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Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Price of Books—Chris Keith


Friend of the Jesus Blog Larry has several times mentioned surprise that my monograph, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, is $100 in hardback.  I can beat it, though.  My Brill monograph The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus is usually listed at around $160.  We realized that some readers might not understand why some academic books are so expensive.

An insider once told me that the cost difference (for a publisher) between issuing a book in hardback and paperback is negligible.  The high price is mainly due to the fact that research libraries have standing orders for particular monograph series, such as the ones I’ve published in (Library of New Testament Studies at T&T Clark and Studies in New Testament Tools, Studies, and Documents at Brill).  In other words, a research library will agree with the press to buy every new volume in that series.  Since library purchases of a particular series are guaranteed, the press can then charge a high price for the book.  This is also necessary for another reason—typically very few other people are going to buy the book.  Studies published in monograph series are so specialized and focused that their readership is necessarily limited to scholars in the field.  Publishers have to jack the price up to meet their profit margins with such a low readership.  The upside for authors is that they have published their research at the highest level and are guaranteed that their book is in important research libraries.  The downside for authors is that they cannot afford copies of their own books and usually they don’t sell all that well.  Within the guild, though, publishing in a monograph series is an honor.

This is typically the case with monograph series publications.  Sometimes someone writes a really technical study, publishes it in a monograph series, and nevertheless also manages to attract the attention of a general readership.  If the press determines that a book has the potential to sell beyond the narrow readership of a monograph series, they will issue it in paperback.  The prices are cheaper because their target demographic has shifted from research libraries with stable budgets to general readers spending their spare cash.

So do scholars make money off these high prices?  No.  In fact, usually the lower the price of your book, the better chance you have of making money.  Authors of hardback monographs usually receive very low royalties, if any at all.  Once a monograph makes it to paperback, there’s the chance of making some money; probably not enough to justify the time and effort you put into it, but enough to have a couple extra pizza nights.  Of course, once you’re an established scholar whose name alone will guarantee sales, you can choose whether to publish in a monograph series or a press with wider distribution like Baker Academic, T&T Clark, or Eerdmans.  There’s the chance to earn decent enough royalties with those types of publications.

The place where academics really make money off publishing is in textbooks and trade publications.  I once heard that a scholar who wrote a popular introductory textbook on Paul bought a lake house with the royalties and refers to it as “the house that Paul built.”  If you’re good enough at writing for a general audience, and write books that manage to get on Barnes and Noble shelves (like Dom Crossan or NT Wright) or get you on Comedy Central (like Bart Ehrman), you make good money—REAL GOOD MONEY.  Needless to say, those people are very few.  Most of us publish because of our love for the discipline, sense of calling to a church or secular role, egos, or all three.

12 comments:

  1. Chris, thanks for this! You’re now officially off the hook. I’m now going to focus what passes for my wit onto Anthony. I’d like him to go through his reading list here on collective memory, and give us the total price for acquiring every title on the list.

    I hope you understand that my “surprise” was tongue-in-cheek. My wife teaches college. I know something about writing a book that may be read by a few dozen people.

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    1. Larry, a dozen would be a coup for many of us! Oh yes, I did understand your "surprise." It just prompted the opportunity to answer a question we're sometimes asked.

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  2. While I was a grad student in Germany I was told that one reason for the high price of academic books in Europe has to do with differences in publishing laws and resultant practices in Europe and the UK, versus the U.S.

    In Germany, unlike the U.S., such academic books as you discuss tend to remain in print for a relatively long time. This is allegedly due to different laws regarding taxation of bookstore and warehouse inventory. U.S. publishers keep their costs down by limiting print runs, allowing books to go out of print, "remaindering" inventory after a short time, etc.

    btw, I was present at the "fireside chat" interview with Bruce Metzger at an SBL meeting in San Francisco (?) several years ago. He stated that he tried without success to interest publishers in his book, "Lexical Aids for Students of NT Greek". After he decided to publish the book himself, he eventually put his kids through college with the proceeds.

    Then (of course) he was approached by various publishers asking if they could publish his book. The answer was "No". [Metzger also said he decided to self-publish his book, "Lexical Aids for Students of Coptic." He lost his money on that one, he reported.]

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    1. Thanks for this Scott! I would love to have been at that fireside chat.

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    2. addendum... Metzger did eventually assign (sell, I presume) the rights to his "Lexical Aids" book to Baker, who continues to publish it.

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    3. Speaking of "lower" U.S. prices, I just checked the price of Tom Thatcher and Anthony's book on the Fourth Gospel and First Century Media Culture. List price, $120.00. Amazon "discount", $119.24.

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    4. Don't spend that extra $0.76 all in one place!

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    5. I just noticed that I can buy Anthony's "Historiographical Jesus" used on Amazon for $37, and then sell it back to Amazon for a $1.85 gift card. This is important information, because before I wasn't able to figure out how Amazon was able to afford the $0.76 discount on Anthony's other book.

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  3. And for a new college textbook it's like a dollar per page...

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  4. I wonder, (and this is open to anyone--not just Drs. Keith and Le Donne) do you think that the shift toward digital in popular publishing trickle down (or up) to academic publishing? And would this, in turn, bring prices down?

    I am also interested in the future of open access, digital journals and wonder if this might also be another possible move toward disseminating information widely within the discipline at a lower cost to audiences.

    Both of these options may not bode so well for publishers, or for authors trying to make a dime, and that is potentially a setback.

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    1. Danny, my wife is a college professor, and she's designing her next class so that all materials are available free online. She has many students who cannot afford to buy the textbooks.

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  5. It would seem to me that open source publishing would be better for most involved: interested readers could get it for free, scholars' works are more accessible leading to more citations and interaction. If monographs make as little money as you note, doesn't it seem worthwhile to pursue something along these lines? I hope one day for an open source intro textbook, so students aren't spending exorbitant costs in order that Ehrman can afford to purchase himself another gold-plated barbecue. Some day... *wistful sigh*

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