I 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?
In 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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