Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Survival Strategies for Academic Publishing

This article lays out the crisis in scholarly monograph publishing and the picture is pretty bleak. The author's suggested solutions aren't going to go down well: raise prices, produce less books, give the library and university presses more money. How about addressing one of the root causes, containing journal price inflation through open access peer-reviewed journals?

The Chronicle: 6/17/2005: Survival Strategies for Academic Publishing (Login required)

The field of scholarly book publishing has been shaped by two powerful dynamics that have trapped academic publishers -- and especially American university presses -- in a pincer movement. On the one hand, the kind of book that has been the standard fare of scholarly publishers -- the monograph -- has undergone a process of continuous decline since the 1970s. Experiences vary from publisher to publisher, but the overall pattern is indisputable. In the 1970s, scholarly publishers in both the United States and Britain would commonly print between 2,000 and 3,000 hardback copies of a monograph and expect to sell a substantial proportion (if not all) of them. Scholarly publishing was a relatively straightforward business: For the most part, presses could take the market for granted and concentrate their energies on deciding which books merited publication. But by the 1990s, that comfortable position had been radically transformed. Today most scholarly publishers find that the total sales of hardback-only monographs are often as low as 400 to 500 copies worldwide. As unit sales have fallen to a quarter or less of what they were in the 1970s, what was once a fairly straightforward and profitable kind of publishing has become extremely difficult in financial terms.

Why have monograph sales declined so sharply? Is it because readers are turning to other sources of information like the Internet, as many observers have speculated? The main explanation almost certainly lies elsewhere. Research libraries constitute a principal market for scholarly monographs, and in the course of the 1980s and 1990s they were subjected to intense pressures of their own: the steep rise in the prices of scientific journals and the increasing costs of information technology. Library budgets were limited, and something had to give. In the period from 1986 to 1998-99, the number of monographs purchased annually by research libraries in the United States declined by more than 25 percent. Since academic publishers were also producing more monographs each year, that meant that an ever-increasing range of available titles was competing for a dwindling pool of resources.

At the same time, many American university presses were coming under pressure from another source: their host institutions. In the 1970s and 1980s, some began to find themselves faced with growing pressure to reduce their dependence on direct or indirect subsidies and become more autonomous financially -- "self-supporting" was the term often used. Universities faced their own fiscal constraints, and university presses, with their somewhat ambiguous status (were they academic units or business units?), were obvious targets for financial scrutiny.


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