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

April 27, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I

My previous article, Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?, turned out to be quite controversial, provoking lots of comments around the Internet, few supportive. Arguments against my article ranged from free speech (which is a legal concept that really doesn’t apply) to with so much dreck the cream will rise to the real culprit being print on demand to literature includes dreck by definition to … pick your own dart. Many commenters lauded the ability of anyone with a computer to “publish” their ebook. Swimming through an open floodgate is not, in my view, a good way to swim; it is only a good way to drown.

It is obvious to me that — although others assure me to the contrary — I failed to articulate my point very well, or that if I did articulate it well, it was too subtle or esoteric or whatever because no one really zeroed in on the issue. So I not only want to try again, because I think the point is deserving of debate, but I plan to do so over the course of several articles (thus the round numbering).

So, let’s start the great debate (divide?) by defining literature. As some commentators pointed out, the dictionary definition of literature is all-encompassing — it includes all writings in prose or poetry form. The dictionary definition, however, goes on to say especially “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Literature is something more than words assembled in a logical stream. It is this “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest” that is the literature of my discussion. 

I use literature to be synonymous with that small portion of writing that by consensus is of such caliber that it will still be remembered, read, and pointed to as an exemplar of literary merit long after the particular style has gone out of fashion and the author has died. I use literature to mean that body of work that society in its amorphous whole has determined should be put on a pedestal, distinguishing it from all other publications.

I do not use literature to mean popular or fashionable or award winning. James Patterson’s books are popular but I do not see society declaring his novels to be literature. I guess what I mean by literature is what many call great literature — works such as Shakespearean plays that are still read and performed hundreds of years after the death of the author. It is possible for a work to be both literature and popular, but whether something is literature is independent of whether it is popular. The terms literature and great literature are synonymous here.

When we look at what has been denominated great literature over the course of time, we can observe that there is something more to the work, something that may be indefinable or something that caused a revolution in thinking or perspective. It is that intangible that separates literature from simply being in print.

Consider music. People recognize the greatness of a Beethoven symphony — a masterpiece of music that has withstood the test of time. Yet, not all of Beethoven’s symphonies were well-received at the time of their premiere — other composers were more popular, but once they died they became dust in the dustbin of musicology. The great composers — the Mozarts, the Bachs, the Beethovens of music — had patrons and publishers who acted as gatekeepers.

The same is true of art. Consensus is that van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Da Vinci, for example, were true masters. But that hasn’t stopped your neighbor from painting and trying to sell his or her artwork. The great artists were represented and their works competitively sought after by galleries that acted as gatekeepers. The gatekeepers began the separation of run-of-the-mill art from great art.

Writing is similar to art and music. And before the advent of ebooks and print on demand (POD), the process of separating literature from the rest of what was published or available to be published was easier. eBooks and POD have changed the landscape. In 2009, at least 1 million new books were published, 75% nontraditionally, i.e., as ebooks, POD, and micro-niche publishing.

With 250,000 traditionally published books it was already difficult to separate literature from run-of-the-mill work. We relied on gatekeepers to start the process. But in 2009 we were overwhelmed. Name 1 novel that was published in 2009 for which there is consensus that it is great literature and will withstand the test of time?

When J.D. Salinger published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, it was but a short time until a consensus was reached that this book was literature. By the 1960s it was standard reading in high schools across the country. Publishers, book reviewers, teachers, and readers were already comparing new works by other authors to Catcher, looking for the next book that could be called literature. Catcher had become a standard. Probably the next book to reach that status was Harper Lee’s 1962 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Catcher, Mockingbird became a literary staple, a standard, and required reading near universally. We continue to celebrate these books today.

So, out of the 1 million books published in 2009, name the novel that is today’s equivalent of Catcher or Mockingbird. Perhaps there is one, but I admit I don’t know of it.

Literature is significantly more than numbers, more than a good story that is well executed. Literature comes about by building a societal consensus, something that is easier to do when there are fewer choices.

The debate continues in round II…

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