There’s been a raft of commentary on how academics write things and academic publishers reap unusually robust financial benefits (see excellent summaries here and here); but right now I’m thinking about the way books are actually priced.
You see, I confess to being upset when I have to buy an academic book that feels like a mortgage, and I feel even worse when my own books get priced that way. Interestingly, I now see a new phenomenon: significant price increases on old books! Take, for example, my book Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality. I’m happy that the book did pretty well on the market. I got an advance, which was long ago completely covered by the royalties and I still get a bottle or two worth of decent whiskey from the twice-annual royalties. I’m happy for that! But just recently I noticed that Amazon was listing a higher retail price for the book. I wondered if Amazon was doing one of those slippery things where they pretend to give you a better deal by alleging the MSRP to be higher than it really is. Well, I went and looked. As you can see from my photograph of a first-printing of Apocalyptic AI, the list price for the hardcover was $27.95. Well, I went to the OUP webpage where I found that it now lists the book at $38.95.
Things cost more now, you might say! Sure, I get it. Inflation, shipping delays, and all such. My pop is an economist, so I’ve got some familiarity with how these things work. That said, the initial costs of the book’s manufacturing are all long in the past. Most of those costs were my low paid labor, but some were layout and design and editing and such. That stuff has been spent and has been long since recouped: the book is in 1000+ libraries worldwide. The selling price now brings pure profit beyond manufacturing and distribution. At this point, I’m guessing (just guessing, mind you) that if you buy a $38.95 copy of it you get a print on demand version on ordinary paper and a hardcover with the image printed on it, not the lovely cotton paper version with a dust jacket you could formerly buy for $27.95.
I’ll honestly say I’m grateful to OUP for their work in helping me bring three books to the market (well, the third is sort of quasi-on the market…but soon, I think for real). I’m grateful for the labor that folks put in to help those books be better than they would have been without it. I’m grateful for the beautiful cotton paper publications of my first two books (Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life was also gorgeously done…and I think is seeing the same pricing issues but I have only one copy and it’s at home where I cannot check to see the price printed on it).
But I’m disappointed that my scholarly work is getting more expensive. It’s already the case that so many academic productions are priced beyond the reach of ordinary consumers; to see books shifting into that domain is a sorry state of affairs.