Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Against $100 Books

by J J Cohen

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that in my arsenal of axes kept handy for frequent grinding is a publishing related twibill: the pricing of scholarly books. Check out this doozy from Oxford University Press: $299 for Henry of Huntington's Historia Anglorum. At least this 12th century history of England doesn't break the $300 mark; that would be market suicide.

Then again, Gervaise of Tilbury (also at OUP) does just that. I wonder, do they keep an ancient bottle of sherry at Oxford University Press Headquarters and break it out every time someone buys a copy of Gervaise? I'm guessing that at $325 per book the sherry bottle is still rather full. I admit, in a world where bookstores have special sections dedicated to "Teen Paranormal Romance" editions of Latin historiography with excellent translations count as somewhat obscure. They are also wonderful. I can imagine the occasional interested nonscholar wanting to read through both Henry and Gervaise, who are vivid writers, and I am certain more specialists would buy the books if it were not necessary to choose between them and a month's rent. I understand the business model on which the pricing is based, since it has been honed so well by Palgrave Macmillan, Brill and others: have a low print run (200 copies and under) and sell at a very high price ($80-$300) to research libraries, making a significant profit via small investment. Yet OUP is a not-for-profit entity. On what grounds can such a price be justified, especially because its effect is to place within a vault texts that ought to be out in the world? Maybe this is the Object Oriented Ontologist in me but you know, books actually want to be read.

Last night I was back on the subject of overpriced books and did a little research on my own works. I was shocked to see that the price of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain has now reached $100. This rise into the triple digits is especially galling because the book is print on demand, with all the degradation of quality you'd expect to come with that process, and the website does not warn you of the fact. Needless to say, neither an e-text nor a paperback version is now or likely ever will be available. This book has sold out its small print run twice but at $100 and POD it is now essentially dead. That triple digit price is a padlock. I should be happy the little book is being kept safe from scurrilous readers. It's better for Hybridity to be in the loving custody of a research library. I pray only that someone dusts its binding every now and then.

Now compare a book I published at the University of Minnesota Press, Medieval Identity Machines. It's $26 as a nicely produced paperback, and $14.04 for the Kindle version. Monster Theory and Of Giants are similarly priced -- and quick to download via Amazon or Google. (Cf. Ohio State University Press, which despite having a small Open Access initiative sells electronic versions of most books for about $15 ... but on CDs that get mailed to you. Does anyone even own a CD player any more? Neither my laptop nor iPad has one. You may as well put the books on video tapes). I've published three books with UMP, with my fourth under contract and out in 2013. Each one has sold at least 1000 copies, and sometimes twice that, compared to the 200 at which Hybridity flatlined with Palgrave. Those numbers mean something.

I had sworn never to publish another $90 book again -- before Palgrave Macmillan upped the price of my last one to $100. I understand very well that not every scholar has options when it comes to publishing, especially early in the career. But when there is a choice it makes very little sense to support a system that keeps books out of the hands of potential readers. Ideally, if scholarly publishing is not going to be immediately open access, then a book should appear with a not-for-profit press at a reasonable price ($50 or under in hardcover, $25 or less for paperback). It should also be instantly downloadable in an affordable and well formatted e-form ($15 or less and available via Amazon). Last, it would be great if after a certain amount of time the book became open access so that those who want to read it in the future may do so and the book will stay alive.

If you have a choice -- if you have good alternatives -- please join me in refusing to publish any more $100 books. As scholars I hope we are not so removed from the world that we are content to allow our words to vanish into a small number of libraries. I hope we are no longer bound to think of books only as hardcover physical objects that must cost a great deal to hold value (especially because despite the high price they may well be poorly constructed: books should be beautiful, but that doesn't mean they have to be conventional). The publishing system will not change unless we pressure it to do so: it ought to serve the interests of the writing and reading community, not of the profit margin

A book wants to be read.




17 comments:

Ben said...

Thanks for raising the battle cry, Jeffrey. It's stories like this that make me somewhat tempted to shun the book form altogether, and work through essays, postings, etc., though I don't know if I could resist the pull of Writing A Book. It would be nice if someone who has been around the block a bit (not saying it has to be you) could start a page (maybe a wiki?) where scholars could share their experiences and thereby encourage others to approach the better presses.

Art Historians, by the way, get hit coming and going by the lack of open access. We have to pay for acquire image rights, and then the illustrated books cost more and (as I understand it) are harder to distribute through other forms because of limits on reproduction. It's crazy-making.

M.K. Foys said...

It's worth adding to this discussion an analogous one on the emergent strategies by academic publishers regarding open access that essentially redefine the concept in ways antithetical to why open access exists in the first place. Recently I was delighted to find out authors publishing in Neophilologus now had the option to make their articles open access after publication. Then I read the fine print and learned the author had to pay $3000 for this option.

The webpage that details this open access policy for Springer (Neophilologus's publisher) displays an image of a hand holding a key. The key to what? Apparently, to a very expensive vehicle that most of us cannot afford to drive.

Eileen Joy said...

Let me add here a story relative to Martin Foys's point that some publishers have moved into e-book and what I will call hybrid-access models in ways that appear to fly in the face of a more open and accessible publishing commons, BUT before I do let me add the obvious, too: that I edit a really wonderful journal [postmedieval] that has been partly been wonderful to edit because of all of the ways in which the Journals division at Palgrave Macmillan has enabled us to think outside the box of traditional scholarly-journal publishing, and they have expanded pallets and pallets of money supporting this journal and our vision, and technically "work" for them [I receive a monetary stipend, for example]; nevertheless, the journal also costs too much, but at the same time, for 2 months every year, they have also made 100% of the contents of our journal completely 100% open-access, and I believe they are committed to continuing to do that every year and they have also shown willingness to provide discounts on subscriptions for various events, groups, etc. SO, now the story:

Palgrave recently unveiled a new shorter-form e-book series Pivot, housed within something called Palgrave Connect: go here:

http://www.palgrave.com/pivot/

Interestingly, this is being directed [I believe] by Ros Pyne, who before moving over to serving as lead editor of all web content for Palgrave, was postmedieval's managing editor [and a damn fine one, too, I might add; really visionary and enabling of everything Myra, Holly, and I have wanted to do with postmedieval: I need to keep saying this because I don't want Ros to feel as if this is all attack mode, but more so, we have some serious questions and I think those in commercial academic publishing should dialogue with us on this more]. I actually just emailed Ros about 5 minutes ago, partly prompted by this post, which I have also sent to Ros: hope you don't mind!], and here is WHY:

when you go to the actual Pivot site, you will see that ALL published titles have a red lock symbol next to them [they should re-think the iconography of that, actually] indicating they are available to *institutional* subscribers only. So then I went to the FAQ page to see if individuals can ever purchase individual titles [which on the main page seems to be indicated as: sure you can!]: the answer, however, appears to be: NO.
See here:

http://www.palgrave.com/pivot/palgraveconnect.asp

http://www.palgraveconnect.com/pc/info/help.html#faqs

Institutions subscribe, through Palgrave Connect [via their libraries, of course], who buy different levels of "packages"/"collections." So it's like a journal subscription [it appears, where institutions, more and more, are asked/constrained to buying bundled subscriptions, kind of like cable tv, actually], in a sense. Is this possibly a bad situation? I think it might be. I'm eager and excited about developing a possible postmedieval imprint within Pivot, and Ros and I have talked about that, but these issues concern me. So I've emailed Ros to ask for further clarification. If it's what it appears to be, it's disheartening, for sure.

Eileen Joy said...

Let me also add something we ALL need to think about more:

1. university presses are not always *compelled* to make certain types of profit margine, nor sometimes any profits at all, although if they are in the red for too long, they might fold, but my point is: they're subsidized, whereas commercial presses are not subsidized [they need to make profits, and we can't hate them for that because they've helped to literally make our disciplinary "fields" possible and visible, but it's true that they could also pursue better ways to make content more accessible and more affordable and I think they have instead been working too hard to lock down intellectual property that most people don't even want: we need to think about that, too, because we want open-access and more readers, but we also need to produce things people actually want/desire: even in cheap paperback editions, many scholarly tomes would molder on virtual shelves ... and YET: we need these, too, we need to also foster this lonelier genre because every book, no matter what, adds to the general store of knowledge and sustains minds, even the one mind that wrote it: we need to care about that]. Within academic circles, we need to decide, first, whichever modes of publishing we are invested in -- print, digital, other modes -- how we want to *sustain* our presses, in terms of financial solvency, if not in terms of profits, ALTHOUGH: I maintain that given the overall [bleak] national economic picture vis-a-vis the humanities, that it would behoove us to think more concretely about more profit-driven, independent models for academic publishing that might receive *some* support from institutions -- educational, cultural, government, etc.

2. Digital publishing, as I've said time and time again, does NOT equal FREE. One of the things that has virtually disappeared [except in VERY RARE instances] from both university and commercial academic presses is close, engaged, collaborative, intelligent-erudite, sympathetic editing [at all levels, from the acquisition stage to the final page-proofs stage to design/formatting/layout, marketing, etc.]: this is something I am trying to do at punctum, and it is so labor-consuming, you have NO idea, and we need this, we really really need this, or else the idea of a "commons," free or otherwise, is kind of bogus. Just because something is online doesn't mean it is all of a sudden "cheaper," at least in terms of the human labor-hours required to make a book, make a journal issue, make a digital edition, etc. IF you want to do it WELL.

3. Shamelessly, I would plug punctum books as a possible model for a way forward, as well as the work of Open Humanities Press and the recently unveiled Anvil Academic.

Eileen Joy said...

And I should add also that yes, I know that even some university presses also have egregious pricing, as Jeffrey's example from OUP shows, and one imagines OUP's reasons for doing this will look different than what Palgrave might share about their own pricing rationales. But I'd like to see some more discussion, too, about things like solvency, sustainability, and "profits" relative to academic publishing. Somewhat different from Jeffrey, I don't think the idea of "profit" is always a negative, if by "profit" we mean something like, making enough money to keep making more books/things. Both university presses and commercial publishers have to confront and work through this issue of "profits," albeit in often very different ways. Perhaps "sustainability" is a better term: what would it mean to talk about sustainable publishing models, and to what ends [ideological, practical, aesthetic, technical, etc.]?

Anonymous said...

I'm somewhat surprised that OUP and the others haven't embraced print-on-demand. For books where they truly don't expect to sell enough to justify a decent print run at a decent price, it's the obvious choice. It lowers the overall profit margin, but it's a lot less hassle for everyone involved, I'd think, and the technology is good enough now that books made in this fashion no longer look like cheap knock-offs.

My understanding that many US academic publishers are starting to turn to this possibility as a way to avoid super-expensive books, much less the difficulty of renting warehouse space for very slow movers.

Stephanie Trigg said...

My book is reasonably priced in the US, at $55. In the UK it's £36. When it's sold in Australia, it costs $109. That's a 100% mark-up. Something seriously wrong here too!

dorothyk98 said...

What worries me is what happened to the University of Missouri Press when the University decided it wasn't making enough of a profit. Again, the academic press has so much pressure. I would agree with Eileen, online publication is not free, it requires not just a good editor reading to make a good product (along with a good graphics person), but who is keeping, updating, and archiving the electronic publication? The people at Cornell UP have told me part of the reason they can do what they do and charge about $45 for a hardbook academic book is because they have made a substantial profit on their books on birds (who knew the Audubon circle was so profitable). This then subsidizes their academic monographs. But yes, producing a book is expensive beyond the paper, ink, and binding. Likewise, getting a digital book done also costs a lot of money, especially if you have images or other features that would require some up front permission cost. Digital projects are not cheap, so why do we imagine that digital books would be as well? Recently, I asked Bill Germano what he thought if I just gave publishers a regular book (i.e. in MS Word) and the book already encoded in XML so that it would be easy for them to make it into a digital book. He told me that I shouldn't do it, they weren't prepared for this. So, in a sense, I wonder if there is also not enough money at publishing houses to create this kind of infrastructure to do different kinds of publishing (regular print, download on kindle and nook, etc.). Or should we do what Kathleen Fitzpatrick did with her book Planned Obsolescence--about open knowledge vs. knowledge as work and property. She published it via Media Commons and NYU, but previewed each chapter ahead of time for comment.
Again, all this is difficult to do if you are not tenured because still want that physical book in their hand from an academic press. However, I also think that archiving an ebook/digital book would cost money in terms of having some entity (university press, publisher, library, etc.) commit to archiving it in perpetuity. At the moment, to do a specific print run and then having it as print-on-demand, does mean that they have no commitment for preserving it (it's already preserved in print form). It may weirdly be the cheapest way at the moment to do this. Until the British Library decided to go open access with their images, trying to negotiate image deals with major libraries for access in perpetuity would have been a nightmare. So imagine trying to do a digital book for art history, archiving those images, dealing with those permissions and access issues. What a crazy nightmare. Something does need to change in how this is all happening, but it also needs to start with what hiring and promotion committees will accept as published, serious work. Working out something there would make it so much easier to find other ways to put scholarship out there for way less than $100 a book.

John B-R said...

Several comments, from a former academic librarian wh0 spent most of the past 5 years dealing with material in a variety of fomats (I was in charge of humanities and socials sciences collecting at a major research university:

1. Jeffrey is absolutely right that there is no reason that POD prices should be as high as they often are. There are pre-production costs, but there is no upfront investment in inventory to justify high prices. And no sale depletes stock in any way. Anonymous mentions OUP embracing POD; they have to a degree (f'rinstance whenever you buy a new copy of any of their 3 vols of Hegel's Encyclopedia writings it's POD). But they've still kept a pretty high price. I think academic publishers still expect a return per unit on POD that matches the return on an item already in print.

2. Eileen writes: "Institutions subscribe, through Palgrave Connect [via their libraries, of course], who buy different levels of "packages"/"collections." So it's like a journal subscription [it appears, where institutions, more and more, are asked/constrained to buying bundled subscriptions, kind of like cable tv, actually], in a sense. Is this possibly a bad situation? I think it might be." Libraries by fewer and fewer journals by themselves and more and more bundled journals. And the packages keep changing shape, because the publishers keep raising the price on the package. So some journals have to go each year to keep the price affordable. Which go? The ones that are either least used, or which have per-use prices that are very high (at least relative to other items in the package)

3. Ben writes: "Art Historians, by the way, get hit coming and going by the lack of open access. We have to pay for acquire image rights, and then the illustrated books cost more and (as I understand it) are harder to distribute through other forms because of limits on reproduction. It's crazy-making." I have actually seen an Art History e-book that had no illustrations, but boxes where each illustration should have been, telling the end user (student) to go to the web to find the image (just the web, not some publisher website). This was exactly because of the costs and legalities surrounding reproduction rights. One look at this volume and it was obvious that the situation that led to it is insane.

4. Eileen also makes two very very important points: "Digital publishing, as I've said time and time again, does NOT equal FREE." Just serving up the item can be quite costly. She also notes that academic publishers are not the enemy. Well, some are, we all know which ones. But generally, she's right. There's a symbiosis linking scholars, publishers, libraries, etc. One dies, we all die. Which doesn't mean nothing will be born from the ashes, but still ...

This is a really important discussion that libraries often feel alone in. If you can, please contact your collections librarians to discuss this with them. At least you and they can commiserate.

Janice said...

I bought a certain Ashgate volume of essays in April that ran well over $100 because the cost was so high that I couldn't squeeze it into our library budget while I also knew that my graduate student absolutely had to read it.

Catch-22, that. Now that my grad student is finished, I'm donating it to the library in hopes that others will benefit from the book whose price certainly limits circulation.

My most recent collection in pop culture and history is listed at $29.95 but is retailing at many places for $17-$20. That's a hardcover with colour plates and lots of illustration. The economies of scale deserve credit here, I'm sure, but it's also that cheap also because the publisher knew this wasn't the academic market they were gouging, er, I mean targeting!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks everyone for the comments and please, keep them coming.

I'm not sure anyone who feels so inclined should resist the lure of writing a book, Ben. I'm nearing the end of monograph #4 and sure I hate it, but I also love it and there is nothing like the book's long form for sustained thinking.

Martin, I have heard too many stories of for-profit open access like this -- and of course the financial onus is always on the author!

Eileen, for the record I am not against profit per se. What I am against is commercial presses tapping free or minimally compensated labor by academics (who serve as author and peer evaluators) to turn a profit for themselves and perhaps their shareholders without a socially engaged vision of what their publishing mission accomplishes. A not for profit will always offer more than a for profit because its financial pressures and obligations are different. That's why I give up on the commercial presses (with the exception of, say, Palgrave when you through your powers of persuasion have convinced them to experiment with something like postmedieval) and would rather work with an arts-inclined, risk taking, intellectually sound university press or open access press. If the profits go to support staff and to cultivate further projects: bravo. That's how it should be. But a good press cannot be bottom line driven; it has to be the vehicle for a vision. Like punctum.

Stephanie: insane. Your book is SO accessible and should have a tremendously wide readership. It should also be downloadable!

Dorothy, you are right: the changes must come at every level, from presses to P&T committees. We need to be more visionary and to ACT on that vision.

John B-R: the point about digital publishing not being free needs to be reiterated again and again. It can seem that way, but that's because much of the labor behind it is invisible and unpaid. That cannot last.

Caroline Osella said...

And we have to resist the tenure / REF / promotion system in which committees of seniors try to enforce upon young colleagues the idea of a press being the only guide to quality. CUP OUP etc give prestige to a c.v., and employability at times. it's up to us more senior tenured scholars to show a lead and use some of the new ebook publishers and push when we find ourselves on REF committees etc for the quality of the work to be the only guide

Ros Pyne said...

Ros here – for those of you who don’t know me, I work at Palgrave Macmillan and was the publisher of postmedieval from the point when Eileen, Myra and I first started talking about it back in 2008 until about three weeks ago. I just wanted to jump in and correct / clarify a few things in Eileen’s posts.

Palgrave Pivot titles are available for individuals to purchase both in print and as ebooks. Print copies can be purchased from Amazon, from many other bookshops, and from the main Palgrave Macmillan website, www.palgrave.com. Each title’s page on palgrave.com also provides links to all the vendors from which you can purchase the ebook version; this includes Amazon Kindle.

Palgrave Connect is our platform for library and institutional sales (and access). That’s why individuals can’t purchase books on that site and why the FAQs focus on institutional subscriptions – but we take the point that the options for purchasing books as an individual need to be flagged much more clearly on Connect, both on title pages and in the FAQs, and we’ll be looking into this.

It’s true that most institutional sales of ebooks are now handled on a subscription basis, much like journals. While Palgrave does sell ebook subscriptions to institutions by subject collection, we also allow librarians to curate their own collections on Connect, so there is no lock-in. Palgrave Macmillan also does not use the bundled sales model (sometimes referred to as the ‘Big Deal’) for journal subscriptions.

Jeffrey (if I may) - I’ve noted your points on pricing and passed these on to our senior management team.

ASM said...

Hear, hear. My first book (Routledge) is now POD, and middling quality (you judge if I mean in content or in the glue binding). Thankfully, they put it out in paperback, since the hardback is now well over $100. The PB was first put out at $35, and now is $50, though I have no idea what changed.

I wonder if Janice bought MY Ashgate collection -- avail for $150. Ridiculous, esp. since all the images are B/W. I wonder if the old assumption (libraries will buy these books that are too costly for normal humans) is still operative. In tightened budgets, is there room for a $150 book on monsters? I don't know.

No idea what the new book will cost, though it is coming out with a non-profit, academic press (ACMRS) and got a subvention from CAA, so I am really hoping it will be well under 100.

On a different scale, I am talking with Pearson about the costs of an art appreciation textbook I am writing for them. It will be under 100, but how much, and in what format? The e-book is going to be the main format, there, and they might not even DO a print version. But how much is the right amount for such a thing? No idea.

(Oh, and Martin, yeah, same deal with Lit Compass -- $3k for open access? No thanks!)

tenthmedieval said...

I know that even some university presses also have egregious pricing, as Jeffrey's example from OUP shows, and one imagines OUP's reasons for doing this will look different than what Palgrave might share about their own pricing rationales.

Speaking as one who drinks Oxford's Kool-Aid for at least a few more months, you might expect me to say that, but the OUP situation is at least a bit more complex than average. This is because its profits are actually ploughed back into the university's research; graduate student bursaries, small project's expenses, and so on, this kind of thing comes out of it via a thing called the John Fell Fund. OUP thus does have a rather diluted profit motive, though whether those from outside the university who publish with them might not be perfectly happy about whither the money their book makes goes...

Carl Anderson said...

Even so, I am baffled by the logic that sees OUP's POD version of, say, Ursula Dronke's The Poetic Edda: Volume II (1997) for ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-ONE POUNDS or the subsequent, substantially shorter, Volume III (also POD) for ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-ONE POUNDS, and even a POD version of Volume I (originally from 1969) for ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-SEVEN POUNDS. I mean: WTF? Even major university libraries have pretty tight budgets these days. And these are POD hardbacks with no e-versions or even paperbacks on offer (despite the fairly sensible production on the sample PDFs for the more recent volumes, which suggests that full PDF versions of these, at least, would be trivial to produce for sale). But it's going to be a relatively desperate (and very small!) audience of Scandinavianists who buy POD versions of all 3 of these books for THREE HUNDRED AND NINETY-NINE POUNDS (plus, of course, shipping etc. since the final goods are physical books). I mean, one only has so many kidneys .... A mere "$100" for any of these offerings would represent a substantial markdown -- but will still well exceed the price-point at which I suspect most interested parties would click "Buy".

I understand that digital-does-not-equal-free, and I understand the costs (direct or indirect) that editing, peer review etc. imply; I work as an editor of a small, unregarded -- but peer reviewed and entirely open access -- applied linguistics journal in South America, and someone, somewhere ultimately has to cover the costs of it all. But equally I understand that there is a point at which high-prices do more to inhibit potential sales (which, ultimately, affects academic authors because it prevents people from getting, and thus citing, their book) than recoup costs. Will OUP ultimately reap more revenue by selling a 44-year-old book as a £137 POD hardback than they would by offering the same content in any other form or at any other price-point? Not being the marketing director, it's admittedly difficult for me to say .... yet, all other things being equal, I struggle to see what kind of sense this situation makes.

Moreover, as a potential author, I would be desperately concerned that something I'd put so much work into was being consigned, effectively, to oblivion. (Not that this was perhaps a big concern for Ursula Dronke, even while she was alive -- but it would be for me, now, in the 21st Century). I'd be desperately trying to pirate my own publication to slash it around the Internet in digital form in hopes of garnering more readers and (thus, hopefully) citations.

KathyK said...

A response to the original post, and then one on Eileen's comments about non-profit university presses.

I support the idea wholeheartedly, yet with a big caveat. To add to the reasons not to publish with many of the high-priced editors, the author rarely gets much if any pre-print "service" from them - you have to provide camera ready copy, from which they physically print the book. This is not true of all publishers (Brepols for one has a different model) but the lack of copy editing is a serious issue.
The caveat is the difficulty getting published, and the need to do so by many academics (particularly, but not just junior faculty trying to get tenure). Try publishing a book on Latin epigraphs, or Middle High German lyric, or ... you get the point. Getting a scholarly book published in any language or literature field other than English is extremely difficult, and I know the situation is similar for my colleagues in history who publish on Italy and France and even more so, on someplace not in Western Europe.

In terms of Eileen's post about university presses - think not that far back to the situation with the U. of Missouri Press this past year. Subsidized presses are a thing of the past.