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.