Beach is presently reading an academic book that cost 105 dollars. There are 384 pages in said book, which means that purchasers will be expected to pay a little over 50 cents for each leaf of paper (front and back). Strangely, Beach is not bitter about the reading experience because (i) the book is a review copy, (ii) there are witches on every page and (iii) the book was written by a WANW and is very, very good (another post, another day). But this is not, unfortunately, a routine or inevitable experience. Living in a country where libraries are somewhat lacking and studying things that are rarely represented in those libraries this blogger has to buy a lot of academic books that are expensive and all too often mediocre and occasionally useless or delusional (though that can be fun). The lack of reviews (particularly with books that are just a year old), the lack of previews (though online sample chapters are slowly changing things here) and the sheer unhelpfulness of blurbs makes buying one of these books a hazardous affair, particularly when they are over fifty dollars.
Imagine now the tension. You shell out a round hundred. A month passes and heavy parcel arrives at post office. All the village comes out to see as you walk home trying to be ‘cool’ withthe parcel like warm bread under arm. Then, you can’t find the keys so you stand at the door like a charlie. Then when you do get in, you can’t find the scissors so you have to remove the hard white tape with a blunt knife. Then, you start to sweat as you open the cover and smell the ink. After that it is just a matter of half an hour. Five minutes in you know whether the scholar can write. Another ten minutes in and you will understand if the scholar cares about the cold hard thing called ‘truth’ or is, instead, publicly masturbating. Then, after about thirty minutes, you find out whether Foucault, ‘urban studies’, words like ‘semiotics’ (and other monstrosities of the modern age) are going to make an offensively frequent appearances. If everything goes according to plan you sink into the lovely routine of putting the kids to bed and then gently rasping the pencil down the margins, while the the bairns start snoring: Beach sometimes wonders if this isn’t what sheep feel when they graze on very green grass. Alternatively, you find yourself in possession of some extremely expensive toilet paper.
The free market is a wonderful thing: it has created wealth and allowed us to help one another in ways and to a degree that no other society in history has achieved. (Viva Hayek!) The problem is that this is one of these areas where the free market does not really operate. A couple of years ago Beach found himself talking to a manager from Variorum, a prestigious and worthwhile imprint that brings out reprints of classic academic papers, in furry blue covers. (Following on from the sheep grazing simile above, when Beach sees a new Variorum volume on the shelves at the local university, particularly anything to do with Coptic, he feels like a rutting tortoise.) The manager in question noted that even if a book was a complete dud there were still several dozen libraries that would buy the book as a matter of course because it had the Variorum mark. Make no mistake those nice men and women at Variorum have deserved their success, but there are academic books, imprints and, indeed, publishing houses that could follow Atlantis beneath the waves to ecstatic rounds of applause. These ‘academic’ books, imprints and publishing houses enjoy success on the back of box tickers in university libraries, libraries that are typically paid for, at least in Europe, by the taxpayer. We have a parallel to the disturbing monopoly on academic knowledge kept by those large online databases, databases that are reproducing information that has, in many case, also been paid for or subsidized by the taxpayer. Yet if you as a taxpayer go and ask for access to an article from one of those databases you will either be told to go away or asked for your credit card details: and there you will pay something like ten dollars for an (electronic) front and back leaf of paper. Zounds!
Beach would like to write something here about the world turned upside down. But, to be honest, this sounds pretty much like business as normal by other means…
Other thoughts on academic publishing: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
15 May 2013: Michael R sends in this important piece, What are we to do with feral publishers? 14-Aug-2012 Publisher: SageAbstract: This article examines the profits and practices of commercial journal publishers and argues for an appropriate response from the academic community. https://lra.le.ac.uk/handle/2381/9689 — PDF download available Thanks Michael!