Three Problems in Search of a Solution
Robert Darnton, February 1999
Three problems have intersected at the end of this century in a way that leaves historians feeling ambushed. The first began with an increase in the price of periodicals. They skyrocketed throughout the 1970s and 1980s, fueled in part by greed among publishers, in part by the economics of publishing. Brain Research will cost $15,203 for a year's subscription in 1999; the Journal of Comparative Neurology will cost $13,900; Nuclear Physics B, $11,267. Academics see price gouging in these rates. Publishers point to expanding expenses and shrinking subscriptions.
Certainly, it costs a great deal to put out a journal in an esoteric field of the natural sciences, where artwork and editorial costs can be crippling. The increase in costs can drive prices up so drastically that libraries cancel their subscriptions, thereby sending prices up still more. Librarians sometimes imagine a vicious circle contracting to a disappearing point at its center—perhaps someday a journal may exist by charging a wildly expensive price to a single subscriber. In fact, however, electronic publishing has relieved some of the pressure, and natural scientists usually have enough clout on campuses to prevent cancellations of subscriptions in their fields. Instead of cutting back on scientific periodicals, librarians reduce their purchases of monographs in fields like history.
Until recently, research libraries generally spent most of their money on monographs—the standard, nontrade kind of book that is the bread and butter of the history profession. Now periodicals are wiping out monographs in the acquisitions budgets of libraries. In 1996–97, 78 percent of the acquisitions budget in the library of the University of Illinois at Chicago went for periodicals, 21 percent for monographs. Syracuse University's library spent 75 percent on periodicals and 17 percent on monographs. The library at the University of Hawaii spent 84 percent on periodicals and 12 percent on monographs—the numbers don't add up to 100 percent owing to two other categories of expenditures. The decline in the purchase of monographs among large research libraries over the past 10 years comes to 23 percent. If the trend continues, the transformation of library budgets could downsize historians out of business.
The second problem goes to the heart of history as a sector of the publishing industry. According to a rule of thumb among editors in the 1970s, a university press could count on selling 800 copies of a monograph to libraries. Today, the figure is 300, often less, and not enough in any case to cover costs. Publishers can no longer be sure of selling books that would have been irresistible to librarians 20 years ago. Volume 1 of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, published in 1959, sold 8,047 copies. Volume 33, published in 1997, has sold 753 copies.
Alarmed by the drop in demand, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) commissioned Herbert Bailey, the former director of Princeton University Press, to do a study in 1990. Contrary to expectations, he found that the output of monographs had increased by 51 percent from 1978 to 1988. Publishers had responded to the pressure by increasing output (and prices, too), while holding down costs (mainly by squeezing more work from their staffs, hence a palpable decline in the standard of editing).
By 1990, however, this trend reversed itself. University presses, harder pressed than ever, continued to produce a large number of titles, but fewer of them could be counted as scholarly monographs. They tended to be books about popular local themes or birds or cookery or "midlist" books—that is, the quasi-trade works that commercial publishers began to neglect in order to concentrate on books with mass appeal: exercise books, how-to books, and the assorted schlock that clutters up most bookstores today.
Is the monograph in danger of extinction? The question was debated at various conferences in 1997 and 1998; and, as in many debates about academic questions, it did not yield a simple answer. Any professor can name a field in which it is very difficult to get published, and any professor can come up with exceptions to the rule. African, South Asian, and colonial Latin American history have been hardest hit; but a historical monograph about witchcraft in the Sudan or popular religion in Peru might "take," if it gets adopted in courses on anthropology, gender, regional studies, and religion as well as history. The AAUP is now conducting a new and more systematic survey to determine exactly where the monograph is endangered. Preliminary impressions suggest that the danger exists everywhere, even though it cannot be pinned down precisely, field by field.
But what about the common complaint that we have too many monographs—more and more about less and less, as the saying goes? Critics often accuse professors of writing for each other and of trying to outdo one another in their professionalism, instead of addressing subjects of interest to the general citizenry. Certainly, monographism can be a disease. It seems to be killing disciplines like literary criticism, where voguishness and arcane jargon have alienated ordinary readers. But historians have generally resisted the most malignant varieties of the disease, and some kinds of scholarship are unavoidably esoteric. The question remains: where can a historian with a solid but not a sexy monograph get published?
If you ask the experts in the university presses, you are bound to be discouraged. Every editor has a collection of stories about superb monographs that did not sell. Sanford Thatcher at Penn State Press tells of a book on 19th-century Brazil that won two prizes and sold fewer than 500 copies and of another on Islam in Central Asia that received four awards and ecstatic reviews but sold only 215 copies in cloth. (It sold a mere 691 in paperback.) Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University says that one of the best books in a series he edits sold 282 copies. My own favorite horror story concerns a superb monograph on the French Revolution. It won three major prizes and sold 183 copies in cloth, 549 in paper.
Of course, some fields—the Civil War, gender studies, fascism, large stretches of American history—continue to hold up pretty well. No field can be written off, although presses have abandoned some of them. The scholarly landscape remains too complex to be divided neatly into sectors; but if taken as a whole and looked at as a market, it appears depressed. Whether or not whole presses will go under, one conclusion seems clear: the monograph is indeed endangered.
This danger spills over into the third problem area: the careers of young scholars. Any assistant professor knows the categorical imperative: publish or perish, which translates into something more immediate: no monograph, no tenure. It is difficult enough for a recent PhD to get a job, but that is when the greatest difficulties begin—moving to a new location, getting up courses for the first time, finding a partner or founding a family, and, on top of it all, publishing a book. Suppose, against all odds, he or she succeeds in transforming the dissertation into a first-rate monograph within three or four years, will he or she be able to get it published? Not likely.
But not impossible, according to some who doubt the severity of the crisis. "Show me a good dissertation that failed to make it into print and a talented assistant professor who failed to get tenure," say the skeptics. We cannot marshal statistics in reply, but we all have anecdotes. Richard Bulliet of Columbia cites the example of a student there who won a prize for the best dissertation of the year and could not get it published, because it belonged to an endangered field, Middle East studies. Walk into the office of any editor in a university press, and you will see dissertations stacked in piles, dozens of them. The editor will explain with a sigh that the press can afford to publish only two or three a year, adding sometimes with a deeper sigh that the press comes under pressure from tenure committees, which want to see a book in print, accompanied by readers' reports and reviews.
Presses resist being drawn into the tenuring process, and rightly so, but often for the wrong reasons—that is, because they pay more attention to the bottom line of their budgets than the dividing line of professional responsibilities. Like it or not, they function as a funnel in the process of professional advancement, yet they cannot take in most of the manuscripts they receive. The authors of those manuscripts may never make it to the next stage of their careers. Instead, they may fall into the floating population of adjuncts, lecturers, and part-time teachers of all varieties.
Some independent historians rejoice in their independence. Barbara Tuchman proved that superb history could be written outside the protective walls of academic institutions. But most independent historians have to scramble for a living, picking up odd jobs wherever they can find them, usually for inadequate pay, insufficient benefits, and no recognition. We may be producing the intellectual equivalent of the Okies and Arkies from the dust bowl years—migrant academic workers with laptop computers who live out of the back seats of their cars.
I don't mean to dramatize but, I hope, to help. The AHA obviously cannot come up with a simple solution to this interlocking set of problems, but it has one key at its disposal: intellectual authority. By applying its authority at the right spot, it could promote a new kind of publication, one that could be efficient for university presses to produce, inexpensive for libraries to buy, and impressive for tenure committees to contemplate. I have in mind a series of electronic monographs, produced to the highest professional standards and sponsored by the AHA.
I lack the space to explain this proposal here, so I will elaborate in my next column. But I cannot close this one without paying tribute to the man who made it possible for new proposals to be feasible, who brought the Association's finances under control, who guided the AHA through choppy waters and around a Cape of Good Hope: our retiring president, Joe Miller. Having served as his apprentice for a year, I can testify to his mastery of our affairs and the long, hard labor that he devoted to them. For everyone in the AHA, I would like to say: Well done, Joe, and thanks.
—Robert Darnton (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA.