£130 for a book • 11 February 2011 • The SnowBlog
£130 for a book
I'm a very nerdy person. Very, very nerdy. I hope that's not shattering too many fond imaginings, but you deserve the truth. I will occasionally read textbooks for fun. There, I've said it. Of course, I tend to favour standard college textbooks - the broad overview kind that will be on the reading lists of every English-speaking university in the world. They cost twenty to forty pounds for great slabs of carefully-curated info, with heaps of pretty pictures. And because I bought one of those, Amazon are suggesting I might like to buy an interesting-sounding* title in a slightly more niche area. But it's £130 and I baulk at that.
*to me at least Now I get/understand
/grok the volume-related economics of these things. Standard introductory college textbooks with their 'international editions' cost a fortune but they're designed to ship in their hundreds of thousands. Try to do the same amount of work on a title that will sell two thousand copies a year and the unit price would need to go through the roof to make it economically viable. Then again, glance at one of these nichier titles and you'll see it's a very different animal to the standard college intro textbook. Pages of text instead of hundreds of glossy diagrams - no CD-ROM and interactive website. So it's not as though teams of illustrators, designers and layout gurus are working round the clock on them - and I doubt that they have to be shopped extensively around educational boards for comments, checking and sign-off either.
So why the giant price tag? If I worked out that the only way to make a book profitable was to bump the cover price to three figures, I'd almost certainly abandon it. So that leads me to wonder why such things are commissioned in the way that they are. Who is it who will pay £130 a time or more for books? For most academics that would mean paying more for a shelf of books than for the car they're driving. So is it just university libraries and companies into research for whom one or two hundred pounds per book is acceptable? The title I'm talking about is a bit over 200 pages with an 8-page colour plate section, so we're not talking Gray's Anatomy here in terms of illustrations and content.
The sums of money involved seem so high that you'd think it would make more sense for a consortium of university libraries to club together and commission a couple of hundred technical titles per year. Approach authors directly, then hire a few people like Anna (=Snowbooks' secret weapon) to tidy up their manuscripts, typeset them and design covers, and then maybe POD print them as you need them. Because they're academic titles you could get them checked for technical accuracy using a peer-review approach. Seems like you'd save heaps of money, and the lower price-tag might even allow for even more esoteric topics to be covered.
In the meantime, I'll wait until this £130 title appears in a dump-bin at Blackwells for £4 in a year or two.