Tuesday, October 04, 2011
Some Thoughts about Books and Access
I've published three books with Palgrave Macmillan (1 2 3). I've published three with the University of Minnesota Press (1 2 3). Palgrave books are limited run affairs: $90 hardcovers sold mostly to research libraries. Electronic versions exist, but only if your institution subscribes to Palgrave Connect (mine does not: too expensive). Needless to say, with this model of publishing Palgrave sells few copies of each book. They don't have to: at almost a hundred dollars a pop they know that their company will earn enough to make producing the volumes a good investment. For them. Authors collect little return; most individuals cannot afford the books; dissemination is low.
The University of Minnesota Press, on the other hand, publishes most of its books in simultaneous paperback (Palgrave went to paperback only for The Postcolonial Middle Ages, and that took two years; unlike the hardcovers that have struggled to reach 200 sales, PoCo Middle Ages has sold 1200 copies). UMP also partners with Google (at least in the US) and Amazon to make their books available in reasonably priced electronic versions. Medieval Identity Machines is $26 in paperback, and $14.04 for the Kindle or Google Books versions. My other two Minnesota titles are priced similarly. This pricing structure obviously works. I just received my UMP royalty statement with information on lifetime sales to 6/30/11. Medieval Identity Machines: 548 softcovers; Monster Theory: 2032; Of Giants, 1489. I don't understand why any publishing house would shy away from reasonably priced, simultaneous softcover books.
Or electronic versions. For the first time ever, I earned more royalties on digital sales than on physical copies, almost one third as much. I'm also grateful that "Monster Culture: Seven Theses" finds its way into so many coursepacks, especially (oddly enough) as part of first year writing programs. And someone put that essay in this book; although they didn't ask me, they did pay the press for it, and UMP sent along an author's cut. The permissions income from "Monster Culture" will buy a very nice dinner. With wine. And maybe even dessert.
But you know, I'm not publishing my work in order to purchase the occasional good dinner with wine and dessert. No sane person composes a scholarly monograph for the financial rewards. I publish because I want to be part of as capacious a scholarly conversation as possible. In the end it doesn't matter so much if people like my work (though it is pleasing to be liked): I just want my work read, and reacted to. If scholarship possesses a life, then its vitality inheres in this embodied process of writing, reception, rethinking, rewriting. Perfect books -- the ones that are magisterial, unimpeachable -- sit on high shelves and demand to be admired. I think it's OK for them to cost $100. They aren't usually interested in mixing and mingling. I want my books to wander the world, to bring the exchanges that animate their pages (every good book is a collective effort, even when published under a single name) to unexpected places ... and, in time, be superseded. The best end of a book's life occurs when someone cares enough to compose a better one.
So I'm a big fan of open access publishing, of presses like re.press and punctum that publish in print (for a reasonable fee) and allow quick, free downloading. I wish more presses followed this model, or at least enabled easy access to e-versions of books (Ohio State University Press, home of the promising Interventions series, requires that you order a CD for $9.95 and have it mailed to you to obtain an electronic book). I have no idea what the contours of the publishing landscape will resemble in the years ahead, but I am reasonably certain that the future is with Minnesota, re.press and punctum rather than the $90 books of Palgrave, Brill, D. S. Brewer, Ashgate, and so on.