Book Publishing

Matty Yglesias writes:

The other day, John Holbo wrote:

I hereby declare – for the benefit of anyone at Oxford UP who might be reading – that I was going to require my (probably 50-or-so) students next semester to buy your serviceable little paperback volumes: Woolhouse’s The Empiricists and Cottingham’s The Rationalists. I assigned them when I last taught History of Modern Philosophy, a few years back; and it worked out fine. But now that I see they cost $45 each, for a lousy sub-200 page, 7” x 5” paperback and pretty cheap paper. What’s that about? Do I really want my students to hate me? (Do I want to hate myself?) I am quite sure they were not this pricey a few years back. There is such a thing as charging too much, given that these books are not actually so good that they cause one’s head to explode with insight into the history of modern philosophy. So I am going to put these particular books on reserve in the library, and recommend them to my students as resources, but I am re-doing my syllabus in protest at absurd pricing. So there. Oxford UP has lost a course adoption – the holy grail of textbook publishing. Let that be a lesson to you.

I find myself perennially baffled by the business model of academic publishing. Universities are non-commercial institutions that take substantial quantities of philanthropic and government funds to subsidize the production of scholarship but then turn around and try to manage the dissemination of scholarship on a quasi-commercial basis.

The rise of digital technology makes it possible to disseminate ideas for almost no money. That’s something that’s created big problems for a lot of commercial institutions, but it’s been a boon for most non-commercial ones—all kinds of DC think tanks and advocacy organizations, for example, have much broader reach thanks to our ability to cheaply distribute ideas around the world over the internet. But academic publishing seems oddly resistant to this trend. But almost every major university in the world seems to be expending funds on activities that have less social value than nearly-free distribution (public domain books on kindle seem to usually cost about $2) of the results of their scholarship would have. And on a selfish basis, I assume that the kind of people inclined to write books about the history of early modern philosophy are more interested in finding an audience for their work than in making a quick buck—that doesn’t seem like a profit-maximizing sort of field of endeavor.