An American Editor

July 14, 2014

What Are They Thinking? UPs and the Road to Self-Destruction

As readers of An American Editor know, I am a buyer of books. My to-be-read pile grows faster than I can read and is likely to require me to come back in the afterlife to read all that I am accumulating. (To discover what is in my TBR pile, see, e.g., On Today’s Bookshelf [XVI], the most recent listing in the series, and the previous 15 similar articles [search for On Today’s Bookshelf]) The problem is that there are a lot of interesting (to me) books being written and I want to add some of those books to my library. Even if I do not get an opportunity to read every book I am acquiring, I hope they will intrigue my children and grandchildren.

As I have remarked in previous essays, I often find books of interest by reading publisher ads in the New York Review of Books. The NYRB often has ads from university presses, and the UPs are often the publishers of books that capture my interest.

In a recent issue of the NYRB, Stanford University Press had a full-page ad for new books. Of the seven books that Stanford promoted, four caught my eye (Capitalism v. Democracy: Money in Politics and the Free Market Constitution by Timothy K. Kuhner; The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging by Anna C. Korteweg and Gökçe Yurdakul; Mother Folly: A Tale by Françoise Davoine; and The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood by Beth Baron). Although I was interested in the four books, I was particularly interested in The Orphan Scandal.

In my normal course, I would have simply gone to either the Barnes & Noble or Stanford University Press website and ordered at least The Orphan Scandal, and more likely several, if not all four, of the books. But not this time.

There are several problems from my perspective as a book-buying consumer, which make me wonder: What are they thinking?

I am interested in buying the books in hardcover — definitely not paperback and only maybe in ebook. I want the books as additions to my library. Yet the hardcover versions are not remotely reasonably priced, even though these books are likely to be print-on-demand books, not traditionally printed and distributed.

I have no objection to POD books. I understand that academic books (especially) have limited audiences and that to do a print run of the books and then to warehouse them, as was required not so long ago, is a costly venture. I also know from my days as a publisher that small print runs are very expensive. Consequently, the fiscally responsible way to publish limited-audience academic books is POD.

But what sense is there in further limiting your book-buying audience by unreasonably pricing the book? The Orphan Scandal‘s hardcover price is $85. The book is 272 pages. Compare this to Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, which is 2 volumes in a slipcase, runs 2008 pages, and retails for $130 but is available for $100. (For those interested in Lincoln, I highly recommend this biography. It is excellent — well written and comprehensive.)

I understand that the books are different and the economics may be different so that I am not really comparing likes when I compare The Orphan’s Scandal to Abraham Lincoln. Except that Amazon has turned books into commodities and like other consumers, I decide to buy or not based on many factors, including price. I am probably less sensitive to price than many, if not most, book buyers, but I am not indifferent to it. (The other three books that interest me are $85 [2 books] and $90 in hardcover.)

There is a price point that tilts a buying decision one way or the other. There is also a price point that when exceeded acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy of limited sales. And there is also a price point that when exceeded strikes book buyers as unreasonable or absurd, especially if a book buyer believes that the book is a POD book. Again, not because POD books are of lesser quality, but because there is little to no justification for the price spread between the paperback version and the hardcover version. A POD hardcover costs a few dollars more to create, but not more than triple the cost of the paperback.

Stanford University Press is not alone in its absurdist pricing. I have noted other UPs following a similar strategy. I want these books because they interest me; I do not need these books. Because I do not need these books, economics plays a greater role in my purchasing decision.

I decide to buy a book by applying many criteria, but the primary criteria are subject matter interest, likelihood that the book will rise to near the top of my TBR pile, and does the price reflect (in my estimation) the knowledge value of the book. Knowledge value is difficult to explain. It is not a determination of the academic value of the content or the qualifications of the author; rather, it is a judgment about where the content’s value lies on the continuum of my personal interests.

For example, I am especially interested in anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. If these books fit within those subject areas, the content would have a higher knowledge value for me and thus I would be willing to spend more on the books. (This is one reason why I so willingly buy books on language [see, e.g., On Books: Dictionary of Untranslatables] regardless of the cost.) But these books do not fit into such an area; they fit more into a general interest area, and so I am unwilling to spend without limit.

University presses are generally hard pressed for money and for readers. Some of that is attributable to the books they publish. The UPs are filling a knowledge role that traditional publishers are unwilling to fill. UPs are, for want of a better word coming to mind, niche publishers. The niche is the preservation and advancing of knowledge that is of interest to small numbers of people. UPs fulfill this role admirably.

But what are they thinking when they so price their books that they make their potential audience even smaller than it could be? Again, with print-on-demand publishing, there is little justification for charging more than triple the price of the paperback version for a hardcover. If UPs continue this unrealistic trend in pricing, I know I will be buying fewer UP books.

How does pricing by university presses affect your decision to buy a UP book?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: