book costs again

I’ve had some very interesting exchanges about “saving the AHA.” Just to revisit the idea, let’s imagine you wrote a very nice piece of very specialized research. The ready audience for the book is probably 1000 people, including academic libraries. Imagine you sent it to the AHA, and they sent it to reviewers who were also AHA members, and then the AHA publishes it strictly as an ebook for $9.99. The AHA takes half that.

Let’s imagine the AHA releases 100 books a year, in all fields, and they each sell 1000 copies each. At five bucks per book, The AHA makes half a million dollars! Imagine this scenario for the MLA, and the figure becomes even larger. [1. the American Association of University presses lists 130 members. If each press produces an average of ten books in history a year, probably a low figure, that’s 1300 books. Imagine the AHA gets those books. If each book sells 1000 copies, priced at $10, and the AHA takes half, that’s 6.5 million dollars. Just sayin’.]

A lot of academic work is highly specialized, and highly specific. This kind of work is vital to the profession. Right now if you write such a book, a book aimed at a very specialized audience, you shop it to presses, and a university press takes it and publishes it for, say, $75 for the hardcover and $35 for the ebook. Or $55 for the print ed. and $25 for the kindle/ebook. The press hopes to make most of its sales to libraries, which are A: facing budget cuts, and B: likely to be going digital more and more. The high price discourages both libraries and all but the most serious readers.

This system is a legacy of the fact that professional associations, when they were founded @ 1900, didn’t want to take on the capital costs and specialized skills necessary to design, print, and market books. With ebooks, the capital cost–the costs of paper, ink, printing and binding–are gone. The specific design skills, typography, graphics layup, etc.–can be accomplished with a digital file and Adobe InDesign. Marketing used to require paper catalogues and trucks and warehouses and distributors, and bookstores: with few exceptions the bookstores that would carry your specialized academic book are gone, replaced by online retailers.

Aside from the fact that it’s indeed nice to have a physical book, what is the advantage of our traditional methods, to anyone? Do you want an object, or do you want your book read? Ideally, you’d like both, but if the book costs $60 dollars, getting either becomes unlikely. If the AHA published them as eBooks, and left distribution to Amazon and Apple and B&N, or sold them directly its own website, your work would be emblazoned with the authority of the AHA, “in print” forever, and instantly available at low cost to all readers. If you want a phyisical object, print on demand is readily available. In fact, university presses use it themselves.

I like books, I like them a lot. This is not a model that stops books from being published–you could still submit your book to anyone who thinks there’s a market for it. University presses could focus on books likely to reach a larger audience, the midlist, and not try to shoehorn specialized books into an outdated market schema that treats university libraries like “business class” plane fares. The model proposed here removes the artificial scarcity from academic texts, makes them affordable, and assures their quality.

Yes, the AHA would have to do some editorial work, and it’s not trivial, but the fundamental problem is status–publishing with a major university press confers status; having a nice looking book on your shelf confers status. But really handsome carriages used to convey status too, and so did having a “princess” phone. The AHA should take this on. They could make money, they could re-assert their centrality to the enterprise of history, they could eliminate weirdly, grossly  overpriced books.

Note: An email commenter reminded me that the AHA had tried publishing, through its Gutenberg-E project, begun in the late 1990s and given up as a failure in 2008. The project attempted to rethink the academic book to make books that were “born digital” and would be read on web browsers and “distributed” through university presses. See this link. It involved elaborate websites and hand coding. It was a worthy experiment, but it’s been overtaken by events. The Kindle was introduced in 2007: Gutenberg-E predated the rise of eReader and the death of bookstores. It’s time to try again.

Further note: Whenever this comes up, the cost of academic books gets conflated with the cost of commercial books. Most academic authors do not get an advance. Most do not have an agent. Most do not get many ads placed in expensive venues. Most do not receive extensive editorial attention. Most are not marketed in any way beyond a spot in a catalog a shelf at the AHA (or MLA or OAH or etc) convention table. In effect, academic books which are not  marketed are overpriced in order to subsidize the costs of books which are extensively marketed. And the “fool” in this market is the academic library. It’s like that old Populist Party cartoon of a giant cow, being fed in Kansas and milked in NYC.


  • Peterk wrote:

    “Let’s imag­ine the AHA releases 100 books a year, in all fields, and they each sell 1000 copies each. At five bucks per book, The AHA makes half a mil­lion dol­lars! ”

    not really. what you don’t know is the cost to produce the book. you are assuming that there cost of production is $2.50 per book. I would suggest that if they sell only 1,000 copies then the per unit cost is actually higher. The cost of production is comprised of but not limited to salaries, equipment, real estate, benefits, royalties, etc.

  • Yes, well, what are those? How many salaries does a single academic book have to pay? What are the production costs of a book? A copy editor, ok, A designer. The editor’s time. The peer reviewers.

    It has always seemed to me that 90% of the work of producing a book is the author’s, and that most of the other costs are highly paper-specific

  • See my note above: It’s wrong to conflate commercial books with academic books. Most aca­d­e­mic authors do not get an advance. Most do not have an agent. Most do not get many ads placed in expen­sive venues. Most do not receive exten­sive edi­to­r­ial atten­tion. Most are not mar­keted in any way beyond a spot in a cat­a­log a shelf at the AHA (or MLA or OAH or etc) con­ven­tion table. Where are the costs?

  • Peterk wrote:

    I’m not conflating commercial publishers with academic publishers. just pointing out that your assumption that AHA is making what is does lacks rigor since you don’t take into account the cost to produce the book. Yes a lot of effort is put forth by the academic to write the book. The publisher is providing a venue for an item that many commercial publishers would pass on. I would suggest that you do a bit more investigation into the cost of publishing first.

  • I would love to–can you point me to where? I’ve published three books–the process, from the authors point of view, is incredibly opaque. I’m always told there are a bunch of costs I don’t see–ok, let’s see them.

    If I submit an ms to the AHA, and they send it out for peer review, and the response comes back “publish,” and it’s formatted into HTML by the author for a Kindle book, what costs, aside from copy editing, are involved?

    It’s a sincere question–I have no idea where to go to find this information. I’d have to say your comment similarly lacks rigor.

  • A detailed, but dated (1998), accounting of a monograph’s costs can be found at Marlie Wasserman, “How Much Does It Cost to Publish a Monograph and Why? ”;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0004.104

    A more recent (2010) accounting from Penn State is online as “An Experiment in Online Open Access and Traditional Print Monograph Publishing,”

    The upshot is that publishers budget from $10,000 to $25,000 for the first copy of a book.

  • Thanks zach–that’s useful, although “invisible costs” are not detailed in any specific way, and it’s hard for me to believe that much of what is described there would not be routinized and standardized and be much cheaper than described.

    I’ll look that over some more. I don’t think it changes my argument that the AHA could do the job

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