Recently a colleague recommended a book, an academic history, and I went to amazon to look for it. They were charging $45 for the hardcover, $42.35 for the Kindle edition.
I won’t mention the book, or the press, so no one is embarrassed, but I don’t have to–this is an increasingly common phenomenon. It took me 2 minutes to find the examples below. There’s no justification for either of those prices, but the Kindle edition is especially egregious: somehow no costs at all for paper, printing, shipping and stocking translate into a difference of three dollars. The publisher, recognizing a limited market and no competition, is price-gouging.
I have a solution, one that would have the added benefit of saving the AHA from reliance on a paper journal fewer and fewer people want: the AHA should take over this kind of publishing directly.
You write your book. As a member of the AHA, you can submit it to the AHA for publication. The AHA sends it to reviewers, who are also AHA members, and they comment on it as they do now: the AHA then after revisions publishes the ebook with its seal.
Imagine ebooks, priced at under ten dollars, that bear the stamp of the AHA: they have been vetted by academic historians, so they meet academic standards. The costs to the AHA are negligible–how much do you get paid to review a book for a press? The author gets the benefit of professional prestige and a secure path to promotion; the reader gets the advantage of low prices and assurance that professional standards have been met..
The AHA could do this very easily–it could select, say, 7 reviewers, and if five recommend publication, it could publish. Or it could require unanimity among the reviewers. Or it could imitate a press, and have a review board and an editor in chief–there are any number of ways it could choose to organize the process.
The key is the extremely low cost of electronic publication. The whole process could be funded out of AHA dues. And belonging to the AHA would mean more than it does now.
And as a result specialized books that serve their academic readers extremely well, that contain work in depth and detail beyond the interests of most readers; that are scrupulous and contextualized and accurate, would be easily accessible.
It would not end academic publishing–people who sought a larger lay audience, or books aimed at the “midlist,” would still go to academic presses that published pseudo-trade books. Nothing at all would prevent you from submitting your book to, say, Harvard or Oxford. This would free up commercial publishers to concentrate on what they do best–hagiographic biographies of the founders and books about cats–while strengthening the role of academic publishers who work the midlist.
It would be bad news for presses that charge $43 for a Kindle edition. Does anyone really feel bad about that? It’s not a good model, as the images keep showing. It’s justified entirely by habit, not anything remotely resembling the costs of production.
It’s true that the physical book is something that academics, myself included, tend to love. It’s an object that validates your years of work. Your mom puts it on a shelf in the living room. You send it to friends. Not having that object would seem anti-climactic.
But having your work published at a price so high that even your most serious readers will balk is pretty anticlimactic as well, and beyond anti-climactic it restricts the circulation of ideas.
And having something published by the AHA would not be easy. It would be a genuine mark of distinction. So, AHA, step up. Become a publisher of certified ebooks, publications that are professionally vetted and inexpensive.