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Why are (some) academic books so expensive?

P1220780I am going to dip into a subject which is of extreme delicacy in the world of academic publishing. I am therefore going to avoid naming any particular parties in this issue, for two reasons. First, as a publisher myself, I don’t like people talking about what I do by name. Secondly, as a reviewer and author I deal with a number of different publishers, and I don’t want to single any one organisation out. So instead I am going to focus on questions of policy and principle.


Here’s the scenario. A friend announces proudly on social media that she has contributed to an interesting and important collection of essays. It relates to a significant area of interest in biblical studies; it includes some well-known names as contributors; and it offers an assessment of a key thinker in the subject. But the price that it will sell for means that very few, if any, individuals will buy it, so it will most likely be read in and through libraries.

So my immediate comment is: ‘It is unaffordable—and that is unnecessary.’ One of the editors of the volume then responds along these lines:

These kinds of books don’t make much money, and the publishers need to charge these prices to stay in business. The only alternative is for these publishers to go out of business, and that will be a loss to everyone.

Well, as they say, shall we ‘do the math’? Suppose this volume is priced at, say, €/$125, and suppose it then sells to around 600 libraries, but not to any individuals. The total revenue raised will be €/$75,000. If the book was priced at a more affordable level—let’s say around €/$40, which is £28, less than one third of the first price—how many additional copies would the publisher need to sell to individuals in order to generate the same income? The answer is 75,000/40 – 600 = 1,275. Here’s the question: is there a global market for this volume to sell the additional 1,275 copies? Well, I don’t have statistics about the number of academics studying New Testament in the Anglophone world, but given there were about 8,000 people at the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference last November, I would answer You betcha!

The paradox here is what is known in microeconomics as ‘price elasticity of demand’. At the current price, most people are simply not going to consider buying this, no matter how important it is. They will put up with getting hold of it some other way. But once you reduce the price, then everything starts to change. And the counter-intuitive reality is that the publisher might well generate more income in total if the price were lower. So the ‘keeping the publisher in business’ argument doesn’t quite work.

It is worth looking at it in slightly different terms. Most of my fellow academics are working on fixed budgets for book purchases, usually related to their institutional book allowance. Libraries, too, have fixed budgets. This means that, if a publisher increases the price of their book, they are unlikely to increase their share of that fixed amount that is being spent on books. In fact, their total income might well reduce; if a book is expensive, I might consider it only if it is right in the centre of my research interests. If it is in a related area, then I will be tempted to buy it if it is affordable.


Of course, the publishers themselves are doing this kind of maths all the time. They have a bottom line to attend to, and someone, somewhere is making pricing decisions for each volume or series. But it looks from my rough sums as though the maths says that prices should be lowered—and a number of publishers recently have done just that. So what else is going on? My editor friend gives us a clue:

We needed to go with this prestigious publisher—we would not have attracted certain contributors if we had opted for a less prestigious but cheaper place of publication.

Notice the equation here between ‘less prestigious’ and ‘cheaper.’ I would like to raise a basic question here: what is the connection? Why does making one’s books unaffordable to most of your market make one ‘prestigious’? It is a completely false equation, since these two issues relate to opposite ends of the publishing process. Whether or not one is ‘prestigious’ depends on the editorial decisions about who is published, and who is turned down, and the quality checks that are in place. Whether or not books are affordable is a market-related issue, and has little or nothing to do with editorial decisions. I suppose there is a case to say that, if the authors are in demand, then people will be prepared to pay more to read them—but in fact the arguments above about price elasticity don’t support that. It could only work this way if all ‘prestigious’ authors only ever published with ‘prestigious’ publishers, so there was a kind of monopoly—but that hasn’t been the case for many years. Put simply: shouldn’t a book be judged on the quality of content, not the price on the cover?

IMG_5113_2In fact, I would go further, and argue that this kind of pricing strategy is actually damaging. It distorts the academic debate, since some ideas will circulate widely and quickly, whilst others (perhaps even better ones) remain locked up by an elite pricing strategy. It hinders education, since libraries are limited on the number of books they can stock—if prices were lower, they be able to hold a wider breadth of resources. And it is frustrating to anyone on a limited budget who wants to be well read. I don’t know a single academic colleague who does not rely on their own personal library in their reading, teaching preparation and research. If books were more affordable, we would be better equipped.

In an age of lower printing costs and the global exchange of ideas—isn’t it time for a change?


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17 Responses to Why are (some) academic books so expensive?

  1. Jonathan Tallon January 14, 2016 at 8:54 am #

    More power to your elbow in this, Ian. It has to be absolutely central to my work to persuade me to shell out £80 or more for a book. If it’s £20-40, I’ll get it if it’s relevant. If it’s under £20, I’ll get it on an off-chance (disclaimer – I have a book allowance).

    But there’s another economic factor you didn’t name above. The income from libraries is guaranteed. So with your example, that is 75,000 USD that the publisher can bank on. Any sales above this are just a bonus.

    If they price the book at 40 USD, then their guaranteed income is 24,000 USD. So they are gambling over 50,000 USD that this book will sell to individuals. Sure, they’ve increased the chances by lowering the price. But it’s a risk. As a publisher, I’d probably want to have at least some books where I knew I would get a return without much risk.

    Which doesn’t help those of us who want to read the books…

  2. James Byron January 14, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    On this, Ian, we’re in 100 percent accord! 😀

    With the rise of self-publishing, open-access, and the net, if the cartel of “prestigious” publications don’t drop their prices to something approaching reasonable, it can only be a matter of time before they go under. Can’t say I’ll be mourning them too much.

  3. AKMA January 14, 2016 at 10:52 am #

    Absolutely so, Ian. Maybe Grove Press can do something to help break up the logjam in academic publishing — I have for a long time urged organisations (universities, colleges, foundations, centres, whatever) to leverage the digital transformation in publishing to re-imagine their university press or PR department or whatever as the beginnings of a media empire. Start small and easy, grow in ambition and scope, and change the world.

  4. Colin Marsh January 14, 2016 at 12:40 pm #

    Well spoken. I have said for a long time that academic publishers can increase their revenue by offering individual chapters as an electronic download – lets say at £4.00 or £5.00 an essay. Huge potential revenue for years after the book is published. How can we make this happen?

  5. Andrew January 14, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

    I just stumbled across this, and having worked for the last several years in academic publishing in your field, for multiple publishers, I feel compelled to give a few brief responses.

    First, unfortunately, while your price elasticity of demand argument makes sense in theory, I can say with some confidence that it (lamentably) doesn’t hold. If 200 (600 is *exceedingly* generous) academic libraries will buy a book at price X, one rarely finds that an additional 200 individuals will buy the book at X/2. I don’t have time to provide many examples, so you’ll have to trust me — also, bear in mind that publishers (a) are smart; and (b) want to make money, so if it were this simple there would be lots of cheaper books.

    Second, personal academic libraries are becoming much less in vogue. The vast majority of younger scholars (a) have little to no book budget; and (b) are used to having digital access to almost everything they need. Moreover, the unfortunate response of most “prestigious” (read: expensive; [usually] European) publishers with the decreasing individual sales of the last decade has simply been to publish a greater number of titles, keeping revenue about the same because research libraries are compelled to keep up with their series. The regrettable consequence of this for academics is that the field is now oversaturated with books, and lots of them are not-so-great quality.

    As for prestige: I have worked for two academic publishers, both of which attempt to keep prices low but still have some prestige. I have talked to countless academics about why they choose to publish with publisher X, because this is a subject I have both a personal and professionally vested interest in. The recurring answer that I get is, “I would like to publish with X, but I have to go with Y because for promotion/tenure.” I have *never* heard an author say that they want their book to be more expensive because of the associated prestige. On the contrary, nearly everyone I have worked with wants their book as cheap as possible because they want it to be accessible. But I have listened to dozens of authors lament the fact that they can’t go with a cheaper publisher because it will be spurned by the promotions committee at their institution.

    I could go on (especially about the point/necessity/marketability/etc. of “collected studies” volumes), but I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say that the issue is far more complex than I fear this blog post makes it out to be. Also, for the record, I have never worked with a publisher with the sort of pricing strategy that you describe — both of my academic publisher employers have tried to keep their books affordable, and have succeeded. So I’m not trying to defend what you are arguing against.

    NB – There is also a certain irony in the fact that the picture accompanying this post is populated almost exclusively by books from Baker, Westminster, Eerdmans, and Zondervan — none of whom is one of the publishers you are decrying (or at least I seriously doubt it). Of course, it would probably be difficult to post a picture of books from the other publishers, as they are probably too expensive for you to own. So perhaps this is an irony that actually reinforces your point?

    • SeekTruthFromFacts January 14, 2016 at 11:20 pm #

      > But I have listened to dozens of authors lament the fact that they can’t go with a cheaper publisher because it will be spurned by the promotions committee at their institution.

      Surely this should be an area where CUP and OUP take a lead. Not because they are necessarily worse offenders, but because they are departments of educational charities which are run by academics. The promotions committees can hardly spurn their own institutions’ books….

  6. Craig Beard January 14, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    Not exactly the same thing, but . . . as one with a minimal book budget (a house church elder who wants to study and teach from a solid base rather than feed my folks regurgitated devotional thoughts), I appreciate scholars such as John Goldingay and David Clines who make much of their output available free of charge (at least in preprint versions). I know these two fellows have achieved sufficient stature in the guild that they aren’t under (tenure) pressure to publish in high-power journals and high-dollar publishers. But I wish more scholars would at least consider folks like me when they choose their publishers (or work out the details of the deals). Sigh — for now I’ll just have to wait to see if an electronic version of one scholar’s massive, ground-breaking volume on grace becomes available.

  7. Bridie January 14, 2016 at 6:18 pm #

    And why not sell it digitally for a very affordable price? Im sure many academics now happily read on their ebooks or tablet devices. This takes out the huge cost of a print run.
    Having worked in educational publishing i know that very little of the cost of producing books goes into the edit and paying authors compared to printing it!

    • Robert Wall January 23, 2016 at 4:20 am #

      We’re at the point where even decently-sized (600 pages or so) academic paperbacks can be cranked out for $5 to $6 USD. Yes, warehousing and such can be crazy, but I’m not sure that the printed book cost is that high of a percentage if we’re talking about a volume that’s selling for 50 GBP ($70 or so USD).

  8. Robert Pinto January 14, 2016 at 7:07 pm #

    I’m thankful for this article and express devastating frustration about the way publishing works today.

    In partial response to Craig Beards comment above, I want to say that there are ways how to obtain books and articles needed for research. These ways are often frowned upon by the publishers, but that’s what happens when someone wants €100 for a monograph. See http://libgen.io/, http://ebooks.wtf/ and http://sci-hub.io/.

  9. Brian January 14, 2016 at 10:51 pm #

    Surely the days of electronic publishing and Print On Demand has made the old warhorses of publishing largely ready to be put out to pasture?
    I have a number of books (in Classics) which are POD and they didn’t cost more that c. £9 each.
    I understood that Paternoster Press were doing this as well.

  10. Phillip Long January 15, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    Bloomsbury/T&T Clark have been publishing much less expensive paperback versions of some of their books a year or two after the hardbacks were released. I assume the more durable hardbacks go to professional libraries, the paperbacks to readers. I have three LNTS volumes on my desk at the moment, two are hardbacks for review, the other I bought at SBL for a quarter the price of the hardback.

  11. Anthony Smith January 16, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

    There’s a similar discussion in scientific fields (astronomy is what I’m most familiar with). People publish in “prestigious”, “high-impact” journals so that their publications count in the REF. But the publishers of these journal articles don’t pay the authors (sometimes they even charge them), the academic editors don’t get paid, and the peer reviewers don’t get paid. Then the publisher charges a huge sum for scholars to have the privilege of reading the published articles. If you cut out the publishing industry, it could all be done at minimal cost, and the papers could all be open access.

    Peter Coles has been discussing this periodically: https://telescoper.wordpress.com/category/open-access/

  12. Emlyn Williams January 17, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    I’m an ignorant outsider (neither an academic or a publisher) but unless I’ve missed something here, the discussion has been only about income, not about expenditure. What is the breakdown of the notional $75k which 600 sales generate? What are the editorial costs, royalties and so on? With print-on-demand there is now no need to produce a large print run or hold large stocks. Why not a model based on the real cost of an electronic book with print as an option?
    Looking forward/expecting to be shot down!

    • Robert Wall January 23, 2016 at 4:24 am #

      I actually think this makes a lot of sense. We are, quite literally, at the point where I can drop a machine that’s a few meters square into the middle of a shopping mall, and it can print most any book (paperback) that somebody wants while they wait.

      Nobody has to warehouse *anything* in that model – they just need their files to be available to the POD technology and have a way to calculate royalties.

      I’m skeptical as to how much of a $50 book actually gets consumed by printing costs and warehousing and such, but I’d love to be wrong.

  13. James Snapp, Jr. February 10, 2016 at 8:25 am #

    Some BRILLiant observations here.

  14. Margaret Mehl October 28, 2017 at 3:01 pm #

    This blog surely hits the nail on the head where certain, well-known, academic publishers are concerned.

    However, some of the commentators here do not seem to realize that a lot more expenditure goes into producing a book than printing costs. True, PoD has made it cheap to produce printed books, which is reflected in the rise of self-publishing. However, it is naïve to think that if only we all embraced digital technology books would be practically free.

    If you want to publish a quality book, substantial costs are for things like copy-editing, typesetting and proof-reading. Despite technology, these tasks still require human beings to do a lot of work. And that is assuming that the author doesn’t get paid anything – which is a common experience for academic authors (of course, some, although by no means all, receive a regular salary, but that is not really the point here). In fact they are lucky if the are not expected to find (grant) money to pay for the publication of their work.

    The sad thing is that some (not all!) of the publishers with the highest book prices cut corners exactly on these items, by making the author doing them or not paying much attention to quality. This pretty much defeats the argument that publishing with a prestigious publisher will result in a better book than, for example, self-publishing.

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