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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Academic monographs costs and profits

Does anyone out there know of a site on the web that details how academic books are priced, how their production costs break down, and how they're sold (ie, what percentage of a run is full price, what percentage is reduced, and what percentage are "frees")?

We've been talking in the comments to a previous post about the dire situation of academic presses, and some of our commenters have inside info, having worked at a press, so I take their points. But it's always seemed a little odd to me that academic presses can't at least break even on monographs. After all, 500 copies at $30 each = $15,000. Figure on maybe a hundred frees, and another hundred at 40% off (or $18 of my hypothetical "cheap" price of $30), and you've got a press run of 700 with a potential gross of $16,800. So, can presses really not produce a run of that size for under $16,800 (factoring in some kind of amortized costs of salaries, warehousing, distributing, advertising, etc.)? Or can they not sell out such a run over the course of, say, ten years?

Just curious. I'd love to see something that breaks out all these figures for a typical academic book. Simplicius once sent me a link to a site that does this for mass-market paperbacks, but I can't seem to find it. If he comments it, I'll post it here.

Update: Simplicius sent me the link to the breakdown for a mass-market paperback, so here it is. Interesting reading, as are all your comments.

  • At 6/22/2006 10:26:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Boy, I wish I still had access to the initial costs worksheets I used to use. Off the top of my head, though, here are two observations:

    1. It's rare to price a paperback monograph for the $30 or $35 dollars you suggest--I was surprised to see that as the price for the Shuger book, especially since it's so short; looking around my library I see that most of the PB monographs I've bought in recent years run around $20. I'd certainly support a shift to an all-PB print run that halves the list price of the HB copies to $35, esp. if libraries are now buying PB copies (which I wasn't aware of), but whether enough people would buy at that rate, I don't know.

    2. Lifetime sales for many monographs hover around 400, if you're lucky--not counting frees.

    3. Which means that the real problem is a lack of sales. There is indeed a magic number that represents the average cost of production, below which you're in trouble, but damned if I can remember what it was from either of my places of employ.

    I'll see what info I can round up elsewhere.


  • At 6/22/2006 01:11:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I’m back, with less success than I’d hoped. The American Association of University Presses has some great information, but the one thing that looks really promising—the results of a survey of operations expenses—is members-only.

    However, here are two more tidbids:

    From an article about the MLA in The Believer (this comes from a panel on scholarly publishing): “Jennifer Crewe of Columbia University Press presents some numbers, which provide perspective. Average production cost of a university-press title: $25,000. Total number of copies of each title purchased by all university libraries in bygone days: 1,000. Number of copies of each title sold to all libraries in current crisis days: 200. A book that sells very well (say, 500 copies) might recoup: $10,000-$12,000. Average loss on average university-press title: $10,000+.”

    And from an article on the crisis in scholarly publishing in the New York Review of Books there’s confirmation that a book that sells WELL sells 400-500 copies.

    This doesn't answer the question of how those costs break down, or whether there aren't other corners that could be cut--but there you are, for what it's worth.


  • At 6/22/2006 01:26:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I just find it difficult to believe that a monograph has to cost $25,000 to produce, especially these days with computer typesetting, minimal editing, and the rise of print-on-demand technology. That's why I wish we could see a real cost breakdown. I wonder how presses that require authors to submit camera-ready copy do in comparison to presses that Columbia, Cambridge, Oxford, and others that stick closer to the older models and methods.


  • At 6/22/2006 02:00:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    For comparison's sake, the article that I sent H (the link for which I can't find either right now; must be on my other computer) estimates the production costs for a mass market paperback romance to be $0.55 per copy. While these will obviously be higher for an academic monograph, it can't be the actual physical production of academic books that results in their radically higher costs, can it? And if production itself isn't driving expenses, what is?

    Another issue that I'm curious about, and that may or may not matter, is the time frame in which publishers give themselves to sell monographs. How much time before they banish unsold copies to the remainder bin?


  • At 6/22/2006 08:21:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Usually "production" refers to typesetting, printing, and binding, not to acquisitions, permissions, editorial, or marketing work, so that may be part of it. It also matters whether that "production" figure includes labor or just the cost of the paper, machinery, etc.

    For each book there's usually an acquisitions editor, a production editor, a designer, an editorial assistant or two, a marketing associate, and an indexer and a copyeditor. Depending on the press, an acquisitions editor may oversee between 20-40 books a year (the other people would likely handle more titles, esp. the indexers and copyeditors, who are only paid hourly anyway).

    No one's getting rich in publishing, but they still have to get paid. As does the overhead for facilities, equipment, HR people, IT people, permissions people, and on and on. That latter group of expenses gets spread out over a lot of books, obviously, but when a press only publishes a couple-few hundred books a year. . . it's not THAT many books!

    I wish I had better and more specific figures to give you to justify the pricing and sales decisions that are made, but although I'm certainly not in love with a lot of what goes on in academic publishing, I really believe that the people who work there are managing costs as best they can within the model that the business now uses.

    Whether there's a better model is a different question.


  • At 6/23/2006 02:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    For whatever it's worth, lulu.com (a print-to-order self publisher on the web--there are many now, and they print up whatever you send them, typos and all) has a price calculator for what they charge. To get a 6" x 9" hardcover book with a dust jacket (their most expensive option in this size), 250 pages, 500 copies, they'll charge you $8,505.00.

    On the one hand, they have no editorial review, no outside reviewers, no proofreaders, no marketing department, no anything, and print on terrible, cheap paper. On the other hand, most book manuscripts with traditional university presses don't exactly get royal treatment as things stand now--turnover of personnel seems to take place monthly, there is no marketing to speak of, proofreading is marginal, etc. Still, they can turn a profit on a book at this price.

    It seems to me that we need rigorous standards of peer review ensuring high quality material, but that a "print to order" (a library orders a copy, and your publisher has one printed, so that there are no extra copies) model that assumes no or very limited distribution in bookstores--and I'm sorry, but who buys a scholarly monograph in a bookstore nowadays?--selling directly to libraries and offering the book on Amazon could save substantial costs. In other words, there clearly is a model in between the $8,000/book fly-by-night press and the$25,000/book university press.

    I know about lulu.com, of course, because they're the bastards who refused to publish my Frodo/Harry Potter slash fiction novel (some things even these presses won't stoop to). I'll show them the power of the Xerox machine yet!


  • At 6/23/2006 04:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Well, just a few remarks:

    One: I guess the figure mentioned above of 200 copies sold to libraries is rather realistic (and AFIK the fugueres for publications in other languages than English often are considerably lower). And let's be realistic: many academic monographs are that specialized that even at a comparatively low price they wouldn't sell many additional copies: so the break even has to be reached from the books sold to libraries. So the calculation of the price of a book is simple: (costs-the-publisher-has plus profit-the-publisher-wants minus money-received-from-sponsoring-entities) / copies sold. I made a few calculations and according to these calculations lula.com might have a quite generous margin of profit ... .

    Two: Books are published to be read. And that means that the most important things a publisher can provide and for which the publisher pays (who normally, let's be realistic, won't pay much for for typesetting [done by the authors or people at their institution] and the quality control [done by people not charging the publisher for that]) are: efficient distribution and efficient marketing (getting the information out to libraries, getting the in formation out to academics who tell their libraries to acquire a certain book, getting reviews in the right places).

    Three: The barebones costs of physical production of a book are rather low (try to ask a local printer for an offer: my experiuence is: that sometimes from 50 and most times from 100 copies it will be cheaper to have the book printed than to have it xeroxed).

    Four: So legitimate differences in the cost of certain publishers should be due to their performance at distribution and marketing.

    Five: No, IMO "prestige" does not enter into the equation: the days when I could be confident that no book published by certain publishers would be substandard quality have passed into the far away past (1997ca. ?).


  • At 6/23/2006 04:47:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    I 'spose it's still early days for me to be thinking about turning my thesis into a book, but this topic makes me nervous :S (obligatory emoticon)


  • At 6/29/2006 05:00:00 PM, Blogger Liane wrote…

    Just a quick note on this post-- I work in the sales dept. of a major university press, and I can honestly say that few if any people buy a book directly from us. We sell about 80% of our books at a 40% or more discount. And the 100 free copies is fairly accurate. I still can't quite figure out the math and why they are always quite so expensive, as being a grad student I am stuck in the menial sales assistant role and am not privy to the inner workings of the machine that is a UP. But thought I'd offer that we hardly ever sell a book to anyone at full price.


  • At 6/29/2006 06:09:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Hi Moll (if I may)--welcome and thanks for your comment! That's interesting--I take it that most of those 40% discounts are sold at conferences and to other authors with your press who get the author discount? ie, not on Amazon or other retailers who offer discounts? It doesn't surprise me very much, since most of the book-buying I do these days is at conferences. But perhaps it somewhat accounts for the high prices, since that price is to some extent mythical--the presses figure only libraries will pay it anyway (and maybe libraries get discounts for standing orders, bulk orders, etc.?) so why not price it very high and expect to get your "real" price of 60% of the cover price.


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