ATG Hot Topics 8/5/16

Erin Gallagherby Erin Gallagher

Where did the summer go?  Isn’t that what we usually ask ourselves at this point in the year?  I don’t know about you, but I didn’t exactly clear all of my ambitious summer projects off my list. 

Though I’m just entering my sixth year of professional librarianship, I’ve read and heard about 25 years-worth of gloom and doom about the “crisis in scholarly publishing”.  I harken back to Stanford University’s executive summary from the olden times of 1999, in which the four main issues of concern still resonate today.  Librarians and publishers alike are finding creative and strategic ways to operate within this apparently infinite state of crisis, most notably by supporting open access/data/education initiatives when possible. 

This publishing crisis has offshoots and sub-crises as well.  How about scholarly monographs from university presses?  Once lauded as the obvious golden bricks by which any respectable academic library was built, print monographs from university presses have been in a state of sales decline for at least a decade, with no sign of recovery on the near horizon.  Ebook and textbook sales just aren’t cutting it.  Check out this article from Inside Higher Ed this week on “Pressing Challenges” for university press book sales.  The University of Michigan Press is highlighted here, though the same claims could be made for most university presses.  The number of print books published each year is declining, and so are sales.  In spite of this, those of us in academia still value the scholarly monograph as part of the scholarly communication landscape.  We just don’t seem to value it as much anymore.  The article focuses on how to measure the success of print monographs in this era of dwindling sales, but they fail to suggest one possibility: what if they simply aren’t successful anymore, by any measure?  I know that’s going to the extreme, but I’m always suspicious of people/organizations/companies who, when faced with a declining venture, respond with “we’re just successful in a different way now” instead of suggesting, “hey, maybe people don’t want as much of what we’re peddling anymore”. 

I’m not suggesting that people don’t want scholarly monographs anymore.  We’re still buying them at my library, but we’re buying them differently than we did ten or fifteen years ago.  The article also fails to mention how alternative collection development models within academia may be contributing to declining print book sales.  One way we’ve had to deal with declining budgets is to cease buying a load of print books that may never circulate and instead rely more heavily on user-driven acquisition models, both for print and ebooks.  We save money and curate collections that get actual use when we jettison the “send me everything published by university presses” plans.  And when we put the selecting power in the hands of our users, we shouldn’t be surprised when their wants don’t align with what we think they should want.  Your thoughts?

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One thought on “ATG Hot Topics 8/5/16

  1. August 13, 2016 at 6:34 am -

    Interesting comments, Erin, thanks. You raise good points and questions. Another factor that often gets left out in discussions on the future of the monograph is the author’s perspective. Scholars write books for many reasons. Yes, there is the promotion and tenure consideration. But there is also the fact that book writing is a creative endeavor that scholars engage in to express ideas and arguments that are best communicated in long form. It is key to the mission of university presses to serve those scholars as best we can, so as long as we keep receiving excellent book manuscripts from thoughtful, passionate scholars, we will keep doing our best to publish them, even as the institutional market continues to contract.