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A Plea for Affordable Book-pricing

January 9, 2014

Warning to readers:  This will be a rant, but I think it justified.

As I was perusing the Oxford University Press catalogue of new publications yesterday, looking for things I should recommend for library purchase, I noted with interest the publication of two further volumes in the Oxford Apostolic Fathers series, one volume on Polycarp (letter & Martyrdom) and one on Diognetus.  I was “flabbergasted”, however, to note that the one is priced at £140 and the other at £100, each of them a modest-sized hardback volume of ca. 250 pages.  (You can see the volumes in this series here.)  I don’t mean to pick on OUP.  I merely cite this instance as illustrative of the problem.  Unfortunately, this sort of pricing is all to common now, especially (for some reason) among European publishers of academic books.  The reason is that the publisher decides to produce a very small print-run, which requires a big price to re-coup the costs.

The “business plan” seems to be to sell only to libraries (although even libraries will have to think hard about purchasing books at these prices).  Oh, sure, eventually, the publisher may well bring out a paperback edition priced somewhat more moderately (although still expensive).  But why this strategy?

Certainly, some works are so specialized and have such a narrow potential readership that a small print-run, and sales solely to institutional libraries, are the only feasible way to publish them.  But, if priced reasonably, the sort of volumes that OUP publishes in this Apostolic Fathers series could have a potentially much broader market of individuals as well as libraries.  Certainly, scholars and many serious/advanced students in early Christianity would like to have such volumes on their shelves for ready access . . .  if they could afford them.

I recall a conversation years back with a representative of another major UK university press who approached me about my book, Lord Jesus Christ (which I was still finishing at that point).  When I asked what the initial hardback print-run would be, he replied “Oh, 500-800 copies.”  And when I said that this would likely mean a price of ca. £100 per copy, he replied “Ah, yes, but it would be in the best libraries in the world.”  I then said that was fine but I also liked to own copies of books, and would like my books to be in the hands of readers, so couldn’t they make a larger print-run and price the book more reasonably.  This elicited the comment (made in what seemed a somewhat patronizing tone), “Perhaps, then, you should go with a trade publisher,” and I replied, “Yes, I think I will!”

In the event, Eerdmans committed to an initial hardback print-run of 5,000 copies, which meant a retail price of $55 (US), pretty reasonable for a 650 pp. hardback volume.  This print-run sold out in 18 months, and the book has sold ca. another 3,000 copies in paperback subsequently.  I rather suspect that Eerdmans has done alright financially out of the deal, and that UK publisher might have done so, had they been interested in selling books to people.

So, I want to register a complaint about the ridiculous prices on these volumes in the Apostolic Fathers series from OUP (as illustrative of a larger problem in academic book-pricing), and urge them and other academic publishers to have the good sense to distinguish between books that must have only a limited print-run and high prices, and those books for which there is most likely a much wider interest and which could be published and marketed to put them in the hands of the many individuals who would like to have them.  And from the outset, and in hardback, and we wouldn’t have to wait for a year or two till the publisher thinks it fit to bring out a paperback edition for individual purchase.  How about publishing such books in larger print-runs from the outset and pricing them to sell to the many individuals who would purchase them . . . if priced reasonably?

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43 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on ἐκλεκτικός and commented:
    Academic journal pricing structures are another part of this story!

  2. This is so true ! As a further example an (apparently) important monography on the Greek article will soon be released (Ronald D. Peters, The Greek Article: A Functional Grammar of O-items in the Greek New Testament With Special Emphasis on the Greek Article, Brill,2014) for the unaffordable price of 103€ ($126). Since Middleton, there is not much to read… So I wonder how I will be able to study this book !!! When you are remote like me from a well-furnished library, this a real problem.
    Regards, Didier F.

  3. Thanks, Larry. OUP just put out the Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies at $175!!! Quakers have the testimony of “simplicity,” so few if any individuals or congregations would buy the book. It is on Kindle for $99.99!!!

  4. I totally agree. I ponder going ‘open access.’

  5. David Reimer permalink

    There is another factor which complicates this scenario: it is that authors wish books to be published with the “elite” publishers, and in the UK we have the deeply distorting sequence of research assessment exercises contributing to this.

    I have just returned from the SOTS winter meetings, during which I chatted with one publisher whose firm puts out quality books at affordable prices. Many academics feel they cannot use such presses because of the perceived adverse effect on “ranking”/weighting, etc.

    There are plenty of fine and reputable publishers who want to publish good books at prices anyone (in the west) should be able to afford. Just as your story of Lord Jesus Christ shows, authors also need to consider placing mss with such publishers. The current climate in the UK is hardly conducive.

    • Choosing a publisher is an important potential factor, especially for new/emergent scholars seeking to establish themselves. And it’s understandable that a “platinum” imprint such as OUP or CUP is attractive. But, at least after that first book, I’d hope that scholars would develop sufficient confidence in the quality of their work to choose publishers on the a number of criteria that publishers provide: (1) good editing and good quality book production; (2) a good distribution system; (3) a record of promoting books, seeing that they get reviewed, having stalls at important scholarly conferences, etc.; and (4) sensible pricing, to help ensure that the book gets into the hands of readers.

  6. It’s good to know that there are others feeling the same way. I am neither a cleric nor an academic nor a scholar in any way, shape or form. But I like good books, and I like to think that publication by a university press indicates that at least some quality control has gone into the book’s production.

    Last year I became interested in learning more about the Gregorian Reform. Oxford University Press has what looks like a solid, detailed volume on the life and work of Pope Gregory VII, by H.E.J. Cowdrey. The single volume retails for $250.00 (you can get it on Amazon for $221.98). I don’t claim to have any special insight into the marketing of books. But this is not an impossibly specialized tome on an obscure subject (new histories and biographies sell pretty well, if the inventory at the local chain store is any indication). It is simply impossible for me to believe that $250.00 is anywhere near an optimal price for this volume, even if its intended market is university libraries (places where most books seem to go for a long rest).

    I recognize that, in some sense, we are living in a golden age of book availability. In the last few months I’ve managed to find reasonably-priced, durable editions of original-language editions of San Juan de la Cruz, John Scottus Eriugena and Hegel, through the magic of internet shopping sites. I much prefer physical books, and it seems to me that the university presses, by their pricing, are passing up an opportunity to develop new customers among the young, many of whom, like my kids, are finding that they prefer volumes on the shelf to electronically accessable text.

  7. Hear, hear. A good rant, Larry. May it not fall on stony ground.

  8. Reblogged this on Theological Musings and commented:
    Let’s begin the revolution! Thanks for taking the lead on this Dr. Hurtado.

  9. BUT WAIT … Who gets the money?

    • Well, with the expensive publishers such as OUP, CUP, Brill, the authors certainly don’t get much, if any at all.

  10. Publishers ought to want to sell books, it has long seemed to me that OUP (and CUP) think libraries are the only people who will buy them. Yet, sometimes they can be sensible – CE Hill’s ‘Who chose the Gospels?’ came out at about £20 in hardback (OUP) – so I bought one for me and one for a friend – at £60 I’d have bought neither🙂

    • One must distinguish between OUP New York and OUP Oxford (UK). The former outfit seems to have a greater sense of the market, and a greater readiness to sell books (I’m not sure just what OUP Oxford really does, certainly not selling books). Hill’s book and others sensibly priced tend to be OUP New York.

      • Ah, thank you – that explains something which has baffled me. Clearly the Americans like to sell books; as you say, not sure what the British bit thinks it is doing.

  11. As a layman interested in such matters I have certainly put off buying books due to high prices. Do you think it would be possible for scholars to band together and only publish with those who would price books fairly?

  12. WilliW permalink

    Thanks for the blog and the constant book pointers, Mr. Hurtado. I never went to college (couldn’t afford it) but I try to read and learn as much as I can. Just recently purchased some books you pointed to (used, of course.) I would happily own more academic works, OUP or otherwise, if, like you said, they were more reasonably priced.

  13. Scholars need to do their bit too (as you did with Lord Jesus Christ), by asking publishers *ahead of time* what they plan to price the scholar’s latest manuscript at. If the putative price is too high, submit it elsewhere, as you did.

    Actually, I wish Eerdmans would put out another hardcover edition of Lord Jesus Christ, as I’d like to have this important work in hardcover.

  14. Part of the problem is that some publishers do not seem to have done much market research. They assume that the librarians want hardbooks, when what we really want are good prices. For research-level monographs, many of which will not get a great deal of use, the sky-high prices of some hardbacks will always be poor value for money. Most of us theological college librarians are very reluctant to buy such things.

    While some continental publishers, such as Brill, have been churning out overpriced (and often over-abstruse) hardbacks at silly prices for years, it’s sad to see some UK publishers heading that way. The same publishers often have reasonably-priced paperbacks, but don’t publish everything in that format.

    And most modern hardbacks have a poor level of workmanship: no longer the sewns bindings that open flat, but glued-in pages in what is effectively paperback technology with a harder cover.

    At least with OUP (and some other publishers) they will either bring out a paperback or sell remaining hardbacks off at a 50-75% discount in one of their annual sales.

  15. Jordan Barrett permalink

    Thanks for your post. I have also struggled with such pricing for European books. I struggled to track down the original publication of this book (I’m in the U.S.), but then found it was being republished with Brill. I can’t afford it ($277, granted 800+ pages) and libraries near me don’t carry it. Rather frustrating. http://www.brill.com/doctrine-god-reformed-orthodoxy-karl-barth-and-utrecht-school

  16. S.F. permalink

    Good points, but similar arguments can be made about the rise in tuition. Has overpriced tuition made higher education inaccessible to many? Have universities become too greedy like book publishers?

  17. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Professor Larry Hurtado, the figures you give are very interesting. Can I ask what your best selling book has been? My guess would be How on Earth Did Jesus Become God? Just because of its snappy title, I don’t think it’s your best book. I saw it for sale in Wesley Owen in Dundee in the apologetics section. I reckon One God One Lord is your best book. I got that and Lord Jesus Christ in the Wesley Owen in Glasgow. Your books and Janes Dunn are well represented in these kinds of shops.

    On second thoughts I suppose the Mark commentary was probably very popular. I’ve never read that.

    • Hmm. I haven’t kept count, really. But I’d guess that it was Lord Jesus Christ. (I’m frankly a bit surprised that Wesley Owen shops stocked my books, as I’ve rarely seen them in such shops, which seem more interested in “pop” publications.) I’m pleased that the Mark commentary (originally published in 1983, in revised form in 1989, and then republished a few times over the years) generated a lot of critical praise (when first published) and over the years a continuing stream of appreciative comments from “general” readers.
      One God, One Lord I consider foundational for all my subsequent work on early Jesus-devotion and its religious context. As for effort, however, Lord Jesus Christ took the most, and is (and will probably remain) my most ambitious publication effort . . . whatever people think of it.
      (I’m also proud of my first book, Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark, 1981, a revised form of my PhD thesis. It seems to have been accepted as requiring a major revision of prior notions of the textual history of Mark, specifically calling into question earlier notions of the “Caesarean” text as represented by Codex W and P45.)

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        I’m going to get the one about codex W out the library and read it, I’m right into TC at the moment.

        Yeah Wesley Owen is full of Francine Rivers and Rick Warren, but they’ve got plenty of Hebrew and Greek grammars, academic Christian history and theology too, even some expensive Oxford UP stuff. Although they’re obviously selective: James Dunn, Alister McGrath, and Larry Hurtado over Ehrman, Casey or Crossley. The one in Edinburgh (George Street is it?) is pretty good too. You mean I’ll never bump into you there?😉

        But I mainly buy on Amazon now because its cheaper. Browse Wesley Owen and Waterstones, then purchase online. (There’s a name for that what is it?) This was this last (huge) book I bought from the reduced shelf in Wesley Owen years ago. Has anyone ever read these massive books from cover to cover apart from the author himself?

        http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/0830827900/ref=mp_s_a_1_2?qid=1389285068&sr=8-2&pi=AC_SX110_SY165

    • Donald, what is up with your incessant need to provoke? Yes, we get it, you think that Professor Hurtado is some sort of apologetic shill planted into the academic community by a secret Evangelical Christian Illuminati. Please stop. The constant implications that Professor Hurtado is anything but a serious scholar who constantly strives for objectivity is not funny or cute, its irritating to read in every single blog thread, and just makes you come off as a jerk. How many times do you have to be told to engage with his actual work, rather than taking cheap pot-shots, and making snide remarks before you get it?

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        What a ridiculous comment.

  18. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Still $25 is pretty steep for an e-book. (£18.59 in the UK) I am convinced print is dying and prices of physical books are going to go up not down. Concentrate on bringing e-book prices down, that’s the future.

    • Possibly, but debatable, Donald. E-books will do for novels and stuff you want to read on the train/bus, but for those of us who want to mark and cite works repeatedly, nothing does like a print-copy. (Oh, and don’t be fooled by the ballyhoo about e-books taking over. What they don’t report is that the figures include a huge number of free e-books. It’s not yet clear that print-books are going away.)

      • Actually I read that sales for e-books leveled off in 2013, but I still love them. And for citations the ones with real page numbers are helpful.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        But you can highlight ebooks and make cross references and all sorts. If anything it will be far superior. Imagine only having to click on an obscure journal reference and it appears. No more journeys to the library for a single reference only to find that particular volume is missing. Print books won’t die out entirely of course, just as scrolls didn’t either, but ebooks will replace the codex as surely as it in turn replaced the scroll.

      • Well, we shall see, won’t we? In any case, the misguided pricing policy I’ve criticized may well contribute to the demise of the printed academic book!

      • Ryan K permalink

        Just as a minor note here – one can easily mark, cite, and annotate e-books, and I would argue in a far more intuitive and clear manner than a print book (e.g. being able to export citations of a certain date range to a word document). Further, you can erase said citations if you want or need! It is nice not having to choose between your books being indelibly filled with highlighting/bursting with post-its ~or~ easy-to-miss pencil annotations. Finally, being able to carry a single, lightweight e-reader to my seminars has saved my back! For example, not having to lug both volumes of OTP back and forth so that I can have access to one text from each.

        This is not to say anything about e-books “taking over,” as I do enjoy the physicality of a print book myself and hope that they will always be around. Rather, just that they don’t in reality have the limitations that you raise here. Additionally, most, if not all of the undergraduate students in my courses (at a very large US college) use e-books (or scanned PDFs) exclusively. I had to amend my “no computers” rule for this reason.

      • Yes, OK. I submit to the future tastes of readers. In the meantime, however, perhaps my plea for reasonable pricing of academic printed books can be entertained.

    • Still, when was the last time you saw a used copy of an ebook?

  19. I don’t like it either, but it is simple to see the logic.

    Profit from Sales = Quantity Sold * ( Price – Marginal Cost of Production )

    Their main customers are libraries. The problem is that the pricing is rational. Even the decision not to do a paperback print run may be rational, depending on the book.

    The bigger problem is that these presses really just sell back the labor of university employees to university libraries. Perhaps the best solution is for universities to start a movement to licensing the academic work of their faculty in a permissive way so that it’s not locked up in books at all and can be downloaded for free. Then the books would merely have the value of the craftsmanship, which would also be a competitive price because there’d be no monopoly on publishing the text. Lots of time and money would be saved by the faculty and by all. It would improve the impact of research and tend to improve the breadth of citations in future research. (The US government, for example, has a provision that any work it produces must be public domain, and perhaps it is about time that universities caught up to that example.)

    • Peter: You’re taking the discussion in another direction, toward various “open access” ideas. There are pressures along these lines, but there are problems with what you propose. It’s not so simple. E.g., universities don’t own the research and publications of their academic staff. And it would be bad if they did (for then they could blockade anything they didn’t like potentially).
      No. The solution to ridiculous prices for academic books is what I’ve proposed: European publishers in particular should follow their American counterparts and learn to publish serious academic books for readers, and not simply for libraries.

      • Yes, I did take the discussion in another (related) direction. Yes, it’s not simple. But these are problems to solve and not objections to which we should throw up our hands and give up. I’ll leave out why these objections are themselves problematic because I’m not looking to hijack your thread more than I already have.

      • David Reimer permalink

        Two quickies, just for info:

        (1) The univeristy could hold copyright on work produced by academic staff (de jure); it is, wisely, normally ceded back to the authors (de facto). See, e.g., Edinburgh’s statement on this.

        (2) OUP cleared (net) £102.5 million in year ending March 2013 on a turnover of £759.2m. That was about a £3m drop on the previous year. Figures available online. (For comparison, CUP’s total sales, in the equivalent period = £261.7m.) Just saying.

      • Perhaps the authors should retain copyright and opt for permissive licenses (like CC-BY-SA, for example). Then the benefits Peter mentions above would be had, minus the risk of the university controlling the publishing of its faculty.

        Larry, since we live in a “flat world” (I can buy books from any world-wide publisher online), why is it that the European publishers have not already turned to the American model of pricing? It seems like they would have to in order to compete.

  20. Reblogged this on Vaisamar and commented:
    Absolutely! I subscribe to the plea. With such astronomical prices, scholars in the Majority World (a polite term for what used to be the Third World) might as well close up shop and go home.

  21. Jeff Sams permalink

    Amen and amen!

  22. I couldn’t agree more. It is ridiculous. What about ebooks as well? I have your “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity” as a Kindle book, which is a reasonable $25 – thank you. I think they don’t want anyone to read their books when priced like you describe.

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