What is the future of the academic book?

Experts debate how scholarly publishing is going to have to change

November 12, 2015
Open book, bookshelf and e-book reader

A new collection brings together the perspectives of academics, publishers, librarians and booksellers to chart likely directions for the academic book.

It arose out of a partnership between the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Library, which kicked off in early 2014 with a call for researchers to run a project on the Academic Book of the Future.

A book of the same name is being launched during Academic Book Week on 13 November and is edited by principal investigator Samantha Rayner, senior lecturer in publishing at University College London, and research associate Rebecca Lyons.

Tom Mole, reader in English literature at the University of Edinburgh, notes that “the constraints of the printed codex” – such as its inability to incorporate audio, film, interactive maps or extensive datasets – have become ever more obvious, yet “systemic factors combine to pressure scholars to write more of them”.

What we now require are academic books designed so as to be “findable, citeable and readable in the long term, using as yet undeveloped tools…The academic book of the future will need to be future-proof.”

Kate Price, associate director (collections and research support) at King’s College London, reflects on “the possibility that the academic book of the future could be entirely de-coupled from the concept of the library collection” and the many challenges of preserving born-digital information “at risk of loss almost as soon as it has been created, particularly if it includes social media elements, or if the technology upon which it is accessed becomes obsolete”.

Meanwhile, Jaki Hawker, academic manager of Blackwell’s Edinburgh, sees a situation of “bloated product [prices], decreasing market and continued pressure to publish”. Many of the most successful recent products have been “mixed media creations, available on at least two platforms, containing text which includes a high degree of personalised content [and] structured towards active rather than passive reading”.

Yet ultimately it is readers who will determine the future of the academic book, in Ms Hawker’s view, so the key question we ought to be asking is not “What does it look like?” but “Does it sell?”


The Academic Book of the Future, edited by Samantha Rayner and Rebecca Lyons, is published this week by Palgrave Macmillan.

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