In 1948, the University of Illinois Press published Claude Shannon's brief and profoundly influential book The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Shannon's work, which explained how words, sounds, and images could be converted into blips and sent electronically, presaged the digital revolution in communications.
Anyone not living under a rock knows that Shannon's idea has engulfed all forms of written thought, including every genre of scholarship. Ironically, the very institution that brought Shannon's technological tract to a broad audience, the university press, is now contending with the possible demise of the print book itself. Just as the researchers at Bell Labs helped to develop the very technologies that undermined the old phone company, so the editors and publishers who brought Shannon and his fellow theorists to print have effectively disrupted the traditional technology of books. Joseph Schumpeter had a phrase for it: "creative destruction."
And while university presses grapple with the economic and technological challenges now affecting how we publish our books —the subject of a thousand and one AAUP conference sessions, e-mail-list debates, and news articles —discussion of what we publish seems to have taken a back seat. And understandably so. Why obsess about content if books as we know them are about to become obsolete in favor of some yet-to-evolve form? Has creative destruction spelled the end of books?
I believe quite the opposite. Books —specifically scholarly titles published by university presses and other professional publishers —retain two distinct comparative advantages over other forms of communication in the idea bazaar:
First, books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments at a relatively general level of discourse and in familiar rhetorical forms —narrative, thematic, philosophical, and polemical —thereby helping to enrich and unify otherwise disparate intellectual conversations.
Second, university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas. Hard ideas —whether cliometrics, hermeneutics, deconstruction, or symbolic interactionism —when they are also good ideas, carry powerful residual value in their originality and authority. Think of the University of Illinois Press and its Mathematical Theory of Communication, still in print today. Commercial publishers, except for those who produce scientific and technical books, generally don't traffic in hard ideas. They're too difficult to sell in scalable numbers and quickly. More free-form modes of communication (blogs, wikis, etc.) cannot do justice to hard ideas in their fullness. But we university presses luxuriate in hard ideas. We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit. As the Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters notes, even when university presses succeed in publishing so-called trade books (as in Charles Taylor's recent hit, A Secular Age), we do so because of the intellectual rigor contained in such books, not in spite of it.
Hard ideas define a culture —that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself. In a recent article, Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and novelist, underscores "the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing —and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share." The challenge for university presses is to better turn our penchant for hard ideas to greater purpose.
University presses need to foment a content revival astride the delivery revolution, one that stimulates our connection to new intellectual trends, encompasses a broader conception of scholarship, and renews our commitment to the scholarly mission of the university. Such a revival in content would return us to our roots; roots revealed in Albert Einstein's The Meaning of Relativity, Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis, Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Beyond the Melting Pot, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, and other classic works. Since our earliest days, our content has been our glory, and it will remain so in the future. But this requires a new and purposive round of brainstorming. We need to match the power of our book-making imaginations with emerging currents of scholarship, some emanating from corners of the university distant from our traditional turf in the humanities and social sciences —new genres, and new readerships.
This content revolution would proceed apace on parallel tracks, which I will touch on briefly, then in greater detail:
First, include on our lists more titles from the burgeoning professional disciplines: engineering, law, medicine, architecture, business, the graphic arts, and the information sciences. Those fields are driving the growth of our host universities while redefining the limits of culture in new and exciting ways.
Second, become much more purposeful and assertive in publishing books that define whole fields, including important advanced textbooks. University-press editors would add depth and ballast to their lists by looking for that next great advanced text in our traditional fields, such as social theory, comparative literature, or art history, as well as in emerging fields. That kind of publishing is often dismissed as cookie cutter, but it's not.
Third, publish more books for worldwide readerships. As the globalization of knowledge continues apace, American university presses are positioned to engage readers in ways unimagined a generation ago. By infusing our lists with titles of international interest, we can better exploit the technologies that bring the world closer to us.
Fourth, work more closely with departments and centers within our host universities to adapt their work —sponsored lecture series, etc. —into books, monograph series, and other such initiatives. We should be planning our future lists strategically within our host universities in order to maximize the relative strengths of press and campus alike.
Let's look more closely at these goals.
As noted above, the first key to a stronger and more vital university press is in the embrace of a broader array of fields, notably the professions, including medicine; engineering; computer, environmental, information, and management sciences; graphic design; and finance. The professions, for all the prestige of graduate institutions like the Wharton School or Harvard Medical School, are often seen as peripheral to the humanities-centered core mission of universities, and to the heavily humanities-oriented program of university presses. That disparity presents an identity problem for the modern university. The diversified research university's great growth areas exist largely outside the dialogue internal to the humanities and social sciences.
But that paradox offers an opportunity for university presses, because books function at least in part to humanize hard ideas, such as those that define professional knowledge. Not only do the professional fields yield important technical books, they provide university presses with the chance to publish broader books that convey important profession-specific knowledge to diverse, cross-disciplinary audiences. In other words, university presses, because of our position within the academic community, are uniquely positioned to help introduce professional knowledge into the larger intellectual discourse by publishing books that engage the historical, literary, and social dimensions of these fields. That effort has, in fact, already begun. For example, think of the influence of works such as Donald Mackenzie's An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets (MIT Press, 2006), John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid's The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), Henry Petroski's Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design (Princeton University Press, 2006), or James R. Beniger's The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Harvard University Press, 1986). Each of those books introduced into the broader intellectual conversation powerfully important technical subjects to an impressive cross section of readers, removing the technical barbs and burnishing the transcendent human implications.
There are also ethical elements of professional subjects that need to be integrated into broader intellectual conversations. As Harold T. Shapiro, a former president of Princeton, notes in his book A Larger Sense of Purpose (Princeton University Press, 2005), "the most valuable part of education for any learned profession is that aspect that teaches future professionals to think, read, compare, discriminate, analyze, form judgments, and generally enhance their capacity to confront the ambiguities and enigmas of the human condition."
While naysayers may argue that publishing more books on the professions subverts the university press's historical commitment to the humanities and culture, one could counter that those professional fields are themselves coming to define culture. Think of the growing influence on society of fields such as telecommunications, financial engineering, and cognitive science, as well as the increasingly ubiquitous influence of statistics and applied mathematics in everyday communications. In fact, the electronic transition in scholarship itself is the product of applied science. These fields are foreign to most university presses, but the direction of scholarship suggests that they shouldn't be. In fact, they provide a great new opportunity for us to publish works that reflect the reality around us.
I am not suggesting that university presses should abandon or even reduce our commitment to traditional humanities fields. History, literature, art, politics, and philosophy form the core of university-press publishing, and always will. However, by integrating more technical subject matter into our publishing, we can add color and depth to our lists. The mere introduction of new ideas into the culture of university-press publishing would add vigor to our operations while inspiring in editors in the humanities and social sciences new exciting cross-disciplinary books. Books, better than any other literary form, can speak to the ever-widening chasms that define the modern, intellectually diverse research university. We should embrace the challenge.
Second, even as university-press publishers should diversify our disciplinary portfolios, so too should we strive more ambitiously to define entire fields by commissioning important new high-level textbooks and treatises. That kind of publishing used to be the proud purview of textbook publishers, but as a result of the nearly 30-year wave of consolidation that has marked college publishing, only a few such houses remain. Those publishers tend to concentrate their energies on producing mainstream undergraduate textbooks in repetitive shootouts for market share, leaving smaller yet intellectually vibrant fields open to new and innovative texts, treatises, and reference books.
University presses should seize the opportunity. Important advanced texts often turn out to be intellectual game changers, reviving and redirecting knowledge in older fields, synthesizing ideas in newer fields, and unifying scholarship across fields. Thus they serve eminently the mission of the university press. But as the author of a leading book on academic publishing observed in conversation with me, university-press editors tend to dismiss that kind of publishing as cookie cutter. A little history suggests it is anything but.
When I began my career at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in the summer of 1972, I carried in my briefcase sales briefs for titles that would be regarded as excellent by any standard. Harcourt's college department published great works such as Noam Chomsky's Language and Mind, Walter Jackson Bate's Criticism: The Major Texts (1952), Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Modern Rhetoric (1949), Lewis A. Coser's Masters of Sociological Thought (1971), and Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity (1971). So did other college houses, as did the celebrated "crossover" houses of that day, Basic Books and the Free Press. If that's cookie cutter, please sign me up for some shares of Pepperidge Farm. There are superb and growing opportunities for university presses to engage in that kind of stylish textbook publishing and to do so both proudly and well.
Third, enlarging the globally relevant dimension of our lists not only provides a greater fulcrum for sales, but better connects us to the scholars, writers, and foreign publishers forming the next generation of research networks around the world. At Princeton, the percentage of business that comes from internationally attractive lists such as economics is as high as 40 percent of total sales, or about twice the average of most of our lists. Robust international lists also generate more translations. On a visit to Asia in 2007, I discovered that many of the booksellers there were aware of an important new book from our catalog, Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, even before its official publication dates. That is how immediate and tangible the global market has become. Without global content, university presses risk isolation from a growing community of readers and authors. After all, the numbers suggest the next John Hope Franklin or Joan Robinson is as likely to be sitting in a classroom in Delhi or Beijing as in Cambridge or Los Angeles.
Fourth, university presses should reinforce their strategic positions within their host universities by partnering with departments and committees on developing new books consonant with the scholarly initiatives afoot on campus. A simple example is the lecture series as book.
When I became an economics editor, I learned about the wonderful volumes drawn by Oxford University Press from the Clarendon Lectures delivered annually in Oxford by invited scholars. Those lectures served then —and continue to serve —as vital events drawing scholars and students alike together for several days of lecturing and discussion. They also serve as the basis for a manuscript that eventually gets published by Oxford and, in the case of the Clarendon volumes, read worldwide by economists and scholars in related fields. Those books include now-classic works such as Robert Shiller's Macro Markets: Creating Institutions for Managing Society's Largest Economic Risks (1993). That is the kind of win-win arrangement that facilitates partnership between the university press and its host university.
Another is the university-sponsored book series. For example, think of the Princeton Annals of Mathematics series, supplying the world of math with cutting-edge monographic works for generations, or the Harvard East Asian Monographs series. University administrators should be aware of the enduring recognition that comes from the successful continuing publication of such series, and of the capacity of books to command attention in publications as wide-ranging as blogs, Web journals, newspaper columns, and magazines. If mathematics can emanate throughout the world from Princeton and its press, economics from Oxford and its press, and East Asian studies from Harvard and its press, why not engineering, environmental science, management, or public health from other presses? Such books are reviewed worldwide, providing a continuing stream of recognition for universities and presses alike.
Although we live in an era of disaggregated knowledge, I believe scholarly books will thrive. William Germano notes in his book Getting It Published that "the book is the form in which we scholars tell our stories to one another. … Even when a publisher offers the choice of a physical or electronic edition of a work, or supplements a physical book with electronic ancillaries, or produces a physical book only on demand, it is the form of the book, that precious thought-skeleton, that holds a project together."
In effect, books remain valuable precisely because they are distinct from the other, more transitory, forms of scholarly communication. But university presses have to grasp the stinging nettle, jump-start a serious discussion about content, get strategic, invent projects. If university presses attempt to be more creative by introducing new subjects into our existing lists, the resultant hybrid vigor, to borrow a phrase from the biologists, will put us on a stronger course and renew the place of books in the world of ideas. For in the future, as in the past, we will be judged by the character of our content.