Study on the ASPP and the Situation of Scholarly Books in Canada

About the 'Study on the ASPP and the Situation of Scholarly Books in Canada'

Founded in 1941-1942, The Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP), is a key Federation activity, that funds scholarly books in Canada that make important contributions to the humanities and social sciences. The ecosystem of scholarly publishing now looks quite different than in 1941, especially considering the amount of digital publishing and access methodologies available to scholars today. This study, produced by Vincent Larivière and Delphine Lobet, was commissioned to investigate and provide a snapshot of scholarly books in Canada: their production, usage and continued importance, to better understand the place and significance of the ASPP in scholarly publishing at present and into the future.

Larivière and Lobet consulted data from Canada and internationally to compare and understand trends in Canada within the global picture of scholarly books. They used various methods in their analysis, including bibliometric analyses, ASPP data, external datasets, a review of the literature and reports on related issues, and consultation with publishers. Data referenced in the study are included via graphs and tables within the study body.


Read the study and explore its findings in-depth

Read the full study Executive summary 


Scholarly books have a necessary place within academia and our society. They are crucial preservers and transmitters of our collective knowledge. The question is how scholarly books move forward from here, in a time where digital formats and open access become ever more prevalent. Preserving the art of scholarly books must be a joint effort between publishers, libraries, publishing and research funding bodies like the ASPP. The study advocates for cross-stakeholder collaboration for thoughtful and cooperative integration of new digital methods as they enter the publishing and research ecosystem.


'The scholarly book is in a complex phase where economic models, technical standards and forms of scholarly communication are being reinvented. The book, this long form of communication, different and complementary to the article, must be recognized as an integral part of the research infrastructure in HSS, and supported as such, even if it is called to change. Especially because it is called to change. The situation should not call into question the importance of the book in HSS and restrict its financing, but, on the contrary, to support publishers all the more because they are required to accompany the book in these transformations.' (Executive summary, 5)

Output is on the rise for scholarly books, yet, internationally, commercial sales of HSS books a trending downwards (Study on the ASPP, 36). In Canada, commercial sales of HSS books appear relatively stable (27), but it is worth considering that many scholarly books find their home not with the general public but in academic libraries. It appears that within these libraries, there is reduced acquisition of scholarly print books in favour of journals and e-books (43), made all the more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic (43). 

Concurrently, journal articles continue to rise in popularity within bibliographies. One notable exception to this trend is within the arts and humanities, where books make up a noteworthy 70% of bibliography citations (48). Within academia, we can see that scholarly books are still used actively in research (51) and are regarded as a necessary research tool and an ‘essential output form’ in presenting scholars’ work (57). The study describes books as a ‘technology of knowing’:


'Sales and demand and even use in bibliographies should not be the only criteria used to decide whether books are relevant. We must continue to support the book as something that is necessary for the advancement and dissemination of knowledge, even if its form may be required to change. In any case, we must leave room for slow, long thinking. Thus, the book "makes an important contribution to knowledge," as required by the ASPP, and doubly so: for the author and the reader, if they find and have access to books.' (60) 


Scholarly books are a critical tool for the preservation and dissemination of knowledge. Still, with increasing preference for digital formats from libraries and researchers alike, their usage will continue to decline unless adequately supported in adapting to the digital age.

Digital formats have a few key advantages over printed counterparts (61). Primarily, digital formats are, in theory, more accessible and discoverable than print. This is all the truer for open access, whereby research is made available online without barriers and free of charge.

This ability to discover and access information via the web is central to journal articles’ increasing prevalence over books and the growing support of open access. It is easy to assume that pivoting to publish via e-books and incorporating open access into publishing practices is a simple resolution, but the study finds this is not so.

As libraries and researchers reduce their uptake of printed scholarly books in favour of digital publications, the pressure falls on publishers to meet this demand. The study notes several presses now operating under a hybrid open access and print-on-demand model, whereby books are shared digitally and free of charge but available in limited print where requested or required (62). Is it reasonable to expect other presses to do the same as a default?

Open access distribution of scholarly works, alongside printed editions, would have a positive impact on access and discoverability of books (61), but the study indicates that the journey to digital publishing, including open access, is complex. Digital publishing, whether for e-books and/or open access, creates additional work to format titles in virtual formats alongside traditional print publication. To make a digital publication functional and accessible, a considerable amount of time, effort, and cost goes into proper cataloguing, metadata, and marketing (64). For open access works, presses may not recoup these costs through sales revenue. This poses a significant barrier to the integration of digital formats, and especially open access, into many presses’ publishing strategies.

Data on the impact of open access publishing are relatively new and difficult to gauge. We know that the transition to digital and open access is not confined to presses but to the entire ecosystem of scholarly publishing (60). In moving towards establishing policies and practices around open access, a significant amount of study and consultation remains to be done to ensure the best outcome for the scholarly publishing industry and the books they produce.

The ASPP fulfils a valuable niche in publishing not explicitly targeted by other grants: scholarly books in the HSS (81). In most cases, the ASPP works directly with publishers of scholarly works. The publishers make nominations for the grant and receive the grant money to support the publication of the author’s work.


'Since its founding in 1941, the ASPP has supported the publication of over 8,000 books.' (7)


The study discusses the ASPP’s impact on the costly process of producing scholarly books and found production costs far exceed the grant’s $8,000. Compared to journal articles and fiction books, direct production costs of scholarly books can average approximately $17,000, with all direct and indirect costs ranging from approximately $30,000 to $40.000 (69). Costs increase significantly for translations, for which the $12,000 grant is insufficient to cover (69).

Historically, French titles have not fared as strongly as their English counterparts. Proportionally fewer French titles were submitted as English titles and are more likely to be submitted by authors versus presses, negatively impacting their chance of acceptance. The study notes that this is due in part to the pressures to ‘publish in English or perish’ [the Federation explored this idea in the autumn of 2022, you can watch the webinar here]. These rates, however, have been significantly improving since 2018 (22).

While The University of Toronto Press, UBC Press and McGill-Queen's University Press account for more than 73% of ASPP-funded books from 2005 to 2020 due to the volume of books submitted (17), the study found that, in general, university presses depend on grants and funds like the ASPP for their continued existence. Many presses are in danger of disappearing due to a lack of institutional support (70).

Due to the nature of the ASPP, whereby publishers submit books for review based on their ‘contribution to knowledge,’ to consider how and why the ASPP exists: reducing the cost barrier to the publication of scholarly works and ensuring their continued availability for both academic research and future, collective knowledge. The study finds that ASPP-funded books are actively used by researchers (54) and play an essential role in the preservation of specialized knowledge.


'Because it contributes to this form of academic freedom, i.e. the freedom to write and publish outside the constraints of commercial profitability "That's why the ASPP exists, to support works that otherwise could never see the light of day" (university press) the ASPP is a vital resource for Canadian scholarly communication and research in terms of funding.'  (96)


The study makes several recommendations for the future of the ASPP, aimed at supporting academic publishing in this period of great change:

  • An increase in the basic and translation grants to better support publishers (93)
  • Greater support for breadth of works to recognize titles considered less academic that are more popular to the general public and innovative in their subject matter or format (95)
  • Implement block funding (98)
  • Revised eligibility criteria in consultation with presses (99)
  • Consult about the scholarly publishing system with stakeholders in the book chain to ensure fit-for-purpose (101)
  • Facilitate open access in collaboration with stakeholders in the book chain (102)