Collaboration is essential for the Future of the Academic Book, finds Academic Book of the Future Report

Collaboration is essential for the Future of the Academic Book, finds Academic Book of the Future Report

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Tuesday 13 June 2017: Two major new reports published today demonstrate that the future of the academic book is at a crossroads with the number of new book proposals 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 for the sector that embraces technology and focuses on enhancing the readers experience. 

The findings of the two-year research initiative, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in collaboration with The British Library, and led by Dr Samantha Rayner (UCL), have been unveiled today in a Policy Report written by Dr Michael Jubb, together with a Project Report outlining the extensive activities and achievements of the project, authored by Professor Marilyn Deegan (KCL).

The reports 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, to capitalise on the true potential of digital technologies, and to address concerns around the preservation of digital texts.

The Academic Book of the Future project’s 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 (Source: BookScan)
  • 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 (Source: Greco 2015)
  • 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 ofdigital academic texts is a key long-term consideration
  • There is a preference for print among academics for sustained reading and rereading
  • The adoption of scholarly ebooks and enhanced monographs has been much slower than the adoption of ejournals

Dr Marilyn Deegan 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.”

Gazing into the future, the report advises that:

  • The academic book will exist in many different formats
  • Digital may become the default format for academic books with limited and/or highly specialist audiences – with Open Access and print-on-demand offering huge potential for specialist works
  • Publishers, booksellers and libraries need to invest more in understanding reader behaviours in online environments, particularly in relation to often expressed, readers’ preference for physical books and potential to maximise reach to wider audiences

On growing publication demand in academic communities:

  • The pressure to publish which the Research Excellence Framework (REF) exerts has created many issues that concern academics: key are what kind of output to produce and where to publish it. There is still a perception of quality associated with key publisher brands within academic institutions, even though the REF encourages agnosticism in this area
  • Book proposals are growing, reflecting the continued growth of the higher education sector, and career incentives for authors to produce traditional kinds of books and monographs – the result is that in many of the major disciplines of arts and humanities, more titles are published than even the most assiduous scholar could hope to read
  • The academic book/monograph is still greatly valued by the academic community
  • There are concerns that pressures on academics to do more teaching, research and administration are eroding capacity for sustained writing

On Libraries:

  • The roles of academic libraries are changing – as the proportionate part that books play in library collections and acquisitions continues to fall, shifting towards eBooks, libraries may need to rethink their roles in terms of connecting readers to resources, rather than collecting them
  • Library acquisition budgets have not risen in line with overall university expenditure
  • There is much to be done to increase the quality and range of metadata that accompanies books, and to capitalise on the potential of eBooks for giving publishers and librarians greater insights into how books are used and by whom
  • Libraries will continue to face considerable challenge in developing new kinds of services for both students and researchers

Dr Samantha Rayner commented: “One of our key aims in this project was to engage as broad a community as possible. What the project has above all proved is that those communities which connect through the academic book are willing to work together to continue to bring research to readers as quality-controlled, accessible content. The value of the academic book, in all its many forms, is still very much a key currency in arts and humanities research.”

Dr Michael Jubb commented: “Now is a time of unprecedented challenges for academic books. Academic books function in a complex ecology which involves an array of organisations and individuals in universities and other research institutions, funders and policy-makers, publishers, libraries and other intermediaries. Better communication between all of the communities involved in the writing, publishing and reading of academic books is one of the essential steps we must together take if we are to sustain a vibrant future for them.

“One of the project’s key achievements has been to create new levels of dialogue between the many different communities and stakeholders of the academic book in the arts and humanities, evidenced not least in the establishment of Academic Book Week. We hope that this dialogue continues now, and in the future, and that the Academic Book of the Future Policy Report will aid in supporting those dialogues.”

The Project also benefitted from the generous input of an Advisory Board, chaired by Professor Kathryn Sutherland, and drawn from across different sectors and disciplines.

Kathryn Sutherland, Chair of the Advisory Board of the AHRC/British Library Academic Book of the Future Project, commented: “In a world of rapid change and anxiety about change, the Project’s major achievement may turn out to be the conversations it has established between representatives of all those communities involved in the making, distribution, and active promotion of academic books: from the booksellers and publishers to the libraries and those who write them.”

The Academic Book of the Future project has produced a substantial range of outputs over the past two years, including the Project Report, Policy Report, numerous commissioned reports on specific issues, surveys, over 50 blog posts, formal articles and collections, BOOC (an innovative OA publication from UCL Press), Academic Book Week, the Academic Book of the Global South and much more. Additional background and resources can be found on the Academic Book of the Future website: https://academicbookfuture.org/.

The full Reports can be viewed at: https://academicbookfuture.org/end-of-project-reports-2/

The findings of the Academic Book of the Future project will be discussed and debated at an event on Tuesday 20 June at the British Medical Association, from 6-8:30pm. Please find more information below.

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