The Case for Books – and the case of monographs

For many years I have been drawn to reading books that focus on the relationship between print and digital publishing. Especially books that deal with the wider cultural questions. Books such as Sven Birkerts, Gutenberg elegies, Jerry Gomez, Print is dead, and Nicolson Baker, Double fold.

I bought The case for books by Robert Darnton (Public Affairs, 2009) when it was first published, thinking it would fit into that cluster. I was familiar with some of Darnton’s enthusiasm for scholarly e-books (on which I cited him, appreciatively, in my first book, Writing Successful Textbooks). I was intrigued by the title, which perhaps hinted at an apologia for p-books (i.e. printed books). I wanted to know where Darnton stood in relation to both p- and e-books.

Now that I have got round to actually reading the book, I find the book’s title is something of a misnomer. The book doesn’t argue a sustained case for books of any description – or indeed for anything else. In fact, it isn’t really a book at all – rather a loose collection of shortish texts – lectures, essays, and articles. They range over subjects such as Google Books, libraries, bibliography, the history of the book, digital publishing, and open access. Some of the constituent parts are interesting, but the whole comes to no more than a sum of its parts. I’m glad I wasn’t the person charged with finding a title to encapsulate all this stuff!

Overall I find the book disappointing. Darnton may be a distinguished chap, but this isn’t a distinguished publication. Here I will dwell on just one essay (‘E-books and old books’) – indeed just one passage (pp. 72-73), in which Darnton considers the case of  monograph publishing. According to Darnton:

Any assistant professor knows the categorical imperative, publish or perish, which translates into something more immediate: no monograph, no tenure … Suppose against all the odds an assistant professor succeeds in transforming a dissertation into a first-rate monograph within three of four years, will he or she be able to get it published? Not likely … Like it or not, they [i.e. university presses] function as a funnel in the process of professional advancement, yet they cannot publish most of the manuscripts they receive. The authors of those manuscripts will probably will not make it to the next stage of their careers. Instead, they may fall into the floating population of adjunct teachers, picking up odd jobs wherever they can find them, usually for inadequate pay, insufficient benefits, and no recognition. We may be producing the intellectual equivalent of the Okies and Arkies from the dust-bowl years.

Darnton writes here as if all this is self-evidently true. Such passages are certainly assured of a sympathetic hearing. The theme is a popular one. That, though, is no excuse for the lack of rigour. To indicate where I find myself objecting, I will here repeat Darnton’s text with my responses interweaved.

Any assistant professor knows the categorical imperative, publish or perish, which translates into something more immediate: no monograph, no tenure … [Monographer: Since there are assistant professors, it follows that some people evidently have been successful in getting their monographs published. This might have given you pause for thought.] Suppose against all the odds an assistant professor succeeds in transforming a dissertation into a first-rate monograph within three of four years, will he or she be able to get it published? Not likely. [Monographer: Why? You present this almost as an all-or-nothing situation. As I indicated above, some authors do get their monographs published. The correct answer to your question would have been ‘It depends’. As an academic editor, I find: (1) many book proposals are poorly written; (2) many scholars fail to appreciate the difference between a thesis and a book. There are many fine resources on the relationship between the two genres and how to move from one to the other. For my money, the best is William Germano’s From dissertation to book – but others, such as Harman et al, The thesis and the book and Luey (ed.), Revising your dissertation, are also helpful. Yet many would-be authors are either not smart enough to locate them or too lazy to read them. (3) In any case, by no means all doctoral research is interesting and well written: some is not even particularly impressive intellectually. So, overall, prospective authors can do much to boost their chances by doing interesting and rigorous research, writing well, doing their homework on book publishing, and being professional. Oh, and not spending ‘three of four years’ on it.] … Like it or not, they [i.e. university presses] function as a funnel in the process of professional advancement, yet they cannot publish most of the manuscripts they receive. [Thank goodness! The world does not need mediocre books, which is what a lot of submissions would lead to. And you know what, Robert? There’s nothing unusual about this. Not every playwright gets their plays performed; not every rock band gets a recording contract; not every footballer becomes a professional.] The authors of those manuscripts will probably will not make it to the next stage of their careers. Instead, they may fall into the floating population of adjunct teachers, picking up odd jobs wherever they can find them, usually for inadequate pay, insufficient benefits, and no recognition. [Monographer: True. But I haven’t noticed that there are many faculty posts left unfilled. I have not heard many universities saying, ‘We wanted to appoint someone to a tenured position, but we couldn’t find anyone’. Fact is, there are more people wanting tenured positions than there are such positions available. That would remain the case, even if everyone got published: universities would not say, ‘Oh, you got published? In that case, we’ll create an extra post’.] We may be producing the intellectual equivalent of the Okies and Arkies from the dust-bowl years – migrant academic workers with laptop computers who live out of the backseats of their cars. [Monographer: It’s difficult to know how seriously you intend that ‘equivalent’. You qualify it with the adjective ‘intellectual’: but what exactly is an ‘intellectual equivalent’? If you doesn’t intend the analogy seriously, why make it? It’s just emotive spin. And if you does intend it seriously – well, then, the comparison is silly (odious, even). I don’t envy the life of adjunct teaching staff. But in the dustbowl many people lost everything – their jobs, their homes, their knowledge of where the next meal was coming from.]

If you sense a mounting impatience in my responses, you’d be right. Darnton’s text seems to be written from a great height, unsullied by the nitty-gritty of humdrum economics. And it seems to be unhelpful: the message that would help prospective authors-and-professors is not that the world is so unjust and the situation so hopeless that, really, you’ve no chance: it is, rather, that the market both for tenure and for scholarly publishing are competitive, yet though there are many losers there are some winners, so take pains to raise your game above other people’s. And always have a plan B.

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