What Price Academic Books?

Years ago, Amazon included bookmarks with their orders, and one of the bookmarks offered a loose translation of Erasmas: “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” I’ve more or less lived my life by similar principles. (I bought some clothes this summer when I got a new job because I realized the best work trousers I had were completely frayed at the bottom and thin at the knees.) Importantly for this post, if I am reasonably certain that the book is of value to me, then I am also willing to spend more money on a book than I expect the average consumer is. Such spending is relatively rare, but it does happen — for instance, I bought, and have never regretted buying, copies of the Cambridge Edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and The Years when I found them, at different times, on sale for substantially less than their very high retail prices (I bought them for at least 50% off each).

This brings me to the subject of this post.

When it comes to books I value, I am willing to spend more than most people. Here are some books published by academic presses that are on my shelves, along with their current US retail prices and, if available, the price of their Kindle edition, since I have a Kindle and often prefer to buy academic books for it so they are easily searchable and so I can easily extract quotations:

Here, in contrast, are books I’ve had my eye on for some time but have not bought:

That second list could be longer, but there’s no need. The contrast is clear, and if you are someone who occasionally buys academic books, you are familiar with what I’m trying to show here.

(I’m not going to offer any conclusions or exhortations. This is just a quick blog post, and I don’t know a whole lot about the behind-the-scenes of academic publishing’s marketing and sales. Publishers know their business. If Cambridge could make back the investment on their Woolf editions by selling them for the same price as they sell the volumes of Beckett letters, I assume they would. If they did that, I’d buy the whole set of Woolf books, and I’m sure quite a few Woolfians — and librarians — would too, because they are exquisite. Their pricing seems absurd and self-defeating to me, but I have no knowledge of the budgets or marketing on those books. This is not a post on the status or future of academic publishing — you can find plenty of that elsewhere.)

Average price of the books on the list of books I have bought, including the exorbitantly-priced Woolf volume (but not the Forerunners series): $39.87. Average price of the second list, the books I have not bought and am unlikely to buy at their current price, despite desiring them: $72.49.

Most of the books on the first list are paperbacks (but not all: the Beckett letters and Why They Can’t Write are both hardcovers), most of the books on the second list are hardcovers (but not all: Laura Wright’s book is a $60 paperback). I did not pay full retail price for all of the books on the first list; in most cases, in fact, I bought them when some sort of deal was available, usually a 30%-off deal from the publisher when the book was new, as those are relatively common. Even with 30% off, I would be unlikely to buy the books on the second list, because most of the prices are still so high.

After years of buying books, I know my own personal thresholds:

  • I will buy paperbacks I’m strongly curious about if they’re under $30; if I really know I want them (e.g. written by a friend, as in the case of Sherlock’s World), I’ll go up to about $40
  • I will buy hardcovers I’m strongly curious about if they’re under $30; if I really know I want them (e.g. Beckett’s letters), I’ll go up to about $50
  • Except for extreme circumstances, I will never pay more than $20 for an ebook. (Extreme circumstances = I need access right now because I’m working on an important, and probably remunerative, project for which it is vital.) When I was working on my dissertation, I needed The Slow Philosophy of J.M. Coetzee and had to return it to the library, as it was an interlibrary loan and I had maxed out the renewals. I got lucky: for whatever reason, the Kindle was on sale for $17.01. I would not, under any circumstances, have paid the current price of $70.20. I would have done everything I could do to reduce reference to the book in my dissertation, and would have interlibrary loaned it again if I couldn’t reduce the references.

As I said above, I’m probably something of an oddity, even among academics, in the priority of books in my economic life. I’ve also got more disposable income than most people — little debt, good health, no children, a middle-class salary. Most people’s thresholds are probably lower than mine.

(I also buy rare and collectible books, but what I’m willing to spend is hugely variable and depends on the book and my finances at the time of purchase. I live a frugal life otherwise, so occasionally indulge in rare books, though not books so rare that I’m afraid to handle them or have them out in the open. I think of them with a term a librarian once offered me: medium-rare books.)

Obviously, the books in the second list are not priced for sales to individuals. They’re supposed to be bought by institutions, particularly libraries, which, in theory at least, have much bigger budgets than individuals do for bookbuying. The general practice at many academic publishers is: release an expensive hardcover for the library market, then release a less expensive paperback a year or two later. But that’s not always the case. Some of the presses I most frequently buy books from — Minnesota, Duke, Wesleyan — usually release paperbacks at the same time they release library hardcovers (if they do hardcovers at all).

What I find most striking are some of the Kindle prices. I don’t understand the expensive Kindle editions. Who is the market? Who pays $70 (or more!) for an ebook? Jeff Bezos?

Argue the value of ebooks all you want, but most of us who buy them are not willing to pay the same amount we would for a paperback, and certainly not the same we would for a hardcover. Ebooks feel ethereal. (Yes, Amazon has seriously hindered the ebook market by making consumers see anything above $10 as expensive, but there are plenty of others factors at play.) Because I find reading ebooks less appealing than reading physical books, they have taken the place of the old mass-market paperbacks for me (in non-academic books, mostly what I read in ebooks are mystery novels, horror novels, and short stories. Also, lots of stuff that had quick sales bringing the price down to $1 or $2). However, with academic books, ebooks do serve more of a purpose, since, as I said above, the highlighting, annotating, and search functions are truly useful. So I’m perfectly willing to go up to about $20 for an academic book I’m likely to use for my work, maybe $25 for one that I know I’m going to use a lot. But that’s it. I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $25 for an ebook, and rarely more than $20. I can’t imagine I’m an anomaly. In fact, I expect I’m willing to pay more for academic ebooks than most readers are.

Image: Some of my books.
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