Academic books 'at a crossroads'

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The future of the academic book is at a crossroads, according to two reports suggesting that new book proposals are growing rapidly but sales per title continuing to fall.

Researchers on the Academic Book of the Future project are recommending that academics and publishers work together to develop a new vision that embraces technology and focuses on enhancing the reader experience.

The findings of the two-year research initiative, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in collaboration with The British Library, highlight that although a willingness to collaborate across the different stakeholder groups is very positively proven by the outputs of the project, greater dialogue involving academics, libraries, publishers, sales agents, booksellers, intermediaries and beyond, in a context of rapid change and growing external pressures, is vital for sustaining vibrant scholarly communications in the arts and humanities in the future.

The report also stresses that, while there are already diverse examples of digital innovations transforming academic book publishing, more research is needed to understand reader behaviours in online environments – both to capitalise on the true potential of digital technologies and to address concerns around the preservation of digital texts.

Key findings include:

On supply and sales of academic books:

  • While the number of academic titles published annually has increased, sales per title have fallen significantly – between 2005 and 2014, sales of academic books fell by 13 per cent, while the number of individual titles sold rose by 45 per cent, with sales per titles falling from 100 to 60;
  • The range of academic titles held by booksellers has considerably diminished and retail sales are declining;
  • There is a growing risk that publishers’ policies and practices are relying on a relatively small number of print purchasers to subsidise a larger number of eBook readers – and as eBook reading becomes more prevalent it is questionable whether this is sustainable;
  • University press revenues from print fell by 25 per cent between 2008 and 2015. Digital revenues rose nine-fold but did not compensate for the loss of print revenues; and
  • Between intermediaries, there is a need for greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness through improvements in interoperability and data exchange, reductions in stock holding and increased use of print-on-demand for physical books.

Digital technologies are driving change, but not always in the ways that might be expected:

  • While there are diverse examples of academics and publishers engaging with technology to present academic research, at present the potential of digital technologies for creating new kinds of books, with extended texts, narratives, ideas, and arguments produced in new ways, with dynamic, interactive images, graphics and sounds, as well as links within the text to external sources, has not yet been fully realised. This is often due to issues with scalability and cost, and funding is needed to explore the possibilities of digital technology;
  • Preservation of digital academic texts is a key long-term consideration;
  • There is a preference for print among academics for sustained reading and rereading; and
  • The adoption of scholarly ebooks and enhanced monographs has been much slower than the adoption of ejournals.

Marilyn Deegan of King's College London, who authored the report, commented: 'If we are to have innovative, enhanced, integrative academic books in the future, we need to access them in new ways with new tools. In this hybrid world, there is no need to reject old forms in favour of new; they can thrive together.'