A few months ago, an editor from an academic publisher got in touch to ask if I was interested in writing a book for them.
I’ve ignored these requests in the past. I know of too many colleagues who have responded to such invitations, only to see their books disappear on to a university library shelf in a distant corner of the world.
If someone tried to buy said book – I mean, like a real human being – they would have to pay the equivalent of a return ticket to a sunny destination or a month’s child benefit. These books start at around £60, but they can cost double that, or even more.
This time, however, I decided to play along.
So I got the editor on the phone and he asked if I had an idea for them. “Sure,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “Perhaps I could write a book about…” – and here I started piling up ugly-sounding buzzwords.
I could hear how he momentarily drifted off, probably to reply to an email, and when I was done with my terrible pitch, he simply said: “Great!”
“The best thing now,” he continued, “is if you could jot down a few pages, as a proposal, which we could then send out to reviewers.” He paused a second, then added: “If you have any friends who could act as reviewers and who you think could sign off on the project, then that’d be great.”
I was intrigued by the frankness.
“How much would the book be sold for?” I inquired, aware this might not be his favourite question. “£80,” he replied in a low voice.
“So there won’t be a cheaper paperback edition?” I asked, pretending to sound disappointed.
“No, I’m afraid not,” he said, “we only really sell to libraries. But we do have great sales reps that get the books into universities all across the world.”
“So how many copies do you usually sell?” I inquired.
“For all your books?”
“Yes, unless you would assign your book on your own modules.”
I was growing fascinated by the numbers so I asked how many of these books they published each year.
“I have to…” he started (inadvertently revealing that this was a target that had been set) “…I have to publish around 75 of these.”
Seventy-five books, £80 each, selling on average 300 copies. That’s £1.8m. And he’s just one of their commissioning editors. What’s more, these publishers are not known for hiring talented illustrators to come up with nice covers – and you rarely see their books advertised in magazines.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said as our conversation drew to a close, “how did you find me?”
A moment of awkward silence, and then: “Um, well, I found your name on your university website.”
At the time, there was no information about me on the university website. No publication list, no information about my research interest, not even a photograph.
So I’d been asked to write a book about whatever I wanted, and this editor didn’t even know whether I’d written anything before. It didn’t matter. It would sell its 300 copies regardless. Not to people with an interest in reading the book, but to librarians who would put it on a shelf and then, a few years later, probably bury it in a storeroom.
Most academics get these requests. A colleague was recently courted by an editor who, after confessing they only published expensive hardbacks (at around £200), explained that this was an opportunity for my colleague to enhance his academic record. He was told he could give them pretty much anything, like an old report, or some old articles.
“I can’t believe anyone would write a book that would be too expensive for anyone to buy,” the colleague told me over the phone. “Just to add a line to your cv.”
Another colleague, on discovering his published book was getting widespread attention but was too expensive to buy, tried to get the publishers to rush out a cheaper paperback version. They ignored his request.
These may sound like stories of concern to academics alone. But the problem is this: much of the time that goes into writing these books is made possible through taxpayers’ money. And who buys these books? Well, university libraries – and they, too, are paid for by taxpayers. Meanwhile, the books are not available for taxpayers to read – unless they have a university library card.
In the US, taxpayers are said to be spending $139bn a year on research, and in the UK, £4.7bn. Too much of that money is disappearing into big pockets.
So what are the alternatives? We could stop publishing these books altogether - which may be advisable in a time of hysterical mass publication. Or we publish only with decent publishers, who believe that books are meant to be read and not simply profited from. And if it’s only a matter of making research available, then of course there’s open source publishing, which most academics are aware of by now.
So why don’t academics simply stay away from the greedy publishers? The only answer I can think of is vanity.