled by academics' desire to open up their subjects, spread knowledge, share scholarship and, of course, shine in the research assessment exercise.

But getting published, particularly when you are aiming for a scholarly monograph, is becoming harder in an increasingly competitive market. This has, as Richard Fisher, director of humanities and social sciences at Cambridge University Press, points out, produced a "blazingly obvious paradox" in senior commonrooms. Many senior academics complain that they cannot keep up with the literature any more. This is often coupled with an equally heartfelt complaint about the increasing difficulty of getting serious work published, and by mutterings about "dumbing down" and publishers who seem intent on commissioning accessible hybrid textbooks for an increasingly mass-market higher education system. Such books also have the potential to shift a lot more copies than that monograph on punctuation in pawnbrokers' ledgers in early 1860s Manchester. For younger academics, facing a publishing climate more hostile than it was for those who taught them, the traditional career trajectory of "revised PhD first book" securing some kind of tenure, followed by promotion to senior lectureship on publication of the second, appears to have been derailed. The monograph still holds the promise of prestige, career advancement and the acclaim of peers. But many are finding it increasingly hard to get even university presses to publish their work in this form. Fisher - who believes emphatically that the monograph is far from dead - thinks a key question facing an academy awash with research is how academic work is disseminated to peers and students.

This will be one of the key themes explored next month when the Arts and Humanities Research Board holds a research strategy seminar on publishing, bringing together publishers, academics and journal and series editors. The seminar will explore monographs, journal, series publication and other forms of research dissemination. Geoffrey Crossick, chief executive of the AHRB, thinks the "binary divide between monograph and textbook is over-explicit and can be disabling - it makes people think they have to write in one form or the other. The reality is that there is a blurring of the edges and some of the most exciting work goes on in the middle ground. The real question is: 'are the people publishing their humanities research able to do so in the right outlets?'" Crossick denies that there are too many monographs being produced in arts and humanities, but says that it is now more difficult to get "precise research monographs published". He adds: "It is not a bad thing if a proportion of humanities researchers ask themselves if there are other ways of publishing that aren't simply the monograph - the kind of hybrid book between the monograph and the more general book."

Routledge, owned by multinational academic publisher Taylor and Francis, is at the forefront of publishing the kind of hybrid texts to which Crossick alludes. Its Critical Thinkers and Critical Idiom series sells well to undergraduates and lecturers. Jeremy North, publishing director, says the imprints respond to what students and lecturers want - "accessible, pertinent books that don't dumb down but are designed to aid learning". He thinks students have more power than they used to in choosing courses and texts with which they can engage.

Claire Colebrook, a Critical Thinkers author and reader in English at Edinburgh University, believes that one well-received title, incorporating fresh perspectives, can boost an academic's profile more than a traditional monograph, though she says it won't carry the same prestige as a traditional monograph read by few. She describes her book on Gilles Deleuze as "a monograph that is not one". Her research was also published as a monograph by Edinburgh University Press, but she says that it is the Critical Thinkers book that has raised her profile. "People know who I am because Routledge markets aggressively. I know I get invited to conferences on the strength of it," she says. "A lot of academics don't like being subjected to that kind of marketability. I don't mind - though it is not all I want to do. In a way, writing something that is accessible to a wider readership is harder than writing a scholarly monograph. There is a sort of academic denial. Monographs in hardback have a great intellectual cache. An accessible, short, cheap book that is more widely read - by academics and by students - does not have the same professional grandeur." Colebrook is cannily twin-tracking again with her work on "irony". Routledge Critical Idiom is publishing one book; Nebraska University Press another, more traditional, "scholarly" work on the same subject.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as RKP, Routledge broke fresh ground in literary theory monographs that had a great impact on shaping the discipline, rippling out to the wider humanities. Monographs output is expanding at Routledge, but not in this field. More monographs are being published in business studies, Asian studies, economics and politics, which sell well in the globalised market.

Not surprisingly, Routledge is also exploring e-publishing - 2,000 titles from its list can be downloaded after inputting credit-card details online. The AHRB has set up an e-publishing working party. The RAE, however, does not yet recognise digitally published research. Martin McQuillan, head of the School of Fine Art and Cultural Studies at Leeds University, argues that if the RAE recognised e-journals as contributing to research output, it would soon become the "most efficient way to disseminate knowledge". He also believes the e-book could revolutionise the monograph by removing the prohibitive price barrier to production. McQuillan, who has first-hand experience of producing both the hybrid textbook and the monograph, is a vigorous defender of the monograph. "Despite the market attempt to reduce knowledge to the level of the textbook in order to sell volume, the monograph remains the vehicle by which innovative thinking takes place," he says.

The feeling in the UK seems to be that premature obituaries for the short-run, high-cost monograph should be shelved, or at least not dusted down until the RAE recognises research published electronically.

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