In this recent article published on Scholarly Kitchen, regular blogger Joseph Esposito explores the case for a shorter form of scholarly publishing lying somewhere in the middle between an article and a monograph. This form, which has lain largely dormant since pamphleteering fell from popular favor, has particular attractions to both academics and publishers. Academics, Esposito argues, are excited by the idea of being able to re-purpose research for different audiences, whereas publishers are delighted at the prospect of being able to re-bundle and sell content in new ways.
Esposito rightly points out that short-form publishing represents a new, and potentially tricky sales and marketing problem to publishers. Without an existing market to draw on, publishers are faced with the challenge of commissioning new content in an untried format in the hope that it will connect with an audience they can't yet define. And if it does, they also have to hope that sales of short-form content won't cannibalize their journal or monograph businesses.
There is, however, a third-way approach to short-form publishing which may be even more important than Esposito suggests, and a key part of this lies in college required reading lists. Faced with the prospect of buying a $20 book, often for a single essay, many students resort to secondhand bookshops, unauthorized copies or wait in line to borrow a copy from the library. Publishers could reasonably respond to this situation by repackaging excerpts of these texts as mini ebooks. These can be made available directly to students through competitive pricing, or delivered to students via libraries by making the content available to aggregators. Taking such an approach would allow scholarly publishers to experiment with the shorter form, while finding new commercial opportunities for their backlists at the same time.
The revenues raised from sales of re-purposed content could then be re-invested in finding new ways to make academic publishing more innovative and responsive to its readers needs. Esposito is skeptical as to how academic publishing could be re-purposed to meet a larger audience, saying
"People who write for a wide audience are born that way; it’s like being popular in high school: either you are or you aren’t. I would discourage academic publishers from using shorts in this way. Trade publishing is not “academic publishing light” but a different kind of publishing altogether."
There are, however, a couple of interesting examples as to how the perceived gap between the 'trade' and 'academic' audience can be bridged. One such venture is Abramis, a small but highly innovative academic publisher that specializes in topical, quick turnaround works about the media which occupy the short-form sweet-spot between article and book that Esposito states is so difficult to master. Its 'hackademic' model allows it to turn around a work in as little as three months, a lead-time which is ideally suited to the fast-paced environment of the media. In fact, writing in The Guardian, John Mair, the co-author of many of these works, says:
"The objects of this new genre are simple: rigour, relevance and impact. Most academic work on journalism is frankly irrelevant when published.... Feedback in the field tells me that both journalist academics and students really appreciate these collections - they can dip into and out of the intellectual pot pourri at will.
"As a teacher, there is little more embarrassing (or pleasing) than students quoting in a paper words you have written less than three months before."
So there we have it: an innovative new revenue stream with impact. Executed well, and in the appropriate sectors short-form publishing could well be the next big thing in academic publishing.