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The New Age of the Book

Marshall McLuhan’s future has not happened. The Web, yes; global immersion in television, certainly; media and messages everywhere, of course. But the electronic age did not drive the printed word into extinction, as McLuhan prophesied in 1962. His vision of a new mental universe held together by post-printing technology now looks dated. If it fired imaginations thirty years ago, it does not provide a map for the millennium that we are about to enter. The “Gutenberg galaxy” still exists, and “typographic man” is still reading his way around it.

Consider the book. It has extraordinary staying power. Ever since the invention of the codex in the third or fourth century AD, it has proven to be a marvelous machine—great for packaging information, convenient to thumb through, comfortable to curl up with, superb for storage, and remarkably resistant to damage. It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand. And its handiness has made it the basic tool of learning for thousands of years, even before the library of Alexandria was founded early in the fourth century BC.

Why then do we continue to hear prophecies about the death of the book? Not because McLuhan was right but because movable type can’t move fast enough to keep up with events. Insofar as the Monica Lewinsky affair was a media event, it took place largely on the Internet, first through the “scoop” of Matt Drudge, which made it news before it reached the newspapers, then through the publication of the Starr Report on government websites, which recorded six million hits within twenty-four hours.

In the giddiness that followed, Americans learned that all sorts of electronic books were being developed. Most of these “e-books” contain texts that are downloaded from on-line booksellers and then can be projected onto a screen, one page at a time. JSTOR, a project developed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has made vast runs of scholarly periodicals available on line and purchasable at low prices by libraries, some of which could not afford the originals. The New York Public Library dispenses so much information electronically to readers all over the world that it reports ten million hits on its computer system each month as opposed to 50,000 books dispensed in its reading room at 42nd Street. Everything, it seems, is being digitized, and every digit hyperlinked to all the others. If the future brings newspapers without news, journals without pages, and libraries without walls, what will become of the traditional book? Will electronic publishing wipe it out?

We have heard that prophecy repeated ever since the first e-book, a clunking monstrosity known as Memex, was designed in 1945. By now, the conventional book has been pronounced dead so often that we shouldn’t be surprised to find that it seems in excellent health. Sales of some books are booming, thanks in part to marketing over the Internet by Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. When published as a paperback, the Starr Report shot to the top of the best-seller list, even though people who bought it could read it on the Web often without paying a penny. Now that they have computers, Americans produce and consume more paper with print on it than ever. Even William Gates, chairman and CEO of Microsoft, confessed in a recent speech that he prefers printed paper to computer screens for extensive reading:

…Reading off the screen is still vastly inferior to reading off of paper. Even I, who have these expensive screens and fancy myself as a pioneer of this Web Lifestyle, when it comes to something over about four or five pages, I print it out and I like to have it to carry around with me and annotate. And it’s quite a hurdle for technology to achieve to match that level of usability.

Gates says that technology will have to improve “very radically” before “all the things we work with on paper today move over into digital form.” In short, the old-fashioned codex, printed on folded and gathered sheets of paper, is not about to disappear into cyberspace.

Why then the continuing fascination with electronic publishing? It seems to have passed through three stages: an initial phase of utopian enthusiasm, a period of disillusionment, and a new tendency toward pragmatism. At first we thought we could create an electronic space, throw everything into it, and leave the readers to sort it out. Then we learned that no one would read a book on a computer screen or wrestle through heaps of printouts. Now we face the possibility of supplementing the traditional book with electronic publications specifically designed for certain purposes and publics.

The best case to be made for e-books concerns scholarly publishing, not in all fields, but in large stretches of the humanities and social sciences where conventional monographs—that is, learned treatises on particular subjects—have become prohibitively expensive to produce. The difficulty is so severe, in fact, that it is transforming the academic landscape. It results from three problems which have converged in a way that makes the monograph look like an endangered species.

Commercial publishers have raised the price of periodicals, especially in the natural sciences, to such a height that they have created havoc in the budgets of research libraries. In order to maintain their collections of periodicals, libraries have cut back drastically in the purchases of monographs. Faced with the decline in orders from libraries, university presses have virtually ceased publishing in the fields for which there is the least demand. And scholars in those fields no longer have an adequate outlet for their research. The crisis concerns the workings of the marketplace, not the value of the scholarship; and it is greatest among those with the greatest need to overcome it—the next generation of academics whose careers depend upon their ability to break into print.

A closer look at each aspect of the crisis indicates that it began in the 1970s, when prices of periodicals began to spiral upward. Now they have spun out of control. A subscription to Brain Research costs $15,203; the Journal of Comparative Neurology costs $13,900; Nuclear Physics B, $11,267. True, journals published by professional associations are less expensive than those put out by commercial publishers. Many scientists communicate their research electronically, before it appears in print, and JSTOR promises to make scholarly journals in the humanities and social sciences more easily available than ever before. But the scientific journals remain a staple in scholarship, and scientists have enough power on campuses to prevent the cancellation of subscriptions in their fields. When cancellations occur, the journals raise their prices even more, pushed in part by production costs, which also have been rising. Librarians sometimes imagine a vicious circle contracting to a disappearing point at its center: a journal could continue to exist by charging an astronomical price to a single subscriber. As things now stand, libraries cope with the pressures on their budgets by sacrificing monographs to periodicals.

Until recently, monographs used to account for at least half the acquisitions budget of most research libraries. In 1996-1997, however, 78 percent of the acquisitions budget in the library of the University of Illinois at Chicago went for periodicals, 21 percent for monographs. Syracuse University’s library spent 75 percent on periodicals and 17 percent on monographs. The library at the University of Hawaii spent 84 percent on periodicals and 12 percent on monographs. (The numbers don’t add up to 100 percent, since there are other categories of expenditures.) The decline in the purchase of monographs among large research libraries over the last ten years comes to 23 percent. If the transformation of library budgets continues at this rate we can wonder whether new work in the humanities and social sciences will survive in book form.

The second aspect of the crisis threatens academic life at a particularly vulnerable point, the budgets of university presses. According to a rule of thumb among editors in the 1970s, a university press could count on selling 800 copies of a monograph to libraries. Today, the figure is 400, often less, and not enough in any case to cover costs. Publishers can no longer be sure of selling books that would have been irresistible to librarians twenty years ago. Volume 1 of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, published in 1959, sold 8,407 copies, mostly to libraries. Volume 33, published in 1998, has sold 753 copies.

Alarmed by the drop in demand, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) commissioned Herbert Bailey, the retired director of the Princeton University Press, to do a study in 1990. Contrary to expectations, he found that the number of monographs produced had increased by 51 percent from 1978 to 1988. Publishers had responded to the pressure by increasing output (and prices, too), while holding down costs (mainly by squeezing more work from their staffs, hence a noticeable decline in the standard of editing).

By 1990, however, this trend had begun to reverse itself. Scholarly publishers, harder pressed than ever, continued to produce a large number of titles, but fewer of them were scholarly. They tended to be books about popular local themes or birds or cookery or sports or “midlist” books—that is, the quasi-trade works that commercial publishers were neglecting in order to concentrate on books with mass appeal: exercise books, how-to books, and the assorted schlock that clutters up most bookstores today.

Many presses tried to find a way out of the impasse by concentrating on subjects currently in vogue: books about gender, sex, feminism, homosexuality, lesbianism, women’s studies, African-American studies, postcolonialism, and postmodernism of all varieties. The main section of the spring catalog of Routledge, a commercial press with an academic bent, includes 258 new books in twenty-seven fields. Of them, thirty-seven concern gender, sexuality, and women’s studies, thirty-nine belong to a field that Routledge identifies as cultural studies, and twenty-six are in history. Of course, intellectual fashion can be a stimulus rather than an impediment to learning. But books on voguish subjects threaten to squeeze more conventional scholarship off publishers’ lists.

Is the monograph therefore in danger of extinction? The question was debated at various conferences in 1997 and 1998; and as in the case of many academic questions, there was no simple answer. Any professor can name a field in which it is extremely difficult to publish scholarly books, while another professor can come up with exceptions. Monographs about Africa, South Asia, and colonial Latin America seem to be hardest hit. But a study of witchcraft in Sudan or popular religion in eighteenth-century Peru might “take,” if it gets adopted in courses in history, anthropology, religion, and Latin American studies. The AAUP is now conducting a new and more systematic survey to determine exactly in what subjects the monograph is most endangered. Preliminary impressions suggest that the danger exists everywhere, even though it cannot be pinned down precisely, field by field.

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