From monograph to mesograph?
Monographs vary in length – in part because the term is poorly defined. The shortest work that I possess that calls itself a monograph is only about a dozen pages in extent. In effect it is a separately published essay. The longest monograph on my shelves is, I think, Against Autonomy, by Timothy Reiss: it extends to 560 closely packed pages.
Most monographs on my shelves, however – and most that I have published – have had an extent of around 176-240 pp. Why is this? There are a number of reasons, but prime amongst them is probably a fact of economics, namely that, over quite a long period, it has been possible to find a workable set of equations for balancing production costs, price, and units sold. Our expectations of the genre have, perhaps unwittingly, derived from the economics of print publishing.
Digital printing and, to a greater extent, the coming of the e-book challenges this state of affairs. They free us from the set-up charge required by litho printing. And, in the case of e-book publishing, they eliminate the cost, not just of paper but of binding. Hitherto, these costs have played an important role in keeping the extent of monographs up to around the 200 pp mark: the number of pages has needed to be sufficiently high to support a high enough price to carry the costs.
I don’t think that digitalisation has revolutionised the model exactly. After all, there are still fixed costs, such as cover design, that need to be defrayed. But I do think it has modified the equations. For example, it looks to me, from playing around with a couple of publishers’ spreadsheets, as though there is now a set of equations that works well in the 128-144 pp / £40-£50 range.My name for this new model is the mesograph.
But do we need such an animal? There are, I suggest, five reasons for believing so. First, the growth in interdisciplinarity, which is a well-established, long-term, trend, places an onus on scholars to explain the context of their work to readers from beyond their own fields. Context requires space – often more space than a journal article affords.
Second, mesographs take less time to read than monographs. This is an important consideration for readers fleshing out their bibliographies (PhD students in particular have occasionally been known to do such a thing). It is also important to authors, who need to ensure that they gain enough readers to produce a satisfactory citation count.
Third, they also take less time to write.
Fourth, mesographs are shorter – much shorter – than most PhD theses. An author seeking to transform a thesis into a mesograph will therefore be obliged – praise be! – to leave out the boring bits and get on with telling the story.
And, finally, academic policy and the development of productivity and citation metrics are – gradually, tentatively – becoming broader. That is, they are showing signs of giving greater recognition to book authorship than has been the case.
Thus I expect to see the mesograph establish itself as a major genre.