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.