Academic Book Costs

Given the energetic interest (e.g. here, recently) in academic book prices that are clearly pitched to institutional library collections and not for the average disposable income of individuals, I thought perhaps we could discuss this in a separate post and if we’re lucky, some of the blog readers who are in the publishing end could weigh in. At the very least, it might provide a forum in which to find out what goes into the decision to print a hardcover, library volume exclusively — I suppose something more illuminating than “there isn’t a market big enough for a softcover printing” would be nice. Comments from all sides are welcome.

Please keep comments civil — I know there is frustration out there but it may be constructive not to rage against the machine in this context.

26 replies on “Academic Book Costs”

  1. I was hoping for some discussion about how people might view a sea-change in academic publishing altogether, with more open-source online books that have the same editing/refereeing quality as of the major academic presses. Maybe the publishers themselves are thinking about this issue and trying to determine the right business model for it so that it is sustainable. The details of Springer’s “Mycopy” that Yong Huang provides here,, seem like some kind of a step in that direction, though it would be nice if you didn’t have to be affiliated with an institution and its library, certainly.

    Maybe a good use of the Library of Congress would be to purchase and make available all academic e-books to anyone. I think they have a digital library project but currently it seems limited in range. I’m sure there would also have to be the right kind of agreement ironed out with academic publishers as well. You can hate the fact that publishing is a business, but I don’t know if you can move away too far from it without people (editors, I’m thinking) being exploited under the banner of its being a labor of love.

    Just some thoughts I’ve personally had recently, to start the conversation…

  2. I had an extensive conversation about this with Steve Angle, Justin Tiwald, and others at NECCT 3 last month. My position is basically this:

    1. There is one reason and one reason only why academic presses like Oxford (the one I picked on) and Springer charge such high prices: they know that professional researchers need their imprimatur for tenure and promotion. There is no other explanation for their prices, because their costs are really very low. Copy editing costs maybe $3K per volume–and probably even less than that. Peer review is essentially gratis because nobody in the humanities dares to charge a fee. Marketing? Puh-leeze. Basically you’re paying for the offices’ overhead, for the editors’ salaries, and for storage–but with print-on-demand, ebooks, etc., you’re scarcely paying for storage anymore either.

    2. I used to discount Amazon’s argument that presses are mere “gatekeepers” who extract their fee for the dubious service of guarding the gate, but lately I am running out of sound counterarguments. If you don’t need Oxford or Springer’s imprimatur–and frankly, at this stage of my career, I don’t–then why would you sign a deal with them for a maximum of maybe a 10% royalty rate, when you can self-publish with Amazon for a good 40%? You get plenty of added bonuses, too: you retain your copyright and you can make sure that your work doesn’t go out of print. (Anyone who has published with Hawaii can appreciate that that’s not a trivial consideration.)

    3. This is still less of an issue in the humanities than in the natural sciences, but the open-access revolution will eventually hit our sleepy part of the academy too. The open-access revolution is a potential catastrophe for publishers like Oxford and Springer. When authors stop cooperating, they no longer have content, and when they no longer have content, they can no longer gouge academic libraries. (Robert Darnton has written about this, as I’m sure you know.) Publishers need us more than we need them. Academic authors need to wake up.

    • Paul,

      You must be talking about a different type of “open-access” than the one I have in mind. I also thought the “open-access” journals will threaten the traditional publishing business, which would be wonderful, but then I realized, these “open-access” journals are free for readers but not for authors: they charge fees for authors to publish! So this is still business as usual; only now they make money from authors and not from readers. Indeed, the traditional publishers, like Springer, also give authors the option to publish with “open access.”

      It is of course to have the free or at least low cost open access, but then we perhaps need to persuade some foundations to support it to ensure the quality of publications (primarily not scholarly quality, which I assume that there will be enough volunteers from us scholars to control, but technical quality).

    • Yong,

      I don’t mean Springer’s peculiar definition of “open access,” which does indeed mean “charge the author.” (That’s Springer’s way of making sure that they take a profit regardless of which publication option the author chooses.) I’m talking about academic journals published by non-profit organizations whose issues are freely available on the internet. Asia Major comes to mind, but of course there are others.

      Or “open access” could just mean putting your own work up on the web, as more and more researchers do in fields like mathematics. Today, that may sound far-fetched in the humanities, but as time goes by there will be fewer and fewer reasons not to do it. Is the work any better just because it says “Springer” on the cover and spine?

    • Paul,

      Yes, I really would like to see more “open access” publications that you mentioned, especially in humanities. The main open access journals that sent me a lot of e-mails, asking me to contribute, to be the editorial board member, or even to be the chief editor are those for profit organizations. There are a lot of them. I looked at their websites and they all charge what they call “article process fees” to authors. For example, one organization (or rather company) called “Scientific Research: An Academic Publisher,” publishes over a hundred (I guess) open access journals, in both sciences and humanities, which all charge fees from authors. They often send you call for papers for issues to be published in next three or four months. As an editor myself, I know this is not enough time to conduct the peer reviews as they claim they will do, in addition to the time needed for copyediting, etc. So I have been trying to shy away from such open access journal as far as possible.

      You may look at this site:

    • Yong,

      SCIRP is a Chinese organization (registered in Delaware, but still a Chinese organization), and I don’t know much about them, but my sense is that their credibility is virtually zero. As you say, I have some doubts about their peer review process.

  3. The obscenity is that it is not that “academic book prices…are clearly pitched to institutional library collections and not for the average disposable income of individuals”, but that the aim seems to be for research NOT to be read by anyone. Even institutional libraries have budgets! If a journal or book is prohibitively expensive to access compared to other options, then they are treated by most people as not existent. This is an act of quarantine, not of communication. It belongs to a world before Gutenberg, and an indictment on the academic profession.

    • Hi Antony; thanks for that. I don’t think I can outright deny your suspicions. However, I can say from being party to budget discussions at a couple of institutions (and not really elite institutions at that) that a few hundred US$ for a book doesn’t usually put it in the “Do we really need this volume?” list. Most of the things on that list are journal or database subscriptions that are annual and on-going rather than one-time. I will also add that if there is the type of effect that concerns you, it is probably less to “quarantine” scholarship than to make it available only to elite institutions, proportional to price of the book and the institutional budgets that you mention.

    • There are some figures I’m interested in but unable to find:
      – How much does it cost (copy-editor, fixed overhead costs such as salary commissioning editor, cover design by art department, the most fees for reviewers) to produce an academic book?
      – How many copies does an average academic book with a major press (say, OUP, CUP, Harvard, etc) on average sell?

    • Helen,

      You can find credible answers to your first set of questions by looking at CreateSpace (, the self-publishing arm of Amazon. They offer essentially all the same services that you get from an old-fashioned publisher, and you can see what they charge à la carte. You can be sure they’re not losing money!

      I don’t know the answers to your second set of questions, and publishers tend to be tight-lipped about distribution figures, but I’d guess that they sell fewer than 1,000 copies of most academic books. They often sell considerably more copies of textbooks, however–another outrage that we haven’t even begun to talk about.

    • P.S. I can attest that the standard fee for peer review in the humanities is squadoosh. If the book is published, they’ll typically send the referees a copy when it appears, but some presses have become stingy enough not even to do that anymore. So that’s not an appreciable expense.

    • Thank you for the heads up on CreateSpace! I was thinking of going to Kindle with my translation of the Jiao Shi Yi Lin, but it’s just too unwieldy (moving around in a 4096 verse work would requite the equivalent of a three level b-tree index, something Kindle formatting isn’t good at). But CreateSpace should be perfect. My only concern is that a large work printed by print on demand will end up (ironically considering the nature of this comment thread)…expensive.

    • I’d encourage you to get in touch with them if you’re concerned about the price. Considering all the fat involved in academic book pricing, you might be surprised. Also, I have never used them myself, so I do have to make that disclaimer. I’m just going by feedback from authors who have talked to me about their experiences.

  4. This may seem slightly tangential, but the video shows, indirectly, what goes into the cost of producing a print book as well as an ebook, in an academic publishing unit. The piece is by David Crotty, who is a Senior Editor with Oxford University Press’ journal publishing program. Prior to that he served as an Executive Editor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, and was also the commissioning editor for their book publishing program. I found this at The Scholarly Kitchen (, which is a blog about scholarly publishing.

    • That video is entertaining, but it doesn’t state any hard figures, and for many of those cute bubbles, the real costs are negligible.

      For better or for worse, I predict that most of the fancy Italian publishing houses listed at the end will be out of business within a decade or two. They are telling a twentieth-century story in the twenty-first century.

    • Professional readers (zero, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times already), proofreaders (mentioned twice, but really the same thing as copy-editors), translators (zero if you’re not translating) … oh, and of course royalties (always less than 10%). I really don’t think academic presses typically have huge legal bills, either. They ask you to sign a standard contract that is vetted once and then used repeatedly, so their per-volume legal costs must be negligible. We’re not talking about Hustler magazine.

  5. This is just one anecdote, but I published a book with OUP in 1993, then one in 2001, and than another just recently. I was very pleasantly surprised by the price of the latest book: it’s $42 hardcover at Amazon, which I think is less than the hardcover price of either the 1993 or the 2001 book — I remember the former being around $70. So they certainly haven’t been raising prices, at least for my type of book, in the last 20 years.

    • P.S. A better example might be Harvard University Press, whose hardcovers are often very reasonable. Take a look at T.J. Hinrichs and Linda Barnes, eds., Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History. It lists for $45 (hardcover–and richly illustrated at that), and is available on Amazon for just $35.35. You can’t even get a paperback from most academic presses for $35.35.

    • Every time someone mentions the shockingly reasonable advertised price of this book I genuinely feel nervous. What if it really is a mistake, and we get it “fixed” to $149 just in time for the release? I’m only about 80% joking here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.