The ‘Cost’ of Academic Books. Part Two.

I have had occasion to discuss, both in my own books and within these blogs, the issue of 'academicisation’, 'historicisation’ and 'intellectualisation’ in both jazz and free improvisation. Excessive use of these approaches can make the music appear unapproachably 'niche’ and/or inward-looking. The costing of books by some publishers, more than a few with their own connections to institutions of 'higher learning’, serves to reinforce the notion of exclusivity, the hefty price tags removing some books from the purview of the 'mildly curious and potentially interested’ enquirer, and ring-fencing them for an academic freemasonry and/or well-heeled fanatics.

I was directed to two blogs about this subject, by Thomas Kidd (March 2017) and Katie Beswick (June 2018). Both were titled, in effect, “Why is this book so expensive?” Andy Hamilton has merely reinforced their observations in his e-mail, sent to me today, which also serves to back up Louise Gray’s comments in her review of his Steve Beresford book (cited in the last blog). It appears that the 'business model’ could be summed up as:

“Expect low demand for this book, sell to academic libraries at a high price, and recoup our costs, thereby at least 'breaking even’. Sell in paperback format at a future date, if sufficient demand appears to be there”.

I would have thought that there would be a relatively healthy demand for a book about Beresford, one of our most highly profiled improvisers over the past 45 years? I can’t quite grasp why such a book should be marketed in such a reductive way - is it because Steve is seen as an 'intellectual poseur’ himself, having taught at university level? (David Toop also runs a similar risk.) Anyone spending 5 minutes with the man would be disabused of such a notion: 'down to earth’ and 'approachable’ just about nails Steve Beresford.

Katie Beswick observes that these sorts of books “are very niche, and publishers don’t expect to sell more than a few hundred copies…purchased by mostly university libraries”. She suggests that the author “typically makes minimal returns on any sales” but that the process can give him/her both “kudos” and “career progression”. Thomas Kidd, in turn, notes that:

“Normally, only books that are regarded as having 'trade potential’ - meaning popular sales - will be priced at 30 dollars or less…if the press does not regard it as a trade book, it will not be marketed or sold as such”.

There are interesting correspondences here with 18th and 19th century tropes about the inferior status of 'trade’ (“he is 'in trade’ ” being a snobbish insult, in the literature of the time) as opposed to the 'intrinsic value’ of being from an aristocratic, landowning background. 'Merely mercantile interests’ were always held in lower esteem, at least in the ruling class mindset, than the latter’s 'essential worthiness’. Although “trade potential” without doubt brings home the bacon in the overall narrative of a publisher, the high price of 'academic books’ ensures that they at least 'break even’ with their more 'aristocratic’ products. The 'profit motive’, in this particular scenario appears, rather suspiciously, to have been subsumed under a larger aesthetically 'high minded’ motive? Certainly, an RRP of £130 indicates a Harrods level of commitment to 'quality over quantity’.

Hmm. Discuss?

The above is probably a rather fanciful 'false equivalence’ but, just as economically trammelled aristocrats found it necessary to marry 'beneath them’ to survive and thrive 'in the market place’, it might behove publishers to take a punt on making their more challenging product more accessible to the 'lower orders’. The ordinary punter is perfectly able to appreciate an aesthetic object, or a demanding narrative. If I can sell a few hundred copies of my self-published books on a perceived 'very niche’ topic, look at the potential for an large printing institution to attract an considerable audience for beautifully bound editions selling at a high, but not completely barmy, price. After all, look how many want a vinyl edition of The Beatles (at over £30, ffs!) or Electric Ladyland (ditto), as opposed to 'soulless’ compact disc editions, never mind a copy that is up, up and away on a cloud. (Albums that I need not remind the listener, were released well over fifty years ago.)

News Just In

And the news just announced (22.00 hrs on Wednesday 9th June 2021), is that Oxford University Press is closing down its printing arm, with a job loss of 20 people. I am reminded that whilst, in the late 1990s, there were maybe seven record shops in Camden Town, there is now only one. (As far as I can ascertain, but I may be wrong.) Bookshops face a similar fate (as do libraries). Let’s not insult the audience by pricing out challenging, but potentially rewarding, books, because of the default option of “no-one will be interested in this stuff”.

Custom Post Images

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.