Worst sellers: warning of existential crisis for academic books

Arts and humanities titles now average just 60 retail sales, report says

June 16, 2017
Man reading tiny book
Source: Alamy

Current sales trends for books in the arts and humanities could call into question “the value and viability of the whole book publishing enterprise”, a major report warns.

Academic Books and Their Future, the result of a two-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Library, concludes that publishing in the disciplines faces a crisis of supply and demand.

On the one hand, academics experience strong incentives to “produce books in traditional form – in order to gain the scholarly credit and career rewards that follow from them”, writes Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network. But “with library budgets for book purchasing at best static in real terms, and retail sales declining, the business case for the publication of individual titles is often now based on print sales per title of 200 or fewer. Further falls will call into question the case for publishing individual titles.”

The decline in retail sales in particular has been dramatic. The report cites Nielsen BookScan data that track UK sales from both real and online bookshops: these show a decline for academic books of 13 per cent between 2005 and 2014, from 4.34 million to 3.76 million annually.

Yet, since the number of individual titles sold rose by 45 per cent, from 43,000 to 63,000, this meant that average sales per title fell from 100 to 60. In linguistics, to take the worst example, they fell from 50 to 13. Of all the titles submitted to the 2014 research excellence framework, only “around a half in most subjects achieved at least one retail sale in the UK in the years 2008-14”. 

Some of the proposed solutions, the report makes clear, have also made little headway. There have been few successful examples of “new kinds of books…with dynamic and interactive images, graphics and sounds; links within the text and to external sources; and facilities for updating and annotation”. And there is still “no consensus on…whether marching towards OA [open access] is the best way to proceed”. Initiatives in this area “operate as yet at small scale: some show significant promise, but none has yet passed the test of scalability”.

This may sound like a rather bleak picture. So where does project leader Samantha Rayner, reader in publishing at University College London, see hope for the future?

“We now have greater understanding of just how big the problem is, and the institutional issues we would have to overcome to move things forward,” she said. “Although the REF itself advocates an open approach to where people are publishing their work, promotion panels are saying a university press is still the gold standard. We are still teaching PhDs in effectively a long-form monograph shape.”

Dr Rayner is involved with UCL Press and notes that “although sales of academic books are in decline, if you look at download figures they have proved there is a very large readership for this material.” So she hopes to see further investment both in open access initiatives and “whizzy digital outputs”.

But Dr Rayner also voices strong concerns about one development which may be on the horizon: “We are being told that the REF after next will mandate open access monographs. That seems an impossible target in terms of shifting people’s perceptions about quality and worth. That’s our big warning from this project.”


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