A Plea for Affordable Book-pricing
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?