Editor Issues Call to Arms to Help Scholarly Books ThriveSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In this age of a popular culture heavily based on electronic media, printed academic discourse has often been portrayed as esoteric and relevant only to scholars. Consequently, this discourse has suffered a series of setbacks so severe that those with inside knowledge are warning that first-copy print runs of academic hardback volumes have diminished to as few as 500 copies. It is clear in this struggle that those who love the world of scholarly discourse are going to have to fight hard to maintain its place in the global community.
My purpose here is not to present a mournful elegy for the demise of academic books, but to emphasize the vital importance of printed scholarly texts and to assert the need for scholars to join with others around the world who are concerned about inroads being made on the rights for free speech around the world. I would like to bring four points to your attention. First, the decline in the number of books printed on the first run warrants a call to arms for every scholar around the world to make a commitment to individual and collective action to reverse this trend. Second, we need to explore the ways that will help those who print, distribute, and sell scholarly discourse not only survive but thrive. Third, the use of television, while extremely expensive, presents the quickest and most effective way of making dramatic increases in the audience for academic books. Fourth, we must be aware of the fact that this fight to preserve access to the channels of communication is one that has consequences not only for scholars but for a global exchange of ideas in the media. Some people are already launching efforts along these lines specifically to help academic authors.
The Decline in the Print Runs of Academic Books
It is vitally important to re-establish the position of academic publishing not only in American culture but around the world, a point that Colin Day, director of University of Michigan Press, recently underscored in a letter that called for efforts to "reverse" the "contraction in the market for scholarly books." He says that this contraction "is putting into jeopardy the possibility of publication for much of the work of scholars in the humanities and social sciences" and further that "the book is still the essential medium by which much scholarly medium by which much scholarly work is transmitted and the means by which knowledge accumulates and fields progress."
In the period between 1970 and 1998, the initial print run of hardbound academic books decreased by nearly two thirds, dropping from an average of 1,500 to about 500 to 600-or, even more ominously, to a point (in terms of what the academic publisher estimates will sell) so low that it cannot be published at all! Among the reasons for this severe decline are the increasing costs of supplies, distribution, and steeper discounts being required by the "super" bookstores. None of these factors seems reversible, despite significant efforts by academic publishers to increase efficiency and productivity (including the now increasingly common practice of requiring authors to produce electronic versions of manuscripts on computer disks). This decline should serve notice to all scholars that action needs to be taken on a global basis to reverse this trend.
How Can this "Global Revolution" Be Waged?
In developing strategies to wage this global revolution, we need to be aware of two dynamics. First, the consolidation of the publishing marketplace by book producers, book distributors, and bookseller has now reached a real crisis point because of the massive structures that are emerging. Second, the competition for space and customers has become particularly intense, because of the amount of money being spent on the vastly expanded range of products in large bookstores and on audiovisual media for marketing, so the strategies and requirements of these media in the contemporary popular culture must be taken into account.
The transition from using strategies for print media (send the book or, now, press releases with an order form, to certain journals for review) to those of the electronic media has been difficult but is beginning to happen. One trend for the publishing industry as a whole has been the increased use of television. The appearance of an author on one television program, even for a brief period, relays his or her message to often hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of viewers at a time—a huge contrast to the number of people showing up for a book signing or reading event. As a result, authors are now appearing on several television programs, including Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Rose, and C-SPAN-2's BookTV. Although it has worked well for many authors of general interest books, this method has distinct drawbacks for academic authors, who would very much like to obtain wider exposure for the ideas they examine in their work, an issue of vital importance to everyone involved in printing, distributing, and selling scholarly discourse.
However, there are a number of efforts underway at Michigan to increase the visibility of academic books. One is the previously cited (see note 1) weekly lecture series held last fall, "Book Trouble: Tales of Terror about the Future of the Scholarly Book," developed by Thomas R. Trautmann for the Institute for the Humanities. Another is the development of special, much more long-term plans by Karl Pohrt, owner of the Shaman Drum Book Store, to help "break out" young regional authors to the national level. The third is a monthly half-hour television program, called "Riprap," which only features authors of academic books.
Using Television to Help Academic Books
Of all the audiovisual media available to us in our popular culture, television, while one of the most extensive, is also the most expensive. Fortunately for those interested in academic books, another group—those interested in community access to television-shares the goal of preserving access to the flows of global communication and the belief that much could and should be done to disseminate ideas and preserve free speech by sharing resources. As a result, a partnership between the two benefits both. Academic publishers and authors gain wider exposure of the ideas examined in academic books, while those interested in the growth and preservation of community access through such media as television gain the advantage of having programs with substantial content.
In our own foray in the struggle to help academic books, we not only sought to build a partnership with people in community access television but also attempted to forge a bridge between the two worlds of the Academy and the wider community. The first word in the name for our program, "Riprap: The Academic Book Television Program," uses poet Gary Synder's way of defining it as broken stone material used to provide footing for animals and people across icy mountain passages. This name indicated our goal of encouraging readers in and out of the Academy to read more academic books. In looking back on our first year of broadcasting "Riprap," we are amazed at the number of groups, organizations, and individuals that are required in order to fulfill our goal of mastering the requirements of the medium of television.
Fortunately for us, our local access center in Ann Arbor, the Community Television Network (CTN), has been an invaluable resource on the technical side, since it has provided both training and, once we were certified, much of the equipment we needed to do the initial videotaping and editing of each program. We have also received help and assistance from a growing list of organizations and groups (the international quarterly, Comparative Studies in Society and History; the University of Michigan; the Alliance for Community Media) and companies (Shaman Drum Book Store and Michigan Media Productions); our advisors (Karl Pohrt, Raymond Grew, Thomas Trautmann, John Gray, Joe Yunckman, Earl Lewis); and our production crew (Karen Schaefer, videography; Tom Bray, audio and technical assistance; Marie Schaefer, production assistant; and Patrick Schaefer, research assistant).
Finally, the most important group is always that of the authors who have been willing to join in this important collective effort: William Miller ( The Anatomy of Disgust), Thomas Trautmann ( Aryans and British India), Fernando Coronil ( The Magical State), Rafia Zafar ( We Wear the Mask), Robert Hass ( Sun under Wood), Norma Field ( From My Grandmother's Bedside), Donald Lopez ( Prisoners of Shangri-La), Charles Bright ( The Powers that Punish), Constance Ewing Cook ( Lobbying for Higher Education), Andrzej Kulczycki ( The Abortion Debate in the World Arena), Arthur Caplan ( Am I My Brother's Keeper and Due Consideration), Roger Chartier ( On the Edge of the Cliff and Forms and Meanings), Ross Chambers ( Facing It: AIDS Diaries and the Death of the Author), Daniel Rothenberg ( With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers). Each author prepared a program that was interesting and informative not only to their colleagues but also to serious readers in the wider community, and each program has had an unexpected moment, including Rafia Zafar reading the poem by her great-grandfather, brought as a slave from Africa; Fernando Coronil reacting to President Clinton's plan to buy more from Venezuela than Saudi Arabia. There was also Norma Field's re-entry to the world of Japanese custom to help take care of her dying grandmother, Robert Hass's recitation of a poem by a German poet (Rainer Maria Rilke), and Andrzej Kulczycki's attempt to address the scholarly issues of exploring the deadly and explosive topic of abortion.
Joining the Struggle
An important part of this struggle is to view the situation confronting those interested in academic books as not an isolated case but as part of a global effort to preserve the people's right to access to all the flows of communication, whether they are electronic media in the form of audio, video, or data or whether they are print media in the form of books, journals, magazines, or newspapers. Large entities like national governments and huge corporations should not be able to sell or buy up all the possibilities that exist for global communication as though it were one gigantic world-wide garage sale.
If you feel that books, serious scholarly books, are vital to your life and if you are willing to make an individual commitment to this cause, then you can and should find ways to fulfill that commitment. You could do specific tasks such as buying more academic books for your personal library or for gifts, watch television programs on academic books, attend events for academic authors, and continue to write your own academic books. You do not have to go as far as we are (we have goals of building state and national networks for academic books), but you can do something. You can also join groups that are seeking to preserve access to the channels of communication. According to Dirk Koning, executive director of the Community Media Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, those concerned with the issue of free electronic access will seek, on December 10, to place a proposal before the United Nations (UN) to modify the UN's Human Rights Charter so that all human beings will have free access to at least a portion of the available channels for transmitting data, video, and audio signals.
But whatever happens, please try to do something. People both in and outside the Academy have a real need for academic books, but these books will continue to be available only if we help those who produce, distribute, and sell printed scholarly discourse not only survive but thrive.
James T. Schaefer is senior editor for the international quarterly of the social sciences, Comparative Studies in Society and History, published by Cambridge University Press. He is also executive producer and host for "Riprap: The Academic Book Television Program," a position he has held since he organized the program two years ago. The program is just completing its first year of broadcast.
Colin Day took note of this reduction in his presentation, "The Bleak Present and Uncertain Future of the Academic Monograph," on October 20, 1998, as part of a lecture series entitled, "Book Trouble: Tales of Terror about the Future of the Scholarly Book," organized by Thomas R. Trautmann for the Institute for the Humanities, at the University of Michigan. Day should be in a position to know, since he is currently the Director of the University of Michigan Press, which now publishes as many as 160 titles per year. He is also the former head of the American Association of University Presses.