Why Is My Book So Expensive? The Cost of a Scholarly Monograph

Catherine Cocks's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Authors often ask publishers, “Why is my book so expensive?” The short answer: it really isn’t that expensive. The long answer: your scholarly book might cost more than commercially published nonacademic books because academic presses are spreading the cost of producing a title across a smaller number of print units. Each unit therefore has to be priced higher to enable the press to recoup the cost of production.

The longer answer: In the past, say the halcyon 1980s, academic presses could count on selling about 1,500 copies of the average scholarly monograph. Most of the buyers were college and university libraries. An initial, small cloth edition priced relatively high and aimed primarily at those libraries would ideally earn enough revenue to offset a significant proportion of the production costs. If it did and the cloth copies sold out, then the press would print a paperback edition that could be priced in the $20 to $30 range. Or, the publisher might issue the cloth and paper editions simultaneously, trying to cover its costs by catering to both library and individual buyers.

Then the digital revolution happened. Libraries needed to invest heavily in hardware and software to make the new electronic resources available to their campuses. At the same time, library budgets were flat or falling (largely because of the widespread reduction in public funding for higher education, which is the essential context for this whole post). The money for these new and rapidly changing resources had to come from somewhere, and it generally came from the budget for monographs in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. STEM journal subscriptions in particular became increasingly expensive and took up a growing proportion of library budgets. In short, libraries bought more databases and journals and fewer books.

This change in library priorities meant that the market for scholarly monographs shrank, and it continues to shrink. Academic presses responded by printing fewer copies of each title, to avoid piling up unsold copies for which they might have to pay warehousing and eventually pulping fees. Meanwhile, although the digital revolution transformed publishers’ production processes, it didn’t significantly reduce costs. Nor did the advent of the e-book in the early 2000s. Printing accounts for only about a third of total book production costs on average, while electronic scholarly monographs are generally sold via databases provided by aggregators. Presses earn pennies on the dollar on such sales, compared with sales of individual print copies. Libraries’ turn to patron-driven acquisitions (essentially, waiting until someone clicks on a title to purchase it) further reduces publishers’ revenue and makes it less predictable.

Although short-run digital printing and print-on-demand have made it more affordable to print fewer copies without sacrificing too much in quality, these new options reduce up-front costs without necessarily making the overall publishing program sustainable.

So prices are going up (and have been going up for decades) because publishers now can expect to sell fewer⏤sometimes many fewer⏤than 500 copies in all formats of the average scholarly monograph. They have to spread similar costs over a third of the units. Although short-run digital printing and print-on-demand have made it more affordable to print fewer copies without sacrificing too much in quality, these new options reduce up-front costs without necessarily making the overall publishing program sustainable. Prices have to rise if presses are to have any hope of recouping their costs. Though university presses are nonprofits, just recovering production costs doesn’t cover all of their expenses, nor does it give them the leeway to innovate⏤for example, by taking advantage of new digital technologies or building new platforms for multimedia scholarship. 

What are those production costs? Direct costs are those paid specifically to create a title. Typically they include copy editing, design of the cover and the interior of the book, typesetting, e-book conversion if needed, printing, binding, and shipping. (Proofreading and indexing are by necessity now mostly left to authors.) The longer the book, the more illustrations that have to be cleaned up and placed in the typeset pages, the more complex the apparatus, the more it will cost to edit, design, typeset, print, and ship. Color inks cost more, and color pages usually have to be run on higher quality, more expensive paper on separate machines, then reintegrated with pages run in grayscale. A book produced entirely in color is even more expensive. All of these elements contribute to the cost, and therefore the price, of the book.

Indirect costs are a proportion of the press’s overhead assigned to a book project. Overhead includes salaries and benefits for the acquisitions editor who worked with the author from proposal through peer review and editorial board approval, the project editor who shepherded the book through production, and the marketer who got the word out in various ways from entering metadata to sending email blasts and arranging book signings. Like many American workers, people in publishing have seen their salaries remain the same or barely creep up even as the cost of living has increased substantially, particularly in big cities and many college towns. Overhead also includes the press’s rent, royalty administration, title management database fees, and much more of the unglamorous and essential back-end processes. (For more on this topic, see “The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward a Transparent Methodology.”)

Presses use a variety of pricing strategies to try to ensure that each title breaks even or at least that the overall publishing program is sustainable. Some continue to use the time-tested strategies mentioned above⏤cloth, then paper or simultaneous cloth and paper editions at different prices. Others have dispensed with the cloth edition (whose price may discourage sales) and go straight to paper, but at a higher price to offset the absence of cloth sales. Those very high prices you see from some publishers⏤say $80 to $120 for a slim monograph⏤reflect both very short print runs (perhaps 100 to 250 units) and the fact that libraries, which are less price-sensitive than individuals, are the only customers likely to buy significant numbers. (Yes, publishers have tried lowering prices in the hope of attracting more buyers. It doesn’t usually pencil out.) Presses often use a variety of approaches to account for different purchasing patterns by individuals and libraries across disciplines. Another strategy is to keep book prices artificially low, losing money on them while balancing the press’s books with a profitable journal program or distribution services. 

The other thing to understand about pricing is that publishers rarely earn the full list price of a book because they don’t sell most of their titles directly to consumers. Far more often, they are selling to wholesalers and retailers who then sell to libraries and individuals. Wholesalers and retailers buy at a discount (typically 20% to 50% or more) off list price so that they can recoup their own costs and hopefully earn a profit selling the books to the end user. When publishers set list prices, they are taking into account the fact that the actual sale price will most often be significantly lower. On top of that, publishing is highly unusual in that wholesalers and retailers can return unsold stock any time⏤sometimes years after the initial sale. 

This is a simplified sketch of what goes into determining a scholarly monograph’s cost and therefore its price. I hope it underscores the point that right now, scholarly book publishing faces many challenges in fulfilling its mission to circulate the fruits of academic research. Many people are trying to rethink its business model to be more sustainable for the long run. In the Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem and Knowledge Unlatched initiatives, universities or university libraries collectively invest in presses up front, and presses then make the books available to readers for free. The US National Endowment for the Humanities has also offered publication grants aimed at fostering open access scholarly publishing through the Open Book and the Fellowship Open Book programs. Taking a different approach, the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot consolidates production work and produces an e-first edition with a print-on-demand option to member presses. Individual presses have also adapted the author-pays model from journals to book publishing, and some universities are providing such funding to their tenure-track faculty. The Elephant’s interview with the University of Michigan Press’s Charles Watkinson on open access explores some of the possibilities and hurdles involved in transforming the business model. Have something to add? We’d love to hear from you.

Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing.