A frank exchange of opinion

Isn’t blogging wonderful (sometimes)? On Sunday, Susan Hill protested about the price being charged for Nicola Watson’s book The Literary Tourist. After a short review of the book, she wrote: "But in their wisdom the publishers have not only made it look more like a scholarly book than a popular one  which is a pity – but worse they have the nerve to charge £45 for it. Yes, you heard me correctly. Even libraries – which do not buy many new books now anyway – are not going to order this for you. I tell you what. I challenge Palgrave to hand THE LITERARY TOURIST over to their general division, Macmillan. I then challenge Macmillan to issue another edition – for the general interested reader, with a new, more lively jacket and as a paperback, to cost no more than £10. It still would not (probably) make Richard and Judy but it would definitely reach the parts that a £45 academic book will not reach. And if Macmillan won’t do it, with my publisher’s hat on, I will."  Five people agree with her, in the comments to the blog post.

The next day, Monday, Richard Charkin, CEO of Macmillan, responded:  "Susan’s commentators are horrified at the idea of paying £45 for a 250 page book. Compared to discounted Harry Potter of course £45 seems expensive. But is it? Try comparing the price with a shirt, a meal in a London restaurant, a ticket to a major sporting event, a train ticket, an hour of a lawyer’s time. I think academic books are amazingly good value. They are permanent. They are valuable. They are great value for money. They are the fruit of extensive research and application. They are fundamental to the scholarly process. They reach a global audience and are readily available through libraries for those who cannot afford to purchase. They are fit for purpose and worth every penny. Thank goodness academic publishers have worked out a way of continuing to publish academic works commercially in spite of library budget constraints and falling print runs."

This type of exchange, between two top, well-informed, open-minded and opinionated publishers would not have happened, on this timescale at least, 10 years ago. More’s the pity. But now, thanks to the willingness of the two individuals concerned to write openly about their views as well as the good old Internet, we can all see for ourselves how these pricing decisions are made. To take an example somewhat closer to home, I would rather stay in and read (and, if I so choose, re-read) a £45 book than spend £50 on seeing "We will rock you" in the West End (and have to spend another £50 if I wanted to see it again).

5 thoughts on “A frank exchange of opinion

  1. Received well Mr Charkin relating costs because books so compared are revealed as cost conscious purchases. Also good for our information as noted!

  2. Sorry Mr. Charkin, but I don’t buy the pricing point argument. Academic books are expensive because they generally cost more to produce (due to things like obtaining reproductive rights to charts and illustrations), require more research and effort on the part of the author, and often have a short selling span before requiring an update to a new edition. Calling them “permanent” and “valuable” is what’s known as positioning.
    In the educational market, what often happens is that the publisher might realize that a particular work has appeal beyond academia. To get more out of the long tail, they’ll reposition a book for the “trade” market. This often is done with a title change and reprinting in another format (trade paperback size, less glossy/cheaper paper, snazzy cover graphic). This may occur at the end of the academic version’s lifespan. Sometimes, both the more expensive academic version and cheaper trade version are in print simultaneously. Yet, the two markets rarely meet because publishers control where books are sold and to what kind of customer.
    Based on the above, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Literary Tourist eventually becomes a candidate for repositioning.
    I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with the above since publishers need to make money and pricing is driven by what a consumer is willing to spend based on perceived value. But with the Internet putting so much information at our fingertips, a savvy academic can frequently find better value for their buck in the trade market.

  3. Interesting, to me anyway, is the dilemma of how publishers market not just academic books but all books. The pricing of books, in part, must reflect how many a publisher expects to sell of a title. I’ve long argued that a big and growing issue is the relationship between marketing and selling in publishing. The publishing industry needs to grasp the opportunity that is the www with greater skill in order that they more effectively market their titles. No longer is the review in the newspapers (declining sales of papers affect this activity) and the help from a bookseller the answer to a publisher’s prayer. I worked in the airline business and not many years ago if you had said that the travel agent’s, and particularly the bucket shops, hold on the business would be broken with airlines dealing directly with their customers, you would have been laughed at.

  4. Although I can’t speak for all publishers, the two houses I worked for had both trade and educational divisions (which is how I know a bit about both markets). Pricing was pretty much standard based on production costs, contract royalties, and format. Sales projections were more tied to initial print run, but, of course, print run also factors into production costs.
    Publishing is an extremely complex industry even though it might seem like printing a book is a fairly easy thing to do. In addition, it moves very, very slowly. If you think about it, the book itself hasn’t changed much since it was invented by the ancient Romans. The last revolution in publishing happened when Gutenberg invented the printing press. Before the Internet, publishers spent roughly 600 years of doing business the same way so it should be no surprise that they’re slow to catch on.

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