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The future of academic books

A long awaited report from the Academic Book of the Future project was released last week. The Times Higher reported its findings showed there was an “existential crisis" of academic books. Read it here.

Actually it’s a more subtle piece of work than that, and well worth reading. Its particular helpful in providing data on sales figures. The report also provides a good overview of the technical difficulties facing libraries and publishers, in a mixed economy of print and e-books.

A previous report, which examined the books submitted to the humanities panels in REF 2014, is also worth looking at.

The following highlights may be of interest to academic authors: 
  1. Retail sales are declining, but more titles are being published.
In the UK from 2005 to 2014, sales of academic titles fell by 13%. However, the number of individual titles rose by 45%. Sales per title were down from 100 to 60 (p.131.) So not good news if you’re expecting to sell lots of copies of you book, but publishers are still willing to bring out new titles. And they have seen no fall in the number of author submissions.  
  1. It’s a diverse publishing landscape

Analysis of the REF 2014 submission showed that over 300 hundred different publishers were represent by the books in the art and design panel, and 272 for history. There is a mix of well-known big players (OUP, CUP and Palgrave) smaller British and American university presses, specialist non-fiction publishers (e.g. in art) and trade publishers (Penguin, Faber and Faber). It is a very different world from journal publishing.
Art books in the David Wilson Library
3. Art and history are the most popular subjects

Together they represent around half of all retail sales of academic books (p.132). The next biggest subject – literature - makes up around 10% of sales. Within history the most popular genres are military history and biography.
  1. If you want to see a cheap(er) version of your book choose an American press.
US academic publishers remain committed to maximising sales, and aiming for lower prices. By contrast, what the report calls ‘traditional’ publishers maintain that demand is price in-elastic (p.152).  

             5. Open Access for monographs will take some time
The report sees plenty of potential for open access monographs, but also some significant hurdles. One issue stems from the diversity of the publishing landscape itself. Smaller publishers depend on sales of their books to remain viable businesses. In the creative arts, where ‘outputs’ are fiction, plays and poetry, authors want their rights and royalties to be protected (pp.184-184).


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