Diary

John Sutherland

Last May Stephen Greenblatt, who was then president of the Modern Languages Association, the literary academic’s equivalent of the Teamsters, circulated a letter among its twenty thousand or so members. ‘Over the last few decades,’ he wrote, ‘most departments of language and literature have come to demand that junior faculty members produce, as a condition for being seriously considered for promotion to tenure, a full-length book published by a reputable press. A small number of departments’ – Greenblatt means institutions such as Harvard and Berkeley, at both of which he has taught and sat on tenure committees – ‘expect the publication of two such books.’ And, one might add, for subsequent promotion (to professor, endowed chair, or president of the MLA) more full-length books will be required.

Under this regime the academic profession (Humanities Branch, Literature Subdivision) has become a monograph-producing industry. This, it would seem, is not something Greenblatt has a problem with in principle. Others do. Scanning the hundreds of pages of advertisements from ‘reputable’ presses in the convention issue of PMLA, one feels that more monographs are being written than can possibly be read (certainly than can be read with instruction or profit). In a less jaundiced spirit, the hundreds turned out annually can be seen as participating in a profession-wide debate, or learned conversation. On the one hand, critical monographs are the intellectual life of the discipline. On the other, they are the rungs on which a career academic rises. Academics are resourceful, ambitious, diligent and – above all – productive. They write books as beavers build dams. The economic faultline in the monograph criterion for promotion is obvious. These books primarily serve the career ends of the producer, not the scholarly needs of the market. It’s the same supply-side system evident in those pre-1989 Eastern Bloc bookshops stocked to the rafters with the autobiography of Leonid Brezhnev and the Collected Works of Lenin. If one becomes an academic by writing an unpublished book (the thesis), advance is achieved by writing unread (and often unreadable) books, the first of which is, typically, a version of the thesis. It’s not that literature – the subject matter – itself lacks readers. Dickens (buoyed up by The Big Read and TV adaptations) sells by the million; a critical monograph on Dickens, under the imprint of a prestigious university press, will do well to sell a few hundred.

The academic publishing industry has come to rest, or at least once rested, on a rickety tripod. One leg is the understanding that the writing of an academic book (unlike, say, a novel) should cost the publisher absolutely nothing. The writing costs are picked up by the employing university and by grant and fellowship-awarding bodies who expect no financial return. The publisher’s payments to the author – before and after delivery – are nugatory. CUP, for example, has been known to offer first-time contracts (for books with a predictable sale of a few hundred) that promise royalties after, say, 2000 copies have been sold. Advances? Forget it – at least for your first few books. Academics, particularly young academics, do not complain (or, at least, not audibly). Payment comes in the form of career advancement, reviews in learned journals, the respect of colleagues, a more impressive CV. The second leg on which humanities publishing once rested was the ‘safe library sale’ – principally to university libraries. For a monograph a publisher can make do with a sale of 500 (priced at the current breaking point for institutional purchasers); the book will be doing very well if it manages anything over that. The third leg of the tripod, especially in the US, was the willingness of universities to subsidise their own press on the grounds that a distinguished imprint raised the profile and prestige of the institution. It was good PR to have published scholarship brand-named Princeton, or Yale, or Chicago.

Two of these legs have now collapsed, throwing the profession into the crisis which induced Greenblatt to issue his profession-wide mailshot. The increasing sophistication of the interlibrary loan system, and the increase of ‘consortiumisation’ has cut deeply into library sales. An ILL order costs about $10, which compares irresistibly well with the $50-$80 average cost of a monograph. Cataloguing, storage and circulation – all of which involve some expense – are not an issue. And, of course, there is the added satisfaction that an ILL volume will almost certainly be read. Many purchased monographs remain for ever unborrowed. The pricing up of the monograph to levels that only institutions can afford – if they choose to – has also meant that private buyers are priced out of the market. Monographs are disappearing from bookshops. High prices put all the eggs in one basket: the library sale. And now the bottom has dropped out of the basket.

It’s not difficult to find out about the affairs of academic presses, due to the presence of academics on their committees. Princeton, a member of the top division of American presses, is (I am told, perhaps unreliably), calculating on a future in which library sales will be 200 or fewer. All of this means that universities are increasingly unwilling to subsidise presses: Chicago, it is rumoured, is moving into profit-driven publishing. Every division of its list will have to pay its way, even the humanities monograph. No more feather beds.

This collapse has occurred at a moment when the pressure on the publishing industry from the primary producer (the ambitious academic) is more urgent than ever – thanks to a mass recruitment of junior faculty, as the 1960s intake (who had it much easier) retire. In the UK the quinquennial Research Assessment Exercise demands profuse book publication to further not just the career of the individual, but the standing of the department in national rankings. The problem for the profession, in both countries, is succinctly posed by Greenblatt: ‘What happens to a person who has a PhD, who is five or six years into an assistant professorship and wishes to publish something and the press that would ordinarily publish something like this says: "I’m sorry, we’re not doing that anymore.” What is that person supposed to do?’ What is that person’s employer supposed to do? Deny promotion? Use other criteria? If so, what? Citizenship? Teaching? Good works? Long service?

Greenblatt has some tentative proposals. The learned journal might be made what it once was: a primary site of new and exciting scholarship. Articles could be the currency with which to buy career advancement (eight articles equals two books). The objection is that journals, too, are withering under competition from the Internet and a purge on library acquisitions even more savage than the purge which is destroying the viability of the monograph. And, of course, the learned journal – given its association with dusty work in libraries – is inherently unsexy (when was the last time the LRB notes on contributors credited a ground-breaking article as opposed to a new book?). Another proposal floated by Greenblatt is a ‘first-book subvention’: universities would pay the presses even more than they already do (by subsidising the research and buying the finished product) to put scholarship into the public domain. This system has been tried in Germany where it has been said to lower the quality of research, and has been seen as the academic equivalent of vanity publishing. A third suggested solution is to bypass print and publish on the Net. The objection here is that quality control has so far proved almost impossible to apply to web-generated scholarship.

A number of more or less opportunistic strategies have been adopted by publishers in this country. Discursive monographs are less attractive to librarians than books with a high informational content or a clear pedagogical mission; and so guides, compendiums, casebooks and critical anthologies proliferate. Blackwell here and Columbia in America have been energetic in developing this market. Pickering and Chatto supply collected works or themed collections with critical apparatus, which apparently sell particularly well in Japan. For academic contributors the downside is that reference books, like editions, weigh relatively lightly with promotion committees. The critic, not the editor or packager, is king.

Publishers such as Ashgate (and to a lesser extent Palgrave Macmillan) use the tactic of pushing out a lot of monographs, none of which will sell a lot, but which will bring in a good return en masse. They have a fruitfly lifespan; if the publisher gets it wrong, they are remaindered and sold off cheaply. The danger here is that the value of the imprint is cheapened. How much is a book published in this way worth in hard career currency compared to one brought out by OUP?

CUP likes to gather titles into edited series with a collective critical mission. The advantage, from a sales point of view, is technical and simple. Books in a series are flagged and bought automatically by institutional libraries in the same way as the latest issue of a learned journal. This means that, after the first book in a series is sold, the publisher can predict almost to the copy how many subsequent titles will sell, and adjust production accordingly. And, of course, series volumes don’t have to be advertised other than obscurely in the sales catalogue – which often means they are not reviewed.

Greenblatt’s circular provoked much debate on ‘The Crisis in Scholarly Publication’ and the ‘Monographic Tyranny’ in the correspondence columns of PMLA. The debate is still running, and still going nowhere. In the October 2003 issue of the journal, familiar panaceas are touted: a broadening of subject matter to widen reader appeal, subvention, the replacement of publication of books by teaching as the lead criterion for promotion. Abolish tenure, asserts one radical. Let those who can’t publish books go to the wall, asserts another of more Darwinist inclination (he has two titles to his name and evidently sees no reason why the ladder shouldn’t be pulled up). Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, vigorously denies that he, and his fellow academic publishers, are becoming cynically profit-driven. The real fault, he argues, is that the stuff coming out of graduate programmes nowadays is too damned dull:

I am getting depressed dealing with young scholars in shock because they ‘did everything’ their dissertation directors instructed to craft a product that would sell, only to be told by me it’s uninteresting. The situation of young scholars in literature is a bit like the one of sonneteers in the Renaissance, when everybody had figured out how to write 14-liners, but too few of them had any lift.

The basic problem remains intractable. Too few qualified readers will buy monographs, even the good ones, because the books are too expensive, or because they know their library will eventually supply them. But there is, I think, a solution which is simple and eminently practical.

A friend at UCLA recently wrote to the University of Chicago Press, inquiring if they would give a discount on 30 copies of a reader his department was buying in for his graduate class. Expecting a reply from some menial in dispatching, he was surprised to receive a personal letter from a senior editor, Alan Thomas. No discounts, Thomas said. And he went on to say something about the ‘crisis’: if every serving academic in an American university literature department bought as few as six new hardbacks every year, there would be no crisis.

If Thomas is right, the solution has been in the British bookshop for half a century: book tokens. Give every academic (as part of their salary, research support and benefits package) $200 worth of coupons a year, redeemable for reading matter at any of the fifty or so top academic presses, and the monographic stream would flow again. Too simple, perhaps.