Saturday, August 20, 2011

On the Cost of Academic Books

By Judith Liu
August 20, 2011

My book, Foreign Exchange: Counterculture behind the Walls of St. Hilda’s School for Girls, 1929-1937, was released in April 2011 by Lehigh University Press (distributed by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group). When I first saw the price tag of $70.00 US, I was not surprised by the cost because it the book is being published by an “academic press” which means that the primary marketing audience for such a book would be to libraries and to the author who will purchase numerous copies for friends and family members. I am well aware that I will be the single largest purchaser of my own book.

As a member of the Yale Missions Listserve, a group of scholars and interested individuals who study missionary efforts around the world, a recent e-mail exchange amongst us was about the cost of academic books. One member was Daniel Bays, an prominent scholar , who lamented the fact that his book was going to cost $40. The cost prompted William R. Burrows, Research Professor of Missiology at New York Theological Seminary to write the following e-mail in response. It is so thoughtful and helpful that I am including it in this posting. Here is what he wrote

The discomfort that Dan Bays felt about the $40 price tag that Wiley put on his book made me wonder whether a post on realities of publishing economics might be welcome. This is it.

First, I’d not over alarmed about the $40. The reality is that the Amazon price of $32 is what most people will buy it for, and they won’t have to pay shipping and handling. Other dozens, maybe hundreds, of copies will be sold at venues like AHA and AAR at and other professional meetings for $20 or $24 (i.e., at 50% or 40% discount). Professors attend such meetings in no small measure because of the book fairs that attend them.

Another trend has also begun to have an impact on academic book sales. Whereas there was a certain kind of book that every serious college, university, or seminary library used to buy, the percentage that are in that category is dwindling, so much so that although a publisher as recently as fifteen years ago might have been able to price books with the sure knowledge that, say, 500 copies of a book on the Synoptics would be sold, experience now leads marketers to estimate, say, 250 or 100. Libraries now often consult with one another and only one library in a given network might buy that book. The rest rely on interlibrary loan, which has become super-efficient, especially in areas like Chicago, Boston, and New York to New Haven, where there are clusters of good libraries. Unless the author is an alumnus or on the faculty of a given institution, librarians wait to get a stipulated number of requests for a given book before ordering it. If they don’t, they let XYZ Library get it, since everyone in their circuit has agreed that they will specialize in NT studies, while LMN gets history, and ABC gets ethics, etc. Budgets allow nothing else.

What authors and book buyers also don’t quite understand is another family of reasons for the sharp escalation of prices. First and foremost, the higher prices are put on because publishers are no longer selling most books thru small book stores at a 40% discount. Instead, they sell through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, where discounts of 55% and more (plus free freight to the warehouse!) are demanded. On top of that, there’s the phenomenon of electronic book publishing. Prices there are unstable in e-publishing, though they will certainly settle down over time, but for our purposes it’s enough to realize that even academic books like Dan’s are increasingly ending up in Kindle, Nook, and E-book editions. Since academic publishers have not figured out what that’s going to mean in their battle to pay the rent and salaries, they’re mostly in a somewhat spooked and agitated state.

In addition, the used book business is professionalized to such an extent that many people are waiting six months to buy books from places like and or through the Amazon network of used book shops. The prices are often 25% or less than list prices.

The publisher, accordingly, has a six-month to a year in which to pay his or her expenses. They used to be able to amortize them over a 12- to 18-month period ! This is a real publishing economics earthquake. More concretely (1) s/he actually nets about $18 per copy on a supposedly $40 book sold to; (2) s/he has to pay for freight to the Spring Arbor warehouse; and (3) on top of that then has to take back unsold inventory and refund the $18 in a year’s time. Those returned books are often shopworn and unsalable. As a result the publisher is having to make expenses on a $40 book which, when you average in freight costs and returns, may give them a real net of as little as $12 per copy of a book that is, in trade terminology, “sold through” to a customer.

The average author and book buyer, however, has little sense of the way in which these things have changed.


While I appreciate such an articulate explanation, my lament is that my book is so expensive that its cost alone would dissuade any number of readers from purchasing the book. Yet, when I take into account that it contains fifteen rare photographs, six maps, and thirty pages of endnotes, the price is explicable. In what will seem an act of self-promotion, it is a book that I am proud to have written, and my hope is that any reader who purchases the book will find it worth the price. One final note, authors of academic works such as mine rarely see anything beyond the “free copies” they receive from the publisher. The reward we receive is from the immense satisfaction of having completed the work. In my case, my mother is exceedingly happy and that is priceless.

Judith Liu


Laurel Corona said...

Judy--this was very helpful! And I bet your mother is indeed extraordinarily proud--as are we all!

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