On Academic Pricing and ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’

Ever since my book released, I have had a lot of people ask me about the price.  Most are friends and family who are not associated with academic publishing, so the typical cost of a book for them is between $5-$15, like the price of a trade paperback one might pick up at Barnes and Noble.  I have finally found some time to write this; since recent reviews of my book, while overwhelmingly positive (so far), have also brought up the issue of the price (sells at $110).

So my point here is two-fold; first, while the book is expensive, I don’t believe the price should factor into book reviews (in fact I had an interesting conversation with Michael Halcomb about this issue recently, and the fruits of that conversation will be born out below) and second I believe someone should write a defense about the pricing, with some caveats.

Clearly academic pricing can be outrageous. Look up anything by Brill and be prepared to fall over when you see compendiums ranging from $600-$1100!  $1100 is, for some, a rent check or a mortgage payment.   Even standard monographs (with 80 less pages than my edited collection) like this one–http://www.brill.nl/use-anonymous-characters-greek-tragedy –that actually looks good, is going to cost a buyer more money than my book.  Even paperbacks are expensive, normally costing from $35-$70 in the lower ranges and $75-$95 in the higher ranges.

But keep in mind what books like mine really are: collections of essays from over a dozen academics. Each chapter is a researched publication on its own, generally worthy of any academic journal. And one should consider how much those cost if purchased individually.  On average, either through JSTOR or EBSCOHOST or any of those online journal storage sites, one 12-page article is upwards of $15 [and that is on the cheap end--more like $30]; so if one were to buy 14 articles at about 12 pages in length separately, the costs would exceed $210; and many of the papers in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ exceed 12 pages (so actually it would cost more).  And these are for digital copies.  If one were to purchase stand-alone volumes (i.e., monographs) expressing these same ideas by these scholars (even if all the books retailed at $20–which is incredibly low since many are academic publications upwards of $35–that would still be more than this collection) in the same sort of format, one would probably go hungry for a week.

Granted, you may get more pages for your buck by purchasing all of these individual books but not all of it will deal with this particular subject matter (Jesus’ historicity) nor will they likely have the impressive sort of scholarship surrounding this subject (a good portion of the chapters in my volume are refreshingly original and groundbreaking in many ways).  So you’re much better off just saving up and picking up a copy of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ from a discounted price (many distributors are offering the volume for around $85-$86, which is a significant discount—about 22%) than spending more money on multiple volumes on these subjects which may not be as critical or engaging.

So this is a reason why I believe this volume really is worth the price. I hope it goes to paperback, because I would like it if the book were more affordable for everyone else besides scholars, but I don’t believe the price is out of reach for most people.  And frankly if everyone waits around for a paperback, it may never come–paperback books are only produced when sales of the hardback make a paperback production worth it.  So waiting for this book to arrive in paperback to buy it is self-defeating.  If everyone waits around expecting the price to lower–it may never happen.  But those who have the means should consider the hardback anyway–it looks better on a shelf and survives longer than paperbacks.

Something else to consider: This book did take four years of work from everyone involved and that makes the price worth it if only so I might someday, in the distant future, break even.  So this is why I take some offense when I read reviewers writing about how great this volume is, and then go off on tangents about the price. It seems more like filler than anything else and some reviewers may get the wrong idea; that is to say, some reviewers may read ‘this book is way too expensive’ and receive that to mean ‘This book is great, but not that great.’  I hope that is not what my reviewers are suggesting (it doesn’t seem like they are, based upon the content), but it is possible that some may misunderstand the reviews in this way.

My other concern though is even if the price were halved (if my book were selling for $55) I’m not sure it would do any better.  If someone can afford to buy the book at $55 right away, in a week or two (whenever they get their next paycheck) they can afford $110.  And I’ve read reviews where people complain about books which are as low as $30.  And if a book sells a handful of copies a month, it will take years for the publishing house to see a profit.  The argument that ‘if books sold for less money, they would sell more’ is only true in certain instances.  When there is a high demand, when there is a bestseller, when people care about the issues.  As popular as the historical questions may be about the figure of Jesus, not everyone can make as much money on these questions as Bart Ehrman.  Publishers have to be realistic.

But Richard Carrier and Bill Hamby do raise an important issue.  Most likely, publishers could probably afford to lower the cost of academic texts.  And if the whole of the academic publishing community were to make a concerted effort to lower prices at once, it may make a difference.  I also think that academic publishers should consider lowering prices if only because I do believe that the internet will make academic publishing obsolete in the future–perhaps not in the next decade, but soon enough.  There is certainly a debate to be had about this, which is why I am writing on it, but I don’t believe the answer is ‘tell the publishers to lower prices’ because that can’t be the answer; academic publishers need to price high to break even because frankly there just isn’t much interest in whether or not the spaces in between the Greek mean much, or if the reception of the pastorals was such and such; only people in specialized areas of research need these books; it is bad business planning to price books low that won’t sell many copies.  I would like to think my book is the exception, maybe it is, but the publisher can’t take that chance.  People would start to lose jobs and that would be terrible.

UPDATE 5/15/13: The paperback version is now available for preorder and released at the end of July (…ceteris paribus) and is listed for $17.71!  So if you wanted a copy but couldn’t afford it before, it should be reasonably easier to acquire now.

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3 Responses

  1. “If someone can afford to buy the book at $55 right away, in a week or two (whenever they get their next paycheck) they can afford $110.”

    For most people it’s not about whether they can theoretically afford the book, it’s about what else they could use that money for. I’m not an academic myself, so the cost of buying this book would come out of the “edutainment” budget not the “professional expenses” budget.

    So for me, the question is: do I buy this book, or do I buy 10 pop-sci books about Arduino controllers or mitochondria, or do I take an extra day holiday in Spain? It’s a legitimate question, and it’s not inappropriate for these reviewers – who are largely pimping your book to a non-academic audience – to flag the opportunity cost as an issue.

    Incidentally, for what it’s worth, I don’t think many people would read the reviews as saying “this book is great, but not *that* great”. More like “this book is academic-genre, and priced accordingly, but it’s so valuable that I’m going to sing its praises to you anyway”. :-)

  2. For me it’s a question of all the $20 books in the world on interesting subjects that I know that I will never get around to reading, including many that I already own. I am interested enough that I might purchase Is This Not the Carpenter? if the price comes down a lot or I learn enough to become convinced that its value to me really will be several times that of all the other books I might like to read.

  3. [...] Jesus or the history of the scholarly arguments about it. Others have noted there is a significant price tag for the volume, but libraries are getting copies as we speak (and you can request it, then the [...]

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