A Crisis in Scholarly Publishing

James M. McPherson, October 2003

In 1999 the Modern Language Association created an ad hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing to address a perceived "crisis" that threatened opportunities for publication of monographs in the humanities. The committee found plenty of evidence for such a crisis. During the last decade or more, university presses have been publishing fewer scholarly monographs in the humanities and are printing fewer copies of those they do publish.

This problem has two roots. First, the declining budgets of college and university libraries for purchase of monographs, caused mainly by the skyrocketing prices they have to pay for journals. From 1986 to 1997, the unit cost of serials rose 169 percent compared with 62 percent for book monographs. Research libraries' expenditures for serials thus rose 142 percent compared with only 30 percent for monographs. In 1986 these libraries spent 44 percent of their budgets on books and 56 percent on journals; by 1997 the imbalance had grown to 28 percent for books and 72 percent for journals. This disparity is driven mainly by the cost of scientific, technical, and medical journals that rose by more than 600 percent from 1982 to 2002 while the subscription price of journals in history and literature rose about 250 percent.

The other root of the problem is the decline or disappearance of subsidies for university presses even as their operational costs have increased. These presses are thus faced with the choice of publishing fewer books or of changing the mix of books they do publish by reducing the number of specialized monographs in favor of books with a larger potential market—broad syntheses, biographies of well-known figures, anthologies, books with a potential for undergraduate course adoptions, even textbooks. The manuscript for a first book by a recent PhD or by a junior faculty member coming up for tenure often becomes a victim of this change in mix. University presses are not wholly to blame for this problem, for without subsidies they have to pay attention to the bottom line or go out of existence. One study in 1997 showed that library orders for scholarly monographs were "now averaging 300 copies per title and falling fast" while the break-even point for publishers was several times that number.

The MLA's ad hoc committee reported a classic Catch-22 at the core of the crisis: many of the same universities whose library budgets have cut back on purchases of monographs in the humanities and subsidies for their presses have at the same time raised their standards for tenure, requiring the publication of one book, sometimes two, for promotion. As the MLA report put it: "Schools that once considered a group of articles acceptable evidence for tenure" have made "the book-length monograph . . . the holy grail for achieving tenure . . . at a time when constraints on academic publishing make it more and more difficult to get such books published."

That is the bad news. The good news, if we can call it such, is that the situation in history is not so bad as it is in the fields represented by the MLA or in philosophy, anthropology, classics, and musicology. Research by Robert Townsend, the AHA's assistant director for research and publications, reveals that the number of books published in all fields of history has not declined; in fact it is at an all-time high (related article). From 1989 to 2000 the number of books in history recommended for purchase by academic libraries grew by 25 percent; from 1983 to 2000 the number of history books reviewed by Choice, the journal of the Association of College and Research Libraries, grew by 23 percent and history's proportion of all books reviewed increased from 14 to 17 percent. Books in history tend to sell beyond the library market better than books in other humanities disciplines, and trade publishers are also more interested in works of history than, for example, of classics or philosophy.

This good news, however, conceals within it some disparities that qualify as bad news. The proportion of nonmonographic titles in history is probably greater than in other disciplines, which favors established scholars and discriminates against groundbreaking but specialized studies. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it has become harder for hopeful first-book authors to get published. But more research is needed to determine whether this is in fact the case. We know with greater certainty, however, that university presses are more likely to publish titles in American history than in other fields. Thus the young scholar in 16th-century French history or precolonial Chilean history trying to get her first book published may be out of luck no matter how good the manuscript is. As one AHA member, an editor of a series in European history for 20 years, expressed it: "European history is harder to publish than it used to be (20 years ago). . . . Even 20th-century European history has been doing badly in terms of sales. . . . Editors have been reluctant to take on titles in European history."

What is the solution? Perhaps electronic books will be the answer. The Gutenberg-e prizes launched by Robert Darnton when he was AHA president four years ago are a step in this direction. But the niche carved out by e-books is very small so far, they are as expensive to produce as print books, and the jury is still out on whether tenure and promotion committees will put e-books on the same plane as print books. The MLA's ad hoc committee suggested a modification of tenure standards to rate a corpus of articles in refereed journals as important as a finished book. I am skeptical about the possibility of this happening in history. The MLA also suggested that universities might provide junior faculty with a $5,000-$7,000 book subvention (which is a much smaller amount than many universities furnish for start-up costs in laboratory sciences) to encourage publishers to take a chance on a monograph with limited market appeal. This sounds good, but seems unlikely to happen in the current straitened economic circumstances of many institutions. And if a publisher is faced with a choice between a manuscript that comes with a subvention from an assistant professor at University A and another without a subvention from an assistant professor at University B, one does not need to be a cynic to guess which one the publisher will be tempted to choose.

This issue will not go away any time soon. The Research Division of the AHA is grappling with the problem. Roy Rosenzweig (roy@gmu.edu), vice president of the division, would welcome information and suggestions.

—James McPherson (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA.