New life in e-books

March 5, 1999

Academics cannot get their books published. Is electronic publishing the answer? asks Robert Darnton

Are scholarly monographs -learned treatises on specific subjects - in danger of extinction, particularly in the humanities and social sciences? The question was debated at various conferences in 1997-98; and as in the case of many academic questions, there was no simple answer. Any professor can name a field in which it is extremely difficult to publish scholarly books, while another professor can come up with exceptions.

Monographs about Africa, South Asia and colonial Latin America seem to be hardest hit. But a study of witchcraft in the Sudan or popular religion in 18th-century Peru might take, if it gets adopted in courses in history, anthropology, religion, and Latin American studies.

The Association of American University Presses is conducting a survey to determine exactly in what subjects the monograph is most endangered. Preliminary impressions suggest that the danger exists everywhere, even though it cannot be pinned down precisely, field by field.

So can an author with a worthwhile monograph, something solid but not sexy, the kind of book that flourished 20 years ago, expect to get it published?

If you ask the experts in university presses, you are bound to be discouraged. Every editor has a collection of stories about superb monographs that did not sell. Sanford Thatcher at Penn State University Press tells of a book on 19th-century Brazil that won two prizes and sold fewer than 500 copies. My own favourite horror story concerns a superb monograph on the French revolution. It won three major prizes and sold 183 copies in cloth, 549 in paper.

One reason for this decline is that research libraries have stopped buying monographs in favour of periodicals, whose prices have been spiralling upwards since the 1970s. Until recently, monographs accounted for at least half the acquisitions budget of most research libraries. In 1996-97, however, 78 per cent of the acquisitions budget at the University of Illinois went for periodicals, 21 per cent for monographs. Other library acquisition lists tell similar stories.

According to a rule of thumb among editors of university presses in the 1970s, a press could count on selling 800 copies of a monograph to libraries. Today, the figure is 400, often less, and not enough in any case, to cover costs. Faced with such margins most presses are exercising caution.

But if the monograph is indeed endangered how will this affect the careers of young scholars? Any postgraduate knows the categorical imperative: publish or perish, which translates into something more immediate: no monograph, no promotion. It is difficult enough for a recent PhD to get a job, but that is when the greatest difficulties begin - moving to a new location, preparing courses for the first time, finding a partner or founding a family, and, on top of it all, publishing a book.

Suppose, against all odds, a postgraduate succeeds in transforming a dissertation into a first-rate monograph within three or four years: will he or she be able to get it published? Not likely.

So what is the solution - could it be electronic publishing? Certainly, we can dump unlimited numbers of dissertations on the worldwide web. Several programs exist for providing this service and it is a genuine service: it makes research available to readers.

But as a rule, this kind of publication provides mainly information, not fully developed scholarship, at least not in most of the humanities and social sciences. Anyone who has read raw dissertations knows what I mean: with few exceptions, they are not books.

A world of difference separates them. To become a book, a dissertation must usually be reorganised, trimmed here and expanded there, adapted to the needs of a lay reader, and rewritten from top to bottom, preferably with the help of an experienced editor. Editors often refer to this reworking as value added, and they add only some of the value that goes into a book. Peer review, page design, composition, printing, marketing, publicity - a variety of expertise is necessary to transform a dissertation into a monograph.

Instead of simplifying this process, electronic publishing will add further complications, but the result could be a great increase in value. An e-dissertation could contain virtually unlimited appendices and data bases. It could be linked to other publications in a manner that would permit readers to find new paths through old material. And once the technical problems are worked out, it could be produced and distributed economically, saving production costs for the publisher and shelf space for the library.

Of course, the problems of such electronic publishing are enormous. Start-up costs are high, because publishers need to design search engines and hyperlinks and also to train or acquire technical staff. In order to publish original, high-quality monographs, a university press will have to put together all the parts of an original, high-quality system for production and distribution.

But if everything does come together successfully, will electronic monographs be recognised as books? Will they acquire enough intellectual legitimacy to pass muster among suspicious appointment committees and to relieve the pressure on academic careers?

This is the point at which veteran scholars can make a difference. Those who have proven their ability to produce first-rate conventional books could help create books of a new kind, more original and ambitious than a converted dissertation.

In the case of history, a discipline where the crisis in scholarly publishing is particularly acute, the attraction of an e-book should be especially appealing. Any historian who has done long stints of research knows the frustration over his inability to communicate the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past.

If only my reader could have a look inside this box, you say to yourself, at all the letters in it, not just the lines from the letter I am quoting. If only I could follow that trail in my text just as I pursued it through the dossiers, when I felt free to take detours leading away from my subject. If only I could show how themes crisscross outside my narrative and extend far beyond the boundaries of my book. Instead of using an argument to close a case, books could open up a new consciousness of the complexities involved in construing the past.

I am not advocating the sheer accumulation of data or arguing for links to data banks. These can amount to little more than an elaborate form of footnoting. Instead of bloating the electronic book, I think it possible to structure it in layers arranged like a pyramid. The top layer could be a concise account of the subject, available perhaps in paperback.

The next layer could contain expanded versions of different aspects of the argument, not arranged sequentially as in a narrative, but rather as self-contained units that feed into the topmost story. The third layer could be composed of documentation, possibly of different kinds, each set off by interpretative essays.

A fourth layer might be theoretical, with selections from previous scholarship and discussions of them. A fifth layer could be pedagogic, consisting of suggestions for classroom discussion. And a sixth layer could contain readers reports, exchanges between the author and the editor,and letters from readers, who could provide a growing corpus of commentary as the book made its way through different groups of readers.

A new book of this kind would elicit a new kind of reading. Some readers might be satisfied with a study of the upper narrative. Others might also want to read vertically, pursuing certain themes deeper into the supporting essays and documentation. Still others might navigate in unanticipated directions, seeking connections that suit their own interests or reworking the material into constructions of their own.

In each case, the appropriate texts could be printed and bound according to the specifications of the reader. The computer screen would be used for sampling and searching, whereas concentrated, long-term reading would take place by means of the conventional printed book. Far from being utopian, the electronic monograph could meet the needs of the scholarly community at the points where its problems converge.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has provided support for several initiatives in this direction, including JSTOR, which has made vast runs of scholarly periodicals available on line. Another initiative, a programme for converting dissertations into electronic monographs, has just been launched by the American Historical Association.

And yet another, for producing more ambitious e-books, is now being developed by the American Council of Learned Societies. The world of learning is changing so rapidly that no one can predict what it will look like ten years from now.

Robert Darnton is professor of history at Princeton University. This is an edited version of a piece that appears in the March 18 edition of The New York Review of Books copyright Robert Darnton

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