In academic publishing, there is a long tradition of “The Big Book of Everything”. These edited, multi-authored tomes have titles like “The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine”, “The Comprehensive Textbook of Substance Abuse” and “The Annual Review of Psychology”. They comprise a huge number of chapters written by respected figures in the field.

Having your field’s Big Book of Everything on your shelf or in your department library is incredibly handy both for established experts and students because, obviously, they’ve got everything in them even if it can’t be at a fine level of detail. On the other hand, they are as portable as anvils and they cost a mint.

Enter an innovation of which I just learned after agreeing to write a chapter in a forthcoming Big Book of Everything: The publisher is going to let each buyer order the subset of chapters he or she wants rather than hawking the work as an all-or-nothing venture.

I would love to hear everyone’s speculations on how this will affect authors, editors, students and academic fields. Here are a few ideas:

(1) Affordability is much higher. A professor who would not assign such a costly book in order to expose students to a half dozen selected chapters can now assign the book of just those six at a more reasonable cost.

(2) Editorial control is much lower. An editor of a Big Book of Everything usually tries to have some consistency and cross-connection between chapters. This will become harder to impose on authors when the book is not going to be sold as a whole. This may make some people less likely to serve as editor whereas others may become moreso as one of the principal editorial tasks fades from consideration.

(3) Knowledge becomes more fractured. Everyone’s Big Book of Everything will become a Smaller Book of Some Things, with potentially less overlap in what everyone knows and is expected to know.

(4) Authors of some chapters will get a far larger readership as purchasers can get access to their work without buying a whole book. Other authors who could not have driven book sales by themselves will lose readers as the more popular chapters on whose coattails they would otherwise have ridden are now free to depart the binding without carrying their less popular brethren along.

(5) Publishers could win or lose depending on the economic viability of this new model. The gamble is that enough more people will buy chunks of the book to make up for the lower revenue per sale relative to people who used to buy the whole thing. Is that a winning gamble? I have no idea.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys