The Future of Scholarly Monographs in a Rapidly-Changing Publishing Landscape

Introduction

Over the past few decades, the world of publishing has witnessed many remarkable revolutions, transforming the face of the entire book industry today. The widespread developments include not only changes in the nature of the production, packaging and distribution of text, but also new policies and tools promoting free, instant access to knowledge and information.These developments present both opportunities and challenges for certain book genres and their producers, especially those within the scholarly community. One branch of scholarly publishing whose future seems to have been rendered uncertain in the midst of these shifts is the monograph, with a number of scholars and market analysts (Steele, 2008; Anderson, 2013; Kwan, 2013; Todd, 2014) predicting a bleak future for the monograph, owing to the rise and growth of other forms of scholarship (such as journals) and digital publishing technologies (such as e-book publishing, open access), amid changes in reading culture as well as soaring production cost of monographs.

But do these emergent trends really spell doom for monographs as many predict? If yes, why and how? If no, how are players in the field currently adjusting to these shifts, and what hurdles and possibilities exist for saving and enhancing the future of the monograph in the new publishing landscape? These are some of the pertinent questions I will be addressing in this paper, which seeks to analyse the impact and implications of emerging paradigms in publishing and communication for the monograph.   

Monographs – A Brief Characterization, Rise and Fall

Defined as a long-form, book-length, typically single-authored, specialist writing on a subject for scholarly consumption (Schonfeld, 2013), monographs have over the years garnered the reputation as being one of the most cherished intellectual products of the academic community, considered both a benchmark of career progression for scholars in many disciplines and a status-enhancing image for prestige-seeking universities all over the world (Kwan, 2013). Initially considered a public (or social) good with only a handful of products (in terms of print runs and number of titles) delivered almost exclusively through university presses (which were originally established to publish the intellectual outputs of their own scholars) from the 17th-19th century (Steele, 2008), the production of monographs steadily grew to become a huge commercial enterprise in the later part of the 20th century, with sales volumes and popularity peaking in the late 1990s (Todd, 2014). The rise of the print monograph has been attributed to the expansive growth of universities in the 1950-70s, paralleled by the explosion of the so-called multinational publishing conglomerates (Steele, 2008) which engendered new competition in academic publishing through the introduction of higher quality, low-cost production technologies and more efficient publishing management systems, coupled with aggressive marketing strategies and an expansion in the scope of academic publishing, thus contributing to the proliferation of monographs and other scholarly products. According to Steel (2008), the rise of these publishing multinationals led to depleting market share of monographs for university presses, resulting in the closure of many.

In recent years, however, a plethora of factors, which we now turn to, have affected the fortunes and popularity of the monograph, with annual monograph sales and use now dwindling. This has led some analysts to tag the monograph ‘an endangered specie’ (Battista, 2008), with some predicting its total demise and others forecasting a new type of monograph to emerge, spurring an on-going debate about the fate of the monograph.

Emergent trends in Publishing and their Impact on the Monograph

One of the major developments in the publishing landscape that has had a dramatic impact on the fortunes of the monograph has been the proliferation of scholarly journals. With a current 3% annual growth (Ware & Mabe, 2009) in the number of new journals, translating into about 1.5 million published articles a year, journals have virtually assumed the face of contemporary academic publishing, with subscription rates not only far outpacing that of monographs, but also indirectly contributing to the latter’s decline. Given their short length, low price, relatively shorter writing time and less cumbersome publishing process, journals–which continue to enjoy a higher reading rate, a wider reading audience and high citation rates–have provided an alternative platform for scholars, particularly those unable to meet the heavy demands of monograph publishing, to get their works out in a more flexible and faster way, whilst concurrently building upon their credentials for promotions. For many readers, journals are relatively easier to digest compared to monographs, while the availability of several articles on a subject often at little or no cost provides them with a more richer understanding of issues, curbing the need for monographs (Anderson, 2013). In sum, the ascent of journal publishing has meant that both the demand and supply of monographs are falling.

The digitization of knowledge and communication, including publishing, constitutes another major development that is having a massive impact on the monograph. With the advent of the internet, digital computers, cell and smart phones as well as other digital technologies, the generation, processing, packaging and distribution of information and text has dramatically shifted from the traditional, print-based platforms to electronic formats such as e-books, online journals, electronic magazines, online encyclopaedia,  and online newspapers, which offer ready, low cost access to published contents with user interactivity that are not offered by traditional monographs. In addition, the proliferation of new media such as blogging, podcast, file sharing and enhanced publication (which combine text with supplementary materials such as videos) as well as social media have offered both authors and readers with a vast array of electronic-based platforms to exchange knowledge, reducing the need for print monographs.

The third factor that is influencing monograph use is social change. Both observation and research have shown that reading and learning habits among today’s generation differ significantly from previous generations, as illustrated by Johnson 2011 below. Cull (2011) notes that, although the average person today consumes more information than they did ten years ago, we consume information in shorter formats. In addition, Redden (2009) states that pleasure reading (including fiction and stories) seems to be taking over serious academic reading among what he called “disengaged students”. Johnson (2011) adds that the current generation, particularly the youth, has become glued to ‘digital reading’ using such electronic gadgets as smart phones, tablet computers and kindle, which are not suited to the current monograph. In examining current reading attitudes to the print monograph, Schonfeld (2013) observes that while cover-to-cover reading of monographs has not disappeared, it is increasingly giving way to other reading mechanisms such as skimming, speed-reading, cherry picking of sections/paragraphs, and use of built-in discovery tools to navigate the text, with deep engagement often limited to only a portion of the author’s argument, usually at the chapter level. This observation is supported by Richard Charkin, former CEO of MacMillan publishing house, who Steele (2008) quotes as saying “most of our words aren’t read, so it’s how you package it that really determines the profit”. The overarching effect of all these changing dynamics in reading culture on the monograph is perhaps best summed up in the words of Mark Baurelein, professor of English at Emory University, quoted in Redden (2009)

…throngs of scholarly compositions appear each year only to sit in distribution warehouses unread and unnoticed.

Figure 1.1: Changing Primary Information Sources Among People in  the 20th Century  (Source: Johnson T., 2011)

Also, the policy of open access (OA)–the calls for academic institutions and researchers to make available their scholarly products freely online–is another development that is impinging on the growth of the monograph. Underlain by egalitarianism and backed by widespread demands for academic institutions to re-commit to their “public good” mandate, OA advocates argue that removing accessibility barriers to research would level the intellectual playing field and bridge the knowledge gap between the rich and the poor, both in and between countries, while heightening the use-value of existing research, thus spurring further research (Kwan, 2013). Journal publishers have, to date, borne much of the pressure for OA; lately, however, monograph publishers are also increasingly facing calls to offer free or near-free access to their products, particularly those emanating from publicly-funded research (ibid). This demand seems to be yielding positive results, with negative consequences for monograph print runs and sales.

 Other related developments that are affecting the prospects of the monograph include the rise of online retail companies, such as Amazon.com, which, in addition to university bookstores, are offering potential monograph buyers the option to purchase used books or rent both new and old books rather than acquire new ones, thus reducing the demand for new monographs. On the institutional side of the story, growing competition for already tightening budgets and limited space for university libraries, who are the largest buyers of monographs, has meant that the monograph is steadily losing ground to other less bulky or smarter scholarship formats such as online journals and e-books, resulting in increased downward average annual library purchases of print monographs–from about 2,000 copies in early 1980s to 1,000 in the late 1980 to 500 in the 1990s and 200 in the early years of the 21st century ( Baptista, 2014). Meanwhile, on the supply side of the equation, the cumbersome and relatively long processing time coupled with increasing unit cost of monograph production, caused by low sales volumes, is affecting the financial viability of their publishers, especially university presses.

Perspectives on the Future of the Monograph

Do the above depressing trends in monograph use, print and sale volumes portend the monograph’s extinction in the 21st century’s highly-digitized, easy-going, open-access, instant-based communication environment? For many analysts (such as those identified in the earlier part of this paper), the answer is a firm yes, a prophecy that will come to pass only in a matter of time. For others, including Watkison (2001) and Schonfeld (2013), however, the monograph will evolve into something new, sort of a new format or genre conducive to the conditions of the 21st century communication landscape.

Before giving my opinion about the future of the monograph, it is perhaps useful first to consider how players affiliated with the monograph are adjusting to the rapidly-changing publishing market conditions. Research conducted as part of this analysis indicate that, far from the prediction that the print monograph is on a path to extinction, its actors are adopting certain innovative approaches to curtail its demise, albeit with varying levels of success. While these innovative strategies deal with various aspects of the monograph publishing process–from content generation, to editing, reviewing, production, marketing and distribution–most of these efforts have concentrated on the infusion of digital technologies into elements of the publishing process. So far, however, the most common practice–and one that is rapidly gaining traction among publishers–has been the production of the digitized monograph, mostly the pdf version of already existing ones. This has offered readers the option to buy either or both print and e-monograph formats, with a number of traditional publishing houses getting into this business.

Another approach researchers are looking into is the development of shorter-length monographs which combine several creative writing styles and interactive features that would appeal to the wider reading public. Meanwhile, in the area of financing, several modules, ranging from charging authors to cost sharing arrangements (between for example authors, publishers, readers and grant-making trusts) are being tested in different countries and scholarly fields to reduce the cost of monograph production and dissemination. However, by far, the most ambitious project that has been on the horizon is the production of the e-monograph, otherwise known as digital monographs. In contrast to digitization, which entails the conversion of existing and new print monographs into electronic formats, digital monograph production involve the use of digital technologies and systems throughout the entire spectrum of the publishing process, right from the beginning to the end. Known as e-presses, many of these initiatives, mostly experimental in nature, include the Open Monograph Press (OPM), an online-based monograph publishing management system developed by the Public Knowledge Project (PKP) in 2013 for potential authors.

What then do these later developments imply for the monograph’s future? While I think it is perhaps premature to make an accurate prediction of the future of the monograph, we can make the following assertions concerning the future of the monograph in light of current happenings. First, I will go against the prediction that the print monograph will become extinct as a result of the growth of new, e-based scholarships. This is because, despite the reality of declining sales step curve, the number of new monographs (assessed in terms of titles) is growing by the day. This situation is attributed to the fact monograph publishing still constitutes a cherished, perhaps enviable, symbol of academic success and respectability within the scholarly community, with many universities across the globe making monograph publishing a prerequisite for tenureship. Second, in terms of output, it is realistic to expect that e-monograph formats, because of their convenience, ease of access, and compatibility with digital consumer devices, will overtake but not extinguish print monographs due to the unique attributes of print monographs as depicted by Schonfeld’s recent research results  in the graph below.

 

Figure 1.2: Print and Digital Monograph Use Among Selected Faculty Members at the University of California in 2012

(Source: Schonfeld R., 2013 )

Thirdly, in terms of content, more interdisciplinary, multi-authored, scholarly works that are shorter, manageable, and digestible for the wider public, while providing the same academic rewards offered by the traditional monograph seems to be the most reasonable solution to the massive fallout from the current esoteric monograph. Finally, in terms of dissemination, OA will increasingly become an important platform for monograph distribution. In sum, as echoed by Steele (2008)

peer-reviewed, digitally-constructed monographs, available within open scholarship institutional framework, will increasingly be the 2.0 and 3.0 levels in ranking for scholarly publishing.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that monograph publishing has been struggling for the past two decades, due to recent transformations in the knowledge dissemination landscape, with the most prominent being the digitization of publishing and communication. Whether or not the monograph will survive, revive and become a highly consumed scholarly product in the future will, to a large extent, depend on how players deal with the opportunities and constraints posed by today’s rapidly-changing communication environment. One sure way the monograph can redeem its diminishing glory is by adapting to the dynamics of the evolving reading and publishing market as well as building on some of the new technologies and open access framework that have been seen as threatening its very survival. Encouragingly, players have already started considering these models.

References

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