Saving the AHA

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.



  • Dwsnyc wrote:

    Paper is the least of it. There are significant editorial costs associated with respectable publishing that e-publishing does nothing to avoid.

  • Please explain! I have had several books published but never worked in publishing

  • I work in publishing, but on the journals side. However, my books colleagues tell me that the “first copy” costs of an academic monograph are around $20-40,000. Good presses need editors who can sift through lots of proposals and work with authors to develop books that read like books, as opposed to dissertations. Then you have copy-editing and book design. And someone needs to send out the review copies to the journals, take your book to the appropriate conferences, and buy the ad in the NYRB.

    Now it may be that the we have reached the stage where many of these things are luxuries that can’t be supported by a specialized title that only sells 400 copies. But I suspect that most authors believe that their research is worthy of a “real book” and is of interest to the average NYRB reader. So when push came to shove, would those who had a choice publish with a major UP, or would they forgo those things for a cheap ePub.

  • With all of the resources that belong to the AHA at my disposal I would guarantee to publish ebooks at a price closer to what you might consider fair. We have begun making PDFs of our books avaliable at 75% of the list price of the print edition. Haven’t figured how to create epubs as most wanting to refer to the book have no comnsistent page number.

  • I have to think that academic publishers are charging these ridiculous prices for kindle editions just to protect their print market. I bet the kindle prices come down when the books in question are issued in paper. Nonetheless, despite the inefficiencies of print, I’d hate for real books to go away. But I will be curious to see where things are in ten years.

  • I’d hate to see books go away as well, but we aren’t being well served by this model–neither the author nor her reader. The absurdity of the situation–over- pricing the low cost version in order to protect the high cost version–makes this clear.

  • […] 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 […]

  • […] The AHA is right, though, that the prob­lem is stan­dards for pro­mo­tion and tenure, which gen­er­ally demand print books. I would argue the answer for the AHA isn’t embar­go­ing dis­ser­ta­tions, it’s tak­ing ove… […]

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