What’s an Academic Book? And Does It Still Matter?

Yale University Press recently celebrated its centennial with a conference, “Why Books Still Matter.” The theme of the event – and the fact that YUP Director John Donatich opened by acknowledging the unasked question, “Do books still matter?” – reflects the troubled state of both university and trade publishing. Champions of the book arrived from all corners, however, with a variety of ideas.

My panel addressed “The Digital Future of Scholarly Publishing,” and consisted of Yochai Benkler, David Gelernter, Michael Heller, and myself, moderated by Harvard University Library Director Robert Darnton. (If you’re counting, that’s 3 law profs and a computer scientist among the presenters, a strange ratio for a discipline that has only in the past decade embraced book publishing. In fact, when I was writing my first book, I experienced substantial resistance from both my tenure committee and senior scholars elsewhere – a reaction that now seems laughable – but that’s a story for another day.) While we ranged from enthusiastic to somewhat resistant to the possibilities of digital rather than paper-and-ink publishing, there was general agreement that traditional books have great value.

Much of the defense of the paper-and-ink book revolved around its technical excellence. While some people love their Kindles, and digital technology will no doubt continue to improve, nothing has yet beaten the book.

For my part, I confess to having called books “the scented candles of the 21st century” –

– but I meant it nicely. A candle was once about as romantic as a lightbulb, but today candles are exchanged as gifts, used to create atmosphere, and treated as small amenities. And yes, they provide light. Books are still terrific information delivery devices, but even as the digital reading experience improves, books will still serve as identity-bearing goods (offering information about their owners), have totemic value (physically connecting readers with authors, a link strengthened in cases like signed copy), and exist as personal luxuries. While reference tomes or extremely specialized scholarly works that will be used by only a few people probably don’t need to have a tangible existence, printing amplifies both the value and the roles of many other works. (Why else would I be in the process of turning my own blog into a real live book, rather than simply a longer digital file?)

But the question that remained uppermost in my mind, after much additional discussion of the book and of the relationship between a university, its press, and the mission of a university press, was exactly what constitutes scholarship or academic publishing and what constitutes trade publishing. Most large university presses do both, the latter ostensibly to subsidize the former, but in today’s information society I’m not sure that the difference is quite so clear – though Yochai disagreed with me on this point.

In my view, universities and scholars no longer have a near-monopoly on the production of information and extended analysis. Journalists, corporate consultants, and independent researchers write tremendously thoughtful and thought-provoking works; among my favorite books published in the past year is Rob Walker’s Buying In, to offer just one example. At the same time, more professional academics are writing books that appeal to not only our colleagues but also to the general public. Sure, there’s a difference between a John Grisham novel and a Ph.D. dissertation, but in my mind there’s a continuum, not two poles.

Where does scholarship end and the popular press begin? Why the shift among legal academics to writing books, with both university presses and trade presses? A new-media outlet run by professors seems a perfect place to discuss these and related questions.

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7 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I just want to say that I much prefer reading the printed word on a paper page than any electronic format I’ve come across. As much as I use the computer (and my own work is always written out first on college-ruled paper in pencil before going to computer), I still prefer to read (especially longer material) on paper. And I continue to subscribe to quite a few print journals and magazines, as well as the Los Angeles Times (and, yes, I continue to spend whatever little money I make, and then some of my wife’s, on books). Perhaps it’s because I’m an old fart…but I’ll enthusiastically endorse any defense of paper-and-ink, even if it invokes an analogy I cannot in any way relate to, like “scented candles” (which tend to make me a bit nauseous).

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Before some Edward Abbey acolyte or Earth First!er acuses me of being ecologically careless, my carbon footprint is quite small and we are otherwise ecologically sensitive (we’e vegetarians, I rarely drive and have never flown in a plane, don’t buy electronic gadgets, recycle everything, etc., etc.).

  3. Mike Madison says:

    Assuming that John Donatich gave the talk that he promised to give (I heard his dry run the day before the conference), then his question wasn’t really unasked; it’s the same question that’s been asked for at least a dozen years. How do our prior cultures of writing and reading read on emergent cultures of digital production, distribution, and now consumption?

    Your (Susan’s) translation of these cultural questions into economic ones hits the mark better than Donatich’s talk itself, I think. I pressed him on the same point, and he acknowledged, as he must and as you confirm, that a university press with its own P&L (such as Yale’s) produces a different range of products than would a university press without that responsibility. The trade subsidy of scholarship and the trade/scholarship continuum are, in other words, partly artifacts of the academic publisher’s business model. The university could choose to have it otherwise. Yochai is therefore right in the sense that idealized scholarship lives a life that doesn’t map onto the popular; you are right in the sense that the university has made its deal, and the publisher lives with it (and at times, benefits from it). If a line remains, it’s a blurry one. The Wealth of Networks sold many more copies than a scholarly monograph usually sells. Scholarship or trade publishing? “Both” is a plausible answer.

    As Yochai’s experience shows, that shift isn’t altogether a bad thing. The roles of the university and of the scholar have always been at least a little fluid. The challenge for a place like Yale is to be strategic and reflective about this evolution, to the extent that it can be, rather than reactive and defensive. I worry less about the high end academic presses and more about the tiers below, where reflection is a luxury and P&L responsibilities mean that traditional scholarship is more likely to get squeezed out.

  4. Ann Bartow says:

    I still read books, but I have to admit, when it comes to writing footnotes, books, especially books with mediocre to poor indexes, can be big pains in the neck, and regions lower down the body. I reviewed Yochai Benkler’s book a while back at the request of Phil Weiser, (obligatory self promotion interlude: you can find the review here http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=964735 )

    but the only reason I agreed to do this was the fact that Yochai’s book, which I acquired in hard copy, also was available in PDF form, so I knew I could search it when I needed to. Trying to find stuff I remember reading in other books can be really time consuming. Trying to tag important passages as I read can be distracting and often quite maddening. Issuing parallel PDFs many depress the sales of traditional paper books, butt it sure makes them more user freindly, in my view.

  5. Ann Bartow says:

    And ya know, spell checkers are darn helpful too, for us lousy typists.

  6. Ray says:

    What is comes down to is that there digital text and print text are very different media, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Search is a huge benefit for digital text, especially when the text are not intended to read linearly, such as reference books like the dictionary. Many people prefer to read and edit on hard copies, because it is easier to annotate on paper.

    The problem with academia is that it still prizes print over digital, regardless of the quality of content. Print journals are still held in higher regard over digital journals, often based on the media. Digital academic journal (even the peer previewed ones) are often excluded from tenure review. The current economics of publishing are going to force academia and the culture at large to reconsider the legitimacy of digital text.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    Pencils, erasers and skinny Post-Its are pretty handy apparatus for annotating books, including augmenting lousy indices. They are especially helpful for reading books originally published in the PA era (pre-Adobe), and from outside the US. Though maybe it’s my bad for not simply ignoring such old or foreign stuff.

    Shortly before I found this blog post I’d pulled off my shelf a mass market paperback edition (New American Library/Mentor) of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, printed in 1965. It was an authorized reprinting of a Cambridge U Press edition, completely re-set for the mass market format, and includes not only an index and bibliography but a 168-page introduction about the substance of the book and its printing history, plus 60 pages of textual criticism apparatus showing all variations of the printed text from an earlier “copy text”. In other words, an extremely scholarly edition, published as a mass market book (price $4.95 — high for a paperback at that time, but still much less than a hardcover bestseller). Had it been published today, CUP would probably have set its price at ~$100 or more, and it would never make it out of hardcover.

    OTOH, I recently tried reading a 1997 US trade paperback translation of Olivier Todd’s biography of Albert Camus, which was a best-seller in France. The French mass-market paperback (Hachette/Folio) runs to about 1,000 pages, including copious footnotes. The US edition not only eliminates the footnotes, but also approximately 1/3 of the original contents, on the grounds that it was “not of sufficient interest to the American general reader,” while claiming that “all relevant” information about Camus has been retained. The result is that Camus seems like a sullen bore, which by most other accounts he was surely not. The translator, Benjamin Ivry, publishes regularly in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The London Review of Books; the hardcover publisher of the translation is Knopf, considered “classy” by US standards; and let’s face it, an American who’s willing to read a book about Camus is not exactly someone uninterested in literature.

    My point with these examples is that some of the difficulties academic books face in the US today may have their roots not only in the triumphant march of technology and economic efficiency but in a change (and not a good one) in the country’s intellectual culture. Yes, it’s hard to find publications like The New York Review of Books and The New Republic outside of the US; even the French felt the lack of a NYRB analogue, and recently launched an emulatory publication that includes licensed content. But during my school days I was able to buy excellent translations of Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal, Aristophanes et al. plus Freud and Foucault (“Madness and Civilization”)in mass market editions at the local Woolworths, sold from wire racks located about 10 feet away from the lunch counter and its machine that seemed to be rotating the same dried-out hot dogs, like condemned souls, throughout eternity. Today TLS, Magazine littéraire and other European pubs are much better reads than NYRB if you’re more interested in books than politics. And vast quantities of books by French “philosophes” appear in mass market editions costing under US$10. They have pdfs in France, too. But for some reason people there are still willing to read footnotes printed on paper, even in best-sellers.