ASEEES and the Future of Book Publishing

by Douglas Rogers, Yale University

This article first appeared in the June 2015 NewsNet

It is a familiar refrain that the world of scholarly book publishing is “in crisis” (at worst) or “in transition” (at best). Neither libraries nor individuals are buying books in the numbers that they once did. University presses are under increased budgetary pressure from their home institutions. The overall number, kind, and length of books that can be published in a financially sustainable way are all on the decline. At the same time, there has been no decrease in the relevance or importance of the scholarly monograph as one among several crucial modes of creating and disseminating knowledge. It remains the case, in short, that some pieces of scholarship require more words— sometimes many more words—than journal articles permit. (Academic departments and universities recognize this by continuing to make monographs an important element of tenure and promotion cases in many fields.) And, of course, conversations about all of these issues move quickly to emerging, often still uncertain, possibilities for new publishing formats and strategies: electronic only, print-on-demand, and so on.

As murky as it is, this set of transformations creates some opportunities for scholarly associations like ASEEES to intervene on behalf of “their” authors and publishers. At its November 2013 meeting, the ASEEES Board of Directors voted to establish an Ad Hoc Committee on Book Publishing and to charge it “to consult with academic colleagues, editors and publishers, librarians, and others and to make recommendations to the ASEEES Board of Directors about ways in which the association can help to sustain and enhance the publication of monographs in our field in a time of rapid change for the publishing industry.”

I chaired that committee, joined by Douglas Northrop (U Michigan) and Clare Cavanagh (Northwestern U). In the spring of 2014, the three of us conferred with each other, with numerous academic colleagues, with a number of editors from a wide variety of presses, and with librarians. We asked for evaluations of the current state of affairs and recommendations for improvements. Nearly everyone with whom we spoke expressed some level of concern about the state of contemporary book publishing in the ASEEES field. Some of the factors mentioned were familiar, such as precipitously dropping library acquisition budgets and a noticeable drop in book purchasing among graduate students (in favor of scanned and circulated .pdf files). Other factors were quite specific to the ASEEES field, including the end of the Mellon Foundation’s grant supporting Slavic-area humanities publishing at Pittsburgh, Northwestern, and Wisconsin University Presses.

At the same time, there was near unanimous agreement that the quality of book-length scholarship on the region has never been higher, and has been considerably bolstered by increasingly high-quality scholarship from colleagues based at universities in the region. There was also agreement that, even if it cannot hope to shift the entire publishing industry, ASEEES can productively take some actions that would help to preserve and enhance the kind of in-depth scholarship about our part of the world that book-length publishing makes possible. Our committee’s report was discussed at the 2014 Board of Directors meeting in San Antonio, and I am happy to report that three of that report’s central recommendations are now moving forward.

First-Book Subventions

Perhaps the most significant of these is a First Book Subvention Program, designed on the model of programs administered by some of our sibling scholarly associations, notably the Association for Asian Studies. Beginning this coming fall, ASEEES will set aside $10,000 per year from its endowment’s investment earnings to help defray the expenses incurred in publishing books by first-time authors who are members of ASEEES and who have been awarded publishing contracts. A multidisciplinary committee of senior scholars, advised by a publishing professional on the complex and shifting world of publishing expenses, will evaluate applications for these awards following two annual deadlines (September 1 and February 1). Multiple awards of up to $2,500 will be made on a competitive basis each year, with funds disbursed directly to the press. In deciding on these awards, the committee will take into account both the scholarly significance of the book and the demonstrated need for subvention support. For more detailed eligibility requirements and application procedures, please click here.

Convention Programming and Web Resources

Our committee heard from a number of members that one of the things many PhD programs do very poorly is helping new PhDs and junior scholars to prepare effective book proposals and pitch projects that are likely to succeed in the increasingly competitive scholarly book publishing industry. We recommended continuing and enhancing the existing series of convention panels and roundtables dedicated to various aspects of book publishing. The 2015 Convention in Philadelphia will include two such roundtables. The first, “Publishing a Book in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies,” will include editors from a wide variety of presses: Gwen Walker (University of Wisconsin Press), Amy Farranto (Northern Illinois University Press), Krisztina Kos (Central European University Press), Igor Nemirovsky (Academic Studies Press), and Richard Ratzlaff (University of Toronto Press). The second, “Publishing Your First Book: Advice from Recent Authors,” will feature scholars from a number of fields who have published their first books in the past few years: Scott Radnitz (University of Washington), Erin Koch (University of Kentucky), Rebecca Stanton (Columbia University), Eileen Kane (Connecticut College), and Colleen McQuillen (University of Illinois at Chicago). Linda Manning will present a webinar, entitled “Publishing Your First Book” on June 25th. We hope that additional resources for firsttime authors will be added to the ASEEES website in the coming months and years.

On-line Exhibition Spaces

Our committee found that publishers who regularly exhibit at the ASEEES convention were interested in additional platforms for selling their books and improving communication with potential authors. The ASEEES website provides an ideal site for both. In the coming months and years, ASEEES expects to add a range of new content to its website, including space for exhibitors to feature recent books and authors, as well as brief descriptions of what topics presses are interested in and the contact information for the relevant editors. Occasional e-mails from the Association will point members in the direction of these parts of the website and the resources it will offer. 

These initiatives will not stop, or even significantly impact, the transformations that are ongoing in the publishing industry. They are, rather, targeted ways in which ASEEES can assist its members and publishers as they adapt to these changing circumstances. The ad hoc committee that I chaired was not charged with exploring alternatives to the current model of monograph publishing that takes place largely through university presses and in “traditional” print. Nevertheless, many of those with whom we spoke—press editors and scholars alike—urged ASEEES members and leaders to contemplate a future in which it becomes ever more difficult to publish books in a number of fields (and highly specialized books in most fields) in this model. It was pointed out to us that scholarly organizations like ASEEES are well positioned to foster other, lower-cost, web-based models for monograph publication that would still maintain the imprimatur of rigorous peer review. There are certainly challenges to this path—economic and otherwise—but there are significant opportunities as well. The stakes to not contemplating such alternatives in the coming years are clearly high.