Academic publishing has gone topsy-turvy over the past couple of decades, leaving those responsible for hiring, retention, tenure and promotion often scratching their heads. There’s so much money, now, in even small print runs (if the publisher is appropriately situated) that 300 hardbound copies sold at 100 dollars each to libraries can create profits–especially if done in sufficient numbers. Hiring and appointments committees are increasingly turning to the number of citations in assessing the value of a publication–but even this gets inflated as more and more academic books (not to mention the proliferation of academic journals) get published.
A post on The Guardian‘s Higher Education Network’s “Anonymous Academic” blog yesterday deals directly with the business end of this phenomenon and on some of its implications. It ends with a troubling comment, “So why don’t academics simply stay away from the greedy publishers? The only answer I can think of is vanity.” Vanity has a lot to do with it, but I think pleasing the committees who control our professional futures has more. Most of those who judge is created their careers in the days before the internet and they see the print book as the gold standard. We still have not reached a point where alternative venues for the same material mean as much as books do.
The writer, however, makes excellent points. She or he recounts a conversation with an editor for an academic press:
“How much would the book be sold for?” I inquired, aware this might not be his favourite question. “£80,” he replied in a low voice.
“So there won’t be a cheaper paperback edition?” I asked, pretending to sound disappointed.
“No, I’m afraid not,” he said, “we only really sell to libraries. But we do have great sales reps that get the books into universities all across the world.”
We are providing extremely cheap material (paid for by our universities, not the publishers) for books then sold at high prices to the libraries of the same universities where we work in the first place. Though this may be extremely profitable for the publishers, is it fair to the universities? The writer provides no answers, but this is a question we need to start exploring–just as we are beginning to reassess our attitude towards alternate routes of scholarly publication.