Wednesday, March 18, 2009

An Open Letter to Academic Publishing Houses

Dear academic publishing houses,

Why are your books so effing expensive? What's with paperbacks that cost 50 bucks? What's with hardcovers that cost 75 or a hundred bucks? What's with Kindle e-books that cost forty or fifty bucks? They're electrons, for crying out loud! What's with medium-important books by medium-important philosophers going out of print all the time? (Even On The Plurality of Worlds was out of print throughout the late 90s, and that’s an important book by an important philosopher.) What's with a lot of books costing over 200 bucks used?

I realize that there's not much demand for these books, and that there are a variety of costs associated with producing them, and stuff, but come on. You look at these prices and it's hard to think they're set by someone who wants to the books to sell. They're the prices you'd set if you didn't want a buyer. Maybe you like having them around the warehouse.

Yours most sincerely,

Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

My sister managed a campus bookstore for years and got to know the ins and outs of the publishing business, and here is what her assessment of this situation was:

Publishing houses of this type know that university libraries (backed by endowments in the hundreds of millions) are easy buyers of these kinds of books, rather than poor individual academics (with salaries in the mere few thousands). They know that it is unlikely to find, say, festschriften for Timothy Williamson on the bestseller shelf at Barnes and Noble. As such, they know that they charge exorbitant prices for books that will only be printed a few thousand times at most and they need to make as much money as possible on some texts whose subjects are so incredibly obscure that they'll only be read by few people. A Zamboni doesn't cost as much as it does, but since only one company makes them, they can charge around a quarter-million dollars for one.

The problem is connected to academic booksellers in general. Campus bookstores often charge more for a used book than what it would cost online or elsewhere (120+%). Of course, they know that most students will return them (often giving back <5% of what was paid for them) after the semester is over, having essentially rented out a used book for 120+% of what a new book would cost. These bookstores will do this with the same book over and over and sometimes make upwards of a thousand bucks off of a single textbook. Note how "complimentary copies" of a book are given to academics as an incentive to assign the books to their courses and seminars. Academic publishing houses (OUP, CUP, etc.) and campus bookstores make loads of money off of this mutual racket/relationship.

It sounds a bit conspiratorial, but it also makes a bit of sense and helps me to justify my hostility for the racket.

Anonymous said...

There's a perfectly fine market explanation for this. Demand for academic books is fairly stable - it doesn't go down all that much when you raise the price of the book. If Boghossian (just an example...) publishes a new book, it will be purchased by the same number of philosophers and libraries whether it costs 30 bucks or 75 bucks.

avid reader said...

Academic publishing houses (OUP, CUP, etc.) and campus bookstores make loads of money off of this mutual racket/relationship.

OUP and CUP don't make loads of money. They lose money. They are subsidized.

Nobody is getting rich off academic books. I agree that in many cases the prices for philosophy books seem completely irrational, but there must always be some explanation other than publishers getting huge profits, because they don't.

If Boghossian (just an example...) publishes a new book, it will be purchased by the same number of philosophers and libraries whether it costs 30 bucks or 75 bucks.

I wonder if that's true. In my case, it isn't. I have a pretty limited budget for books (meaning I can't buy all the philosophy books I'd like to own in any given year). This means I pick and choose, and I definitely look at prices. If the new Boghossian book costs $30 I'm much more likely to buy it. I hardly ever buy a philosophy book for $70. But I'm a sample size of one, maybe I'm atypical.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, our campus bookstore is charging $100 for a paperback edition (and I think I cheap, low quality printing) of Achinstein's _Particles and Waves_. It's a steal on Amazon for $85. I just bought a copy used for $6 online. It didn't look like one student from the Phil Sci course picked up a copy. Ridiculous.

Filosofer said...

It's easy to pick on campus bookstores, and maybe some of them really are part of a "racket." But don't be too hasty to pass judgment...

Some years back, I had a full-time job working in the campus bookstore for a university that treated the bookstore as a non-profit institution. They looked to break even each year, and that was all.

I don't remember the details about profit margins, etc., and I won't try to speculate about those details here. Suffice it to say: your local campus bookstore is to a large degree at the mercy of publishers and the prices they set. Bookstores do not get typically get huge discounts off the retail price of textbooks and are often unable to buy back the priciest textbooks or to make used copies available, because publishers put out new editions so quickly or create combo packages that have new ISBNs.

Obviously, this is merely anecdotal and it's just one bookstore. Maybe my experience was incredibly unique in this regard. I doubt it, though... I do know that the manager of the store I worked in kept textbook prices as low (i.e. close to the break-even point) as possible, and I also know that the prices there did not seem much different from what I've seen at other university bookstores.

Now, if you can explain why it costs $60 to get a decent-looking sweatshirt with my university's logo on it...

Anonymous said...

The most frustrating thing to me is going to Barnes and Noble, meandering over to the Philosophy section (dreaming that I will find something interesting to take home and read) and finding 80 volumes of "X (fill it in with the name of some pop culture phenom) and Philosophy." Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is replaced by The Sopranos and Philosophy with a paper in there on how the main character could not comprehend the transcendental deduction even if he had a Philosophy degree from Harvard. I finally gave in and wrote a chapter for one of these volumes. Now I cannot live with the guilt!! Am I contributing to the decline of academic Philosophy and the rise of pop culture Philosophy?

Anonymous said...

I do wonder whether some of the academic presses understand their markets very well. They have a market of university libraries and a few other big libraries (New York Public Library and the like.) For these they publish hard-backs. That's fine. But for books that never come out in soft-back, or only at very high prices, I am skeptical that they are getting most they can. There are lots of books that I'd buy for $25 or $30 dollars but would not consider buying for $40 or $50 in paper. Sometimes these books are even more expensive. It's possible to make them cheaper. My guess is that the presses are mostly run by very conservative people who have as their goals not selling books or even trying to make a profit or build a market but losing very little money. They see their jobs as not losing their jobs for making a mistake. That's understandable, but it's bad for business and it's bad for the book and academic world.

Anonymous said...

I've heard it claimed that a change in some tax law has actually been responsible for lots of academic books going out of print. (At least, this was what was claimed to me by a Classics professor.) Supposedly, presses used to print up bunches of copies of a book and warehouse them on the assumption that they will slowly sell across several decades. But, some change in tax law has made it such that these warehoused books are taxed in some weird way. The next result is that it makes more sense to print up a book and let it go out of print quickly than to keep stock for decades.

I confess that I don't know if this is true, but if anyone knows for sure -- I'd love to hear about it.

Anonymous said...

Some very important and frequently cited books in philosophy have had print runs in the hundreds, not thousands. For example to take anons example above, an edited volume on Williamson from OUP would have have 500 (or fewer) copies on the first print run and would be unlikely to go to a second. Lots of books get shredded and recycled.

You'd be shocked at how few copies of some prominent books get sold. Not necessarily because of pricing either.

Print on demand services will have an effect on pricing, but it'll take a while. I predict we'll see POD paperbacks stabilizing at around 40USD for the backlist of OUP and CUP.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:46 - Don't even get me started on what gets sold in the "Metaphysics" section of your local B&N.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago I was teaching an Ancient Greek Philosophy course. I had consistently adopted Hackett Press's "Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy" for it in the years previous. I find Hackett's editions to be very good, and quite fairly priced.

During that year they went to a new edition. When I called for a desk copy, the person at the other end of the phone was downright apologetic about it. She really wanted to make it clear to me that there were legitimate reasons for a new edition, they weren't price-gouging, etc. Frankly, she didn't need to convince me of that. Look at the cost of the Hackett text versus an Intro to Bio text, and it becomes obvious who's fleecing students.

I earned a lot of respect for Hackett over that call.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear! Three cheers for Hackett!

Speaking of those fiendish new editions, I had an idea which I haven't yet had a chance to try. When you use the 18th edition of Wadsworth's Philosophy of Swimming, take a look at the 17th edition and find which readings you'll be assigning that aren't there. Then make up a cheap, small coursepack, and put those few articles also on reserve (and if your library has them online also link them on your course web page). You might save your students a whole lot of money, and if the practice catches on it might encourage publishers to ease up on that trick.
(Not to single out Wadsworth; there are plenty of guilty parties.)

Anonymous said...


Xenophon said...

Anon 5:56, you're saying that the price of academic books is highly inelastic? You need more evidence for this than the fact that the actual cost of books is (subjectively) high.

I can see the argument if libraries are the main consumers (it probably costs $30-40 just to catalog a book and get it on the shelf, I'd guess), but not if poor academics are a significant part of the market. I know price is a major determinate of which books I buy -- except for a few every year that I feel I really need.

Avid Reader ("there must always be some explanation other than publishers getting huge profits, because they don't"): book publishers don't. Elsevier does.

Filosopher ("Now, if you can explain why it costs $60 to get a decent-looking sweatshirt with my university's logo on it"): it's because branded clothing is highly inelastic. The value is in the branding, not the quality of the physical good, and prices will rise until the marginal profit hits a maximum.

Anon 7:19, you might be right. I think a lot of presses assume that libraries are their only sure source of sales, and price accordingly. That's a conservative strategy, and might not maximize profits. I also wonder why presses spend so much money sending me glossy booklets advertising all their new books. That's expensive marketing, considering I never buy from them. Even Fingerhut learned not to send me their (much cheaper) catalogs.

Anonymous said...

Just as we don't like the public at large to think they're qualified to comment on matters of academic philosophy, speculating on how publishing houses should run would seem best left to economists and MBAs.

avid reader said...


"...prices will rise until the marginal profit hits a maximum."

No, they will rise until marginal profit hits zero (or total profit hits the maximum).

I have no idea who Elsevier is, by the way. Well, I infer that it's a journal publishing house -- but I have no clue what journals they publish.

Mr. Zero said...

If Boghossian (just an example...) publishes a new book, it will be purchased by the same number of philosophers and libraries whether it costs 30 bucks or 75 bucks.

Like 7:24 and Xenophon, I just don't think this is true, though I concede that the academic presses might think it is. I would never buy any $75 book. (I might photocopy the library copy, though.) I might sometimes buy $30 books, but never, ever buy $75 books. And I think there are hundreds of people like me.

I get that there is next to no market for these books, and I get that there is a lot of overhead associated with getting them into print, and that we're really pretty lucky there are academic books at all. But come on. You want to sell books, set a price where I can explain the purchase to my wife.

Nobody has said anything about why kindle editions cost so much.

...would seem best left to economists and MBAs.

Yeah. Because economists and MBAs have been doing an awesome job lately. They totally know what they're doing.

Anonymous said...

What do you guys think of putting your work in progress on your website? I have my stuff under review up there, but I wonder about putting up my work that may not quite be up to par yet for publication, but is clear and contains no grammatical error etc., up on the web.

Anonymous said...

Even an academic philosopher can do a little arithmetic. Presumably, more copies of a book will sell at (e.g.) $30 than at $70. But at $40/book less, you have to sell a lot more books to bring in the same revenue. That would be 133% more copies, to be exact, given the numbers in this example. So unless dropping costs like this would more than double the size of the market for the book, the publisher would do better (economically speaking) to keep the price high in this particular (and presumably typical) example.

Mr. Zero said...

Even an academic philosopher can do a little arithmetic.

Yes. Duh.

But at $40/book less, you have to sell a lot more books to bring in the same revenue.

Yes. Duh.

So unless dropping costs like this would more than double the size of the market for the book...

Yes. Duh. I mean, of course if you cut the price of the book by more than half, you have to sell more than double the books in order to break even.

I guess my question is, what makes you think that wouldn't happen? Maybe it wouldn't, but maybe it would. I'm generally not at all willing to shell out $70 for a single book. I'm a lot more willing to spend $60 on two books. Aren't people generally more willing to spend money when they aren't getting ripped off? Why wouldn't they be more than twice as willing to spend when they're getting more than twice the value for their money?

And why the fuck do kindle editions cost so much?

Anon 8:04 said...

Mr Zero,

I don't know what the demand curve looks like for the typical philosophy book. You seem to think demand is fairly price-elastic. The behavior of the publishers suggests that they think it isn't.

As for kindle editions, and even paper copies, the pricing has relatively little to do with marginal production costs. We are paying primarily for fixed costs and intellectual labor (including that of the editors, typesetters, etc). And perhaps for a profit to the publisher, if they make one. If the publishers are right about the demand curve, there is no economic incentive for them to lower prices on kindle editions. Also, I don't know, but there could well be a hefty licensing fee from Amazon for the kindle technology. Come to think of it, it would surprise me if there were not.

Maybe your complaint is that the publishers are just wrong about the demand curve. That's an empirical claim. Or maybe your complaint is that the publishers should be willing to accept lower profits. Maybe so, but that raises another question, viz, whether they generally turn profits (overall) on their scholarly product lines. My guess is no. (Textbooks might be another matter.)

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:04,

University presses, including OUP and CUP, are definitely non-profit. Wadsworth and Rutledge and Blackwell are run for profit.

I think there is a substantial fee for producing a Kindle edition, but the per-book fee is small (because Amazon is still in the phase in which they're trying to get Kindle editions to catch on). You're quite right to point out that for a monopoly seller, the price has almost nothing to do with the production cost.

Anonymous said...

Because economists and MBAs have been doing an awesome job lately.

And philosophers are? What's the last major debate we've definitively settled? Few if any in all fields. The abortion debate is still raging, so phiosophers must have been doing a bang-up job in these last few decades.

Really, though, the point is that humans can't be expected to be able to solve big problems whether it's managing an economy, solving global warming, stopping war, proving the existence of God, or whatever.

Nonetheless, economists and MBAs can still be experts in some unique area, like explaining the economics of academic publishing--and just like philosophers are expert in their areas.

Mr. Zero said...

You seem to think demand is fairly price-elastic. The behavior of the publishers suggests that they think it isn't.

Maybe I've been coming on too strong--my claim depends on some empirical facts that I don't have access to. I admit that my point is not scientific.

However, if the prices of philosophy books were a lot lower, I'd buy a lot more books, and I don't think I'm the only one. In support of this I point out that we're all bookworms and none of us make that much money. Personally, I have a hard time getting Mrs. Zero to let me buy books when we could take that money and eat for a week.

Anon 8:04 said...

Well, and perhaps I've come on too strong as well. There certainly does seem to be room for low-cost producers in the market (e.g., Hackett). There might well be room for others, especially if publishers took a hard look at reducing costs. (Of course, to some extent, this could amount to reducing staff, staff salaries, or royalties to authors, all of which on balance might not be so great.)

In any case, I'd certainly like to see publishers try harder to keep prices down. Some of them don't seem to try at all.

On the other hand, perhaps the problem is that publishers don't know in advance which books will be big sellers and which won't... and so they end up subsidizing their many (economic) losers with their few (economic) big winners. If they could predict market size for individual books better, they could afford to lower the prices on the better-selling ones, perhaps. But as it is, they probably need to use those to subsidize the books that never even sell out their first (small) print run.

All in all, a perplexing issue. I guess I've lost my rage at the publishers over the years, because I'm not sure they're raking in the dough. But whether they are or not, there may be room for clever competitors to improve the process (and the pricing). If this academia thing doesn't work out, maybe we should take over Palgrave-McMillan or some such. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm teaching a seminar this Fall on Hume, and there are a half a dozen recent books on Hume that are very, very good and . . . only available in $100+ hardcover editions. I'd like to require one for the course, but then students would avoid the class or try to muddle through without one of the books.

I don't have a clue whether the rise in pbk prices and the (seemingly) more frequent unavailability of pbk volumes reflects wisdom or stupidity on the part of the publishers. However, I think it is at least possible that it reflects wisdom. Great libraries can afford to buy only hardcover books. My university's library looks at the prices of the available editions--if the acquisitions folks think the hardcover edition is too expensive (and that the pbk is reasonably priced), they just buy the pbk edition.

Anonymous said...

As a publisher, I can tell you that the reasons academic books cost what they do are complicated, depending not only on the kind of book (research monograph, textbook, reference work, popular book) but who is publishing it (non-profit university press or commercial press, and even here there's a lot of variation) and what the expected market size is (which itself depends on a number of variables). True, price can have an effect on market size, but publishers experiment with price points fairly often, and have learned from experience that demand is much less price sensitive that one might intuitively suppose. Most people aren't interested in philosophy books at any price, so you're already starting with a very small potential market. Most books in philosophy, if priced at, say, $25.00, would sell a few more copies than they currently do, but not nearly enough to make up the difference in revenue lost from lowing the price. Look, most people in publishing *love* and care about books, and are in the business largely because of this fact (it is not a business to get rich in, contrary to some people's impressions). They would love to publish books at lower prices, and would love to have more people read and benefit from them. But it is indeed a low margin business, and at least in the current environment, prices are what they are because that is the model that works (by which I mean a publisher can either not lose too much money (for subsidized non-profits), or in some cases make a little profit (for commercial presses), over the long term). As for the increasing presence of popular philosophy books, it's simply a matter of demand. Most people who buy them aren't buying them instead of buying Aristotle, Kant, or Quine; they're buying them instead of buying no philosophy books at all. Bookstores carry them because they sell. Most chains never carried serious philosophy in the first place, so I think the sense of loss here can easily be exaggerated.