The costs for academic books can seem criminal. Don’t get me wrong; I work in academic publishing and I know the reasons—or at least the reasons publishers seem to believe—for such pricing. Still, when I see a book that my little public library will never be able to convince its network that it should be able to borrow, I look at the prices and blanche. At least the pallor looks good with my skin type, or so at least I’m led to believe. Why are books so very expensive when so few of them retain any resale value? Publishing—the information business—is unlike any other. In fact, it could be argued that the printing press was the earliest internet. Ideas could be spread more quickly, among those who were able to read, than they could have previously.
These days books are the handmaidens to the internet. The problem, of course, is that the web contains ideas that haven’t been vetted. Publishers offer that service, but you have to pay for it. Books don’t sell like they used to—physical books, I mean. Inflation, however, ensures that the cost of paying employees is constantly going up. This is the hidden factor of “overhead”—the cost of doing business. You need to sell a lot of books to pay a staff. Not only that, but unlike most “commodities”—I shuddered as I typed that word—books can be returned to a publisher if they don’t sell. It’s like an entire business model run on consignment. And the honest truth is—academic authors may want to cover their eyes for this part—very few books sell more that a couple hundred copies. That means that the per unit cost has to go up. Next thing you know you’re selling a kidney to continue your research.
I keep a running list of books I’d like. Some are for research and some are for other pleasures. The list grows quite lengthy when more and more interesting books get published. I look at academic books and I wonder if maybe there’s another way. If they were priced down in the range of mere mortals, would they sell enough copies to meet their costs? I’m well aware that Holy Horror is priced at $45. Believe it or not, that’s on the lower end of academic extortion pricing. Many books on my “must read” list cost three times as much. Are we paying the price for keeping knowledge solvent? Or is all of this just criminal?