The University Record, November 23, 1998

Delivery of academic books may be in question

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles on “Book Trouble: The Future of the Academic Book,” a brown-bag lecture series sponsored by the Insitute for the Humanities.

By Kerry Colligan

The future of the academic book is not in question, because the present tenure system necessitates a certain amount of publishing, says Keith Taylor of Shaman Drum Booksellers.

What may be much less clear is the medium in which those works will be published. Of the 350 viable independent booksellers in America, only 35 are serving the scholarly, academic niche. And, according to Karl Pohrt, also of Shaman Drum, the viability of those 35 is declining.

Consolidation in the publishing industry is crippling academic bookstores. It also is stiffling creativity and publishing options, Pohrt said.

Recently, Barnes and Noble purchased Ingram Book Group for $600 million. Ingram is the single largest supplier of books to independent booksellers. This buyout gives Barnes and Noble access to accurate purchasing trends, which presumably, will result in more effective targeting of the academic market.

Pohrt said the Ingram buyout, and other similar buyouts like Bertelsmann A.G.’s purchase of both Random House and one-half of Barnes and Noble’s online bookstore, creates conglomerates that limit competition, diversity of titles, and the number of decision-makers in the publishing industry. In short, Pohrt argued, independent booksellers become dependent on their largest competitor.

Perhaps the most daunting obstacle, however, is not corporate at all. Academic bookstores face smaller and smaller markets.

Only 13 of every 100 Americans will purchase more than one book each year, Pohrt cited. The number of titles available (180,000 new titles each year); the scope of the Internet; and the development of compact discs, books on tape and other media all vie for the attention of potential readers.

Not only are access points increasing, consumers themselves seem to view books in a different fashion. Consumers have a short attention span and prefer simple texts, Pohrt said. “There has been a change in culture. People are not as willing to deal with texts that are difficult.”

Despite these challenges to the sale of academic books, there is reason for hope. “There are still things that academic and scholarly books can do that haven’t been supplanted by electronics,” Taylor said. Books provide an interpretive framework, while technology lends itself to debate about that framework, he added.

“Books still go out there in odd and unquantifiable ways. They still hold that quantity and that expectation, and people will look to books to find those kinds of surprises.”

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