Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Choosing a publisher for a monograph

In academia, publication is about perception. I prefer to view it as being about communication to present and future readers, about exploring and synthesizing knowledge, about the love of teaching in another form. But the reality is that most academic authors publish because hiring decisions and tenure decisions consider publication records as a significant factor.

The scholarly monograph is key in that publication record. Textbooks and teaching materials don’t count, even at most teaching colleges, even though writing a good textbook demonstrates more mastery of a subject area than any esoteric exploration of the margins. Editing a journal rarely counts for much, and a reasonable rejection rate for the journal means that the editor is necessarily alienating many of the contacts he is making. Tenure requirements may be rigid (one monograph and four journal articles) or flexible (one monograph and three to five journal articles), but the monograph remains the bane of the young scholar’s life.

For publishers, monographs have become difficult to justify publishing. Sales of monographs have plummeted over the past two decades, and the only reason that most publishers still consider monographs is because they are afraid of losing their position of importance in academia. If we don’t publish monographs, then we won’t be considered a serious publisher, and young scholars won’t continue looking to us for salvation, and established scholars won’t be as contented in their relationships with us. Academic publishing relies on an intricate web of relationships between publishers and professors, because publishers depend on professors being willing to serve on editorial boards, edit journals, act as peer reviewers, review books, write back cover blurbs, and make connections between publishers and authors or prospective authors. In return, the professoriate asks that publishers continue to publish monographs, and publishers feel obliged to oblige.

As academic publishing has grown, the chances that any particular scholar has read any particular book has dropped, so it is unusual for the actual merits of a book as a work of scholarship to become widely known. New printing technologies have made the size of the initial print run unimportant, so books are rarely still ranked based on that number. The professoriate no longer demands that publishers edit those monographs, or proofread them, or typeset them, or even market them (though some publishers still do). What publishers must continue to do is put covers on books and put logos on the spines. This vastly reduced set of expectations has made the reputation of the publisher take on an overriding importance, even when the criteria for evaluating a publisher are highly impressionistic and idiosyncratic. A young scholar seeking to publish a monograph must choose a publisher with a good reputation, and must avoid a publisher with a bad reputation, and must somehow divine which publishers are which.

Note that this is unrelated to deciding which publisher may do the best job of editing the book or marketing the book, or which publisher may help the book reach the most readers, or what the contract terms might be. Even the opinion of the author herself about the reputation of the publisher is unimportant. What matters is the opinion of the professors who will be on the tenure review committee or hiring committee. For an author given the choice between a publisher with a good reputation who in fact is little more than a glorified copy shop and a publisher with a bad reputation who in fact carefully reviews and edits the books they publish, the decision should always be the publisher with the good reputation.

8 comments:

irilyth said...

It seems weird that monographs are the things that tenure committees care about. I could understand them caring about something that has no value to anyone except as a signifier, but signified something, but it's not even clear what a monograph signifies, other than "you can identify publishers with a good reputation"... Whereas journal articles show that your peers are willing to review and approve your work (whether that's based on the scholarship or other factors, it's at least something), and a textbook means that a publisher thinks they can sell your book to enough schools to make back the presumably not insignifcant cost of publishing the damn thing.

So why do academics care about monographs? Just ornery tradition?

Vardibidian said...

Well, and monographs are assumed to be peer-reviewed in some sense. That's part of the reputation of the publisher: a good publisher doesn't publish worthless crap. On the other hand, that's part of the problem: since nobody actually reads (most of) these monographs, we know that a book is worthwhile only because it is published by a good publisher, that is, one who we trust not to publish worthless crap. On the one hand, a publisher has to keep up its rep by not getting caught publishing worthless crap, but on the other, serious editing is expensive and who will know the difference anyway?

I do understand, in a general sort of way, why academics think that A Book is a big deal, although it does seem a trifle odd to essentially hand the tenure decision over to the publishers, whose interests are ... not necessarily ... aligned with the departments in question.

Thanks,
-V.

Michael said...

Monographs used to be like journal articles, but better. Or at least longer and hopefully more thorough. Peer review on monographs used to be robust (and still is at some publishers, in some fields). The sales factor also used to be significant, back when a monograph might have a 2500 copy print run and be expected to sell a reasonable percentage of that. The use of the monograph by tenure committees is a holdover from a time when it established that you could write a long work which was respected, which had passed a rigorous peer review, and which was likely to be read by a number of your colleagues in the field.

It is much harder to get a monograph accepted at a publisher with a good reputation than it used to be, because there are more manuscripts and fewer monographs accepted at those publishers. But just like Harvard rejects many excellent students because of limited capacity, Harvard University Press rejects many excellent manuscripts. So having a manuscript published by HUP means that you can identify a publisher with a good reputation and you won a lottery with bad odds. It is also much easier to have your manuscript published somewhere, which is why tenure committees get picky about publisher reputations.

Michael said...

Overlap in writing our answers, there.

Academic publishers have long complained about the fact that tenure committees turned over much of the decision to publishers several decades ago. Most publishers make all their money these days on journals, not on books. If they could persuade the professoriate to universally drop the monograph requirement while keeping the journal articles requirement, they’d be in much better shape financially. The risk to the publishers in having those requirements reworked is that the journal articles may also become less important, and the demand to publish journal articles is what drives the revenues for Elsevier, Wiley, etc.

chris cobb said...

It may be worth noting that journal articles are generally evaluated in the tenure process in about the same fashion as monographs--by the reputation of the journal.

In many fields, journal articles are indeed worth much less than monographs with respect to tenure and promotion, but they are judged according to the same criteria.

Michael said...

A journal’s reputation is certainly of great importance in evaluating journal articles on an academic’s CV. Publishing journal articles with reputable journals is not easy for a young scholar to do. It has not turned into an impossible task because the number and size of journals have grown in rough parallel to (and sometimes beyond) the growth in prospective authors. Journals are how large academic publishers make money; monographs are how they lose money. So it’s not surprising that publishers have added journals in preference to monographs.

Christina said...

I stumbled upon this post when I did a Google search for monograph... I have nearly completed my doctorate and have composed a monograph in addition to my dissertation (2 completely different topics) and am curious about how to actually find someone interested in publishing a monograph these days. Any thoughts?

Michael said...

Reading back through the post and comments, I don’t think much has changed. Talk to your advisor(s) about which publishers they would recommend, and start there. If the publisher has a monograph series within which your monograph would fit, point that out to the publisher in your cover letter.