What’s the Point of the Academic Book? Part Three: Tim Hitchcock

The Project was invited to speak at the BSECS 45th Annual Conference, which took place on Thursday 7th January 2016 at the University of Oxford. The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) is soon to launch its own book series, in association with Boydell & Brewer, and wanted to consult with its community on the form that this new series should take. Chaired by Professor Matthew Grenby (Newcastle), the provocatively-titled round table ‘What’s the Point of the Academic Book?’ included views from Project Research Associate Rebecca Lyons, Professor Tim Hitchcock (Sussex), and Mari Shullaw (Boydell & Brewer). The three views from each speaker will be posted in three parts – each perspective being published in its own blog post. The third and final part, given here, is Professor Tim Hitchcock’s. Part One, by Rebecca Lyons, is here: https://academicbookfuture.org/2016/01/25/the-point-of-the-academic-book-part-one/ and Part Two, by Mari Shullaw, is here: https://academicbookfuture.org/2016/01/26/the-point-of-the-academic-book-part-two/

Tim HitchcockTo my undying frustration I find myself wedded to a position that I suspect will be unpopular with this audience. Although I have published some dozen books over what increasingly feels like a rather over-long academic career – most recently a monograph, co-written with Robert Shoemaker, called London Lives : Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, I don’t much like them. As a technology of knowledge they strike me as both inefficient and outmoded – and as importantly, I think the technology has changed what books are, making them just too fast to be good scholarship.

Having said this, academic books in particular, were undoubtedly wonderful components of a complex technology of knowing – the greatest product of the Enlightenment. And they worked beautifully within that context. The first course I took as a first-year undergraduate in the mid-1970s was in Library Science – and that course introduced me to the beauty of that remarkable integrated system that was the ‘library’ – from union catalogues, to card catalogues, to concordances. And I spent the next twenty years working in libraries of precisely the same sort, reading books. And I gladly admit that traditional footnotes citing hard copy books and journals, work when read while sitting in a major reference library – with those volumes and journals readily to hand. Bibliographies too, worked just fine, when the sources used to substantiate a discussion were composed exclusively of the sorts of materials that could be encompassed within the Dewey Decimal system, or archival catalogue. And Indexes represented an intelligent manual approach to mapping the contents of a single body of text – a mental model (ideally written by the author to guide the eye of the reader) designed to make the text more usable. Chapters and ISBNs, prefaces, acknowledgements, appendices and all the clarity of a well-formed colophon – were a great technology of knowing.

And they worked within a traditional ecology of institutional knowledge creation and dissemination. Academics were (and are) paid by the state and their students, to write books, which are then published either by traditional non-profit university presses; or else by commercial presses whose services are built into a wider academic ecology. And the economics of the publication is then made credible by the investment of university libraries – who purchase ninety percent of the product. A merry-go-round of creation, production and consumption that has gone on its merry way for a couple of centuries; and did the job of making, recording and disseminating knowledge; and enacting the slow form conversation that went with it. And while this system was grossly elitist, highly gendered, inherently Western centric and institutionally racist – it nevertheless had and has many pleasures – some of which the attendees at this conference are here to enjoy.

And, of course, books are also beautiful things. The heft of a heavy tome in your hand; the smell of old leather, and uncut pages; the romance of engaging with knowledge in the same form as it was originally ‘published’, a hundred, or two hundred or five hundred years ago is a wonderful romantic experience – that anyone studying the past needs to have encountered. Like the journey in to the paper archive; reading a book with one hand or two, is a necessary part of knowing how the past worked.

But as a means of acting out and performing the all-important function of the academy – of generating deep knowledge as a background to modern civil society – I think academic books are a bit rubbish. In part they are rubbish because they don’t take advantage of the technologies around us to fulfil the purpose of academic writing more fully. And in part it is because the process of publication and production has in fact taken full advantage of those technologies.

Having said this, when I was originally invited to be on this panel, it was sold to me under the title and question of whether ‘the academic book has a future?’ And while I don’t like it or them very much, my conclusion is that yes, books do have a future. I think there is a continuing – though declining – demand for the technology needed to enact an older and traditional form of scholarship and intellectual authority.   And since books are deeply mired in our still thriving hierarchies of authority, they will remain. As long as books form the easy tick box on a REF assessment; while they stand out on your CV – evidence of seriousness of purpose, and justification for just one more sabbatical – they will remain. And in the process, their publication and sale back to the universities that paid to have them written in the first instance, will continue to provide profits to commercial publishers, and justifications for library budgets, and paid employment for all the people involved in the process of turning an argument in to an object – a hard copy book.

In other words, as long as the requirements of ‘authority’ demand the existence books to evidence the existence of ‘authors’ who can be safely given academic jobs, the ‘book’ – as distinct from long-form writing – has a future. Like neo-liberal capitalism, the greengrocer’s apostrophe, poverty and herpes, academic books definitely have a future. I just don’t think that this is a particularly good thing.

We all know the affordances that the World Wide Web has created. We all use it every day, and if we are honest with ourselves we all know that it has fundamentally changed how we perform scholarship and research; certainly how we write; and how we engage in academic conversations.

Most of us access and read journal articles as pdfs downloaded from Jstor. Most of us access 18th century printed material from Eighteenth-century Collections online, Google books, project Gutenberg or such. Even our primary manuscript research has been increasingly shaped by what is available online – whether that is the Newton Project, the Old Bailey Online, or the endless smaller projects that have sought to digitise the stuff of the dead.

And of course, how we work with text has also changed beyond recognition. All of us use the automated footnoting facility in Word, and most of us use one form or another of citation management, whether that is Nvivo, Zotero or Endnote. We now exchange ideas via Twitter, and generate camera ready copy with Word. And once written, we shunt the whole thing off to the publisher, who runs a quick and dirty bit of copy-editing – aided by an automated search and replace function – over the result, before bunging it into a standard design template, and generating an automated index, before Bob’s your uncle, you have a book, ready for the Autumn catalogue to go out to the 400 American research libraries whose budgets keep the whole financial edifice upright.   With the possible exception of hard copy proofs, there is unlikely to be a single physical artefact of a modern book, from inception to the moment it lands with a thud on your doormat.

And all of this is a problem in part because it is all a bit easy.

Up until the early 1990s, generating a book was a different kind of process. Before email, every revision and every exchange of views took weeks and months; and when all the process of turning manuscript in to print was embedded within a form of production that still marched to the rhythms of the hand press – with proofs and galleys and all the joys of the ink stained fingers – books were not just long-form writing, but a remarkably slow form as well.   Now, you can mimic the appearance of print with a few keystrokes. And the slow scholarship that was required no longer matters. In other words, the important thing about that old style process, producing that old style ‘book’, was that all the components of the system were tied to a single purpose, moving at a stately – ever so slow – pace.

And that pace was important. It meant that a book was a much more significant investment of time, than it has become. It required more hands, and more minds – from local librarian, to author, to editor, to copy-editor, to typesetter, to warehouseman. Each job done by hand; the privilege of publication was necessarily rationed. By contrast, we are now in a situation in which there are both many more books – getting on for one for every academic in the country, every six or seven years – and each one represents a substantially smaller investment of time and resource – both intellectual and financial. This has the benefit of giving voice to more individuals – though it should be noted that the retention of peer review, means those voices are still largely limited by class and race.

All of which is to simply say that academic books have if anything become an ever more important part of that wider academic ecology, which itself has become ever more demanding of book production. But that while the technology of creation – all the joys of Google Search, Word and the Adobe Suite – make these things much easier to publish, that does not mean that the product itself is any good. Or that they continue to serve that underlying function of performing that slow dance of scholarship and public engagement, of deep learning, leading to deep teaching, leading to a working civil society, that the academy, that Universities promise.

This seems to me a real shame. If instead of using the ‘affordances’ of the new technology to simply speed up and cheapen the monograph and academic book, we chose to do something new and different, that nevertheless supported that the underlying purpose of the academy, then we could still have long form writing, and deep thinking, without the ridiculous, Fordist – factory floor – world that has come to characterise the modern academy.

And I really just want to end with a suggestion. I want to suggest that instead of mooning over ‘books’, and worrying about whether the business model of the commercial presses will still be viable in a ten years, we work a bit harder at representing more truthfully the research process we all use.

I had a very interesting experience recently. In writing our last ‘book’, Bob Shoemaker and I deliberately chose to design and implement it as a thoroughgoing ebook. Every quote was linked to the original source, every footnote to the article, or ESTC entry cited; every graph to the underlying spreadsheet and data, and every cell in every spreadsheet to its source. We wrote the book collaboratively in a WIKI environment, and in the end it contained over 4000 hyperlinks. Building on the London Lives and Old Bailey websites, it was conceived and delivered to the publishers as a vertically integrated research archive and commentary that was designed to serve all the purposes of traditional scholarship. The publishers had contracted to deliver this ebook, but when it came to submission – when we delivered the manuscript in Mobi and Epub formats – with floating formats, and colour images – they turned around as said, that they could only accept a book in a flat Word format. In the end, after some two years, that book is now out – and though an e-version exists, there is no provision for libraries to buy it, and it looks and works like a slightly up-market pdf.

The reasons for my failure in this instance is a long story. But the point I want to make today is that it is entirely possible to represent modern scholarship in three dimensions – to capture that journey in to the literature, and Google Books, and online primary sources – and to create a ‘book’ that fully reflects that journey. Even if we believe that long-form writing is important (and I am in three minds), let’s make books that take advantage of the online, that serve the real function of footnotes, and stop making books that feel like the dead husks of a previous generation’s form of scholarship.

And along the way, let’s think again about the institutions that tie us ever more tightly in to this ever more demanding system of production for production’s sake – this increasingly Fordist dystopia of academic publication for the mere purpose of demonstrating productivity, over purpose.

I do believe the academic book has a future, and in my imagination a bright and positive one – as a graphic novel, and a Twitter stream, as a curated collection of blogs, or a string of comments and responses. I believe we can continue to think deeply and engage deeply, as long as we simply keep in mind the limitations of the technology, and the purpose of our thinking. I very much hope that academic book in its weird, flat, 19th century form is dying. Long live the book.

[Editor’s Note: For more on the alternative academic book, check out the Call for Content for BOOC (Book as Open Online Content) – an exciting new collaborative project between The Academic Book of the Future and UCL Press: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/ucl-press-news/call-for-content-booc]

A Storify of live tweets from the panel is available here: https://storify.com/AcBookFuture/what-is-the-point-of-the-academic-book

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What’s the Point of the Academic Book? Part Two: Mari Shullaw

The Project was invited to speak at the BSECS 45th Annual Conference, which took place on Thursday 7th January 2016 at the University of Oxford. The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) is soon to launch its own book series, in association with Boydell & Brewer, and wanted to consult with its community on the form that this new series should take. Chaired by Professor Matthew Grenby (Newcastle), the provocatively-titled round table ‘What’s the Point of the Academic Book?’ included views from Project Research Associate Rebecca Lyons, Professor Tim Hitchcock (Sussex), and Mari Shullaw (Boydell & Brewer). The three views from each speaker will be posted in three parts – each perspective being published in its own blog post. The second, given here, is Mari Shullaw’s. Part One, by Rebecca Lyons, is here: https://academicbookfuture.org/2016/01/25/the-point-of-the-academic-book-part-one/

Mari_ShullawBoydell & Brewer is proud and pleased to be working with BSECS on the eighteenth-century studies series. We hope that it will be, in many ways, a reflection of this conference – a place where all the disciplines involved in eighteenth-century studies can meet and learn from each other.

Background on Boydell and Brewer

We are a smallish independent academic press, publishing about 150 books a year across the humanities. Founded by two medievalists – Derek Brewer and Richard Barber – and their ethos of scholarly publishing is still very much with us. The core of our publishing is monographs. We don’t publish journals and we don’t publish sciences.

Books are available to libraries on a variety of digital platforms including JSTOR and CUP’s University Publishing online and increasingly our more accessible titles are available as Kindle and ibooks. Nevertheless 80% of our sales are still “woodpulp” – not unusual among publishers in the humanities.

We haven’t yet published anything in Open Access, but that is because we have not been asked to do so. That is sure to change in the near future. At this stage rather than setting a tariff as some of our colleagues have done we’d prefer to talk to authors individually about what they and their funders are looking for and work from there.

In this paper I am going to side-step the philosophic and pedagogic issues involved in defining the point of the academic book, and settle instead for some reflections on the related but more manageable question of function.

Crisis – What crisis?

Signs of health for the academic book:

The long form academic book maintains its position at the heart of the humanities disciplines.

We are not short of new monograph publications. The Crossick report noted the four largest academic publishers had doubled monograph output in the last ten years, and seemed to regard this as a sign of health. I’m not so sure. Are there really twice as many monographs worthy of publication now as there were in 2004? It seems unlikely.

Signs of sickness for the academic book:

Sales have dwindled, and as the print runs have decreased so the prices have increased – and all this at a time when library budgets in the UK and other parts of the are being squeezed.

It is important not to overstate the importance of price here. The sheer bulk of what is available also plays its part, so bringing down prices, as we do when we publish in paperback, makes worryingly little difference to the numbers sold.

This story applies as much to books available in digital form as it does to print. Open Access as currently exercised would simply put the gate at the other end, with the authors of certain kinds of work and authors in certain institutional positions being unable to publish, rather than the public unable to read what they have written.

The way forward

In The Academic Book of the Future – the recent Palgrave Pivot (Nov 2015) [available to download for free here: http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137595768] commissioned and editing by the Project, Frances Pinter, of Manchester University Press and Knowledge Unlatched stated that:

The meaning of the word ‘book’ itself will never again be confined to that of a physical object to be held, admired, loved, subject to spilt coffee, or burning by dictators. The ‘book’ will be defined more around its function than any of its other characteristics.

In fact the elegy for the book as an object of love and a repository of memory is probably premature – but the point about function is well taken. We need to be looking at it where the book fits into the academic eco system and we need to look at this I think both from the point of view of the user of books – how does the academic book work as a tool of the academic trade? – and from that of the author – why do you write the books in the first place?

For the user a book has two main functions, which in the digital age one might describe very crudely as ‘browse’ and ‘search’, and which have implications for the medium in which books are accessed.

To the ‘browser’, the whole book is important. The browser values the journey – the way the argument is shaped, the meanders and the digressions. For this reader even noting the faults – the points where the argument is thin and the evidence is overstated – is part of the pleasure of the journey, and to this reader or to be more accurate to a reader in this mode style matters. It’s difficult to read in this way if a book is badly written. It is also – it is increasingly clear – somewhat difficult to read in this way electronically, at least as things stand at the moment. This is the sort of reading where you flip back and forth, remembering that there was a relevant passage two thirds of the way back at the top of the left hand page, where you underline and scrawl things in the margins. The full experience, which is sensory as well as intellectual, seems to require print and paper.

It has to be admitted that there are simply not enough hours in the day for browsing. Mostly we need to get through stuff, find what we need and move on. It’s here that the digital form comes into its own. There are three key requirements here:

  1. Discoverability: you need to know that the book exists and that it is relevant.
  2. Accessibility: you want it when you want it. This is one of the major advantages of the ebook, whether available through the university library or bought by an individual
  3. Searchability: find key information and arguments and move on.

And one thing which ebooks alone have the potential to provide is access to the original source material through hyperlinks, which as Tim [Hitchcock] discovered [during the London Lives project: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/58047/], can be a tricky business for publishers, but is still quite clearly the way of the future.

Working out these questions of function for the user is relatively simple, though the delivery may be more complicated. From the publishers’ point of view this is not a zero sum game. There is no reason why print and digital should not coexist happily for decades to come.

As far as the author’s side is concerned my role is to ask the questions, not to give the answers. In an interview after the publication of his report Crossick made the interesting point that “the monograph was not simply about dissemination but a way to think about the research itself – I call this ‘thinking through writing the book.’ There is an element of personal development here. It is in the process of turning a thesis into a first book – if this is done well – that a student becomes a scholar and this process is reiterated throughout an academic career. The writing of a book in the humanities in particular is a key part of the academic digestion.

But is this route too readily accepted as the norm? When I was a student, a good many of my older lecturers published relatively seldom and certainly not in monograph form. The pressures of a much more competitive job market and the REF have put paid to that, but are we simply assuming that the monograph is the point to which research tends? Are there actually too many, and should we be thinking instead of alternative modes of production? As the current problems with Open Access are ironed out there may be room for more journals, for instance. Digital publishing has made it easier for publishers to be more flexible about length, so we have experiments like the Palgrave Pivot series of intermediate publications of 30-50k words. The current Pivot publications are mostly in the social sciences, but would there be more room for similar in the humanities?

More radically the digital revolution, stuttering as it is, does provide the means by which the relation between author and readership, whether academic or more general can be reconfigured. As Bob Shoemaker states of the London Lives project on his Sheffield blog:

The reader would then be given the evidence to question our interpretations, come to different conclusions, or simply follow their own interests through the linked sources. The book we wanted to create would be so extensively interlinked that we would cede control of the narrative and our authority as authors could be challenged by readers following their own agendas.

There is a political project here about the balance of power between author and reader, which could be taken further.

What is the point of the academic publisher?

Finally, a few words on the question ‘what is the point of the academic publisher?’ – because I suppose that must be why I am part of this panel.

The first thing to be said is that there really is now no part of the publishing process, taken individually, that you could not do on your own if you wanted to. Nevertheless, I believe that we do still have a contribution to make.

Three things in particular:

  1. Time and consistency of effort

Between teaching, research, writing and university admin, self-publishing might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for you [the academic].

An academic publisher pulls together experience and efficiency across a range of things: editing, production and marketing.

  1. Attention

Good editors really want their authors to do well, and will invest time in this. A good editor, especially when working with a junior scholar, will spend time on helping to shape the proposal before it goes out for review, will interpret and mediate the reviews which often ask for contradictory or impossible things and will also do a fair amount of hand-holding and cheer-leading during the ups and downs of the process of writing a book.

  1. Detachment

All organisations have their own politics, but at least we [the publishers] are outside of the institutional politics of your universities.

We have no axe to grind apart from the rather innocent one of trying to make your book pay its way so that we can make a little profit and go on publishing more books.

One last word: I mentioned detachment just now, but of course as academic publishers we are only ever semi-detached. It is worth remembering that, however the power relations may look when you are in the middle of a dispute with your editor or having difficulty getting something published, in the end we are wholly dependent on you. If you sink, we sink, and if you really want us to go in a particular direction – and by that I mean not just as authors but as consumers – then that is the direction we will go.

We are in your hands.

 

A Storify of live tweets from the panel is available here: https://storify.com/AcBookFuture/what-is-the-point-of-the-academic-book

 

#AcBookWeek: Ecologies of Publishing Futures

On the 23rd November 2015 The Royal College of Art hosted a symposium to discuss the Ecologies of Publishing Futures. The symposium asked ‘How do designers engage in new ecologies and what is the future of publishing?’ Academics, designers, storytellers, publishers, and students spoke about this from international perspectives and debated over the book and its lifecycle, as well as the role of writing, designing, and the processes of mediating, distributing, and reading.

Amongst the speakers was Andrew Prescott, Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and an AHRC Digital Transformation theme Leadership Fellow. He spoke from the perspective of a medievalist who has spent great deal of time studying manuscripts and records (writing his PhD thesis on the record of the Peasant’s Revolt 1381). Throughout his research, Prescott stated he was struck by the need to understand the wealth of information as physical artefacts, as well as just reading them as manuscripts. This work inspired him to continue on as a curator at the British Library, where he was part of a digitisation project which used special lighting techniques to discover the hidden letters underneath the repaired manuscript of Beowulf – burnt in a fire in 1731 and repaired in the nineteenth century. (Note: The Beowulf manuscript has been in The British Library’s possession since 1973 and a digitised version is now available to browse on their website, along with some additional information, here:http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beowulf)

Prescott spoke about how this work and his time at the British Library made him conscious of the hugely varied material forms of textuality. Historical documents can range from clay tablets to sound files and moving images, and, he argued, digital technology can help convey the wide-ranging nature of historical textuality. Digital technology also allows closer contact between libraries, archives, and museums. According to Prescott the important thing to take away from this is that dialogue with artists and designers is essential in articulating fresh perspectives on engagement with historical material. An example he cited was an art project by Fabio Antinori called Data Flags, which was exhibited at the V&A last year. He used conductive ink, which is often thought of as an analogue art form but can turn paper into circuits. Through other examples Prescott suggested that the textuality of art is always changing and shifting with the times and proved that the boundary between primary object, publication and interpretation is starting to be fundamentally restated. Prescott summed up his talk by ending on a somewhat cynical note: while all the possibilities he mentioned are there, people are bit taking advantage of them. His view is that the scholarly environment for an undergraduate today is less media-rich than it was forty years ago. Textbooks during his time as an undergraduate explored the potential of new printing methods, none of which have been followed through on.

Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House, had been given a brief to provide a provocation for the event on the state of digital publishing, so what he provided was a ‘where-we-are-now’ overview to provoke discussion and invite debate. He acknowledged the changes digital publishing is making to the publishing industry and talked about it from the perspective of someone who is in the midst of the shifting landscape.

Using an analogy of William Golding’s The Inheritors Franklin compared the plot of that novel, the collision of Neanderthal men and women with Homo sapiens, the people who would inherit the earth from them with the current state of the publishing industry. The analogy here being the moment of transition between print and digital, a short and historical moment of co-existence. And Franklin suggests that they can thrive with each other instead of being viewed as competitors. He recognises the urgency and potentially demoralising nature of change, but adds that it can also be exciting, depending on your viewpoint. As a digital publisher at Penguin Random House he motivates his team to explore the bleeding edges of this publishing transformation.

During this year Franklin stated he has seen some interesting and willful misinterpretations of what is happening in publishing. The fact of the matter is that 25%+ of publishers’ revenues are coming in via digital and that is not going to reverse. The “takeover” however, has not happened as quickly as people thought it would and Franklin states this is a testament to the formidable power of the printed book. Franklin is adamant that the word processor has not stopped writers continuing and developing the novel form so why should the innovation stop there? Franklin urges publishers to continue to be innovative with change and see what can come from it.

Professor Teal Triggs of the RCA stated that by talking about “ecologies” of the publishing industry, we can strive to understand the process of the lifecycle better and whether proposed models are going to be relevant. It’s important to look at the entire lifecycle, not just the editorial or author aspects but the design and distribution as well. Creative people think differently and their design thinking process can be a catalyst for forwar- thinking throughout the whole industry.

 

See Dan’s talk write-up here: https://medium.com/@PRHDigital/an-earthquake-in-the-petrified-forest-86f6ffa5c85d#.jpyxy6pmq

See Andrews’s talk write-up here: https://medium.com/digital-riffs/are-we-doomed-to-a-word-of-pdfs-11f57edaf926#.9r1w3lyh2

See twitter hashtag #bookfutures for more information about the symposium and other related events.

#AcBookWeek Events!

Academic Book Week (9-16 Nov) is next week! With a constellation of events being showcased all around the UK from Sussex to Edinburgh, this week highlights the wonderful work done by booksellers, libraries, academics, and publishers, and discusses the academic book across a spectrum of perspectives. Here we have collected events by location so scroll through to see what is happening near you!

We have also just announced some competitions and offers that will be happening during the week! Including but not limited to winning an #AcBookWeek tote bag, winning a special leather-bound edition of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”, and 50% of all academic books and classics at Southcart Books. Find out about them more on this page and keep checking because more are being added all the time!

Cambridge

Cambridge will be hosting an exhibit for the entire week at the University Library, presenting a selection of books showing examples of the way readers have interacted with their textbooks from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. And on the 9th November Dr Rosalind Grooms and Kevin Taylor explore how Cambridge has shaped the world of academic publishing, starting way back in 1534.

Oxford

There are four events taking place in Oxford throughout the week. On the 9th November Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, discusses his new book “The Power of Reading”. Furedi has constructed an eclectic and entirely original history of reading, and will deliver a similarly exciting discussion on the historical relevance of the reader. Peter Lang Oxford are showcasing a book exhibit presenting the past and present of the academic book from the 9th-16th November, this event requires no registration so just drop in anytime to have a look! On the 11th November Peter Lang again presents J. Khalfa and I. Chol who have recently published “Spaces of the Book”, exploring the life of books ‘beyond the page’. This launch will be followed by a drinks reception and discussion of the aforementioned week-long exhibit. The Oxford events culminate on the 12th November with a panel discussion on The Future of the Academic Monograph; four panelists and two respondents will address issues from their personal perspectives including academic librarianship, academic publishing, and academic bookselling.

Edinburgh

Edinburgh plays host to a series of debates around digital text during the week. The first is on the 9th November and the debate will cover online text and learning, the second on the 10th covers digital text and publishing, the third on the 11th covers open access textbooks, and the fourth on the 12th covers online learning. With speakers from eclectic backgrounds and unique perspectives these offer informative and insightful discussions. The week in Edinburgh finishes up on the 13th with a debate on the subject Is the Book Dead? This promises to be an interesting event with speakers from the Bookseller’s Association and Scottish Publishing covering issues about the future of books and reading.

Liverpool

Liverpool launches their Academic Book Week events with a talk at the University of Liverpool with Simon Tanner, from King’s College London, and member of the project team, as keynote speaker, and a subsequent overview of the week’s events. Simon will speak on ‘The Academic Book of the Future and Communities of Practice’ with Charles Forsdick and Claire Taylor responding from the perspectives of Translating Cultures and Digital Transformations, respectively. On the 10th November Claire Hooper of Liverpool University Press and Charlie Rapple from Kudos present ideas on how to promote your academic book via Kudos and social media, a fitting topic when thinking specifically about the future of the academic book. On the 11th Gina D’Oca of Palgrave MacMillan will speak about open access monographs and a representative from Liverpool University Press will give their perspective. The last event in Liverpool takes place on the 12th and will focus on the academic book as a free available source for students. Academics, librarians, and university presses should work together to create free open access sources for students, but how? Find out here!

Glasgow

John Smith’s Glasgow hosts all of the events taking place in the city throughout the week. The first night on the 9th the bookstore will stay open late and from 5:30-7:30pm all customers will receive special one-night-only discounts on items not already discounted! There will also be refreshments so there’s no excuse not to come and celebrate the longstanding partnership between John Smith’s and the University of Glasgow. On the 10th the bookstore hosts the launch of Iain Macwhirter’s new book, “Tsuanmi: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution”. On the 11th – purposefully coinciding with Armistice Day – John Smith’s caters an evening of discussion and readings exploring Edwin Morgan’s unique contribution to Scotland’s poetry in response to war. With readings and contributions from friends and trustees of Edwin Morgan this evening will be a personal and creative contribution to the week. John Smith’s unique events don’t stop there! On the 12th Louise Welsh, Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, discusses her recent novels and the editing of a new anthology of supernatural stories – a perfectly atmospheric evening for the cold autumn evenings. John Smith’s last event takes place on the 13th, author and astronomer (what a combination!) Dr. Pippa Goldschmidt discusses co-editing a new collection “I Am Because You Are”. She will be joined by contributor Neil Williamson as they talk science and fiction. 

London

London has a large amount of events happening starting with a debate focusing on how the evolving technologies of the book have changed the way we read at The School of Advanced Study. The 10th sees two other events: Blackwell’s at UCL hosts the book launch of Shirley Simon’s “Narratives of Doctoral Studies in Science Education” and Rowman & Littlefield International offer a panel event on interdisciplinary publishing and research. The question being asked is how do academics and publishers reach a diverse, multidisciplinary audience and the panel will be followed by a Q&A session. The 11th plays host to two events: Palgrave MacMillan’s premiere academic series in the history of the book is being launched and elsewhere Charlotte Frost outlines the future of the art history book. She asks ‘what should the art history book of the future look like and what should it do differently for the discipline to evolve?’ Since 2015 marks the 400th anniversary of Richard Baxter’s birth, a symposium to honour his life and assess his significance takes place on the 13th, as well as a panel discussion at the Wellcome Collection specifically targeting questions related to STM publishing and issues facing humanities research. The 12th November also sees The Independent Publishers Guild Autumn Conference with representatives from Academic Book Week, Dr Samantha Rayner, Richard Fisher, Eben Muse and Peter Lake, speaking on a panel.

Hertfordshire & Cardiff

We have one event happening in Hertfordshire in conjunction with the University of Hertfordshire Press and Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies! This is for anyone considering getting their research published as it addresses local history and publishing combined in an effort to help and advise about writing book proposals and approaching publishers. Similarly, in Cardiff there is an event on the 11th November utilising a forum to discuss innovative Open Access academic publishing ventures.

Manchester & Bristol

In Manchester on the 11th there will be a panel discussion presented by Digital Humanities Manchester and the University of Manchester Library as they get to the root of the issues presented in academic publishing. Multiple perspectives will make this a fascinating event as panelists attempt to answer questions such as what is the future of the academic long-form publication in the evolving publishing landscape? And is there still a future for the physical book? And in Bristol on the 10th November a panel tackles the questions facing the academic book from the perspective of the panel and the audience.

Sussex & Sheffield

In Sussex on the 11th there is a similar panel discussion; three speakers from different backgrounds grapple with the transformation of the academic book and what that will mean for the future. On the 11th in Sheffield an important and fascinating question is asked: Should we trust Wikipedia? Librarians and scholars from a range of backgrounds discuss the validity of information on there and address questions of integrity surrounding digital publishing. Sheffield finishes off Academic Book Week on the 13th with an open afternoon in the University of Sheffield Library’s Special Collections, introducing visitors to treasures from their collection.

Dundee & Stirling

Dundee and Stirling partake in the excitement of the week also! On the 11th November Dundee presents the Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon as part of the NEoN Digital Arts Festival and on the 13th a mini-symposium focused on the intersection of tradition and craft with the digital transformation of art and design. In Stirling on the 12th John Watson, Commissioning Editor for Law, Scottish Studies & Scottish History at Edinburgh University Press will be speaking to students of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication about academic publishing and his role as a commissioning editor.

Leicester & Nottingham

When we mentioned that events were happening all over the country we really mean it! If you are near the Midlands, DeMontford University is bringing together PhD students to think about the future of the English PhD and the future training of English academics. And last but not least on the 12th in Nottingham Sprinting to the Open FuTure takes place – a panel discussion event bringing together those who interact with academic books to explore questions about how students and staff publish, and the challenges they face.

With so much happening, it will be hard to choose  – we know we are already having trouble deciding between events. Come to as many as you can, and help support the future of the academic book!

Specialist perspectives: the Project works with the Miltonists

The Project was recently invited to speak at the Eleventh International Milton Symposium (University of Exeter, 20-24 July) by Professor Thomas Corns. Prof. Corns is a member of the Project’s Advisory Board as well an eminent Milton scholar – he was recently awarded a British Academy Fellowship in recognition of his contribution to Milton studies – and is therefore ideally situated to channel (and provoke!) conversation between the Project and this group of specialist researchers. This post is a summary of the issues, thoughts, concerns, and ideas that arose during this session.

Thanks to @RichardACarter for live-tweeting the session! Credit: @RichardACarter

                    Thanks to @RichardACarter for live-tweeting the session! Credit: @RichardACarter

After a brief presentation from Rebecca Lyons to introduce the Project, outline its aims, summarise progress to date, and explain why the Project was at a symposium on Milton, Prof. Corns took over. He started off with a quotation:

‘The monograph is something that every academic wants to write, few academics want to read, and no academic wants to buy’, as a distinguished commissioning editor once provocatively remarked.

Prof. Corns then put into play the view that the monograph constitutes the ‘gold standard’ for arts and humanities scholars, a view that certainly shaped institutional thinking across the sector in preparation for the recent REF, but he asked: if very few people want to read these books, and even fewer are buying them – what is the rationale behind this status? Why is the monograph still supreme?

A member of the audience responded, considering disciplines besides those in the arts and humanities:

 

‘I frequently work with colleagues in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and when you ask them to read a book, they’re reluctant because they work in articles. I love the book, but insisting on the monograph as the gold standard keeps the arts and humanities segregated from these other areas, and therefore somewhat limited.’

 

The issue of ‘monograph vs journal article’ has cropped up fairly regularly in Project conversations with other stakeholder groups and communities, from a range of angles – including the idea of ‘thesis-by-articles’ as an alternative to the 80-100,000 word monograph that has hitherto been the standard model. There have been a variety of responses to this proposal, ranging from enthusiastic to the horrified, so this was a pertinent point.

Another participant offered an alternative response:

 

‘If we bow to pressure to exclusively publish articles rather than books, then we will lose what we do really well in the arts and humanities. Yes, we can write very good articles too, and yes, it is a very good idea to engage with our counterparts in science and engineering – but it is not necessary to give up the long form monograph in order to do these things.’

 

The conversation shifted slightly, considering the implications of monographs and journals, hard copy and digital, for libraries and their expenditure on research resources. A Miltonist working in the US stated:

 

‘There is a huge crisis in library funding. My institution’s library has been cut so far to the bone that we don’t even automatically buy books published by the big university presses anymore like we used to. More and more we are relying on digital resources. Articles provide a much more accessible and immediate resource.’

 

But again, there was an alternative view (from another US-based scholar):

 

‘We have the opposite situation – my institution’s library doesn’t automatically buy all books but will buy all books on reading lists made by academics. It does not, however, subscribe to all the online journals as this is too expensive for our budgets.’

 

He went on to make the point that some universities feel “walled out” by subscription prices combined with restricted budgets:

 

‘$100 for one academic book is still cheaper than a $1000 journal subscription that expires within a year. And at least you get to keep the book! Digital, online content is not this egalitarian utopia it’s sometimes made out to be.’

 

Another comment on this came from another scholar, citing the need to distinguish long-term and short-term consultation of material:

 

‘There are several examples of texts that I’d want to access for five minutes, just to check something, but only a few where I’d actually want to own them.’

 

The subject of available institutional funding for the purchase of books and subscriptions seemed to be a pivotal concern. The conversation continued with a suggestion:

 

‘How about the interlibrary loan of digital texts? It’s what happens with physical books – why not digital ones?’

 

Here the conversation turned to other digital matters – starting with Open Access (OA). One scholar condemned OA in no uncertain terms:

 

‘It is the spume of the devil.’

 

Others had questions:

 

‘At places like the British Library or Library of Congress is there, or will there be, an obligation for digital books to be made available, as physical ones are?’

 

Or concerns, about the present state of things:

 

‘Intellectual property is an issue: if one of your books is available digitally – what it to stop it being misused? Many of us have seen agreements violated, for instance, and PhD theses sold immediately, despite an embargo. The more we move into the digital, the more likely this is to be a problem. We must be aware of how our work makes it into the public sphere – it has become necessary to Google ourselves and check regularly what is out there.’

 

As well as the future:

 

‘In the 2020 REF monographs will be excluded from the obligation to be OA, whereas articles won’t be – what will be the implications of this?’

 

Other concerns centred upon business models:

 

‘I work for a journal and if we are made to open up our content for free then we will disappear.’

 

Or career issues:

 

‘If your thesis is OA then it can problematic to have it published. It becomes an issue of hiring and tenure. The American History Society advised all graduate students not to have their thesis as OA.’

 

There were also suggestions:

 

‘Could University Presses create a consortium to open books up for a small subscription fee, like Spotify for books?’

 

Here the conversation shifted to the authors and how the drive towards OA affects them:

 

‘Academics as authors are increasingly threatened by these forces – we need better rights to protect the authors.’

 

Another scholar also commented on these ‘forces’, using the analogy of airlines in the US that are conglomerating:

 

‘You get less and less choice for more and more money. I am worried that this is happening with publishing and platforms. In terms of authors and editors, our individuality and choice is being taken away.’

 

I couldn’t help but think of huge supermarkets here, where small organic groceries have sprung up in response. Or instances where people start to grow vegetables themselves instead. Will people publish themselves in the future?

Some attendees wondered about teaching in a digital world – how do students use books, create their own content, and what other content do they use such as the excellent Milton Reading Room hosted by Dartmouth College (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/contents/text.shtml). How is teaching going to be affected by these new books, materials, and new contexts?

 

One scholar commented:

 

‘I work at an institution that has a footprint in one place but also has commitments in education elsewhere (Palestine), so the digital content that we subscribe to has a great reach, and is really valued by these students who wouldn’t be able to access this content otherwise.’

 

Prof. Corns was forced to draw the conversation to a close due to time constraints, but it was clear that we had only just started to scratch the surface. One final closing comment from an attendee resonated, not only with the aims and scope of the Project, but with the rest of the scholars in the room, and probably beyond:

 

‘The questions and comments are all too small. This is not about the Future of the Academic Book. This is about the Future of the Humanities.’

 


 

Do these points resonate in your discipline?

Are there are others for you and your colleagues?

Do you vehemently disagree with any of the above?

Get in touch using the comments below!

 

Note: The views given above are not necessarily those of the Project or its partners, or Milton scholars en masse! The Project has attempted, insofar as possible, to accurately capture the views and opinions expressed at this event. All opinions and comments have been anonymised.

SHARP 2015: Generations and Regenerations of the Book

Montreal 7 – 10 July 2015

SHARP 2015 was a bilingual conference hosted by the Groupe de recherches et d’études sur le livre au Québec, the University of Sherbrooke, McGill University and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. The conference included lectures, keynote addresses, a digital projects showcase, roundtables, lightning papers presented by doctoral students, a poster exhibition featuring the work of master’s students as well as workshops. Over 350 people attended the conference, which was held in three locations over four days. Nick Canty writes this conference report.

SHARP_July2015_2

Credit: Mel Ramdarshan Bold.

The theme of the conference – Generations and Regenerations of the Book – was highly appropriate to discuss in a round table the future of the academic book. The round table consisted of Nick Canty, UCL, Christoph Blasi, Gutenberg University Mainz, Claire Squires, Stirling University and Siobhan McMenemy, University of Toronto Press. The event was chaired by Alexis Weedon from the University of Bedfordshire. Each participant briefly addressed the topic. Nick Canty outlined the AHRC Academic Book of the Future project, Claire Squires asked how SHARP could consider the question and where the topic sits in the context of Book History before addressing the definitions – what is a book, what should we consider an academic book and how what timeframe should we consider for the future. Siobhan McMenemy set out the publisher perspective with a focus on costs, monograph print runs and commercial imperatives with a sobering thought that a monograph in Canada costs C$ 32,000 to produce. Christoph Blasi saw the topic from two perspectives; bottom up driven by technological advances and the ability for content to be manipulated and distributed in radical grass-roots ways, and top down driven by institutional requirements – such as the UK REF. While we cannot know what the future holds there are some reformist top-down approaches in universities.

The debate was then opened up to the floor and started with a discussion around predatory publishers of the sort found on Beale’s List which try to hoodwink naïve researchers wanting to get their work published. This sort of publishing activity however should be seen as a symptom of the environment and not the cause. There was however a recognition that there needed to be a value shift and a questioning of whether the monograph was appropriate for all disciplines and in particular emerging disciplines – does the monograph give more authority to these as the discipline builds its infrastructure and seeks academic recognition? There are questions here around legitimacy and innovation which have yet to be resolved. Early career researchers may consider publishing a monograph from their PhD but they may achieve more visibility by publishing papers in a journal instead.

The question of funding and money was addressed which was seen as a significant issue for Arts & Humanities disciplines where the cost of Open Access books is prohibitive. Publishers are certainly experimenting with new business models such as the University of California Press community business model which a member of the audience saw as a possible solution here although this initiative is currently funded by the Mellon Foundation only for a limited period. A further suggestion was that university presses might alleviate competition by honing their publishing lists so they (the publishers) are unique. This route is being actively pursued by the Association of Spanish University Presses which is encouraging its members to specialise by discipline. The University of Toronto Press expect Open Access models to reduce profits by 50%.

The functionality of print and digital books was debated at some length with some members of the audience disliking Ebooks which were seen as less easy to navigate than paper despite innovations from publishers allowing users to annotate the content. This led on to a discussion around whether we are witnessing the slow demise of the library as a space for learning and whether students and universities needed a physical space any longer. The University of Toronto built a new library but has changed the name to a student learning space and provides limited access to print books. Ebooks should enable a convergence of content and pedagogy through virtual learning environments although this presents challenges for publishers who risk their business models changing from institutional sales to libraries to selling to the individual student.

The round table concluded with an acknowledgement that the future of the academic book will be shaped by discipline and technology but we are likely to exist in a hybrid print and digital world for the foreseeable future, and at least until there is an institutional recognition of content taking novel and innovative forms.

While the round table finished, the debate continues and follow-up activities will include blog posts for the Academic book of the Future website and a post by forum chair Alexis Weedon. The discussion will be taken forward through numerous and varied activities as part of the AHRC project and specifically during Academic Book Week, 9-16 November 2015.

Academic Book Week aims to encourage discussion around the future of the academic book while looking at how scholarly work in the arts and humanities will be produced and read in coming years. The week will see academic books discussed, showcased and even written across a number of events – notably a launch event with academic publishers at Stationers Hall in London on Monday 9 November and the Opening Up the Book Debate with Kathryn Sutherland, University of Oxford and Marilyn Deegan, King’s College London, while the British Library will host an academic book showcase ceremony and Palgrave Macmillan put the writing of an academic book into practice with a faster publishing model aiming to publish a book in a month.

Through The Academic Book of the Future project the opinions of all those who read, write, sell, produce and use academic books can be heard and the topic will be discussed at the next SHARP conference in Paris in 2016, an issue Claire Squires was keen to see addressed and saw as an issue central to the mission of SHARP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the Book 2, Florence 18-19 June 2015: conference report

Project Team member Nick Canty (UCL) recently spoke at the two-day By the Book conference in Florence. This post is a brief report on the conference and some of the major themes and issues that emerged.

The overarching theme for this two-day conference was ‘Books and reading in an age of media overload’ – a big subject. We were fortunate the event was held in the rarefied location of the Villa Finaly outside Florence, which since 1953 has been owned by the 13 institutions which comprise the universities of Paris – this place is no stranger to big ideas.

Villa Finaly, Florence

Villa Finaly, Florence

The conference brought together scholars from the field of publishing studies to examine key issues around the digital transformation of the book, as well as to discuss the developing field of publishing studies. In total, 14 countries were represented, an increase on last year when the conference was first held.

The conference started with the evolution and transformation of reading with three presentations looking at cross-media storytelling and screen reading practices which suggested that the pdf has established itself as an influential format with its own sets of references and screen reading habits and will be likely to influence future devices and reading habits. This, it was argued, is because we see the connection to paper from the pdf. The final session was an analysis of student book-buying practices, which suggested students take little notice of reading lists and recommendations from academics, at least in Nanking, Pisa and Zadar. Of the three countries surveyed Chinese students were far more likely to be reading on smartphones.

Staying with the book, a later session considered the book as a dissemination machine with talks on design in digital textbooks, ebook trends in Poland and software as amplified content raising the question about whether software can be considered publishing. As with all large questions this defied any easy answers.

The session on scholarly publishing had three perspectives – one looking at the use of ebooks in Swedish academic libraries; a talk by Sally Hughes from Oxford Brookes University on how the Met Museum in New York had repurposed their back catalogue to create a free online resource; and a talk from Elsevier on value and exchange in scholarly publishing interactions, referencing John Thompson’s arguments around capital and value and supply chains in publishing.

Two papers specifically addressed editing. Susan Greenberg from Roehampton University talked about the poetics of editing with her definition of editing as a decision-making process – selecting, shaping and linking content – delivering the meaning of a work to its audience, and the art of seeing text as if it is not yet finished. As was pointed out, given the conference setting, this is rather like seeing the statue of David from a block of marble. Dr Greenberg argued that there were many studies which portrayed editors in a negative light, particularly in the 1940s concept as the gatekeeper, a concept now challenged as new media can democratise the field. Katherine Reeve from Bath Spa University made a powerful case for using editors better in publishing companies as they often offer the best ideas to promote and develop content – but they need to be given the opportunity to develop new skills. This was reinforced by Frania Hall from London College of Communication who discussed a recent survey with publishers in the UK which indicated that the editorial function is getting the least attention when looking at digital change.

I gave a paper on book culture, considering books in social spaces – particularly on YouTube – and how vloggers are being picked up by publishers with varying degrees of success. UCL’s Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s analysis of authors on WattPad asserted we are far from witnessing the death of the author and as pointed out by Professor Alexis Weedon from the University of Bedfordshire there is space to examine author brands as part of celebrity studies.

As with every conference on publishing, the issue of definitions reared its head. Zoran Velagic talked about the problems of definitions and how traditional methods to understand publishing (functional or linear chains as articulated by John Thompson) are redundant in the digital era. He suggested instead four new approaches: media-oriented – looking at what a book does to society; an author perspective – particularly because of the increase in self-publishing; a content view, which considers network participation and asks how capital can be maximised from content; and lastly a producer orientated approach, which looks at the author and content.

Claudio Piers Franco from the University of Bedfordshire introduced us to the concept of the ‘gamebook’ and to what extent different media formats have what might be considered ‘bookness’ in them, and considered the book as a social space, influenced by bloggers coming together in a shared space.

One interesting point to note is that despite various technological developments, the term ‘book’ persists.

 

Full programme from the 2015 conference available here:

http://publishing.brookes.ac.uk/resources/By_the_Book2_-_Programme_15_June_2015.pdf

 

Next year’s By the Book conference theme is audience development.