What is an academic book?

The Academic Book of the Future Project asks the fundamental question… What is an academic book?

This may seem like an odd question, but if we are going to debate the future of something, it seems like a good idea to know what that something is. One definition that can be used for the academic book is that it is a long-form publication, as opposed to a short-form publication like an article, and is the result of in-depth academic research, usually over a period of years, making an original contribution to a field of study.

An academic book can take many forms. In the past, these forms would generally have been represented in print, but increasingly print formats are being accompanied or sometimes replaced by digital versions, and digital formats are becoming increasingly functional. However, other analogue forms like film or photography have also been considered long-form research publications in visual disciplines; and these are increasingly digital.

It is becoming difficult to know, now, what the limits of an academic book are. If our key definition is as above, with only two main characteristics—long form, original contribution, — without limiting what medium the ‘book’ might be produced in, then we have an almost infinite variety of possibilities. From this flow both opportunities and concerns. The opportunities offer academics scope to explore and publish, sources, ideas, analyses, conclusions and data in formats that perhaps better suit their subject areas than conventional publication, and enable collaboration and interlinking of people and ideas as in ways never previously possible. The concerns reside around skills and training for developing new forms of publication; new models of publishing and the economics of the publishing industry; complex networks of intellectual property issues as data, sources and ideas are mashed and mingled, incorporating copyrighted works and creating new copyrights; and the thorny issue of how libraries and other institutions are going to make available new forms of publication in many new and evolving formats, and how these are to be preserved for the long term.

‘Conventional’ forms of academic books


The academic monograph is the cornerstone of academic writing in the humanities. As Geoffrey Crossick says of the monograph:

It provides the length and space needed to allow a full examination of a topic, with the objective of presenting complex and rich ideas, arguments and insights supported by carefully contextualised analysis and evidence. … Writing a monograph allows the author to weave a complex and reflective narrative, tying together a body of research in a way that is not possible with journal articles or other shorter outputs.

Typically, the monograph is in excess of 80,000 words, may be heavily illustrated in some discipline areas like art history, and may have a single or several authors. It will refer to other work on the topic with a dense network of comments and footnotes, and will have an overall thesis that offers an original contribution to the field.

Edited Collections

An edited collection will typically address a particular topic or theme. It will have one or more editors, and a series of chapters addressing that theme which will usually cross-refer. Again, it will offer an original contribution to its field.

Critical editions

In subject areas that deal with written primary sources, the critical edition is a key work of scholarship. A work , which may have a number of versions, is transcribed and the various different versions collated (in print this is done by registering variant reading from a master copy, in digital editions this is increasingly done by offering multiple versions that can be collated using technical means). Explanatory text, notes, glossaries and other ancilliary materials are added to aid interpretation for the reader. Critical editions are significant works that present a great deal of original scholarship.

Exhibition or museum/gallery catalogues

These can be considered academic books if, along with images of the works in the exhibition, they contain analytical material that is the result of research.

Other forms of long-form productions

In disciplines which are not primarily textual, non-textual analogue productions are accepted forms of research output. Research photography and film have been recognised for more than 50 years as research products in areas such as anthropology, film studies, photography studies, performance studies. Take for example the outputs of the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology in Manchester, which cover sound and performance, photographic and digital media, and art/museum installations (ee http://granadacentre.co.uk). In archaeology, the field report, which incorporates maps, graphs, sketches, photographs etc is a significant research output.

The Digital Academic Book

Increasingly, academic books are being produced, published and disseminated digitally alongside or sometimes instead of in print, and print on demand from digital files is now common with most academic publishers. All of the above products are amenable to digital representation, but some things inevitably change when translated or migrated to new formats—and entirely new kinds of output are possible.


Ebooks are usually straightforward representations of print books with some limited added functionality such as annotation, dictionary lookup etc. There are a number of formats available besides the ubiquitous PDF, but they all offer much the same reading experience which tries to mimic fairly closely the print experience. So monographs and other conventional works presented as ebooks differ only in details of presentation from their print equivalents, rather than in matters of substance

Digital critical editions and archives

We group critical editions and archives together as it is sometimes difficult to see the boundaries between them. Like conventional critical editions, digital critical editions present a work in all its significant versions with a great deal of critical and explanatory materials. Where digital editions generally differ from print works is in their ability to present all the witnesses to a particular work, in high quality image form and in transcriptions, and allow the user to perform collations on these using software, and in the ability to present vastly more material than is practical in printed form, with layers of complex interlinking. Two good examples of online editions are Kathryn Sutherland’s Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts (www.janeausten.ac.uk/index.html) which incorporates images and transcriptions of all the author’s surviving fiction manuscripts and the edition of Dante’s Commedia by Prue Shaw which collates seven manuscripts of the work (http://www.sd-editions.com/Commedia/index.html) and is available in online and CD ROM form.

Given the expanded possibilities of the digital edition, these often grow into an archive around a work or a writer, for example the Walt Whitman Archive (http://www.whitmanarchive.org) which presents a plethora of information about the poet and his works. One problem of defining certain digital editions or archives as academic books is that they are often deliberately mutable and unfinished, with additions and corrections made regularly, often by a large and interlinked team. Some scholars proclaim this as a benefit, given that errors can be corrected instantly, new ideas, readings or witnesses added at will, but this is antithetical to the kind of scholarship that requires stability of referent in order that scholarly debate can take place around a known and stable body of sources.

New forms of publication

Digital technology, high definition screens, and new critical modes of enquiry mean that our traditional definitions of academic products need radical rethinking. A long-form research output can now take many new forms and constraints upon certain avenues of research and publication are loosened. Take for example, Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity: The Late Roman and Byzantine Inscriptions by Charlotte Roueché. The first edition of this was published in 1989 in print form, incorporating photographs of the inscriptions, transcriptions and commentary. The second, online, edition appeared in 2004, (www.insaph.kcl.ac.uk/ala2004/index.html) now allowing much more commentary and a new approach to the organisation of the materials that strained uneasily against the print format. At the touch of a button the inscriptions can be viewed by type, by find spot, by date, etc.

More recently, see the multifaceted digital publications now planned by Stanford University Press, stimulated by a major grant from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. (www.library.stanford.edu/news/2015/01/stanford-university-press-awarded-12-million-publishing-interactive-scholarly-works)

The first publication by the Press will be Enchanting the Desert by Nicholas Bauch, a book-length examination of Henry Peabody’s 1905 slideshows of the Grand Canyon, which creates a digital prototype for studying cultural and geographical history.  The Mellon Foundation has recently funded a group of university presses in the US to create a shareable, open-source solution for born-digital complementary monograph materials as well as a working model that maximizes the publishing strengths of university presses and the preservation expertise of libraries.

Other publishers are creating innovative models of publication in digital form of existing print materials. The Oxford University Press Oxford Scholarly Editions Online initiative (http://www.oxfordscholarlyeditions.com) is a way of bringing the academic book of the past into the present and the future: major scholarly editions published by Oxford and other academic presses are rekeyed, marked up, and interlinked into complex online editions. Cambridge University Press have developed parallel editions in print and digital form, for instance the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson (http://universitypublishingonline.org/cambridge/benjonson/).

Rather different, but still in contention to be called academic books are books apps like the Faber/Touch Press versions of The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. These integrate manuscripts, editions, critical commentary, and performances and readings to create an entirely new experience of the works presented. In the Sonnets, for example, all 154 poems are performed by an all-star cast including Sir Patrick Stewart, Kim Cattrall, Stephen Fry and David Tennant. The text highlights line by line as each sonnet is performed (http://www.touchpress.com).

It is not just in the digital world that innovation in book production is happening, but perhaps some of the innovations in physical formats are driven by responses to the digital. Visual Editions, a London-based book publisher, is publishing books, and producing apps and events that are all about making what they call ‘Great Looking Stories’ (http://www.visual-editions.com). They produce books both on and off the screen that tell stories in a visual way, making for new kinds of reading experiences, and they call this visual writing. Are these academic books? Well, some of them are. Their first publication was a new edition of that notoriously quirky and difficult work, Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and ‘as the review in the New York Times points out, ‘is filled with visual jokes: a closed door is illustrated by a folded page; beads of sweat by spots of varnish; and the famous “black page” in the original book is replaced by two pages on which the text is over-printed in black.’ How about Composition no. 1? The Visual Editions publication is a re-imagining of a book originally published in the 1960s. The book is the first ever “book in a box”, by French writer Marc Saporta. It is, quite literally, a book that comes in a box with loose pages. Each page has a self-contained narrative, leaving it to the reader to decide the order they read the book, and how much or how little of the book they want to read before they begin again. In many ways, Composition no.1 was published ahead of its time: the book raises all the questions we ask ourselves today about user-centric, non-linear screen driven ways of reading. Composition no. 1 also comes as an iPad app.

And if you think that the printed book is dead, have a look at Arion Press which produces sumptuous books illustrated with original art, and printed on specially produced paper. Their version of The Waste Land retails for $600, and the two volumes of Don Quixote for $2000 each. (http://www.arionpress.com)

So, over to you—what do YOU think an academic book is? Send us examples of other works that we may not have thought of as examples of the range of what an academic book can be.


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