Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Rant of the week: academic book pricing

Meet the current object of my affections:


This little hottie is Like Joseph in Beauty, a book on a Yemeni poetry form called Humayni. Fairly obscure stuff, I grant you, but even having gotten used to finding that books I liked the look of were available only in hardback at sixty quid a pop, I was horrified to find that Brill have priced this one at over a hundred pounds a copy. Which is, frankly, taking the piss.

I’ve noticed over the last couple of years, whilst reviewing books for the likes of Electronic Intifada – publications with interested, engaged readerships who might actually go and buy books they hear about – that the first concern that comes up is often price. Sure, for those readers with access to academic libraries there is the possibility that they might take a recommendation. But for the rest of us? So I’ve had many conversations with readers and academic writers who are frustrated and angry at the over-pricing of books they want to read, or books they’ve written which then don’t sell.

So, a rant on the subject of academic book pricing has been building up somewhere in the back of my brain…

To rehearse some of the usual arguments over academic book pricing:

1) academic books have tiny readerships and therefore have no economies of scale. The tiny readerships are hardly a surprise when publishers demand that one hands over everything but one’s vital organs in payment. Perhaps they might increase if anyone without an institutional budget could afford them?

2) the main customers of academic publishers are libraries, which prefer hardbacks because they are more durable. But why then can the likes of my own publisher, Pluto, which is hardly a leviathan of the industry, manage to produce small hardback print runs for the library market and then much more substantial paperback runs for general sale? Apart from anything else, if (as is claimed, although possibly somewhat disingenuously), the purpose of academic publishing is the dissemination of knowledge, and not the cynical racking up of points on the university promotion scale, surely reasonably-priced paperbacks will meet the aim far better than excrutiatingly-priced hardbacks? Oh, and anyway, what happened to sticky-back plastic? It was good enough for Simon Groom and Janet Ellis…

3) The above argument is also somewhat challenged by the fact that those academic publishers which have started doing e-editions of their titles alongside hardback ones also charge piss-taking prices for the electronic versions.

4) academic books have to be priced high because of the quality control and work that goes in to them. To which I reply: bullshit. The research/writing work is paid for by universities, and the production values of academic books are often far below those of fiction and trade non-fiction titles. Take, for instance, the fact that most academic books from major publishers appear never to have been proof-read. The current example in my life being Routledge. I’ve just read two books published by this bastion of the academic churn-’em-out-and-damn-the-quality mentality. Both were riddled with punctuation errors and typos, but one – Muhammad Siddiq‘s otherwise fascinating Arab Culture and the Novel – was full of the kind of word substitutions that make it very clear that a text has been put through an automated spell-check but not read through by a competent proofer: ‘fairs well’ for ‘fares well’, ‘posed to attack’ for ‘poised to attack’. Etc.

5) as an addition to the above point, I’m not sure that the tiny print runs etc don’t exacerbate the problem of horrible academic writing – insofar as it is often turgid, jargon-laden, and packed with passives and other stylistic monstrosities. If an academic knows that there is a small, fairly set number of libraries and fellow-academics with institutional recommendation budgets who will buy his/her book, there is no incentive at all to try and write, if not well, at least not like a constipated technical dictionary. Perhaps if the were the potential prospect of a greater reach and perhaps – my god – perhaps even a few royalties – there might be just the tiniest pressure to up one’s game?

6) I grant that some/many academic publishers nowadays do have paperback print runs of their titles. But, talking to academic friends, it seems like these often only happen IF the hardback shifts enough copies. Which a) means that it is not inevitable, and b) means that, given academic lead times, the books might not come out for years and years (as opposed to just years) after they were written. And, to take the example of Muhammad Siddiq’s book again (sorry, nothing personal!), the paperbacks are pretty bloody expensive too.

Aaaaand…. breathe.

Anyone care to argue with me on this one?

3 comments on “Rant of the week: academic book pricing

  1. Karen Varga Green Party
    August 18, 2013

    George Monbiot wrote this piece on the capture of the academic publishing world by the arch-apitalists – for the benefit of none.

    • Sarah Irving
      August 18, 2013

      Thanks for sharing that, Karen – a much more thoroughly-researched take on what for me was more of a knee-jerk rant. Important reading for anyone who thinks that people ought to be able to actually access knowledge…

  2. mlynxqualey
    August 18, 2013

    Yes, the A2K (access to knowledge) movement has had important support from Egypt, where it is an enormous issue. Well, not at this exact moment, but usually.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: