Worth its weight?

November 11, 1994

If the future of book publishing is in peril, humanities academics may turn to the electronic networks. Anita Roy laments the decline of the monograph, below, while Diane Hofkins, right, reports on a pioneering project to publish 500 years' worth of women's writing.

Like Dr Doolittle's two-headed llama, academics these days seem to be caught in the middle, pushed in one direction by academic publishers and pulled in another by the demands of the research assessment exercise.

As a commissioning editor in the humanities, I am constantly aware that the kind of books I am looking to sign up are often those which my potential authors cannot afford to write. And those which will win them the most brownie points for their institutions - - not to mention hard cash - - are frequently those which we cannot afford to publish. To an extent this has always been the case. The question is: has it got worse - - and is it going to get worse still?

Over the past 15 years, the higher education system has been under attack. Increased student numbers, a lack of resources, short-term contracts and increased productivity are all the hallmarks of a Government which places an absolute value on market forces. The research assessment exercise is designed to do just that: tie research output to monetary reward. But what happens when the market forces which pull me one way are the ones which push you another?

It is a different picture with science subjects, where the greatest emphasis is placed on publishing articles in internationally refereed journals, but in the humanities, the most highly-prized beast in the eyes of the assessment panel is the academic "monograph".

One of the main trends in academic publishing has been a shift in emphasis from hardback research-level monographs to paperback textbook publishing. The sales of monographs have been eroded over the past ten years, falling fairly steadily at a rate of around 8 per cent a year. This is largely to do with decreasing libraries sales.

During the 1980s, according to one report, university library funding fell by 32 per cent and the books purchasing budget in the (former) polytechnic sector dropped by 56 per cent. University libraries have seen their budgets capped and their limited shelving space under pressure.

Added to that, an increasing proportion - - up to 80 per cent - - of their budgets has been gobbled up by subscriptions to journals, mainly of the scientific and electronic variety. A smaller and smaller slice of the cake is spent on buying books, and rather than spending £30 or £40 on a hardback, libraries will now often buy paperbacks and strengthen the bindings themselves.

In order to compensate for the falling number of sales in the mid-1980s, many publishers decided to increase the number of titles they produced. Faster production times and more titles compensated for a while, but the treadmill could not ultimately be sustained. The cost of each book rises with diminishing print runs, and as prices rise, sales fall even further.

The Americans learned this earlier than us. In 1986 approximately the same number of new books were published in the United Kingdom and the United States; by 1992 there were 60,000 new books published in the UK compared to 35,000 in the States. Although these were not all academic books, a similar trend was repeated in the academic sector.

Publishers across the board have been forced by these commercial pressures to rethink their commissioning policies, resulting in the reduction and careful selection of the number of hardback monographs signed up each year. Emphasis is now placed on higher sales per title, rather than on the issue of more titles to make up the shortfall. The "future of the monograph" is being constantly debated as print runs come closer to the point where one begins to wonder why one is in the business of publishing at all.

It is here that the possibilities of electronic publishing - - either on-line or on disk - - seem enticing. The low cost of production and dissemination would then enable work in important, specialist areas of research to be made available to a particular academic community - - though quite how this would be viewed by the research assessment panels is another matter.

The Higher Education Funding Councils have been at pains to point out that the job of the panels is to assess quality - - not quantity - - and this aim is highlighted by one important change. In the 1996 exercise institutions will not have to submit a count of all publications.

In their guideline document to the 1996 research assessment exercise, issued in June 1994, the councils say: "In deciding to discontinue the publication count, the funding bodies wish to signal clearly that the RAE is concerned with research quality, and that the number of publications . . . is not considered necessarily to be an indicator of research quality." However, the fact that this exercise is, in the end, a way of distributing funding is, in effect, "quantifying quality".

Whether or not institutions themselves will respond by dropping the setting of publishing "quotas" for each member of their department, I do not know. Another effect of the last research exercise is that academics are impelled to get as much out of each piece of work as they possibly can: a conference paper will be published as an article, to be published as a chapter in an edited collection, to form part of their own book. This might make for lots of quantity, but would or should count only once in terms of research quality.

What academic institutions are finding increasingly hard to justify is the time it takes to come up with top-class research in the humanities. The best books can take five or ten years to write and no one can afford that any more.

The anxiety about what books are "worth" (to put it crudely) is compounded by a confusion of terms. Being a literature graduate and an editor to boot, I am well aware of the slipperiness of the English language. In publishing terms, a "monograph" can sometimes simply mean a hardback book priced over £25. A "textbook" can mean a book which steadily sells a certain quantity each year.

What about the term "editing" itself? The report from the English panel for the 1992 RAE puts it succinctly: "'Edited work' can mean anything from assembling a collection of essays to an edition of an author or text. These are different enterprises and should not be conflated."

Can one be marked down for having spent ten years producing the definitive edition of, say, Marlowe's Edward the Second? In its "definition of research" the 1996 RAE guidelines explain the word "scholarship" in a footnote thus: "Scholarship embraces a spectrum of activities including the development of teaching material; the latter is excluded from the RAE."

The trusty Oxford English Dictionary defines scholarship as "academic achievement; learning of a high level" and research as "the systematic investigation into and study of material sources, etc. in order to establish facts and new conclusions" or "an endeavour to discover new or collate old facts etc. by the scientific study of a subject or by a course of critical investigation." Where does this leave the "Revels Plays", for example, whose scholarship is impeccable and whose use in teaching is invaluable?

Kathleen McLuskie, one of the panellists for the 1992 research exercise, asked whether I had been inundated by bad proposals provoked or impelled by the exercise. "YES," I replied cheerily, "Always have been!" There are always more rejects than acceptances, more potential authors than actual ones. Nothing has changed there. The hard thing is being unable to take on scholarly books which five or six years ago we would have been able to publish and publish proudly. These are the books which advance the study of a small and specialist area, which are perhaps reworked theses, which may be from first-time authors. These are good books which are not necessarily saleable books.

Many potential authors do not make it past the first hurdle because of a lack of understanding of the business of publishing, the needs of the market, how to present their ideas at the proposal stage in the most positive light. This problem has been addressed imaginatively by Glasgow University. which has recently appointed Jackie Jones, formerly literature, women's studies and cultural studies editor at Harvester Wheatsheaf, as a publishing consultant. She combines this role with another as commissioning editor for Edinburgh University Press.

Her work, across the 26 departments within the arts and social sciences faculties, covers everything from shaping book and journal proposals, and advising postgraduates on how to rework their theses into books, or which parts to extract as articles, to liaising with heads of departments on planning future research and publications programmes.

The university is obviously aiming to improve its research ratings through her good offices, but it is doing so in a more responsible and far-sighted way than "buying in" staff for their short-term research productivity, or adding the odd visiting professor's books to the list to beef up a submission.

The Government has not gone the whole hog and rewarded people for how commercially successful their books are. This would be in many ways the logical conclusion to the exercise in a climate where market forces are given an absolute value: Funding to S/he Who Sells. Not even the beleaguered academics after 15 years of Conservative government would accept that.

The relationship between publishers and academics has always been a symbiotic one, and we cannot allow the research assessment exercises to throw that balance out. The opportunities are there for fostering closer links between academic authors, institutions, funding bodies and publishers. For a truly healthy "research culture" each party should be working with common goals. The current climate seems to foster paranoia and division more than openness within departments, faculties, and institutions. The co-opting of professional publishers, such as Jackie Jones at Glasgow University, is one such avenue to explore and perhaps we shall see more such partnerships between the two professions in the future.

It is easy to be gloomy about the situation, especially if you are putting off marking 200 undergraduate essays by reading this article, and wistfully thinking of how nice it would be to have time to read a book let alone write one. However, it is important to point out that academic value and commercial value are not necessarily opposing forces. On the contrary, the greatest commercial successes are often those which represent the very best research. When the heads of that particular push-me-pull-you come together the beast can outgallop Desert Orchid.

Anita Roy is commissioning editor for the humanities, Manchester University Press.

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