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.