Why Are Academic Books So Expensive?

Why Are Academic Books So Expensive? September 15, 2015

[Today’s post is taken from one of my author newsletters. It is a question that comes up so often that I thought I would share it here.]

Many an academic author has had the experience of proudly announcing the publication of his or her new book, only to have someone ask “Why is it so expensive”? I’ve certainly had this experience with publications ranging from my first book The Protestant Interest (original list of $40) to my edited volume with Darren Dochuk and Kurt Peterson on George Marsden’s contributions to the study of religious history (lists at $66). A number of my more recent titles are somewhat less expensive, because the press regards them as “trade books.” Normally, only books that are regarded as having “trade potential” – meaning popular sales – will be priced at $30 or less.

Why is this? First of all, it is important to understand that no author – or at least no author I know – sets the price of their book. I know this personally, as someone who has at times appealed (begged?) for the press to set a lower price! The press makes the decision on the “list price,” and then retailers like Amazon decide how much to discount the book.

Sales of academic books have been in slow decline for decades, so a purely academic title can typically expect to sell only to academic libraries and a few specialists in the field – maybe no more than 200 copies. The book may be a blockbuster contribution to its field, and may even be pretty readable, but if the press does not regard it as a trade book, it will not be marketed and sold as such. Thus, they price the book at $40, $70, or even $150, because they are planning on selling mostly to institutional libraries rather than individual consumers. That high price is (hopefully) their way of breaking even.

John Phelan, Reading Room, Langdell Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Some might say, “well, if they did not price it so high, maybe more people would buy it!” This could be true in certain cases, but with the proliferation of books across all genres, the “high price, low sales” model is probably a safer bet for presses to recoup their expenses.

Unfortunately, the choice for an author is often having a worthy book in print at a high price, or not having it in print at all (or at least not in print with an established press). Given that choice, I trust we’d all go with an in print but costly book. As an individual consumer, the presses simply do not expect you to buy a $70 book. If your local library does not have it, the best way to get access to those sorts of books is through Inter-library Loan, an invaluable but underused resource at many libraries.

Please stop complaining, then, to authors of high-priced books. It is not their fault. The best thing you can do about this problem is to keep buying high-quality books that are within your price range. If we don’t support such books, the number of sub-$30 books will continue to shrink, until the only choices left are the Dan Browns and Joel Osteens of the publishing world. Why those authors sell the most copies is another topic for another time.

[Friends, you can sign up here for my Thomas S. Kidd author newsletter. Each newsletter will update you on what’s happening in my writing and the world of American religious and political history, and current events. It will contain unique material available only to subscribers, and each will help you keep up with my blog posts, books, and other writings from around the web. Your e-mail information will never be shared. Thanks!]

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  • stefanstackhouse

    Economies of scale. It is a real, well-documented and extensively studied phenomenon, and it does apply in this case. There are relatively high fixed costs for publishing any book. The variable costs of paper, ink, etc. are just not all that high. That is why best sellers that move hundreds of thousands or millions of copies are so highly profitable for publishers, even if they have to fork over high royalties.

    There is no good way around this. Even print-on-demand does very little except eliminate the problem and extra cost for publishers of unsold remainders. Self-publishing does have the potential to reduce those fixed costs, but yet in very few cases is a self-published book yet considered to be a serious academic title.

  • MesKalamDug

    Why any book at all?

    Assuming I am not trying to make money why not just post the book (preferably in HTML) online.

    I am aware that academic recognition is at stake. If that interested me I would of course publish at the highest prestige publisher who would accept me. Readership be damned.

  • RustbeltRick

    It seems that in any situation, when you have a “captive audience” of consumers, you jack up the prices. Our system encourages the maximization of profit, and nothing maximizes it like premium pricing. Concertgoers are asked to pay $25 for parking; hospital patients are charged $10 for a bandage and $40,000 for a surgery; and students in Philosophy 305 are asked to buy a $75 textbook. In all of these cases, opting out is either difficult or impossible.

  • accelerator

    Baloney.

    “(…Or at least not in print with an established press).” There’s the rub.
    Career prestige bests Ron Sider-like ethics. Authors are complicit in the academic book industry of scamming students and consumers. College texts are obscenely over-priced, and effectively rape captive constituencies. See the amazon.com catalog for some price comparisons. The guys who sell second hand texts on my campus laugh about “Over-priced” is an understatement. Especially for books whose buyers are forced to purchase them. I teach, and I cannot in good conscious ask my students to buy these expensive .. what, I am not sure what to call them. Except maybe inadvertent scams. They are good, but should be sold at half the price. Of course, most Apple products should be sold at twice the price, but that would mean eliminating foreign slave labor. But it’s all O.K. because of the “publish or perish culture” and the need to have these savvy Christian voices speaking out? OK, and now these same authors will be equally forgiving of the moral equivalencies proffered in the secular arena? Ha… I very much doubt it. OK, now let me go register for a very vital “Apologetics Cruise.”