Academic Publishing

4th October 2023
5 min read
1st November 2023

In this extract from The Publishing Business, Kelvin Smith and Melanie Ramdarshan look at the different types of academic publishers.

The Publishing Business

Academic publishing is closely related to the overall development of the tertiary (post-high school in the United States) education sector; to trends in course development and delivery; national and international expenditure on the sector as a whole; and policies and funding that favour or disfavour specific areas of research and teaching. The audience for such publications is composed almost exclusively of people and institutions in the academic world, so there is a symbiotic relationship between the authors, publishers and readers of academic publications. Publishing of this type includes textbooks for university and college courses, supplementary readings, academic monographs and other publications produced by academics in the course of their research. 

College and university textbooks 

Some academic textbooks used in colleges and universities (such as Samuelson’s Economics and Jansen’s History of Art) are very successful. They sell in large quantities, year after year, and produce healthy profits for their authors and publishers. The texts are frequently updated and issued as new editions, and are published together with various product and service extensions (such as case studies, presentations, resource websites and podcast lectures). They are expensive to develop and publishers spend a lot of time and resources to retain and increase market share in some highly competitive disciplines. However, many academic books are not written or published in the hope of achieving vast sales, but each book seeks to fill a niche, even if this involves courses that have relatively small numbers of students. 
For some years, many textbooks for degree-level courses have been supplemented with online study and reference materials. Now that students are increasingly using e-readers to read and make notes on course textbooks, many texts are available as e-books. Just as consumer e-books have been adopted by the general reading public more rapidly in the United States than elsewhere, so the use of e-textbooks has been greater in the United States, where the National Association of College Stores (NACS) conducts regular surveys to monitor the increased use of e-texts. Research (such as Baron et al.’s survey of over 400 university students in the United States, Japan, Germany and Slovakia) indicates, however, that many students still prefer to use physical printed textbooks (92 per cent in Baron et al.’s study). It is also common for publishers to offer university teaching staff the opportunity to produce texts customized for their particular course requirements. Using these services, university teachers can select content from a wide range of online material to be made up into a textbook specifically tailored to their needs. They can also add mate¬rial of their own, or material from other sources that might have particular relevance to their course. The compilation is published on demand, either as a short-run edition in the exact quantity required, as a POD book, or as an e-book. One example of such a custom textbook system is that offered by Wiley through their Wiley Custom Select service. 


Academic monographs (single subject book-length studies based on specialist research) were once a staple of academic and scholarly publishing. Such publications are now becoming less common, and PhD theses are no longer routinely transformed into book-length publications. Monographs have low sales (getting lower as academic library budgets decrease each year), and an academic monograph may not sell more than 100 copies. This means that prices for such printed books have become high, reducing sales still further in a vicious cycle of rising prices and diminishing sales, and leading to the e-publication of much monograph material. The main reason academic writers want to publish academic monographs is to further their career, as publication is a necessary part of proving academic standing when looking for employment, promotion or tenure. As with essays and papers in academic journals, the extent to which such serious academic work is cited by other academics is sometimes seen as a measure of success for the publication, for the individual academics and for the institutions to which they belong. 

Some academic monographs derive from PhD theses (dissertations) or from collections of papers presented at academic conferences. These special interest publications, highly valuable to a select group of researchers, are migrating to e-publication, which is ideal for the purpose of dissemination to a small well-networked specialist group of readers, often spread throughout the world. Monograph publications are also sometimes independently published by academic institutions or specialist centres. Those published by traditional publishers may be more likely to be distributed as part of a bundle of such works sold on subscription to libraries and other institutional information services. There are also, now, a number of dedicated open access presses and university presses that have an open access strand – e.g. Ubiquity Press and UCL Press. A recent study found that open access publishing increases the discoverability and online usage of titles without impacting on sales. 


An emerging phenomenon in academic publishing is the mini-monograph (or ‘minigraph’). These publications are short print and/or e-books that are between a journal article and a traditional monograph in length. Although they still go through a rigorous peer-review process, minigraphs have a much shorter publication schedule then longer form books. 

STM publishing 

STM publishing (scientific, technical and medical) is a major industry sector and includes textbooks, monographs, reference works, journals and other print and online services for the scientific, technical and medical communities. The value of the market for STM publications is much larger than that for academic publications in the humanities and social sciences. STM publishers are some of the biggest employers in the publishing industry, with a global turnover estimated at more than $26.6 billion (£22.1 billion) (International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers). 

Sales and marketing 

Sales and marketing in STM publishing uses the analysis of citations, trends and other metrics. You can learn more about this complex area from the website of the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers and the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP). While the large commercial publishers, university presses and professional organizations (such as the Institute of Physics and the American Chemical Society) dominate this sector, there are many other smaller academic and scholarly publishing operations working across the academic spectrum. These smaller outfits often have close working relationships with the major companies who produce and market the publications, while the organization retains editorial control. 

Working in academic and STM publishing 

In the academic and STM sector, product managers, senior editors and publishing editors manage publications in a particular subject area, producing journals, monographs, digital resources and even workshops, seminars and conferences. They spend time networking with people involved in their special discipline, and work closely with external journal editors, series editors and other editorial advisers drawn from academic departments and research institutes. It is common for these editors and managers to have a background in the relevant specialism, particularly for very technical subjects such as engineering or medicine. Given the importance of digital workflow to STM and scholarly publishing, the person in charge is sometimes called a production editor, and this person is also likely to have a significant input into marketing, working with exhibition managers and promotion executives. As digital publishing is the mainstream activity for most STM publishers, the idea of having a specific information system manager is declining and everyone is expected to work with digital publishing (although the physical production and distribution of books and journals are still important in some subjects). 

Reference publishing 

Reference publishing has some crossover with academic publishing as well as providing reference materials for a wide variety of professions, such as law and accountancy. Reference publishers produce resources such as encyclopaedias, dictionaries and directories. This was one of the first sectors in publishing to take advantage of digital technologies, as very large quantities of data can be gathered, manipulated, stored, updated and distributed far more effectively in this way than by traditional print methods. 

STM journals are used by researchers throughout the world to disseminate the results of their work, and career success can depend on publication in the most prestigious journals. These journals are published by Emerald Group Publishing. 

Reference publishing has also been affected by the growth of Wikipedia. This free, online reference website was founded in 2001 and has over 6 million articles in English and versions in 326 languages, making a total of over 58 million articles, over 73 million (predominantly) images, over 30 million active editors and over 100 million registered users. It is put together on a volunteer basis by thousands of experts and users throughout the world. Wikipedia has radically altered the market for encyclopaedias, most notably that of the previous market leader, Encyclopædia Britannica, which in 2012 announced that it was ceasing publication of the 32-volume printed edition. 

Trade reference books 

Some reference books, like Guinness World Records, are really trade books (hence the label trade reference books). The Guinness World Records brand is an example of the kind of trade reference publishing that has been developed in recent years to include a wide variety of media manifestations, including websites, video, games and interactive media. Travel reference brands like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are other examples of trade reference publishing that have moved to digital platforms.

Writing stage