#AcBookWeek 2015: Publisher Workshop at Stationers Hall

To celebrate the recent announcement of the next Academic Book Week (23-28 January 2017), we’re revisiting some highlights from last year’s #AcBookWeek! The first post considers the gathering of academic publishers at the historic Stationers Hall to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. There were 25 individuals representing seven academic publishers, all of which publish books in print and/or digital format. The participants were asked to work in groups and address some of the core questions first posed at the launch of The Academic Book of the Future project. Project co-investigator Nick Canty (UCL) reflects back on this event.

The questions and issues we put to the assembled publishers spanned three main areas, as follows:


1. Changes in the nature of research, the research environment and the research process

What do academic books do?

We started off by asking publishers for their views of what purposes they think academic books fulfil. Answers were varied, with some participants asking how we define which books relate to research and which are for reference. This point was picked up by another participant who argued that publishers’ categories (reference or textbook) don’t matter – what matters is the prestige of where you find your content and being providing with trusted credible content. There is a glut of information today with undergraduate students and researchers drawing on a broader pool of resources than in the past (including Wikipedia), which has partly been enabled by digital technologies, although it was questioned whether the structures were in place for interdisciplinary research.

Additional purposes for the academic book were offered, for instance: for academics to achieve tenure, or to publish their PhD thesis; while another participant observed that academic books are now required as a tool for metrics to help define impact, as well as working for libraries to gauge interest through bibliographic data. A more apt starting point might be to ask what the book is doing: proving a hypothesis, making an argument, or communicating an idea – but this doesn’t answer whether textbooks, reference, and professional books should be considered academic books, too. Our seemingly simple question clearly has several possible complex and multi-faceted answers.


What changes have taken place in the research environment?

Moving on, we looked at how research is changing in academia. This shook out some fascinating points. As well as comments about the REF (Research Excellence Framework), several participants mentioned the pressure to produce research outputs and the ‘need for speed’, which was pushing researchers to journals and away from books (presumably because of their longer production times). The pressure to publish quickly has had big changes on the production process and there has been advances on this side of publishing. However the sales cycle with library wholesalers hasn’t moved as quickly, and advance notice to market is still at least six months. As someone else said, the rate of change is quite slow.

Alternative ways of research were picked up, including real-time feedback and peer review, crowdfunding and the Knowledge Unlatched publishing model and a question about whether Amazon’s classifications are becoming more important – presumably for discoverability.


New forms of books

We wanted to find how books might change because of new technologies and Open Access (OA). There was agreement that OA is having the greatest influence on journals, with books following more slowly behind. Several participants remarked that OA and new media offer more opportunity for collaboration with peer-adopted books with extra resources such as data and video. Shorter book formats, such as Palgrave’s Pivot series, are also a response to a changing environment. New media might herald new virtual collections, such as chapters and articles which are led by XML and metrics, although other participants sounded a note of caution: books are still books and they are not changing – they are still driven by market demand and the activity of publishers is still the traditional model of print with some digital offerings.

There were observations that with booksellers increasingly resistant to stock niche books and the academic book more challenged in terms of sales it was hard to find books in bookstores now and they are mostly just in libraries, although book authors still want print copies. This reflects broader concerns about the visibility of books in brick and mortar stores as the online space expands.


2. How are the processes through which books are commissioned, approved or accepted, edited, produced, published, marketed, distributed, made accessible, and preserved changing, and what are the implications for the following?


Needless to say this elicited lots of responses, with publishers seen as moving from B2B operations to B2C, and more functions outsourced to attempt to lower costs. While some participants didn’t think marketing had changed much over the last decade, others saw changes to staff recruitment as new skillsets are needed as consumer marketing becomes more important. Clearly there are differences between publishers here. There was a comment that nowadays publishers have to do more direct marketing and rely less on channel marketing.

Authors were seen as becoming more ‘savvy’, more demanding, and more knowledgeable on all aspects of publishing – but particularly in marketing, where for example, they understand the importance of Amazon profiles. However there was very little change to the commissioning process, which was still based on a conversation, a campus visit, or a meeting at a conference. Academics are therefore still ‘student intermediaries’. There is a need to make books available everywhere but it is difficult to push every channel and there is therefore more pressure on authors to help with marketing via their profile in academia. The publishing industry increasingly values media skills and as a consequence there is a convergence of academic and trade publishing at this point.

The publisher brand and the website are important but editors still need to actively reach out in the commissioning process. Editors need usage data to inform commissioning decisions but they aren’t getting this at the moment.

In terms of the publishing process as well as new distribution formats (XML, video) reference works can published in stages with no single publication date, raising the question: what is ‘enough’ content to launch with? Finally, there was general agreement that while there are experiments with peer review it is ‘here to stay’ and ‘still central’ to academic publishing.



Pressures and tensions were noted here. These revolve around asking how sustainable the aggregator business model is, with publishers improving discoverability and free searches from Google. There is also tension in that libraries still want aggregators and value their services and small publishers need aggregators (‘in thrall to them’), but publishers are selling complete books – not bits of content. The situation is made more complicated by centralisation and mergers in the sector.



In addition to the points about booksellers above, participants noted the disappearance of campus bookstores and the emphasis on stocking high sales books rather than niche ones, therefore questioning the value of bookstores to publishers today.



The issue of preservation came through here, in addition to comments about squeezed library budgets (although new models such as just-in-time purchasing and PDA were mentioned as solutions). There was concern about what happens when publishers merge, and features of online access are no longer available with the new company (the example cited was in relation of viewing PDFs after a merger). Further concerns were that although libraries keep digital archives, what happens when formats change? This has implications for future access and preservation.


How might the relationships between the different kinds of agents in the publishing supply chain develop in the future?

The last question looked at the supply chain and how publishers and other intermediaries might work together in the future. Once again, some tensions were noted. Libraries are concerned about the power of aggregators, but they choose to work with them rather than with individual publishers. This makes it hard to resolve problems, as it is unclear who is ultimately responsible for problems: the aggregator or the publisher? One group suggested we need to ask what an intermediary is in the supply chain; can we consider the library as an aggregator today? Another group defined intermediaries as ‘anyone/thing that intervenes between point of production and point of use/reading.’

Publishers increasingly want direct access to end-user data from aggregators to drive usage to their online collections to improve renewals, but this desire to drive users to their sites puts them in conflict with aggregators, who provide little information to publishers. Open Access is a possible way to sidestep aggregators, but it then needs something like Amazon or Google for users to discover the books.



The workshop was an opportunity for the publishing industry to address some key issues the project has sought to address. While there were bound to be contradictions among participants, what came through were questions about the future role of aggregators in the supply chain, changes in the research environment and perhaps as a consequence, changes in how authors work with publishers, and changes in the way publishers operate. There was agreement however that the book, whether print or digital, was here to stay.


Life and times of an independent researcher: Publish or be damned?

This guest post is written by Catherine White, an independent researcher currently writing a biography on May Morris – the daughter of William Morris, Pre-Raphaelite, Socialist, and leader of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Catherine met the Project’s Research Associate, Rebecca Lyons, at the recent two-day conference on May Morris, co-organised by the V&A’s Clothworkers’ Centre, The William Morris Society, and the William Morris Gallery. Catherine’s experience of writing a distinctly interdisciplinary crossover book (i.e. one with appeal to both academia and the general public, and which crosses several areas of interest) and searching for a publisher whilst both an independent researcher and a new mother touches upon several key areas of the Project. Here she openly shares that experience.

May Morris

Image of May Morris from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress.

In 2011, I saw a reference to May Morris. I had studied the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle for my Art History degree but had never come across her before. I subsequently found out she was a designer, embroiderer, jewellery-maker, writer, Socialist, part of the Arts & Crafts movement, and the daughter of William Morris. I was hooked. There has never been a sole biography of May, and so I decided that I would write one. Just after this, by sheer coincidence, I was introduced to a lady whose great aunt had worked for May Morris. She has generously allowed me to research her family archive, which contains an unpublished memoir and letters – and the rest is (art) history.

At the time I had a young daughter at home, and I took the chance to read as much as I could, whenever I could, to prepare for writing the book. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, any second-hand book I wanted to order could be delivered to my door. For those that were outrageously priced, I discovered that I could order in books from the British Library to my local library. Once my daughter started preschool, I used the two mornings a week to write. It was occasionally frustrating to have to leave a section mid-sentence, but it was mainly beneficial to have thinking time between each instalment. I recently came across a book called The Ladybird book of The Mid-life Crisis (Michael Joseph 2015), which had an illustration with the text caption of ‘Gwen has a 2:1 in Ancient History. She always planned to write a series of novels about Boadicea. Gwen is covered in apple sauce and has spent the afternoon clapping.’ Luckily it proved possible to combine the two (apple sauce and the book). It doesn’t seem to have done my daughter any harm, except that she has grown up sure that May Morris must be part of our family somehow.

In 2013, I approached my first publisher. Whilst knowing this would not be easy, I was fairly hopeful that the book was an attractive proposition because it was intended for a general rather than a specific audience. Although it is footnoted, and has unpublished information of interest to the academic community, May’s life has an appeal for a much wider audience, including those interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts & Crafts Movement, or social and political history, including the changing role of women – plus did I mention that May had a significant liaison with George Bernard Shaw? Yet this concept has actually brought its own challenges because it does not fit in a traditional publishing box. Publishers have expressed an interest in the proposal, but so far say that it doesn’t quite fit with their catalogue. It appears that academic publishers are more interested in a sole subject book, but this is not a purely academic book. I want this book to be accessible because it has such a great story to tell. An academic price tag of perhaps £50 or more would take it out of the reach of my core audience; those having heard of May Morris, or visiting an historic house associated with her, are unlikely to make such a purchase on a whim. General interest publishers could make this book affordable, but seem more wary of investing in a book on the single subject of May.

My other problem is that this book has to be illustrated. May Morris was responsible for making exquisite textiles and jewellery, and these have to be included, and in colour – which doubles the cost of production. This cost also means that self-publishing isn’t viable, nor was the offer from a publisher (my favourite rejection to date) who said they would publish it if I found £10,000 or a gallery willing to purchase 1000 copies of my book!

So where does this leave me? I am continuing to write the book, of course, and continuing to submit it to publishers. Finding a publisher has never been easy, and even May Morris despaired of finding one for her final book, which was eventually produced in 1936, just two years before her death. Overall, so far, I do not feel my book has suffered from not having a confirmed publisher; it has meant it could evolve at its own pace without the pressure of a deadline. There is a tipping point on the horizon though, which is a major May Morris exhibition planned by the William Morris Gallery in the autumn of 2017. Confirming a publisher now would enable me to prioritise my writing and aim for completion in time for the exhibition, but without one, I need to continue to combine writing with other work. But watch this (hopefully book-shaped) space!

Notes on the Future of the Academic Book in Africa

This guest blog post is by Dr Ola Uduku (University of Edinburgh) and is associated with The Academic Book in the South, a two-day conference held at the British Library on 7-8 March 2016. Organised by the British Library in collaboration with Professor Marilyn Deegan (KCL and The Academic Book of the Future project) and Dr Caroline Davis (Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies, Oxford Brookes University), you can read more about the conference here: http://www.bl.uk/events/the-academic-book-in-the-south#sthash.ne453DAQ.dpuf and view the Storify of conference tweets here: https://storify.com/AcBookFuture/the-academic-book-in-the-south 

Academic books in Africa, despite being produced and available for at least half a century, are now a rare sight to behold in the continent’s academic institutions. Locally-authored academic books are even harder to find. As a frequent traveller to West Africa over the past five years, and a writer on school design in Africa’s schools, higher institutions and libraries, I have both encountered and studied many of the buildings that hold these repositories of knowledge. Beginning with this educational infrastructure, this post will explore the spaces which books and readers inhabit and then consider what books are being written and published, and what kind of future both academic publishing and the physical book might have in Africa.

KNUST Library. Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

KNUST Library. Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

For the purposes of this discussion I am restricting my investigation of the academic book to undergraduate textbooks. These are perhaps the most basic form of the definition: more high level academic texts in this context would be even rarer to find in tertiary institutions. In both Ghanaian universities I visited recently, undergraduate courses in the humanities still had academic textbooks on their curriculum reading lists. At this level, the texts are a mix of locally- and internationally-published books, with a predominance of the latter. No journal articles were available to view on public open access, making them extremely difficult to obtain, although with the open access computer lab at KNUST (the Kwami Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana) journal articles were available digitally.

Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

Temples of Knowledge

Despite being a few hundred miles south of Timbuktu, libraries and universities in this area of Africa can hardly live up to their scholarly description. In my experience of libraries in Ghana and Nigeria, it seems that the buildings themselves are still important components of university campuses, but their physical book stocks and use are less certain.


Empty shelves. Credit: Dr Ola Uduku

On a recent visit to libraries at the KNUST and Legon Universities in Ghana I was able to make certain first-hand observations. The libraries seemed reasonably well-maintained, furnished, and staffed, making these historic ‘modernist’-designed structures appear to be viable places to study and borrow books. However the reality is somewhat different: library stacks are sparsely stocked, holding some editions of historic text books, but rarely any up-to-date journals or printed matter. Unsurprisingly there are few students using the library reading spaces for study – proportionally it seems there are often more staff than users of these libraries.

The only exceptions to this depressing state of affairs are the ‘IT’ and ‘open access’ computer suites, which provide banks of desktop computers in air-cooled spaces, allowing students access to digital resources online. At KNUST, this was the most student-populated space in the entire library – one floor up a further computer suite was being fitted out during my visit. For Ghana’s historic ‘premier’ universities then this was the state of affairs: poorly resourced physical book and journal stock, with emerging digital resources being available via centralised library desktop computer facilities.

Credit: Dr Ola Uduku.

Computer areas at KNUST Library. Credit: Dr Ola Uduku.

The Challenges Faced

Discussing my own observations with academics in Ghana, a number of key issues surfaced.

Firstly the generic problem of all academics: the time to write.

Most academic departments were overstretched and understaffed, and lecturers therefore did not have the time to do more than fulfil the teaching required of them. Some schools, such as the Institute for African Studies at the University of Ghana, did have a sabbatical system in place, but this seems to be an exception to the general state of affairs.

Secondly, undeniably many academics in Africa lack the training or support to write academically. Whilst the African Studies Association UK (ASAUK) has hosted a number of successful writing workshops, mainly targeted at emerging and young staff, these have tended to be ‘one off’ events, driven by UK researcher interests. The example of the Wits Writing Centre at the University of the Witswatersrand would perhaps be a more appropriate way to address this. By having the Writing Centre on campus, always available to staff and students, this both foregrounds the importance of writing and gives access to writing support to all staff and students at the university.

Finally, as with the UK, in most African universities, for career advancement and promotion academic books are less critical than the refereed academic paper. In Africa, publishing itself takes significantly more time to achieve with the vagaries of production, editing, and printing in the African setting. There are of course publishing houses in Africa, but their focus is not on academic book publishing.

The Future of Academic Books in Africa

So what might the future look like for academic publishing in Africa? A piece I worked on last year considering specifically the issues related to the future 21st-century classroom for primary and secondary education has some relevance to the tertiary sector also. If we start from the premise that academic material for student study will need to be provided, and the current system of distribution, via the academic textbook, either individually purchased or available for loan via university library outlets, is flawed and no longer works, then we need to explore what the future learning landscape might be.

In my work on schools the idea of the ICT-linked classroom came to the fore, which posits a situation where students from higher primary level learn through networked cheap personal ‘tablet’ readers to which material is downloaded in ‘packets’ (Uduku, 2015). ‘Packets’ are small units of material, such as chapters or homework/task exercises, which can be downloaded by students using today’s cut-price mobile devices. This is predicated on the further spread of wireless hotspots to more inaccessible areas through the use of GPS satellite technology, already in use by health and aid organisations in remote regions of the world.

Taking this idea to tertiary education, the concept translates to publishing also becoming increasingly digital, with materials being produced in smaller ‘packets’, likely to be chapters or sections, which student mobile devices would be able to deal with. Thus, instead of publishing a 7-chapter ‘e-book’ on anthropology, this would be distributed as seven separate chapters, downloadable, either for purchase as digital mini e-books or for borrowing sequentially, using a university server.

The facilities needed for this would change the face of library facilities – the book stacks would disappear, with only a limited reserve section left, whilst there would be significantly less investment in computer hardware and more in ethernet and wifi infrastructure needed to support better, high speed access and download rates. The library spaces thus would not disappear, but be used more as areas of access to high speed broadband and wifi connections that students and staff could use for free to link their own devices to the the internet to download material for study and reading, at differential pricing: free for loan periods, or at a discounted price by chapter.

In the West this would be termed a ‘BYOD: bring your own device’ policy, which gives the responsibility of the hardware required for online access to the students and users of the material. In my recent experience in Ghana, most tertiary level students had both computers and also smartphones, so this policy could easily be implemented, although clearly it would take longer to institute in poorer countries.

Enhancing and increasing African academic authorship is likely to take a longer sustained programme of local and international support. The need for sabbatical time off is crucial for all academics, arguably more so in Africa and other emerging economies where staff are overburdened with teaching. As not all staff are going to be lucky enough to receive scholarships or collaborative grants, the need to work on developing local writing centres and support programmes for writing in critical. As mentioned above, there are existing models such as the ‘Wits Writing centre’ that could be instituted in universities, or perhaps at regional level.

This would mean that there would be less dependence on programmes from abroad or occasional workshops, and could result in the development of an African academic writers network, likely to be in association with African publishers. Thus an academic ‘hub for writing and publishing’ at larger universities or at regional level would be a possible way forward, to be refined to best suit the needs of regional or large universities. Again such ‘hubs’ would by definition not be insular but hopefully prove to be forums, both physical and ‘in the ether’ for international collaborations also to take place. It seems to me that the ubiquitous nature of the Ethernet and high speed networks, combined with ‘Moore’s law’ bringing down the cost of personal mobile devices, could be a positive force for African book publishing to make the move from physical to digital and enjoy a 21st century renaissance .




  1. Uduku, O. (2015) Designing Schools for Quality: An International Case study-based review, International Journal of Educational Development, vol. 44 September 2015. 56 – 64.
  2. Uduku, O. (2015) Chapter 15: Spaces for 21stCentury Learning. In Routledge Handbook of International Education and Development. Eds. McGrath and Gu Q. Routledge. pp. 196 – 209

#AcBookWeek: What will the Academic Book of the Future look like? Bristol responds…!

This guest post is written by Dr Leah Tether (University of Bristol), who reflects on the debate that took place at Bristol as part of #AcBookWeek.

On Tuesday 10th November 2015, as part of Academic Book Week, we at the University of Bristol were delighted to host a panel discussion with an audience Q&A. The event aimed to offer some answers to one of the central lines of enquiry of The Academic Book of the Future Project – what format our future academic books might take. Our three-strong speaker panel consisted of an academic, a librarian and a publisher, all of whom – we knew – would bring something different to the debate. The offering of this great mix of views led to a fantastic turn-out (with people even sitting on the floor!); audience members came from a wide range of backgrounds: in addition to reflecting the make-up of the panel with publishers, academics and librarians, there were undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as interested members of the public. All of these, of course, are key stakeholders in the wider debate – all will be affected by developments to the academic book – so their vested interests made for an impassioned and rich discussion.

Dr Leah Tether introduces the event

Dr Leah Tether introduces the event

Our first speaker, Professor Helen Fulton (Chair in Medieval Literature, University of Bristol) showed how she had already embraced digital outputs in previous research projects. She used the example of the Mapping Medieval Chester project as a case study for how digital publications can both facilitate collaborative research and pave the way for different kinds of relationships between publishers and universities. She viewed project websites as often representing non-linear equivalents to monographs in terms of their scope and content. She also argued that these can be relied on for quality where support for the project in question has been provided by a recognised body (such as, but not limited to, the AHRC), due to the rigorous peer-review to which such projects have been subjected.

The second speaker, Damien McManus, spoke from his perspective as the Subject Librarian at the University of Bristol for Classics and Ancient History, English, French, German, Linguistics and Russian Studies. Damien focused on the breaking down of content into smaller units (chapters or sections) that is being encouraged by digital and emphasised the potential benefits of accessibility, affordability and sustainability. In practice, though, he recognised that many issues still exist in terms of the library provision of digital academic resources. He cited single-use licences, complicated and divergent user instructions for different platforms, cost implications and the last-minute withdrawal of resources by publishers as key amongst the problems. Damien also wanted to make clear that many resources are simply not available in digital form as yet, so from his perspective – even where issues with digital are ironed out – resourcing will remain mixed for some considerable time to come.

The third and final speaker was Katharine Reeve, formerly the Editorial Director and Senior Commissioning Editor for History and Visual Arts at Oxford University Press. As part of The Academic Book of the Future Project, Katharine has been researching the changing role of the editor in academic book publishing, and she revealed to the audience some of the results of that research. She highlighted that, despite the obvious importance of the close interaction of editor with author in producing the best possible product, editors are increasingly being pulled away from the hands-on side of their role, thus becoming a less visible part of the process. This, she suggested, risked an undervaluing of the editor in the quality control side of publishing, and that she could see this already happening with the opportunities of digital publishing offerings authors the choice to circumvent traditional publication in favour of dissemination via the web. She argued that we need to reinvigorate the role of the editor in digital publication, and understand that – no matter what the format – the academic book of the future still needs to be rigorously processed before it is made available to the reading public.

These richly diverse views provoked a fantastic response from our audience, which took the debate in many important directions. Key amongst these were the opportunities for greater interaction between libraries and publishers, the perceived values (by the Research Excellence Framework and funding bodies, for example) of different kinds of publications (collected volumes vs. monograph); whether innovative digital formats would ever be valued as highly as traditional formats; the funding models surrounding open access and how that would impact different kinds of institutions; the reading practices of young scholars (skimming vs. deep reading); how publishers and higher education institutions could work together more closely to develop products that more closely fulfil the needs of book consumers.

In my role as chair, I was delighted to see such an engaged response to the subject at hand – people really cared about the formats our academic books might take and, perhaps surprisingly, most believed that digital – on the whole – offered more opportunities than hindrances, especially when used as a supplement to traditional publication. Indeed, Katharine Reeve’s suggestion that the best academic book of the future might actually be one offering multi-platform functionality (i.e. a traditional monograph at the heart of the project, but with digital add-ons such as video interviews, apps and social media marketing) was perhaps the most warmly received suggestion of the night. Where our varied Bristol audience was in total agreement, though, was in emphasising that the process of producing academic outputs needs to remain as rigorous as it ever has been – digital should not be allowed to dilute the integrity of academic research, but rather be used as a tool for assisting with its wider dissemination and engagement – a supplement as opposed to a replacement.

Dr Leah Tether is the Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Bristol.


#AcBookWeek: The Manchester Great Debate

On Wednesday 11th November, the John Rylands Library, Manchester, played host to the Manchester Great Debate, a panel discussion dedicated to addressing the future of the academic monograph. The event was one of over sixty organised during Academic Book Week to celebrate the diversity, innovation, and influence of the academic monograph. While opinions remained varied, with panel representatives from both sides of the fence, the discussion always seemed to return to a few key thematic strands. How are people using books? How are people encountering books? And what future lies ahead for the academic book? Melek Karatas, Lydia Leech, and Paul Clarke (University of Manchester) report here on the event.

The reading room of the John Rylands Library

The reading room of the John Rylands Library

It was in the stunning Christie Room of the Rylands Library that Dr. Guyda Armstrong, Lead Academic for Digital Humanities at the University of Manchester, welcomed the audience of publishers, academics, librarians, early career researchers, and students with a shared concern for the future of how the humanities might be produced, read, and preserved over the coming years. Five panellists were invited to present their case to the group before the floor was opened and the debate got into full swing.

The session was chaired by Professor Marilyn Deegan, Co-Investigator of The Academic Book of the Future project. She began by outlining the project’s main objectives and its future activities, details of which can be found at www.academicbookfuture.org. Before commencing with the presentations she asked the audience to quite simply reflect on what they conceived of when trying to define the book. It was this question, with its rather complex and capacious ramifications, that was the fundamental core of the Manchester Great Debate.

The first of the panellists to present was Frances Pinter, CEO of Manchester University Press. Since print runs of academic books have decreased in volume and their prices increased beyond inflation, she firmly believes that the future of the academic monograph will be governed by the principles of Open Access (OA). She contends that although the journey to OA will be difficult, drawing on the Crossick report to highlight such obstacles as the lack of a skilled workforce and the high cost of publication, it is impossible to deny the potential of the digital age to advance knowledge and maximise discovery. She identified Knowledge Unlatched, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to assisting libraries to co-ordinate the purchase of monographs, as a pioneer in overcoming some of these obstacles. Under the scheme, the basic cost of publication is shared, and the works are made readily available as a PDF with an OA license via OAPEN. An initial pilot project saw the publication of twenty-eight new books at the cost of just $1,120 per library. The digital copies of these books were also downloaded in a staggering 167 countries worldwide, a true testament to the benefits of the OA monograph.

Emma Brennan, Editorial Director and Commissioning Editor at Manchester University Press, followed with a convincing argument against the financial restraints of contemporary academic book publishing. The system, she claims, is fundamentally broken, favouring short-form sciences over the humanities. A key to this problem lies in the steep rises in purchase prices over recent years, with the result that a monograph, which once sold for around £50 in a run of five hundred copies, is now sold for upwards of £70 and oftentimes on a print-on-demand basis. However, more crucial still is the disparity between authorial costs and corporate profits. After all, typical profit margins for article processing charges (APCs) reached an astonishing 37% in 2014, undeniably privileging shareholders over authors. Under this current system, university presses are only ever able to operate on a not-for-profit basis whereby surplus funds must necessarily be reinvested to cover the costs of future APCs. Such a fragile structure can only continue in the short-term and so the need for a drastic upheaval is undeniable.

Next to present their case was Sandra Bracegirdle, Head of Collection Management at the University of Manchester Library. Through a variety of diagrams she was able to highlight a number of curious trends in the reading habits of library users. A particularly interesting point of discussion was the usability of both electronic and print resources amongst student readers. While those who tended to prefer the former valued the mobility of text and the equality of access, readers of the latter tended to prefer the readability of the physical text. Interestingly, 50% of the students questioned said that they were more likely to read a book if it were available digitally, suggesting that “access trumps readability”. The decreased popularity of physical books is reflected further still by the fact that 27% the books held within the library have not been borrowed for some ten years. She continued to suggest that the increased popularity of electronic formats, on the other hand, might be the result of a change in the way people use and encounter information, arguing that different book forms engender different cognitive styles. While she did not appear to have a strong predisposition one way or the other, she did point out the “emotional presence” of a physical book by concluding with a note from Cicero: “a room without books is like a body without a soul”.

She was followed by Dr. Francesca Billiani, Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Arts and Languages (CIDRAL) at the University of Manchester. She fundamentally contends that the materialization of knowledge has in recent years changed beyond recognition and as such so the academic monograph must also adapt. After all, the book is no longer a stand-alone piece of writing for it is firmly rooted within a digital “galaxy of artefacts” comprising blog posts, photos, and videos. Many readers no longer rely exclusively on the academic book itself in their reading of a subject, nor will they necessarily read the work in its entirety choosing instead to read what they consider to be the most relevant fragments. Academics need to embrace these changes in their future writing by composing their monographs in a way that accommodates the new methods of knowledge dissemination. Yet, at the same time, she remained mindful of the fact that the monograph of the future must also retain its academic rigour and avoid falling into the trap of eclecticism.

The last of the speakers to present was Dr. George Walkden, Lecturer in English Linguistics at the University of Manchester. A self-proclaimed Open Access activist, he claims that academic books should not only be free in terms of cost but also in terms of what readers can do with them. He lamented those individuals who, in such a climate of exhaustive copyright limitations, are all too readily branded as pirates for attempting to disseminate knowledge publicly. Although he remains sceptical of what these individuals share with the “cannon-firing, hook-toting, parrot-bearing sailors of the seven seas”, he believes that such labelling elucidates the many issues that have constrained both historic and modern publication practices. In the first instance, publishers should value the transmission of knowledge over their own profitable gain. But, perhaps more crucially, it must be acknowledged that the copyright of a work should remain with its author. He fundamentally contends that academics predominantly write to increase societal wealth and readership, a mission that can only ever really be achieved through the whole-hearted acceptance of Open Access.

Once all of the panellists had concluded their presentations, the floor was opened to the audience and a stimulating debate ensued. One of the most contested issues to arise from the discussion was the ownership of copyright. Many institutions actually hold the copyright of works produced by academics whose research they fund, although they do not always choose to exert this right. Walkden questioned to what extent this practice effectively safeguards the interests of academics, particularly since it is oftentimes too costly for them to even justify challenging this. He argued that academics should be granted the power to make decisions concerning their own intellectual property, particularly regarding the OA nature of their work.

Copyright issues were complicated further by a discussion of Art History monographs, particularly with regards to third party content. The case of Art History is particularly curious since, as Brennan highlighted, print runs have continued to remain reasonably high. After all, many art historians tend to opt for physical books over their digital counterparts since problems can often arise with their visual reproductions if, for instance, the screen is not calibrated to the original settings used in its creation. The discussion then turned to the resurgence of a material culture, whereby consumers are returning to physical artefacts. The increased popularity of vinyl records in today’s digital music society was used to illustrate this point. It was nevertheless argued that such a comparison was counterproductive since consumers ultimately have the freedom to decide the medium through which they access music but do not always have this choice with regards to books. Perhaps the academic book of the future will permit such freedom.

A member of the audience then identified the notable absence of the student in such a discussion. Academics, both on the panel and in the audience, expressed concerns that students were able to access information too easily by simply using the key word search function to find answers. Many felt that the somewhat lengthy process of physically searching out answers was more valuable to developing their research skills. Students within the audience said that while they do like the speed with which they are able to process information, they also value the experience of going to bookshelves, possibly finding other items they had not initially set out to obtain. An interesting discussion followed on whether technology might ever be able to replicate the experience of a physical library, and to what extent learning can be productive within a digital environment.

While the future of the academic book remains unclear, certain issues materialise as central topics of debate. Concerns for copyright, visual reproductions, and third party content, for instance, must necessarily form a basis of this future discussion. But more so than this, authors must begin to write within the context of a rapidly emergent digital world by ensuring that their academic outputs engage precisely with new technological formats and platforms. The opening of the book has only just begun, and perhaps it is only through investment and interdisciplinary collaboration that the academic monograph will have a future.



Melek Karatas, Lydia Leech, and Paul Clarke are postgraduate students in medieval and early modern languages at the University of Manchester, with research interests in manuscript and print cultures of the literary book.

Three hundred years of piracy: why academic books should be free

This is a repost from George Walkden’s personal blog about Open Access in the context of academic linguistics. The original post can be found here.

I think academic books should be free.

It’s not a radically new proposal, but I’d like to clarify what I mean by “free”. First, there’s the financial sense: books should be free in that there should be no cost to either the author or the reader. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, books should be free in terms of what the reader can do with them: copying, sharing, creating derivative works, and more.

I’m not going to go down the murky road of what exactly a modern academic book actually is. I’m just going to take it for granted that there is such a thing, and that it will continue to have a niche in the scholarly ecosystem of the future, even if it doesn’t have the pre-eminent role it has at present in some disciplines, or even the same form and structure. (For instance, I’d be pretty keen to see an academic monograph written in Choose Your Own Adventure style.)

Another thing I’ll be assuming is that technology does change things, even if we’re rather it didn’t. If you’re reluctant to accept that, I’d like to point you to what happened with yellow pages. Or take a look at the University of Manchester’s premier catering space, Christie’s Bistro. Formerly a science library, this imposing chamber retains its bookshelves, which are all packed full of books that have no conceivable use to man or beast: multi-volume indexes of mid-20th-century scientific periodicals, for instance. In this day and age, print is still very much alive, but at the same time the effects of technological change aren’t hard to spot.

With those assumptions in place, then, let’s move on to thinking about the academic book of the future. To do that I’m going to start with the academic book of the past, so let’s rewind time by three centuries. In 1710, the world’s first copyright law, the UK’sStatute of Anne, was passed. This law was a direct consequence of the introduction and spread of the printing press, and the businesses that had sprung up around it. Publishers such as the rapacious Andrew Millar had taken to seizing on texts that, even now, could hardly be argued to be anything other than public-domain: for instance,Livy’s History of Rome. (Titus Livius died in AD 17.) What’s more, they then claimed an exclusive right to publish such texts – a right that extended into perpetuity. This perpetual version of copyright was based on the philosopher John Locke’s theory of property as a natural right. Locke himself was fiercely opposed to this interpretation of his work, but that didn’t dissuade the publishers, who saw the opportunity to make a quick buck (as well as a slow one).

Fortunately, the idea of perpetual copyright was defeated in the courts in 1774, in the landmark Donaldson v. Becket case. It’s reared its ugly head since, of course, for instance when the US was preparing its 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act: it was mentioned that the musician Sonny Bono believed that copyright should last forever(see also this execrable New York Times op-ed). What’s interesting is that this proposal was challenged at the time, by Edinburgh-based publisher Alexander Donaldson – and, for his efforts to make knowledge more widely available, Donaldson was labelled a “pirate”. The term has survived, and is now used – for instance – to describe those scientists who try to access paywalled research articles using the hashtag #ICanHazPDF, and those scientists who help them. What these people have in common with the cannon-firing, hook-toting, parrot-bearing sailors of the seven seas is not particularly clear, but it’s clearly high time that the term was reclaimed.

If you’re interested in the 18th century and its copyright trials and tribulations, I’d encourage you to take a look at Yamada Shōji’s excellent 2012 book “Pirate” Publishing: the Battle over Perpetual Copyright in eighteenth-century Britain, which, appropriately, is available online under a CC-BY-NC-ND license. And lest you think that this is a Whiggish interpretation of history, let me point out that contemporaries saw things in exactly the same way. The political economist Adam Smith, in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations, pointed out that, before the invention of printing, the goal of an academic writer was simply “communicating to other people the curious and useful knowledge which he had acquired himself“. Printing changed things.

Let’s come back to the present. In the present, academic authors make almost nothing from their work: royalties from monographs are a pittance. Meanwhile, it’s an economic truism that each electronic copy made of a work – at a cost of essentially nothing – increases total societal wealth. (This is one of the reasons that intellectual property is not real property.) What academic authors want is readership and recognition: they aren’t after the money, and don’t, for the most part, care about sales. The bizarre part is that they’re punished for trying to increase wealth and readership by the very organizations that supposedly exist to help them increase wealth and readership. Elsevier, for instance, filed a complaint earlier this year against the knowledge sharing site Sci-Hub.org, demanding compensation. It beggars belief that they have the audacity to do this, especially given their insane 37% profit margin in 2014.

So we can see that publishers, when profit-motivated, have interests that run counter to those of academics themselves. And, when we look at the actions of eighteenth-century publishers such as Millar, we can see that this is nothing new. Where does this leave us for the future? Here’s a brief sketch:

  • Publishers should be mission-oriented, and that mission should be the transmission of knowledge.
  • Funding should come neither from authors nor from readers. There are a great many business models compatible with this.
  • Copyright should remain with the author: it’s the only way of preventing exploitation. In practice, this means a CC-BY license, or something like it. Certain humanities academics claim that CC-BY licenses allow plagiarism. This is nonsense.

How far are we down this road? Not far enough; but if you’re a linguist, take a look atLanguage Science Press, if you haven’t already.

In conclusion, then, for-profit publishers should be afraid. If they can’t do their job, then academics will. Libraries will. Mission-oriented publishers will. Pirates will.

It’s sometimes said that “information wants to be free”. This is false: information doesn’t have agency. But if we want information to be free, and take steps in that direction… well, it’s a start.

Note: this post is a written-up version of a talk I gave on 11th Nov 2015 at the John Rylands Library, as part of a debate on “Opening the Book: the Future of the Academic Monograph”. Thanks to the audience, organizers and other panel members for their feedback.

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:



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