What Is the Point of Academic Books? - Pacific Standard

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they're meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.
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Look at all those pricey tomes. (Photo: pnoeric/Flickr)

Look at all those pricey tomes. (Photo: pnoeric/Flickr)

In January 2015, I've got a book coming out from Rutgers University Press. In anticipation, I was looking over my contract again, and I was confronted with a question that I'm sure is familiar to most folks who publish with a university press. That question being: How on Earth does a university press work, anyway?

Broadly, under capitalism, you figure that commercial endeavors are supposed to be based on some sort of commercial logic; you sell products to make money. My book—about Wonder Woman, bondage, and feminism—is relatively sexy as these things go, and my contract with Rutgers is, I'm told, generous in many ways. For instance, I got a small advance, which is uncommon. Still, a book of theory, even about Wonder Woman and bondage, has a limited audience. When all is said and done, my hourly wage working on the book will end up at somewhere between not much and I don't want to think about it. My editors aren’t rolling in cash either; nobody gets a job at a university press thinking they're on the path to riches.

"There are certainly university press books that sell 350 books and that's a copy sold to literally everybody in that sub-field and some libraries. So, that's 100 percent market saturation. I consider that a kind of victory for a book."

So perhaps the goal isn't commercial success, but the dissemination of knowledge? That seems reasonable—except for the fact that university press books are quite pricey. My own book is around $25 for a paperback—not exorbitant, but a long way from free. Other academic interest books can induce sticker shock; Adam Jones' wonderful Gender Inclusive is just shy of $50 on Amazon for the paperback; the hardback is a whopping $135. Even $50 is enough to buy a coffee-table book indulgence, not a slim paperback non-fiction volume, however brilliant. (And Jones' book isn't even published by an academic press; it's by Routledge.)

So if academic books aren't exactly commercial endeavors, and they aren't exactly providing knowledge for the masses, what are they doing, exactly? 

ACCORDING TO BETSY PHILLIPS, the marketing manager at Vanderbilt University Press, the answer is: it depends. Some for-profit companies, like Wiley, Elsevier, and Springer, publish books with an academic bent or for an academic market, and they are quite obviously interested in turning a profit, and in selling a lot of copies (or, it seems, in gouging libraries, in the case of Routledge). On the other hand, Phillips says, for Vanderbilt's press "there are certainly university press books that sell 350 books and that's a copy sold to literally everybody in that sub-field and some libraries. So, that's 100 percent market saturation. I consider that a kind of victory for a book, even if it cannot make back what it cost to produce it with sales that low." If a book is not a textbook, and is in a specialist subject, it’s going to sell "a thousand copies or less, sometimes far less. The primary audience for the book is academic libraries and scholars and that's who, by far, buys them."

The innately small audience determines the (relatively high) prices. Phillips says specifics can vary a lot, but editing and design will usually run $5,000; printing, paper, and binding will cost $5 a copy, so $5,000 for 1,000 copies. Marketing is going to be $1,000-$3,000 or so; and then there's around another $5,000 to cover utilities and a roof at the press. Sellers take about 40 percent of list price, leaving presses with 60 percent—which means that the books need to be priced at around $30 to get the presses $18,000 and break even.

You can pump up hardback prices and hope for libraries to buy them (though more and more are just buying paper, Phillips says), and that can lower the cost of the paperback a little. But the low sales mean there's a high floor on the selling price. This is even true for e-books, since printing isn't actually that much of the cost of production. And none of this even takes into account paying authors.

In fact, many authors aren't paid much, if anything, for writing academic books. This is because university professors need to publish for purposes of tenure and career advancement; publishing is part of their jobs. As Martin Paul Eve, a lecturer at the University of Lincoln’s School of English & Journalism in the United Kingdom, says:

As far as I am concerned, if university professors/lecturers are paid a salary to produce books, then there is no need for them to receive royalties on sales. They are supposed to have been freed from market concerns in their choice of investigation (i.e. they don't have to investigate things on the basis that they will sell). To then expect to be paid a market rate on return is trying to have one's cake and eat it.

Eve is the author of Open Access and the Humanities, and he would like to see academic books available to a broader slice of the public. He acknowledges the price constraints but argues that these are, in part, circular. "The high price of academic books means that there is a limited audience; they are unaffordable,” he says. “This limited audience means that books have to be priced highly with academic libraries as often the only purchasers." He acknowledges that making content free through a digital platform is more difficult for books than for journals, but he thinks it should be a goal—and he hopes that opening research to a broader audience might actually help boost monograph sales.

"[Professors] are supposed to have been freed from market concerns in their choice of investigation (i.e. they don't have to investigate things on the basis that they will sell). To then expect to be paid a market rate on return is trying to have one's cake and eat it."

Clifford Anderson, director of scholarly communications at Vanderbilt University Libraries, points to a couple of ways in which open access might be able to work financially. "One model,” he says, "is to charge authors a fee for publishing their monographs in open access. These fees may be paid either out of faculty research funds or by library-administered funds set up to defray such costs." Another option would be "to offer open-access versions on the Web and charge for premium versions—such as print and Kindle editions." He notes that some presses are already experimenting with open-access books—like the University of Michigan Press' Digital Culture Books imprint.

Phillips, Eve, and Anderson all agree that currently scholarly book publishing has conflicting purposes. It both wants to disseminate important information and to make money, or at least break even. Eve and Anderson want to try to use digital publishing models to move further from the market and drive down costs. Phillips, though, is worried that this will end up devaluing, or even eliminating, the work university presses do. "I hope we don't get lost in the shuffle," she says. "Vetting, editing, designing, and helping others find books is still important, even in a scenario where few members of the audience for a book pay for it."

OPEN-ACCESS MODELS MIGHT lose me in the shuffle as well. I'm not an academic, so no one paid me a salary to write my Wonder Woman book, and writing it won't move me up the career ladder toward tenure. Independent scholars may not write that many academic books—but adjunct faculty are common, and getting more so. How would they manage under a model where faculty funds were needed to subsidize publication? There's a danger that open access may end up closing down options for many people, rather than opening them up.

Still, the flexibility of digital seems like it has to offer some more, and perhaps better, possibilities. Phillips' point that digital doesn't lower costs that much is well taken, but it does lower costs a bit. Academic e-books are often expensive, but they're still less expensive to produce than paper copies. Amazon also has a pricing structure which seems to be used mostly for academic titles, in which you can rent the digital copy rather than buy it—which is how I managed to read that $50 Adam Jones book for just $14 or so.

Academic publishing has confusing and contradictory goals. No one is likely to find a perfect means of reconciling them all. But as different presses and different libraries experiment with different models, they may find better ways of making information both free and/or remunerative. In the meantime, folks like me will continue to write books as a labor of love—with some small hope that someone, somewhere, might want to pay something for them too.

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