Monographs and Publishing in the Digital Age

There’s been some interesting buzz at both the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting and the Modern Language Association annual meeting about the monograph and publishing in an increasing digital world. I’m not sure that I have anything profound to add to this, but as a way of keeping track of the conversation and taking some notes, I do have a few thoughts. Some of this was prompted by the excellent post at the Society for Classical Studies blog on how to pitch your book to a publisher at the annual meetings. 

First, the monograph. Across various twitter chains this past week, people have commented that the monograph continues to be the standard for tenure in Mediterranean archaeology and Classics (and a similar idea prevails, I think, in history and, I would guess, in English). As a Mediterraneanist who neither had a monograph before tenure, nor has one now, the idea that the monograph plays this key role in our discipline, strikes me as a bit foreign and possibly outdated. This isn’t to suggest that I don’t venerate the monograph as much as the next person! In fact, writing a monograph remains a “bucket list” thing for me, and, as someone who often struggles to sustain an argument over the course of an email, writing a monograph is something that I only admire. In fact, some of my favorite books are monographs and I spend as much time reading monographs as anything else.

That all being said, I’m fairly certain that most academic positions in the U.S. do not require a monograph for tenure since most tenure-track academic positions in the U.S. are at second tier state schools, junior colleges, or small colleges and universities that have rather heavy teaching and service loads, do not reward or support research consistently, and generally welcome active engaged faculty, but also recognize a wide range of scholarly activity. This isn’t a value judgement on folks who write and love monographs. The other trend, of course, is that there are fewer and fewer tenure track positions in the U.S. Of course, contingent, adjunct, and term faculty can and do produce meaningful research and monographs, this is only rarely part of their formal obligations for their faculty position. In other words, most people working these days in the academy do not have to write monographs. 

Second, publishing monographs – from the publishers’ perspective at least – is very expensive. A typical monograph runs $100 per page (around $30,000) according to a famous Ithaka report. This expense, of course, includes staff, marketing, design, editing, production, and various other necessary work to develop, publish, and promote a monograph. As another twitter thread pointed out, if a monograph doesn’t sell ~450 copies (or so) a publisher often takes a loss (although I would suspect this varies over the publishing landscape) and this loss increases the cost of future monographs, I would guess. 

To be clear, a well-produced, edited, and designed monograph is a beautiful thing and often plays a role in my decision to buy it. At the same time, I probably only buy 10-15 monographs per year. While I recognize that individuals are rarely the target audience of a bound academic book these days, I think it speaks to changing ways of engaging with academic writing.

I would also estimate that 90% of my professional reading in any given year is done digitally. Digital reading, for me at least, is a bit different from analogue reading. I tend to be much less likely to be sucked into the linear argument offered by the monograph and much more likely to mine the book for references, for supporting arguments, and for particular insights on more narrow topics. The ability to digitally search a book for references or topics and to skim a book more efficiently tempts me to find what I need and move on. This may not be a good thing (and at times I feel bad for the authors who I know spent years weaving an intricate argument over multiple chapters), but I think that the growing popularity of edited volumes, “companions” and “handbooks,” and collection which are designed to be easily disaggregated and tend to offer focuses studies addressing particular issues rather than sweeping arguments, speaks to changing reading and research habits among academics as well as an approach to publishing that sees such volumes as a way to manage risk, create subscription-based service for well-known collections, and generate revenue from individuals who might be inclined to purchase a single article from a larger collection.

The changes in how what we produce as scholars and how we read and research brings me to the issue digital, open access publishing in academia. Open access academic publishing has a few challenges. First, since publishing a monograph is expensive, publishing an open access monograph for which the opportunities to recoup costs are minimal, requires either a subvention or a publishing process that is significantly less costly. Most like, open access publishing will require both of these things. Open access publishing also faces an uphill battle in terms of credibility. Between predatory publishers who primarily exist to harvest subventions to issues with quality control, distribution, and marketing, the standard metrics by which we evaluate the quality of academic publications remain difficult to reconcile with the open access landscape as it currently stands. In other words, open access publishing in general has problems that are significant enough to it from standing shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional academic houses in the publishing ecosystem. Finally, open access publishing almost always means digital publishing. As the digital environment tends to support different forms of reading and writing, digital monographs remains in a distinct minority of open access works (although some presses and platforms are working to change this!). If the monograph is perceived as a gold standard in academia, then the lack of prestige among open access publishers and the disjunction between digital reading practices and the kinds of arguments present in traditional monographs, will reinforce each other. Digital open access monographs seem to me to be a hard sell in the current academic environment. 

Moreover, to manage the expense of open access publishing, more cooperative and collaborative models between authors and publisher come into play. At my press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, we work more closely with our authors and often share responsibility for various parts of the production process that a traditional press might take out of a scholar’s hands. This is neither a good or a bad thing as many scholar’s appreciate the hands-on approach to publishing their work, but at the same time, it is different from the conventional publishing experience and scholars who are already being pushed to maximize every minute of their professional lives, might find the craft approach to publishing incompatible with assembly line expectations.    


As a bit of a coda, there are some things that we as scholars can to do to help fortify the open access publishing. While open access publishers will always welcome good quality and appropriate manuscripts, I, at least, can understand why scholars might chose to take a conventional manuscript to a conventional publisher especially if tenure, promotion, or performance incentives depend on these publications.

This does not stop anyone from CITING open access works. In an era of metrics, citations form one of the key ways that an open access publisher earns prestige. In traditional academic practices, however, citing open access ensures that your readers can access your references. 


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