Accounting for Scholarship

A recent report on the cost of publishing monographs should be of some interest to many people who buy, read and/or write scholarly books, says Scott McLemee.

March 2, 2016

Nearly a month has passed since the release of “The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward a Transparent Methodology,” a document prepared by the consulting and research division of Ithaka S+R. (Ithaka is also associated with JSTOR, the scholarly journals repository.) The report seems not to have drawn much attention outside the ranks of the Association of American University Presses, which seems odd. It ought to be of some interest to the larger constituency of those who buy, read and/or write scholarly books.

If you mention the price of academic-press books to people who’ve never purchased one, the effect is akin to a cartoon character with eyeballs popping out and exclamation marks hovering in the air, with a thought balloon reading, “What a racket!” (On one occasion I heard it said aloud.) The dismay will usually cool off some as you explain how the specialist nature of scholarly publications tends to preclude economies of scale. A small audience means low press runs, yielding high per-unit costs. That’s not the whole story, of course, but it often suffices to explain why, say, a slender new book interpreting Moby Dick might cost five times as much as a Melville biography thick enough to serve as a doorstop -- and why no one in the family has purchased Aunt Louise’s book, even if they’re proud she got tenure for it.

The authors of the new Ithaka report mention a ballpark estimate of the expense to a press of preparing a scholarly book for publication (not printing, just getting it to that point) that has been bandied about over the past couple: $20,000. It’s problematic, but let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that it costs that much to prepare and to print a monograph, and that every single one of its 400 copies is sold. In that case the absolute lowest wholesale price of a single volume has to be $50, just to break even. Many trade publishers would consider a print run 10 times that size to be small -- with each copy selling at a much lower price while still making a profit. It’s not that trade presses are models of efficiency that scholarly presses ought somehow to emulate -- not at all. They resemble one another about as much as an ostrich egg and a cannonball do, and the differences cannot be tinkered away.

Ithaka’s researchers collected information on the expenses involved in bringing out 382 books from the arts, humanities and social sciences published by 20 American university presses during their 2014 fiscal year. The data assembled were granular -- drawn from the sort of in-house bookkeeping each department (editorial, production, marketing, etc.) had to do while handling each title. Some expenses are more discretely defined than others. The cost of sending a manuscript out for copyediting, for example, is not too hard to determine; just look at the invoice. Calculating the fraction of an acquisition editor’s salary that went into a given book seems more difficult -- besides which there are the overhead expenses of clerical labor, rent, tech support and so on, some of them provided by the hosting university.

The 20 presses surveyed range from small presses (averaging roughly 11 employees publishing 46 titles per year, with an annual revenue from books of under $1.5 million) to powerhouses (circa 82 employees, 253 titles and more than $6 million annual revenue). They are segmented into four size categories, with five presses each, and with some effort made for geographical diversity and varying publishing foci (monographs, journals, regional titles).

In short, it must be one hell of a spreadsheet -- and the researchers establish three ways of defining cost per book to reflect the varying impacts of staff time, overhead expense and institutional support. One effect of the analysis is that the figure of $20,000 per book in preparation expenses goes right out the window: the study “yielded a wide range of costs per title, from a low of $15,140 to a high of $129,909, and the range of costs is wide both within and across groups.” Taking in the varying ways of assessing the expenses of almost 400 titles, the researchers find that the average cost per monograph is between $28,747 (using the minimal baseline) and not quite $40,000 (factoring in indirect overhead expenses). It bears repeating that this is not the final cost of publishing, printing, binding and warehousing monographs of the predigital sort would entail additional expense.

The Ithaka report focuses, rather, “on the costs of producing the first digital copy of ‘a high-quality digital monograph.’” For that to be the benchmark -- rather than the traditional hardback monograph -- is in keeping with the expectation that scholarship be made available in open-access form, as both federal mandates and the emerging academic ethos increasingly demand.

For scholarly publishing to meet the standards of quality established over the past century will require continued investment in the kinds of intensive, skilled labor that university presses foster. How to meet that demand while simultaneously developing ways of funding open-access publishing remains to be worked out. Ithaka S+R’s report doesn’t underestimate the difficulties; it just reminds us that the problem is on the agenda, or needs to be. Otherwise, the shape of things to come in scholarly publishing could get very messy -- and not in an especially creative way.


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