On Short Books

This weekend, I have a pair of short books on my reading list. One is Sheila Liming’s Office, a contribution to the Bloomsbury’s Object Lesson series, and the other is Kevin Garstki’s Digital Innovations in European Archaeology in the Cambridge Elements series. Both books are short, with Liming’s book officially listed at 152 pages and Garstki’s at about 90. My guess is that neither book is over 30,000 words.

These two slim volumes got me thinking once again about the sudden increase in the number of short book series. I remember when Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series appeared in 2003 and thinking that the idea of short books dedicated to iconic albums was brilliant. I’ve probably read four or five of them and at $10-15 a pop, I never feel like there’s too much of a commitment of time or money to take a risk on one. Like the Object Lesson series, the 33 1/3 books came in such a nice size (approximately 4.5 x 6.5), shared common design elements, and were typeset for easy and comfortable reading in a single sitting.

The convenience and elegance of small books notwithstanding, I’ve started to think a bit more about the place of small books in academic publishing (and whether publishing small book series might be a fun thing for The Digital Press). 

The Long Article

As editor of the Annual of ASOR, I annual book series dedicated to archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean, Levant, and Middle East, I often receive inquiries from authors with manuscripts that are too long to be an article and too short to be a stand alone volume. Historically, we have found ways to bring together manuscripts on similar topics and publish them together even if they’re not strictly speaking related. This is a generally unsatisfactory compromise. 

Despite the proliferation of journals, it would seem that the basic form factor of the article (8,000-15,000 words) remains more or less the same. A few journals, notably in my field Hesperia, the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, will publish longer articles especially if they are site reports. Many other journals, however, will not. I suppose the interest is in allowing room for a range of contributions in each issue or volume. This makes sense, I suppose, if we live in a strange world where readers consume issues of volumes front to back. In reality, articles tend to travel on their own in digital form or consumed without much attention to the rest of the issue. From the viewpoint of the consumer accustomed to disaggregation, the length of the article doesn’t really matter. It might, then, have more to do with preserving space for multiple contributors in each volume and avoiding backlogs of articles and the like. This makes sense only inasmuch as journals exist to serve their contributors (and advance their careers and the like) more than their readers who I suspect care more about the quality and relevance of an article than its length. Provided that a journal didn’t start to publishing on a few very long articles in a year (and thereby undermine the diversity of content), there doesn’t seem any real reason why journals could not publish 20,000 or even 30,000 word articles that meet their standards. In fact, it’s sort of appealing to imagine an academic journal that would publish longer and shorter (say <5,000 word pieces) each volume in much the same way that a literary magazine might publish a novella, a 3-page essay, and a 10-line poem. I could even imagine that longer articles would offer some efficiencies in review, editing, and production. 

Edited volumes likewise tend to favor shorter (5,000-8,000 word articles) or at very least a kind of uniformity in length. This decision seems arbitrary to me, but I do appreciate the aesthetic interest in a kind of symmetry of content.

As a result of these standards, long articles many of which would be nice, small books, find themselves without an appropriate venue. I suspect many long article find themselves inelegantly compressed to meet length standards or worse still blown up into marginal monographs. The academic monograph can be as short, I suppose, as 50,000 words, but, as a friend once told me, most serious monographs are over 80,000 (or 250 odd page of text). In other words, there is a vast chasm between the longest article likely to appear in a typical journal and the shortest academic book.

Reading Habits

I also wonder whether our reading habits have changed significantly over the last 20 years. In my life, I have room for about one long book (>400 pages) per year. It’s not that I don’t find some long books compelling. I often do, but I rarely have time to commit four or five sittings to a single volume on a single topic. Like most scholars my research time is limited and my interests are diverse. Reading a long book is risky. It takes time away from reading other scholar’s work, exploring diverse perspectives, and writing. This isn’t to suggest that no long books would reward the risk of sustained engagement, but as most academics find more and more pressure on their time, it is hard to find the potential of a long book appealing.

It seems likely that the pressures of academic life has also led most scholars to focus more narrowly and spend less time worrying about “big picture” issues that longer book tend to explore. In other words, the era of the long book might well be over. 

Publisher Economics

The struggles of the academic monograph are well known. They’re expensive to produce, generally have small print runs, and reduced library budgets have cut deeply into their typical market. To make up for declining sales and tight margins on academic monographs, many larger publishers have invested in more commercial book series. The most common examples of this is the proliferation of “Companion” and “Handbook” volumes designed for libraries, but also suitable for disaggregation and sale through online subscriptions. 

Short books would seem to be the opposite of these larger projects, but in some ways, they may be their complement. If large companion and handbook volumes are meant for generalist collections at libraries and digital subscription, small books sold at low prices are clearly intended for individual readers to consume in paper rather than digital form.

The economies come from presumably greater sales volume, standardized production workflow, and series wide marketing campaigns. That these bite-sized books fit into our hectic reading lives is a bonus. Most of these books, however, have not really found a place within the academic ecosystem yet. Of course, short books that appeal to a general audience are much more likely to find a market among the interested reader than, say, a short book that is a long article on a specialized topic. At the same time, these volumes might share some of the efficiencies in production and marketing.

~

Maybe we’re not on the verge of a new wave of short academic books, but if someone were to propose a series of short specialized volumes, I’d want to have that conversation.

 

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