That nobody much likes reading academic books isn’t exactly a shock. Study after study after really good summary has shown that about 40% of books acquired by academic libraries will never be checked out within ten years. Most people only need to read a chapter or two, and, as someone who regularly tries to read academic books as if they were books, a chapter or two is about as much of an academic book as you actually want to read. Even those that involve people getting married at crossbowpoint or seduced and abandoned by double-dealing barons can turn into poorly written and dreary forced marches.
Monographs are long. They’re expensive. They’re on on obscure topics. They’re badly written. They take forever to publish. They take in too many topics, as opposed to the one you need. They force you to spend 300 pages on something that would be better served by 100. They’re like my blog posts, but somehow worse.
I’m not the only one who has noticed this, of course. I’m not even the only one who would really like there to be a solution. A possible answer (or, more likely, part of the answer), and one that really excites me, is the short-form monograph, or “minigraph.”
Minigraphs, awful name aside, could be what we wish traditional monographs were. They’re short—usually 20,000 to 40,000 words, or roughly 75 to 125 pages—which means that they can be read in a weekend. More to the point, they can be reviewed in a weekend, copyedited in two, typeset in another, printed and bound the next. Palgrave Pivot, the best known commercial minigraph series, promises a 12 week proposal-to-published turnaround time, including peer review. Now, Palgrave Macmillan has resources most university presses can’t even dream of, but that’s much faster than I’ve heard of any monograph being published; eight months is, from what I can tell, very much on the fast end of things, with two years being more common at some presses. While I’d love to know their editorial review procedures and how they get reviewers to stick to their strict timeline, I imagine having no excuse to put down such a short book helps.
A book on the shelf stays on the shelf; a book being read gets read. Write a book designed to be read, and people will read it—and a book that gets read is a book that’s discussed, cited, and known.
People, even academics (who still count as “people”), have limits. Time, attention, and patience are not infinite, and if you can present your ideas within these limits, so much the better. I know it’s odd for someone as long-winded as me to say this, but, if you can present your ideas in a length that people can get through in about a weekend, they’re less likely to become discouraged and put your book back on the shelf “until I have time to finish it.” If you write the one or two chapters someone actually wants as a single book rather than burying them within a longer book, make it available as a paperback or ebook, price it at $19.95, print enough to break even, then everybody gets what they want: your audience gets good ideas, publishers get a good book they can actually sell and market, and the author gets a book their peers are using, reading, and citing. They’re more likely to become part of the conversation, rather than sitting on the shelf.
Books of this length, serious books even, are not without precedent—these short books have a long history. Most of the dialogues of Plato are this long, if not a bit shorter, as are some of the works of Aristotle. Ditto the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. And many of Augustine’s treatises. Also Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Dante’s De Monarchia. Ockham’s On the Power of Emperor’s and Popes. Machiavelli’s The Prince. Luther’s Freedom of a Christian. Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. Rousseau’s two Discourses. Leibniz’s Monadology. Locke’s Second Treatise. Berkeley’s Treatise. Kant’s Groundwork. Mill’s Utilitarianism. Nietzche’s Use and Abuse of History. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Bergson’s Laughter. Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego. De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity. Murdoch’s Sovereignty of the Good. Kripke’s Naming and Necessity.
You get the idea. That’s just me walking over to my “history of philosophy” shelf and looking for non-fragementary, non-excerpted works (no Epicurus, no selections from Aquinas) that fit this format. It’s not exactly a short list, if a bit heavy on things from the days between personal armies of recording secretaries and those of truly cheap mass printing—or perhaps modernity was just a time that appreciated a good pamphlet, something to carry with you to the salon or the coming revolution.
It’s also the length of the venerable reworked lecture—which was the origin of Naming and Necessity, among many, many other works by Important Figures in various fields—and, from my research into potential translation projects for my press, seems to be a fairly common format in Europe. There’s at least one pope-level book that we’ll be announcing in the next couple months that’s about this length, and I spent today researching a pretty nifty one that’s on the shorter end. Why this format has greater currency in Europe than here is an open question, one I don’t have an answer for yet, but it does seem the format can be used for scholarly texts in ways we currently don’t.
So there are lots of good reasons for adopting something more “thesis” than “dissertation” in length, while still “scholar” in value. There’s just one not-so-little problem: these books won’t help your career in the eyes of those who can end it, and so the biggest incentive to write a scholarly minigraph doesn’t exist.
According to a report put out by the Lever Initiative of the Oberlin Group of Libraries, readers of scholarly books want to see a change for the more readable, more affordable, and more useful; writers of books want better sales, faster publication, and better market penetration; but the people who evaluate your publication record and decide the course of your career want to see traditional monographs with traditional publishers. Nimble, innovative publishers working with novel formats like minigraphs produce the products readers want in ways that serve writers, but at the cost of satisfying evaluators.
This disparity increases markedly when you sample only “prestigious” faculty (those at 80 of the best liberal arts colleges in America) who have landed themselves a pretty nice gig at the top of their profession, as opposed to sampling from HSS faculty in general, some of whom are likely to be at earlier stages in their careers and/or at less prestigious institutions. The status quo has worked just fine for anyone with a tenure track job at an Oberlin Group institution; it got them to the top, after all! For them more than anyone, the usual way was the best way, and that way includes a record of publishing traditional monographs with traditional academic publishers. The role of the university press as evaluator, rather than content marketer or distributor, is most important to them—but, as they control hiring decisions and the direction of their fields, it becomes the most important thing to everyone else.
This creates the odd situation where those who would most like to see innovations in academic publishing are those who are least able to contribute them. Minigraphs are currently written almost entirely by tenured and emeritus professors—that is, academics who no longer have to worry about career advancement. When you no longer have to prove anything to anyone, you can afford to not worry about whether or not your next book is going to be “good enough” for the people who hold absolute power over the course of your career. You can experiment with writing, abandoning the stuffy, impenetrable tone of your earlier years for one that’s personal, lively, perhaps even humorous—but woe to the junior scholar who tries the same thing, lest the peer reviewer tell them to adopt a more suitably academic tone! Only the Greats get to write well or temper their ideas with a bit of humanity and humor; for the rest of us, there’s only the facade of objectivity, an inhuman sort of prose devoid of any sign a living, breathing human wrote it.
So many of the problems university presses—and the people who read our books—face could be avoided, or at least smoothed over, if we weren’t forced to be the arbiters of people’s worth. Books that don’t contribute to scholarship because nobody ever reads them aren’t the sign of a good scholar! There are academics who will write a monograph, send it to a press, then, when the book lands with a dull thud in the distribution warehouse, never to be seen again, will rewrite the same book for actual human beings and have that published to wider distribution, more readers, and, because people are actually reading the book, more prestige. Hiring and promotion decisions are made on the monographs sitting unordered in warehouses, but their renown in the field and citations in the literature come from the books on people’s shelves and in their hands.
So we’re stuck with a situation where it’s vitally important that we innovate and create a new paradigm, but the conservatism and status quo in the academy is both our main obstacle and the one we can’t directly work around. So long as our authors are penalized by their academic superiors for our attempts to innovate, they won’t submit works to us; so long as the standard academic monograph remains the Only Thing That Matters for career advancement, we’re stuck in the present way of doing things, and, thanks to budget cuts and changing priorities in our market, that way of doing things is dying off. We have every incentive to innovate, but our readership—who also happens to be almost identical with our author base—has to satisfy a pretty stable status quo.
As the Lever Initiative puts it, “the existing system of tenure and promotion is closely tied to established publishing practices with traditional format publishers. Overcoming this is likely to be the single biggest challenge to establishing a new publishing venture.”
The status quo is all our problem, not always theirs, but it’s a pretty big problem for us.
That’s a pretty bleak place to end, isn’t it? I don’t know if this is a good way forward, and, even if it is, it’s certainly not the only good way forward, but I have an idea or two on how we might get through this.
Next Time: An Exercise in Strategery