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“Why Are ‘Academic’ Books So Darned Expensive?” Part One.


I asked myself this question when I discovered that The Aesthetics of Imperfection in Music and the Arts, a collection of essays and interviews published by Bloomsbury Press, that I was asked to contribute to by its co-editor, the Wire-linked author and philosophy lecturer, Andy Hamilton, had a whopping RRP of £130 attached to it. I immediately, and narcissistically, thought to myself, “there goes the general public’s opportunity to read your modest contribution to the book, entitled, not especially originally, 'The Aesthetics of Improvisation in Jazz and Free Improvisation’ ”. Like most books that bear an 'academic’ imprimatur, it will probably be available at some point in the future in paperback form, but, even in that format, is very likely to retail at about £30. a price that will put off most people apart from the die hard fan.

Another recent Bloomsbury publication, coincidently a biographical piece by Andy Hamilton, is Pianos, Toys, Music and Noise: Conversations with Steve Beresford, weighing in at 313 pages (a relative flyweight in comparison to Aesthetics…) and priced at a mere £81. Reviewer Louise Gray (Wire #466) opined that it is “aimed at academic libraries…The price hurts. A much more affordable paperback is on its way next year”. This is such a great shame. (I have read sections of the book, and it looks like a great read for the 'non-academic’, but there is absolutely no chance of this particular non-academic stumping up that sort of a sum.) The Aesthetics… volume is self-descriptive, in that it a lovely product in hard copy. Any reader who loves the latter format will appreciate the gloss and heft of this professionally bound book, which, if looked after, should last its owner(s) a lifetime. Unlike my copy of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records (Granta Books) that literally fell apart after a single reading, basically due to crap bonding glue. My treasured copy of John Wicks’s Innovations in British Jazz: 1960-1980, long out of print, suffered the same disintegrative fate, so a big cross next to Trevor Taylor’s late Soundworld Books, I’m afraid (the use of ineffective glue again). Two other great books on jazz that I own, are also beautifully and robustly presented, but have remained resolutely intact: Jazz in the 1970s: Diverging Streams by Bill Shoemaker, and Duncan Heining’s Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975.

From what I remember, the Shoemaker and the Heining came in at around £25 and £30 respectively, so the price of decently bound books doesn’t have to be either toe-curling or eye-watering (pick your own chosen body-discomfort metaphor!) So I decided to do a small amount of research to find out why the likes of Bloomsbury Press were asking such ridiculous prices, and what their business model might be. (Presumably does it involves selling books to interested parties?)


To Be Continued...

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.