Away with the monotonous monograph

I was fortunate to attend a terrific session at this year’s London Book Fair, organised by the brilliant project, The Academic Book of the Future. It was about the appeal of the crossover book: the holy grail of scholarly publishing that, like base metal turned into gold, somehow goes mass market and sells by the million.

But it got me thinking. The thrust of the discussion seemed to be about the challenge of commissioning: how to find the perfect topical book that goes viral. That’s great, but lots of authors research in areas that don’t tick those boxes, and precious few are in a position to abandon their research area just to work on something more media-friendly. I wonder if a different kind of crossover book lies just a little more within the grasp of the author.

Here’s the thing. Publishers define the success of a crossover book – no, in fact, they define a crossover book per se – by commercial return. A book has become a crossover book if it crosses the revenue divide between short-run university library market and Waterstones-at-Christmas mass market.

But I wonder if that distinction misses the point. Academic success isn’t measured by sales, but by that frightening concept, ‘impact’. You need to advance the conversation, cross disciplines, move on the lumbering caravan of debate, change the world. No pressure then.

I can’t helping thinking that a crossover book is more than just a bestseller (although let’s not pretend we don’t all want one or two of those). Surely the challenge lies less with our material and more with the way we communicate. I don’t buy this idea that only a handful of subjects are of wider interest. Readers are intelligent. They don’t need a Leverhulme Fellowship to follow your ideas… but they might need one to follow your writing style. I believe that if you can communicate better, you can cross over.

A monotonous book, written with heavy prose and a healthy dose of navel-gazing, a book that doesn’t give a damn about its audience and simply says ‘my ideas are good enough; I don’t need to explain them to you’, isn’t just failing to cross over. It’s failing full stop. In fact, some of the definitions of an academic book flying around at London Book Fair are enough to make us all pack up and go home: ‘when the author doesn’t care if the book is read or not’; ‘heavy, thick, annoying, dull, expensive’; ‘monotonous’.


If you can write beautifully, clearly, passionately; if by your very words you can spin a story and engage an audience; if the prose is not scabrous but seductive (well, OK: let’s stick with ‘relatively jargon-free’); if you can make people sit up and say ‘my word, the Battle of Bramham Moor was about real people with real lives doing real things, not just three men and a horse having a barney in the fog’; well, then you’ve written a crossover book and hang the sales. Because you’ve reached out beyond your peer group. That may not be how publishers define crossover, but it surely improves the image of traditional academic writing.

So let’s write with a wider audience in mind. Not because it’s easy. But because the buck stops with us, the authors. Because revelling in obscurity is downright silly. And because it’s our research. Ours. Let’s write it as gloriously as we know how.


Martyn Lawrence


Martyn Lawrence is Publisher at Emerald Group Publishing, with almost ten years experience of journals and serials acquisition. He holds a PhD from the University of York, and sits on taskforces that monitor open access, bibliometrics and the wider impact of scholarly research. A frequent contributor to international publishing workshops, he is a member of the ALPSP Government Affairs committee and incoming Publishing Manager at the Royal Armouries, Leeds.


Format, Flexibility, and Speed: Palgrave Pivot

Guest post by Jen McCall  Global Head of Humanities, Scholarly Division and Publisher, Theatre & Performance at Palgrave Macmillan. Jen discusses Palgrave Macmillan’s short-form monograph, the Pivot  what prompted the development of this publishing format; how it operates within current contexts of publishing, academia, and the REF; and how the academic book of the future must be flexible.

9781137373472.inddI have written a book for my research, but it’s not quite a monograph”, our editors would often hear when visiting academics on-campus. “And it’s too long for a journal article. I don’t suppose you’d accept something 50,000 words long, would you?”

Or alternatively, “I don’t have the time to publish a book. I’d better off getting this research out quickly, by splitting it into several journal articles, although that wouldn’t be my preferred option.”

The idea for our mid-length research format, Palgrave Pivot, came from conversations such as these. Most scholarly journal articles are between 7,000 and 8,000 words in length, while most academic print books published are between 70,000 and 110,000 words, and historically there has rarely been any flexibility in this due to the methods used, and costs involved, in the printing process.

However, the scholarly publishing landscape has been changing for a number of years, and the advent of ebooks means that we publishers are less restricted to word counts and page numbers than once might have been the case. In a digital world, we are not bound to the printing costs which once defined the size of a monograph, and the page numbers which must make up one issue of every journal. The academic book of the future need not be so restricted.

What our authors told us

Prompted by these changes in the scholarly publishing landscape, in 2011 Palgrave Macmillan undertook a programme of research designed to explore how our academic audience both uses and produces research. First we established a research panel, with 1,268 representatives from across the whole Humanities and Social Sciences community, representing a wide range of disciplines and geographies.

The first survey put to the panel explored academic perspectives on the length and speed of academic content published in HSS. It found:

  • Almost two thirds of academics (64% of the 870 who responded to the survey) felt that the length of journal articles was about right, while for monographs this figure was slightly lower at 50%.
  • A number of authors (36% journal article authors and 50% monograph authors) were not satisfied with the formats available to them, with almost all those who felt that the designated length was not right saying (in both cases) that the length was too long.
  • The results showed that 16% believe that current outputs (journals articles and monographs) are sufficient.
  • Some, who felt that a mid-form was a good idea or who were neutral, were asked how likely they would be to publish research in a format between the length of a journal and a monograph: 84% (n=705) indicated that they would be likely to publish in this length.

Speed of production times also proved to be a key issue for the academics we surveyed. During the qualitative research phase, Neil Chakraborti, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Leicester, UK, commented on the needs of ‘scholars seeking to disseminate their research while it is still fresh and current’. Likewise, Jane Fitzpatrick, Acquisitions Librarian at CUNY Graduate Center, USA, described the need “for timely research in the digital world. The Humanities and Social Sciences have been left behind in the immediacy of published research […]. As we know, ‘speed’ and ‘innovation’ are key in the current world of scholarly research”.

The Birth of Palgrave Pivot

As a result of our market research, we developed the idea of Palgrave Pivot; an e-first book format for important and new scholarly research, between 25-50,000 words, to be published within 12 weeks of acceptance of the manuscript. Print copies of the books are also available on demand, so that those who prefer to hold the physical copy in their hand can do so. Of course, the mid-format has been explored by other publishers over recent years. In November 2010, Springer announced SpringerBriefs for works between 50 and 125 pages in length. SpringerBriefs are concise summaries of cutting-edge research and practical applications across a wide spectrum of fields. 2011 saw the launch of Princeton Shorts, brief selections taken from previously-published influential Princeton University Press books and produced exclusively in e-book format. But Palgrave Pivot is the first initiative to offer a mid-length format for original research in the humanities and social sciences, rather than summaries of existing work.

How do we publish Palgrave Pivots so quickly?

In order to make this speedy production time work, we have had to revise and adapt our business workflows substantially. For example, one of the areas that usually takes time in the production process is that of choosing a cover design, which often involves some back-and-forth between design, marketing, sales, editorial and of course the author, as well as having to gain rights permission for images used.

For Palgrave Pivot, rather than having individually designed cover designs, authors are required to choose from a wide range of beautiful templated designs, custom designed by our in-house team. Authors also have to agree to answer any queries from copy-editors and typesetters very quickly; this infographic gives a clear example of how the process works from an author’s point of view.

Ensuring we publish the best in scholarship

We have been very careful, along with our commitment to publish Palgrave Pivot titles within a short timeframe, to ensure that the quality of the peer review is in no way compromised. Palgrave Macmillan prides itself on the quality of the research we publish, and we would not have been able to maintain our reputation for quality work without rigorous peer review.

We are well aware that it is not just the scholarly publishing landscape that is changing – it’s also the changing demands of a life and career in academia. For example, we ensured that we met the stringent requirements of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and have obtained written confirmation that that research outputs published with Palgrave Pivot are eligible for the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) – subject to all other criteria being met.

The first 21 Palgrave Pivot titles were published on 30 October 2012, and we immediately received lots of positive feedback from the scholarly community (as well as a rush from many scholars to publish one ‘just in time’ for the last REF!).


Palgrave Pivot has allowed us to offer our authors the flexibility to publish their research at its natural length and in a variety of formats. Nowhere on our list is this better exemplified than in Medieval studies where our series the New Middle Ages publishes Pivots as well as full length monographs, and that, along with our postmedieval journal has opened up the field with options that any generation of scholar can embrace, giving the field of Medieval Studies more ways to communicate their research.

The speed of the production process gives our authors in the humanities opportunities to publish work which is timely or time-sensitive. This means, by way of example, that we could maximise the impact of the work of Joseph Cheah and Grace Ji-Sun Kim in their book Theological Reflections on Gangnam Style. Without the speed that this publishing format offers us, it just wouldn’t have been possible to ride the wave of the popularity of this phenomenon. Another Pivot, Digital Afterlives of Jane Austen, a fascinating look at the ever-expanding realm of Austen fandom on the Internet, was reviewed on the LSE’s Impact Blog.


In 2013, Palgrave Macmillan announced an open access option for authors of Palgrave Pivot publications, as well as for research monographs, and we published our first open access Palgrave Pivot in 2014, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology by Jill Walker Rettberg.

Two years on, we have published over 200 Palgrave Pivots across business, the humanities and social sciences, at an average speed of 10 weeks. Our shortest title so far has been just 78 pages, while the longest has been 196.

It is fair to say that Palgrave Pivot has proved to be a popular format, both in terms of its speed and flexibility on length; and we believe that the academic book of the future will need to be similarly flexible if it to meet the demands, not just of the changing scholarly publishing landscape, but of the changing demands of a career in academia.