Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On the Frustrations of University Presses

And now it's back to the basement. I actually had one of my last few buying appointments today, which means I'll get to be up on the sales floor more often--at least until October, when next buying season rolls around. As much as I love buying, I've been itching to get back to working with customers again and being around actual books, not just the promise of those to come.

Today I was buying from a number of university presses, which is to me incredibly frustrating. I don't have the free reign to buy from these publishers as I do others, and even if I did, the expense of university press books makes it difficult for me to be enthusiastic about the prospect of selling them. I just have a hard time asking people to pay more than $20 for a paperback. I understand the economics behind the high prices of university press books (well, some of the economics--some seem a bit sketchy to me), and that I, the trade bookstore buyer, am not their target customer, but it is frustrating. This may be impolitic, but I'll give a couple examples.

The University Press of Florida is publishing Matecumbe, a manuscript by James Michener that Random House shelved long ago. Sounds interesting, but not $21 for an unpublished novel interesting (and a paperback at that!). Why not make the book $10 and market it to all the fans out there who loved reading his historical sagas and are just curious for something new and different? It makes me think the publishers don't really think Matecumbe is worth reading at all. In that case, why are they publishing it?

A book with photos, lyrics and stories of Kate and Anna McGarrigle written by Dane Lanken, Anna McGarrigle's husband, sounds lovely, doesn't it? Not when it's a 160-page paperback for $45. Thanks for nothing, Michigan State University Press.

I could keep going, but I'm depressing myself. I remember how excited I was when I saw that a friend of mine since grade school and current professor of political science at University of Nebraska had his first book published. I'm afraid I won't be ordering any for the store, but Routledge has it, and it can be yours for $120.


Dean said...

Michigan State University Press doesn't deserve the blame. Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Songs and Stories by Dane Lanken is published by Penumbra Press and distributed by MSU Press. In this type of arrangement the price is typically set by the publisher, not the distributor. Penumbra is a small Canadian publisher, both are factors that tend to make books more expensive in the USA.

High quality printing of photographs can raise the cost of production substantially. I'm not saying the printing in this case is high quality--I don't know--but it is a consideration.

Also note that the paperback has full musical notation to 34 songs. The typesetting of musical notation is quite expensive and is likely another reason the book is $45.00. If you bought the sheet music individually for those 34 songs it would cost perhaps $170.00.

Don't get me wrong, you make some valid points. University press books (but Routledge is not a university press) often have prices that are not well suited to the market. But the reasons are sometimes complex. (I work at the University of Chicago Press.)

Lori said...

Dean, thanks for pointing out some specifics in this case that I had missed (I had no idea of the costs of musical notation!). Though my examples may not have been perfect, what I was hoping was to express my frustration about what I see as a lack of awareness and/or concern on the part of many university presses towards those in the trade who would like to support them (the primary example of that being the price points for many of their books). I just feel like it ends up being a no-win situation--not for the publishers, the booksellers, or the readers.

Laura said...

Like Dean, I also work for a university press. I agree that there are problems with books being priced too high for the market, but it is certainly not because we don't want people to read them! We do our best to keep the prices affordable, but as Dean says, the issues behind pricing books are complex. Production costs and modest print runs are a few factors of the many factors that come into play. But when we can afford to price at book at $10, we do!

Dennis said...

I think you make some valid points, but it may be a little unfair to single out university presses for so much criticism. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the director of sales and marketing at the University Press of Florida). I would also argue that $10—your suggested price for our James Michener paperback—is a lot lower than the prices I see on the trade paperbacks for sale at my local bookstore.

But I understand that the issue isn't so much the details of this case--or that of the book distributed by the Michigan State University Press--it's the sense that University Presses price their books higher than industry averages. Perhaps, at times, but not because we don't want people to read them. As nonprofits--and often nonprofits supported in part by public funds--we're unable to take the same risks as many for-profit publishers.

An individual book published by a trade house may or may not turn a profit, but if not, the loss presumably will be covered by some other book that succeeds incredibly well. At a university press, each individual title is under much more pressure to recoup its costs--both manufacturing and overhead--so the pricing and publication models are more conservative. Which often translates to lower initial runs and higher prices.

If you want to complain about high prices, better places to look than the world of university presses might be for-profit textbook publishers (which most university presses are not, a fact often lost in current debates). Or even the trade world.

Every publisher knows that the more copies you print, the lower your unit costs. With an initial print run in the multi-millions, how low is the per-unit manufacturing costs for the forthcoming Harry Potter book? Enough to justify the roughly $35 price tag? Even considering the length of the book, I have trouble imagining a manufacturing unit cost of much more than $1. But even if it were twice that much, the price tag would represent more than a seventeen-time mark-up. Is that reasonable? I don’t know, but it’s unheard of in my university press experience.

I'm not saying you don't have a valid complaint, just trying to point out that university presses may not deserve the brunt of your frustration. There are behind-the-scenes issues that we grapple with every day in order to bring the best possible product to the market at the best possible price. And, for what it's worth, in the case Matecumbe we decided to publish it as a $21.00 paperback instead of a $25.00 hardcover in part so that we could make the price as low as possible for the legions of fans of Michener’s work, yet still recover our costs.