Next week (9-16th November) in the UK marks the inaugural Academic Book Week. Part of the two-year long Academic Book of the Future Project led out of University College London (UCL), Academic Book Week is a week-long showcase of academic book excellence aiming to open up a dialogue between the makers and users of academic books in the digital age.
The question of what the scholarly book of the future looks like, how and where it’s available and indeed who pays for research to exist in book form in the first place is something we’ve addressed multiple times on this blog. While the journals market seems to have entered a phase in which subscription journals can and do co-exist with open access journals, the way forward for the academic book looks much foggier. The scholarly monograph market in particular has suffered from cuts in academic library budgets mean they are less able to acquire the research content that scholars need to publish in order to further their careers.
As we’ve reported before, open access is beginning to creep into the monograph market. Interesting experiments such as Knowledge Unlatched or Palgrave Pivot both propose a different model of monograph publishing, where the cost of publication is covered by research funders (i.e. a university or research body such as The Wellcome Trust) and content is made available to libraries without charge. Nevertheless, as the recent Open Access Monograph Survey conducted by our sister company PCG indicated earlier this year, open access content still accounts for only a small proportion of academic libraries’ collections.
There have also been indications (in the form of Author Solutions’ collaboration with a private university in the US, Alliant Press) that some of the principles of self-publishing in the trade market could ride to the rescue of researchers who need to publish books without a traditional publisher. Though here again this innovation is still at the concept stage and it will be some years before we know whether a form of self-service publishing for academic content can support the continued existence of the scholarly book.
Another issue that has complicated the creation, distribution and delivery of academic books has been the shift from physical to digital reading itself. While this might look like a great opportunity for smaller academic presses, enabling them to get their content out to a much wider audience at lower costs, the reality has proved more problematic. As this great article explains the shift to ebooks has required publishers to change their workflow, incur significant costs for digitising their backlists and fundamentally re-engineer their sales and distribution processes.
The solution that many academic presses have turned to is to form consortia for distributing and selling their ebooks. For example, initiatives like Project MUSE’s University Press Content Consortium offers libraries access to thousands of digital books drawn from more than 65 major university presses and scholarly publishers. This content is made available via the same platform that MUSE already uses to distribute journals electronically. Other examples of this approach include Alexander Street Press, which has diversified beyond ebooks into collecting and providing access to specialist video content.
These consortia are certainly working hard to increase the availability of electronic scholarly books, and they offer the libraries whose collection budgets fund the scholarly book industry a range of options as to how they collect and pay for content. For example, scholarly ebook consortia have been at the forefront of enabling libraries to trial Patron or Demand Driven Acquisition (PDA), where a library only has to pay for a title when usage of it reaches a certain threshold. This is good news for libraries, who are under increasing pressure to make more efficient use of their collections budgets, but perhaps less positive for the scholarly publishers who need a reliable flow of sales revenue in order to fund publication of further research.
As we enter the first Academic Book Week, it might therefore be an instructive exercise to think of the future of the scholarly book as hinging less on its format than its funding. The future of scholarly monographs may look like more of the same, but at a reduced output, in line with smaller library budgets. PDA and the growth of ebooks may mean that scholarly book publishing becomes far more demand-led, and this could change what kind of research publishers can support so that it’s more market-driven. Or open access could change the monograph industry in the way it’s currently transforming the journal industry. This would bring with it a new wave of content and a new challenge for libraries, researchers and students in terms of how they sift it for the research that’s relevant to their needs.
However it turns out one thing is clear: the academic book has an interesting future.