Think book prices are out of whack? Try charging $7380

Considering how active, and acrimonious, the debate on scholarly publishing and scholarly open access has become, it’s valuable to get some data points into the mix. Like one, courtesy of Doug’s Archaeology, about the 11-volume Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology from Springer, which costs €5.617,50 ($7380) in its print-plus-ereference edition.

Doug’s Archaeology comes from Doug Rocks Macqueen, a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, and focuses “mainly on the Profession of Archaeology e.g. pay, working conditions, career prospect, etc. Though I do on occasion through in some other topics and some bits on Open Access.” And in his spare time, he seems to be doing some pretty useful research into the economics of publishing too. For instance, “most mass media books lose money. It is hard to get stats on this and it would vary from publisher to publisher, but roughly 1 out 20 books makes money (some claim it is 1 out 100). It is a long tail model. Essentially, about 17-18 books will lose money (very little but still not really make money). 1-2 will break even/make a little, but one will pay for all the rest. That one is the Harry Potters of the world but also the Of Mice and Mens too.”

And when it comes to scholarly publishing, “edited books being a bunch of different authors contribute a chapter each, usually they come out of a conference or session in a conference. They are very narrow in their subject and focus. Authors almost never get paid upfront or at all. Contributing to an edited volume means you get paid nothing. Usually, putting together an edited volume pays nothing. Though sometimes you might get a small percentage of the profits (5%, 10% or 15%) or a stipend.” And, he continues, in scholarly publishing, “the average print run is now around 200-300 books … it is very unlikely that more than a few hundred of these books will ever be printed, let alone sold. This has of course changed in the last few decades. In the 1970s print runs use to be into the several thousands but because journals have squeezed library budgets they can no longer afford to buy these books.”

Note: journals are the ones putting pressure on scholarly library budgets, Doug claims. And for budding academic authors, self-publishing is not necessarily a great solution because “you won’t have access to the libraries.” His final recommendation is: “consider Open Access. If you are DIY publishing it makes very little sense to charge $9.99 for a book so you can make $2 an hour for your work. If you got a single CRM contract or academic grant because you wrote a book someone read (because it was open access) it will pay 100X the little beer money you would get from 100 people buying your book. Just a thought.”

As to who is actually going to pay Springer for that 11-volume set, all bets are off. But you do wonder whether any of the articles in there would be worth the cover price when much of the same information is likely accessible for free over the internet anyway. And just how many public grants went to support the research that Springer has aggregated and is now charging up to $7380 for? Now that would be an interesting calculation to make …

3 Comments on Think book prices are out of whack? Try charging $7380

  1. Not exactly the first expensive academic e-book. See my 2008 piece on a $6,200 nuclear energy book.

    One of my friends pointed out that the text of that nuclear energy book was available free via an academic PDF service to which Stanford subscribes. It seems likely that would be true for this archaeology book as well. In which case, the high price might be a red herring; it’s expected to sell so few copies that its price must be commensurately high.

  2. I’m not normally one to defend commercial publishers or the prices they charge, but this critique is poorly researched and off-base on a number of counts. Based on Springer’s product sheet for this encyclopedia – to which the Teleread article provides a helpful link – I gather that this is not some random aggregation of information freely available on the Internet, but a ‘comprehensive and systematic’ work – the first in the discipline – that includes contributions from hundreds of scholars. It’s not stated in the product sheet, but I assume these scholars were invited to write original articles based on their expertise, and may very well have been paid for their contributions (not uncommon for this type of reference book). Furthermore, the encyclopedia includes 300,000 words of translated articles (presumably translated by human beings, not by Google Translate) that have never appeared before in English, and has a lineup of around 70 section editors. Finally, the online edition will be continuously updated. It would be nice if Springer provided much more detail on their website – such as a comprehensive list of articles and their authors – to help prospective buyers decide whether it’s worth the hefty price but, based on my quick review of the website, it appears that a substantial amount of work has gone, and will continue to go, into the creation and maintenance of the encyclopedia. Whether it’s worth the price remains to be seen (I’m hoping for deep discounts so my library can afford it), but I would argue that a work of this kind still has its place and its audience in the midst of the Internet’s seemingly ubiquitous and freely available information. According to WorldCat (, at least 169 libraries agree and have already bought the encyclopedia in one form or another.

  3. Claims that only one in twenty books make a profit for a publisher may explain why the largest publishers seem to be merging.

    * If you are small and just publish 20 books a year and somehow that year you miss having the one profitable one, you are in big trouble.

    * On the other hand if you’re large enough to publish 400 books a year, even a bad year doesn’t mean no profitable books. It might just mean 15 rather than that statistical 20. A larger publisher also has the resources to publicize a book that starts to take off.

    * The fact that most books lose money argues against pricing books just based on the costs of that one book. It’s carrying on its back 19 others that are losing money or breaking even. If that one book doesn’t do well, the others with disappear. Next year there’ll be no money for anyone other than the sorts of famous authors who always sell well.

    * That also explain why publishers are reluctant to cut prices on a bestseller. They need the large sales and large profits to cover for the duds.

    Except for its hobby publishing, Amazon isn’t in that game. It’s investment in the books it sells is virtually nil. It stocks based on sales and if books don’t sell it returns them. I suspect that for Amazon perhaps 19 out of 20 books make a profit, with that one except used as a loss-leader to draw in customers.

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