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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.

What about the common complaint that we have too many monographs—more and more about less and less, as the saying goes? Critics often accuse professors of writing for each other and of trying to outdo each other in their professionalism instead of addressing subjects of wider interest. Certainly, monographism can be a disease. It seems to be killing disciplines like literary criticism, where voguishness and arcane jargon have alienated the ordinary educated reader. But most scholars have resisted the more malignant varieties of the disease, and some kinds of scholarship are important but unavoidably esoteric. The question remains: Can an author with a worthwhile monograph—something solid but not sexy, the kind of book that flourished twenty years ago—expect to get it published?

If you ask the experts in university presses, you are bound to be discouraged. Every editor has a collection of stories about superb monographs that did not sell. Sanford Thatcher at the Penn State University Press tells of a book on nineteenth-century Brazil that won two prizes and sold fewer than 500 copies and of another on Islam in Central Asia that received ecstatic reviews and four awards but sold only 215 copies in cloth (it sold a mere 691 in paperback). Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University says that one of the best books in a series he edits sold 282 copies. My own favorite horror story concerns a superb monograph on the French Revolution. It won three major prizes and sold 183 copies in cloth, 549 in paper.

Of course some fields of study, such as the Civil War, continue to hold up well. No field can be written off, although presses have abandoned some of them and the very notion of a field seems outmoded in many disciplines. The scholarly landscape remains too complex to be divided neatly into sectors; but if taken as a whole and looked at as a market, it appears depressed. Whether or not entire university presses will go under, one conclusion seems clear:the monograph is indeed endangered.

This danger spills over into a third problem: the careers of young scholars. Any assistant professor knows the categorical imperative: publish or perish, which translates into something more immediate:no monograph, no tenure. It is difficult enough for a recent Ph.D. to get a job, but that is when the greatest difficulties begin—moving to a new location, preparing courses for the first time, finding a partner or founding a family, and, on top of it all, publishing a book. Suppose, against all odds, an assistant professor succeeds in transforming a dissertation into a first-rate monograph within three or four years: Will he or she be able to get it published? Not likely.

But not impossible, according to some who doubt the severity of the crisis. “Show me a good dissertation that failed to make it into print and a talented assistant professor who failed to get tenure,” say the skeptics. And the cynics might add: “There is too much careerism in academic life, and there are far too many books.” We cannot marshal statistics in reply, but we all have anecdotes. Richard Bulliet of Columbia cites the example of a student there who won a prize for the best Ph.D. dissertation of the year and could not get it published, because it belonged to an endangered field of scholarship, Middle East Studies. Walk into the office of any editor at a university press and you will see dissertations stacked in piles, dozens of them. The editor will explain with a sigh that the press can afford to publish only two or three a year, adding with a deeper sigh that the press comes under pressure from academic committees who before they grant tenure want to see a book in print, accompanied by readers’ reports and reviews.

Presses resist being drawn into the process of awarding tenure, and rightly so, but often for the wrong reasons—that is, because they pay more attention to the bottom line of their budgets than to the dividing line of professional responsibilities. Like it or not, they function as a funnel in the process of professional advancement; yet they can publish only a few of the manuscripts they receive. The authors of the rest of those manuscripts may never make it to the next stage of their careers. Instead, they may fall into the floating population of adjuncts, lecturers, and part-time teachers of all varieties.

Some independent scholars rejoice in their independence. Barbara Tuchman, whose family was well-to-do, proved that superb history could be written outside the protective walls of academic institutions. But most independent or adjunct scholars have to scramble for a living, picking up odd jobs wherever they can find them, usually for inadequate pay, insufficient benefits, and no recognition. We may be producing the intellectual equivalent of the Okies and Arkies from the dust-bowl years—migrant academic workers with lap-top computers who live out of the back seats of their cars.

Given these intersecting, overlapping problems, can electronic publishing provide a solution? The first phase of the infatuation with e-books, the period of utopian enthusiasm, stands as a warning against unrealistic expectations. The utopians have a blind faith in the effectiveness of the Invisible Hand so dear to economists. Let the entrepreneurs slug it out in the marketplace, they say, and the good search engines, used by would-be readers, will drive out the bad digitized documents.

This argument may be valid for some kinds of consumer goods, perhaps even for the consumption of trade books. Enterprises like Amazon.com have successfully made many thousands of titles available. But for those who worry about scholarship, and intellectual life in general, the argument smacks of Micawberism: do nothing, and something might turn up. In fact, cyberspace, like the economy, needs to be regulated. Scholars should set standards. They should maintain quality control in the academic world, and they can do so by attacking the crisis I have described at two points: the point where beginners turn dissertations into books and the point where veterans experiment with new kinds of scholarship.

Certainly, we can dump unlimited numbers of dissertations onto the Web. Several programs exist for providing this service—and it is a genuine service: it makes research available to readers. But as a rule, this kind of publication provides mainly information, not fully developed scholarship, at least not in most of the humanities and social sciences. Anyone who has read raw dissertations knows what Imean: with few exceptions, they are not books. A world of difference separates them. To become a book, a dissertation must usually be reorganized, trimmed here and expanded there, adapted to the needs of a lay reader, and rewritten from top to bottom, preferably with the help of an experienced editor.

Editors often refer to this reworking as “value added,” and they add only some of the value that goes into a book. Peer review, page design, composition, printing, marketing, publicity—a variety of expertise is necessary to transform a dissertation into a monograph. Instead of simplifying this process, electronic publishing will add further complications, but the result could be a great increase in value. An e-dissertation could contain virtually unlimited appendices and databases. It could be linked to other publications in a manner that would permit readers to find new paths through old material. And once the technical problems are worked out, it could be produced and distributed economically, saving production costs for the publisher and shelf space for the library.

Of course, the problems of such electronic publishing are enormous. Start-up costs are high, because publishers need to design search engines and hyperlinks and also to train or acquire technical staff. Prices won’t be low, at least not until supply and demand have grown to such an extent that e-monographs can be marketed economically to individual readers on the Web. At present, publishers say they expect to sell site licenses to libraries, which will make entire collections of e-books available to their readers. Using a special code, the readers will call up the desired work on a computer in the library or even at home. They will search through the digitized text for whatever interests them, print out as much of it as they desire, bind it in a machine attached to the printer, and take it away for reading in the form of a custom-made paperback. The technology already exists to perform all these functions. In fact, paperback versions of books already in print can be digitized, printed, and bound for $150 or less. (Such do-it-yourself processes, if improved, suggest changes that may one day transform many of the standard features of today’s book industry, including printing, warehousing, and distribution.) But in order to publish original, high-quality monographs, a university press will have to put together all the parts of an original, high-quality system for production and distribution.

If everything comes together successfully, will electronic monographs be recognized as books? Will they acquire enough intellectual legitimacy to pass muster among suspicious tenure committees and to relieve the pressure on academic careers? This is the point at which veteran scholars can make a difference. Those who have proven their ability to produce first-rate conventional books could help create books of a new kind, far more original and ambitious than a converted dissertation.

In the case of history, a discipline where the crisis in scholarly publishing is particularly acute, the attraction of an e-book should be especially appealing. Any historian who has done long stints of research knows the frustration over his or her inability to communicate the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past. If only my reader could have a look inside this box, you say to yourself, at all the letters in it, not just the lines from the letter I am quoting. If only Icould follow that trail in my text just as I pursued it through the dossiers, when I felt free to take detours leading away from my main subject. If only Icould show how themes crisscross outside my narrative and extend far beyond the boundaries of my book. Not that books should be exempt from the imperative of trimming a narrative down to a graceful shape. But instead of using an argument to close a case, they could open up new ways of making sense of the evidence, new possibilities of making available the raw material embedded in the story, a new consciousness of the complexities involved in construing the past.

Iam not advocating the sheer accumulation of data, or arguing for links to databanks—so-called hyperlinks. These can amount to little more than an elaborate form of footnoting. Instead of bloating the electronic book, Ithink it possible to structure it in layers arranged like a pyramid. The top layer could be a concise account of the subject, available perhaps in paperback. The next layer could contain expanded versions of different aspects of the argument, not arranged sequentially as in a narrative, but rather as self-contained units that feed into the topmost story. The third layer could be composed of documentation, possibly of different kinds, each set off by interpretative essays. A fourth layer might be theoretical or historiographical, with selections from previous scholarship and discussions of them. A fifth layer could be pedagogic, consisting of suggestions for classroom discussion and a model syllabus. And a sixth layer could contain readers’ reports, exchanges between the author and the editor, and letters from readers, who could provide a growing corpus of commentary as the book made its way through different groups of readers.

A new book of this kind would elicit a new kind of reading. Some readers might be satisfied with a study of the upper narrative. Others might also want to read vertically, pursuing certain themes deeper and deeper into the supporting essays and documentation. Still others might navigate in unanticipated directions, seeking connections that suit their own interests or reworking the material into constructions of their own. In each case, the appropriate texts could be printed and bound according to the specifications of the reader. The computer screen would be used for sampling and searching, whereas concentrated, long-term reading would take place by means of the conventional printed book or downloaded text.

Far from being utopian, the electronic monograph could meet the needs of the scholarly community at the points where its problems converge. It could provide a tool for prying problems apart and opening up a new space for the extension of learning. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has provided support for several initiatives in this direction. One, a program for converting dissertations into electronic monographs, has just been launched by the American Historical Association. Another, for producing more ambitious e-books, is now being developed by the American Council of Learned Societies. Others are in the works. The world of learning is changing so rapidly that no one can predict what it will look like ten years from now. But I believe it will remain within the Gutenberg galaxy—though the galaxy will expand, thanks to a new source of energy, the electronic book, which will act as a supplement to, not a substitute for, Gutenberg’s great machine.

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