In recent years, universities have been so thoroughly engulfed by new, upstart scholarly communications technologies that the sturdiest form of academic communication of them all, the book, appears lost in the maelstrom. But the book is still with us and as relevant as ever. Reports of its death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated.
In the social sciences alone over the past generation, books—specifically, university press books—by the likes of Thomas Piketty, Sudhir Venkatesh, Robert Shiller, Martha Nussbaum, Alan Wolfe, Anna Tsing, Deirdre McCloskey, Wendy Brown, Cass Sunstein, Theda Skocpol, James Scott, Alice Goffman, Glenn Loury, and scores of other distinguished authors—have given shape and direction to the scholarly agenda. One book alone, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has defined the discussion of the master social concern of our era, inequality.
Universities can and should revisit their connection to the book as the seminal form of scholarly output and strengthen their association with university presses—the institution created centuries ago to publish such books—in the interest of communicating the best intellectual work as well as the loftiest ideals.
Amid all the changes taking place in the scholarly communication system, the outstanding work represented by the authors named above exemplifies the case that books matter, especially given their value as authoritative and comprehensive accounts of academic work traveling in an increasingly fragmented scholarly communications environment.
Not only do books matter now, they are likely to matter even more as increasingly atomized and evanescent forms of communication enhance the need for the kind of respected, integrated, carefully contextualized, durable knowledge constituted by authors working in their respective academic genres.
In other words, a healthy scholarly culture needs the time-tested technology of books to balance and enrich the innovative and experimental technologies of communication thrust forth by the internet. Moreover, the value added by university presses in selecting, editing, designing, promoting, and licensing such books matters as well. Just ask authors.
Among the leading university presses, scholarly book publishing is as strong as ever both in the quality of titles published and in the experiments in new media these presses are deploying. But the job for the broader university press community (especially the smaller, financially challenged presses) is to remind campus leaders that books die hard: that is, they have staying power as the protean form of scholarly communications in most fields, and as the all-important medium in connecting the ideas of scholars across fields. Books are distinctive in that their scholarly contributions are not only foundational, but adaptable across functions. That is, they can be specialized (as in most humanities and social science monographs) or broader (as in treatises and trade books), and can serve different functions (advanced texts and reference). A healthy scholarly culture needs such genres in the appropriate balance within each field.
The gold rush to digitization has sometimes cast book publishers—including university presses—as mere middlemen in the scholarly communications process, allegedly adding cost but little value to the process. Books die hard: that is, they have staying power as the protean form of scholarly communications in most fields, and as the all-important medium in connecting the ideas of scholars across fieldsThis stance misses the thread of the glorious historical contribution made by our university presses to scholarship, starting with the vital contribution of acquiring editors. Outstanding university press editors are among the best-informed people in all of academia, and play an indispensable role in intellectual life.
University press editors, often working astride kindred disciplines (say, sociology and anthropology, or economics and politics) navigate new knowledge and trends through active engagement in their respective fields and in ongoing communication with leading scholars and advisors. They accrue credibility through their rich and reliable networks of authors and prospective authors, and they enhance the culture of ideas through their educated ability to determine the most important works in their fields. They bring creativity to the table by developing ideas for new book projects and proposing them to authors.
Further, in the age of fake news, fabricated facts, and customized truth, editors help to ensure scholarly integrity by managing the process of peer review. University press editors are crucial to preserving peer review because they exercise both imagination and discipline in ensuring intelligent assessment of social scientific research, balancing technical and philosophical evaluations of book manuscripts.
Also vital in building new knowledge are the connections these editors forge on behalf of their authors with the book review media, foreign publishers, and other stakeholders in scholarly ideas. Editorial travel and time spent meeting and speaking with scholars are key elements of this process. Their colleagues within the university press matter as well because in performing their various roles in editing, design, production, marketing, and publicizing books, and licensing rights to their translation, these publishing professionals add value by connecting authors’ work to their intended readership and into the broader scholarly conversation. University press publishing is not printing, nor is it posting. At its best, it is about making and sustaining vital intellectual connections.
Just as easily overlooked in the seeming free-for-all of digital development is the technological innovation accomplished within the university press itself. Innovation at university presses comes in a multitude of forms, from the digitization of virtually all aspects of the publishing process through the successful launching of new mechanisms for distribution (online library aggregations) and various open publishing experiments. Less well appreciated is content innovation reflected in the incorporation of new disciplines (economics and the sciences), new genres (advanced texts), new authors (from around the world), and expanded translation activity in Chinese and other vital languages in the development of university press lists.
Digital publishing by university presses has also taken on various new forms, most prominently that of large-scale open access initiatives such as the Digital Loeb Classical Library published by Harvard University Press, the Digital Edition of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein published by Princeton University Press, the American Founders Project published by the University of Virginia Press, and in many online course partnerships with teaching entities such as Coursera.
Free and “freemium” projects have promise, but relevant experiments make greatest sense in the context of existing and evolving print and digital publishing, which preserves the value of the contributions presses make in the shaping of authors’ manuscripts and in the effective connection of their ideas with the intended readerships.University press publishing is not printing, nor is it posting. At its best, it is about making and sustaining vital intellectual connections.The best opportunity ahead on this front is to continue to experiment with hybrid scholarly publishing projects where print and digital mingle in combined formats and economic models, and presses can share the results and learn from one another.
The greatest disrupter to a robust system of scholarly book publication and of an emboldened university press is not a technology, but an idea: the dream of a free lunch. We get what we pay for. A healthy culture of scholarly books balances the needs of the consumers of such books—readers and researchers—with those of authors and their publishers.
University presses need to be able to successfully sell traditional print books and e-books for readers, while making digital versions of these books widely available for researchers, as we do currently through online library aggregations. We live in a culture of markets and networks. Inventively combining the best of these mechanisms, rather than attempting to suffocate one in favor of the other, holds the best prospect for successfully delivering scholarly books to most academics.
In order to further animate the future of books, we scholarly publishers must first succeed in reminding university leaders that amid all the technological upheaval, books matter as a fundamental and irreducible element of intellectual life—they’re not going away—and that the value university presses add in selection, editing, design, and promotion is essential to their success. Campus leaders for their part will then better appreciate their own university presses as strategic partners, vital for communicating important ideas and values. The challenge for individual presses is to identify the right scholarly niche and to create the right publishing portfolio to achieve sustainability.
For social science, a key provision in preparing the next generation of social scientists is for senior scholars to signal their belief in the importance of books, to encourage young social scientists in learning how to write books and work with publishers, and in seeing their local university presses as strategic assets in communicating the university’s ideas and values through books that contribute to the greater scholarly conversation.