Sustaining and Reimagining the Monograph

By Lisa Bayer

Lisa Bayer is AUPresses President (2021-2022) and the director of the University of Georgia Press. This article is based on her remarks to the National Information Standards Organization’s 2021 Humanities Roundtable, “The Monograph in an Evolving Humanities Ecosystem.”

During a podcast interview last year Rich Barton, the founder of Expedia and Zillow, was asked how he’d pitched the idea of Expedia to Bill Gates back in 1996. He replied, “We were encouraged to swing big.” It’s an apt metaphor for university press publishing in general too, particularly for this community’s collaborative work, with each other and with the entire scholarly ecosystem, to sustain and reimagine monographs.

University presses individually and as a team—in the form of the Association of University Presses (AUPresses)—are in league with humanities scholars and a variety of other individual and institutional partners around the world. Long-form scholarship, otherwise known as the monograph, is the game ball or the diamond, depending on your perspective. A 2019 survey of some 5,000 scholars by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press found that “the monograph remains a vital part of the scholarly ecosystem . . .  especially in the Humanities.” But monograph publishing has not ever been about the final product alone. Respondents said that the process of writing, of conducting research, of thinking it through, of creativity and intellectual freedom, allowed them to develop “interconnected, complex arguments” that became new knowledge through delivery in long-form texts. Survey respondents did feel, however, that “experimentation and evolution,” especially regarding access and discoverability, were necessary for monographs to remain relevant and useful—which is why this conversation continues, and continues to matter.

Some background on the Association of University Presses offers important context for how our member presses contribute to the evolution of the monograph as part of this larger ecosystem. AUPresses membership currently numbers 158 and ranges internationally, with 21 members outside North America. AUPresses members publish approximately 12,000 new titles annually, advancing scholarship primarily in the humanities and social sciences, but also in the sciences. On average net book sales account for over 60 percent of university presses’ annual revenue, more than all other types of revenue and support combined—and print generally has been preferred by university press customers: ebook sales through the end of 2019 comprised no more than 20 percent of annual net sales (Association of University Presses Annual Operating Statistics 2016-2019, February 2020). But ebooks support our common mission to make new knowledge available as broadly and equitably as possible.

When thinking about university presses’ capacity to innovate and experiment, it is also important to keep in mind that a majority of AUPresses members (67 percent) are small presses with staff sizes ranging from 2 to 10 people and annual sales less than $1.5 million. Collaboration and resource-sharing within and beyond our home institutions are essential. University presses are partners in the deep work of scholars, students, librarians, and staff on our campuses –in fact, more than 35 Association members report to university libraries—and beyond, partnering with bookstores, scholarly associations, humanities and arts councils, museums, state historical societies, and many other groups invested in the advancement of knowledge. In addition, the very culture of the Association encourages and facilitates a network of trust and collaboration among member presses. For example, three major scholarly book distributors originated at and operate out of university presses: Johns Hopkins University Press, the University of Chicago Press, and the University of North Carolina Press. Project MUSE and BiblioVault are early, innovative nonprofit models created by university presses, with support from outside funders, for digitally storing and sharing scholarly content.

University presses publish more than monographs, of course: most also publish academic crossover titles, regional trade, essay collections, creative works, textbooks, journals, testing products, and/or digital content including born-digital monographs. In 2020 two small university presses (Ohio State University Press and West Virginia University Press) had finalists for the National Book Awards; in 2021 two large private university presses (Princeton University Press and Yale University Press) did. Regardless of format or audience, university press acquisitions editors extensively vet manuscripts with a high degree of editorial intervention and curation; this vital, formative work is frequently recognized as university presses’ cardinal contribution to the cultivation of knowledge.  In the case of monographs, this work results in high-quality resources for individual scholars and specialists that can sometimes also be used in classes—an extended role of the monograph in the humanities ecosystem that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. “Evolving the monograph is about embracing our authors’ own increasingly different visions for their work,” says Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, “which could be open access (OA) ebook formats; media-rich web-based books; time-sensitive, rapidly published shorter books; the hosting of related pedagogical materials; or editorially developing traditional monographs into crossover books with wider audiences. But it could also be, and usually is, continuing to support the deeply-researched, meticulously referenced . . . scholarly works that are the bedrock of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences.”

Following FY20’s uncertain end, FY21 was for many university presses “the incredible year.” People began reading again due to the social isolation of pandemic life and working from home. Book sales bounced, including for university presses. The University of Georgia Press’s FY21 bestseller list included both frontlist and older titles, with backlist generating a healthy 72 percent of our overall sales. Remarkably, our top seller last year was a four-year-old scholarly monograph—a revised dissertation, in fact—entitled Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology by historian Deirdre Cooper Owens. Its paperback and ebook editions both appeared in our Top Ten bestsellers for the fiscal year; its open access version has also been available through Knowledge Unlatched since 2017. And our healthy overall sales were not unique during FY21: university presses with strong scholarly lists in race, racism, social justice, African American history, and public health (and that includes many) had surprisingly good sales as citizens searched for trustworthy resources to help understand the dual threats of repeated racial violence and coronavirus. In this way our collective humanities work extended beyond the academy and into the public square for the common good.

Despite “the incredible year” and the many partnerships that university presses nurture, challenges to sustaining monograph publishing remain many and varied:

  • The end of federal subsidies for university libraries in the 1970s began the long slide in library monograph purchases, and the new round of library budget cuts owing to the fiscal crises may never be restored. At my own university library, the flagship state institution in a system of 28 colleges and universities, a university press approval plan has been replaced in large part with an evidence-based acquisitions plan, with one exception: the University of Georgia Libraries system purchases all University of Georgia Press monographs in both print and digital editions.
  • University presses must also contend with a lack of widespread institutional support. As detailed by Charles Watkinson and Melissa Pitts in “Re-Envisioning Humanities Infrastructure” (Inside Higher Ed, February 22, 2021), the work of fewer than 130 university presses supports the increase of knowledge and advancement of careers at more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States and Canada—meaning that this vital infrastructure is directly supported by less than 3 percent of the institutions it benefits.
  • Current supply chain disruption—featuring clogged ports; driver shortages; overbooked trains; a dwindling number of printers; paper, parts, and labor scarcity—presents new challenges to print production of monographs and all print books.  
  • And open access publishing isn’t an easy or singular solution. For a variety of reasons, some humanities scholars and some university presses remain cautious about embracing open access as a publication and business model.

Nevertheless, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for university presses to demonstrate their commitment to long-form scholarship and humanities infrastructure via bold acts of knowledge-sharing and equity. Using their own platforms as well as aggregators’, many university presses, made their ebooks and journals free-to-read through the end of FY20, while instructors and students were learning from home and library buildings were closed. Usage skyrocketed, and sales went up as well. For 2020, ebook unit sales increased by 15.8 percent over 2019, and dollar sales increased by 12.7 percent. During the same period AUPresses members reported over 167,000 ebook titles in print, with 100,000 of those also active with POD providers; this represented close to a 15 percent increase over FY19’s reported level. (AUPresses Annual Operating Statistics 2017-2020, February 2021).

University presses’ keen interest in increasing access to scholarship was evident even before this pandemic-driven acceleration. A survey completed by the AUPresses Open Access Task Force in early 2020 revealed a significant amount of open access publishing already underway in the AUPresses community: 70 percent of respondents reported having published OA books. In addition, 65 percent of respondents indicated that they felt that OA was a priority for their campus library or library system, and 32 percent of respondents felt that open access was also a priority for university faculty and the administration of their institution/parent organization. However, it’s clear that a large-scale shift to funding publication through up-front cost recovery—where so-called “first-copy costs” can often exceed $25,000, according to the widely cited Study on the Cost of Publishing Monographs (Ithaka S+R, 2016)—will be quite difficult without expanded institutional support.

So, it’s not surprising that a number of university presses are working together to “swing big” in an effort to meet the challenges of OA publishing long-form scholarship, collaboratively creating and field-testing new business models and delivery systems. Here are just a few of the many innovative university-press-led digital and OA publishing projects extant and in development today, dedicated to examining various aspects of long-form OA publishing and discovering tomorrow’s best practices:

Articulating collaborative workflows and purpose-building platforms:

  • Greenhouse Studios. The project from the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts Press looks at how digital humanities centers and their university press partners can best guide digital scholarship to publication by interrogating peer review and publishing workflows. The process begins with diverse teams of people—librarians, faculty, students, artists, developers, acquisition editors and other publishing professionals, and others—and an inquiry-focused prompt that centers collaboration.
  • Manifold. This scalable, open-source, iterative platform from the University of Minnesota Press, the CUNY Graduate Center, and Cast Iron Coding has been piloted with more than 30 publishers and is proving suitable for a wide range of projects, from media-enriched to text-only works, and supporting e-commerce as well as open access. The University of Georgia Press used Manifold to host both our Georgia Open Stacks project during 2020 and the new Georgia Open History Library, funded by the Humanities Open Book program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  • Ravenspace. The University of British Columbia Press, with the University of Washington Press, is developing this open-source, collaborative publishing platform and process for Indigenous communities and scholars to develop media-rich, interactive publications that are guided by and centered in Indigenous values. This project underscores AUPresses members’ commitment to activating agency as well as representation. Doug Hildebrand, director of the University of Alberta Press, offers this comment about monograph publishing that resonates with the Ravenspace mission: “The scholarly monograph . . . is moving away from the idea of the discrete author/scholar and subject/participant roles. The latter are increasingly being brought in as full partners, speaking in their own voices. This is especially important as marginalized communities continue to be excluded from the academy or are finding it an unwelcoming environment.”
  • Sustainable History Monograph Pilot This open access ebook-first project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and led by the University of North Carolina Press, involves 23 university presses and focuses on developing a consolidated, simplified production workflow and encouraging hesitant historians to publish their monographs in open access digital editions. As of last fall, the project reached 100,000 engagements.
  • Fulcrum. Developed by the University of Michigan Press and funded in part by the Mellon Foundation, this open-source platform links source materials to book-length interpretations in an integrated way, including geographic information system mapping, film and video, and three-dimensional modeling.

Developing communal funding models:

  • Fund to Mission. Fund to Mission is a commitment to move University of Michigan Press monographs to open access by securing stable funding from sources including libraries and the University of Michigan Provost. Participation fees take into account library type, size, and collections budget.
  • Direct to Open. This collective-action business model from MIT Press, developed with support from the Arcadia Fund and announced as a 3-year pilot in March 2021, aims to open the publication of the press’s new monographs through financial commitments from participating libraries, which will also receive access to the press’s backlist. Thanks to initial support from more than 160 libraries and consortia worldwide, the press announced in early December 2021 that it would be able to publish its spring 2022 list of monographs and edited collections as open access.
  • Opening the Future. In conjunction with the Community-led Open Publication Infrastructures for Monographs (COPIM) project, Liverpool University Press and Central European University Press are also working to fuel open access publishing through libraries subscriptions or memberships. Liverpool is offering access to a choice of two of its modern language backlist series and will use subscription fees to produce new OA monographs, freely accessible to all. Central European announced its first fully-funded OA publication, Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe, in December 2021 with more projects in the pipeline.
  • TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem) has for the past five years involved the Association of American Universities, Association of Research Libraries, and AUPresses in organizing the institutional funding of open access monographs. TOME currently involving more than 60 university presses and 20 institutions, offering $15,000 grants per monograph, and has supported the publication of more than 95 work as of December 2021.

It’s clear that university presses as critical partners in the humanities and social sciences ecosystem are “swinging big” to support and advance long-form scholarship, working with a variety of scholars and other stakeholders. Engaging a broad spectrum of readers through print, digital, and open access affordances, university presses are contributing much-needed infrastructure to the constant and necessary evolution of the monograph.