Psst—don’t tell anyone! There is a free copy of my first book available on Academia.edu. I thought I was kind of radical for doing that, but people who write books want people to read them. Having a book priced $70 or more, heck, even $30 or more, means only diehards will buy it. Nightmares with the Bible promptly sank at $100 cover price, released during a pandemic. I’ve always admired scholars who’ve bucked conventions to make their work available. Recently I needed to consult a book. I won’t say what it is because I fear a take-down order will be issued where I found it. The author, aware the book was hard to access, actually photocopied the entire book and put it on a website. I stand up and cheer! Photocopying an entire book is a lot of work, a labor of pure love.
Now, I’m all for authors getting royalties. It takes a lot of time and energy to write a book. It can cost years of your life. You ought to get something back for it. It seems to me, however, that a different model is required for academic books. Why are they so expensive? Not only that, but smaller publishers without the distribution channels often publish worthwhile books, but in small quantities and they go out of print after the initial run is sold. The academic enterprise (knowledge for knowledge’s sake) has become a captive of capitalism. There’s no other way to trade in that market. Books that have willing, even eager, readers are sequestered in libraries only accessible to employees. Is there anything wrong with that picture?
Academics at less wealthy institutions often find ways around the rules. I did my research for Weathering the Psalms at a small seminary that had trouble getting unusual items on interlibrary loan. Bigger schools were distrustful of this tiny enclave called Nashotah House. Would they ever get their rare property back? Meanwhile worldwide mail service crisscrossed with offprints sent for free from scholar to scholar. It was like your birthday, or Christmas, when a long-awaited piece of research landed in your mailbox. Nobody was in it for the money. We were beguiled by learning. Eve looking wistfully up into the tree. Now it’s all business suits with dollar signs for eyes. The academic who puts their book up for free on the internet is nothing less than a saint. Seeking knowledge is never really a sin.