A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


What gives?

Complaints were registered on another thread that The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism, 672 pp., costs $199.95. Two books are reviewed in the last issue of Commonweal.  Gary Dorrien’s Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit, 605 pp. long, is published by Oxford University Press, and costs $174.95. Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War, 784 pp. long, is published by Harvard University Press and costs $35.00.

Can anyone explain such drastic differences in price?

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Maybe it's because in 2011 Harvard's endowment was over $32 billion, and the Harvard U. Press is well supportedd.

Here's an interesting item.  A used copy of Joseph A. Komonchak's "Dealing with Diversity and Dissagrement" is on sale at Amazon:

ISBN 1881307301
Publisher: National Pastoral Life Center, 2003
Used, Usually dispatched within 1-2 business days




I doubt that pricing has any relation to page count. My assumption is that the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism and Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit are priced expensively because they cover fairly esoteric topics and their publishers expect them to have a limited audience, so the publishers will need to recover their costs on a smaller print run than that expected for The Eagle Unbowed. The audience for the first two books seems like graduate students, professors, and university libraries. The list price for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion seems roughly comparable to the list price for books in the Oxford Handbooks series, so it doesn't strike me as unfairly priced.

By way of contrast, The Eagle Unbowed is written for, and marketed to, a more popular audience (it was reviewed in The Economist and The Guardian). Books on World War 2 (and military history in general) seem to sell well. This book apparently has the advantage of covering a topic that hasn't been well covered in English, and it will probably appeal to many of Polish ethnicity.

It's all about market. I co-edited a volume in the Blackell Companion series and it was outrageously priced as well and I suspect that no one bought it except libraries until all the hardback copies were sold. Then it came out in a more reasonable priced paperback edition. I'm pretty sure it didn't cost $120 less to produce the paperback, but once the library market was exhausted the publisher lowered the price so as to sell some copies to regular human beings or maybe get it adopted for courses.

Ann:   And to think I don't get any royalties for it.  It's a small pamphlet!  I think there may be a typo.

Need to lobby for the e-book version of these things

I worked all my life in publishing, starting very briefly in professional books (1970) and moving soon to college textbooks (1972 until my retirement earlier this year). I can explain why college textbooks cost so much, but professional books are somewhat of a mystery to me. 

Regarding college textbook publishing, some people will be surprised to learn that it is not really a very profitable business. Although the price of textbooks seems very high, nobody is getting rich in college textbook publishing except perhaps a handful of the most successful authors. The pay in most jobs in textbook publishing is not particulary high. The profit margin is not high. 

Many of the very highly priced college textbooks are expensive to produce. One of the most successful books I worked on was the 2nd edition of Gerard J. Tortora's Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, still going stron in its <a href=" edition.</blockquote> It was elaborately and beautifully illustrated, with many of the illustrations being "reflective art" (basically drawings or paintings) done by a medical illustrator, and this kind of art is very expensive. Printing such a book is vry expensive as well, since it must be printed on quality paper and handled very much like an art book.

Even back in those days a lot of free material was provided to instructors in most disciplines (teachers manuals, resource guides, test banks), and as the years went by, more and more became necessary to be competitive. And of course now almost every textbook has some kind of companion web site. All of that "free" material has to be paid for by hiking up the cost of the textbook. Schools or individual instructors are not going to pay for such material, and even if they don't use it, a textbook that doesn't come with a "package" comparable to others for the same subject is unlikely to be considered.

The lifetime of a textbook is not long—2 to 3 years for the majority—and after the first year, the used book market cuts deeply into the publisher's sales revenue. Added to the used book problem is the fact that publishers give away large numbers of copies of books to potential adopters, and those find their way into the used book market as well. I am brushing up on my math as one of my retirement projects, and I wanted a College Algebra text published by my old employer. The list price is $188.67, but I could have one of my former colleagues order it for me at the company discount and paid about $75 for it. But I went to the Abebooks web site and found a "used" copy for $46. When it arrived not only was it in mint condition, with no marks or scuffs or any sign of use. It was an instructor's annotated copy, with all the answers in it! Of course, publishers do not want those copies to get into the hands of students, and they beg instructors to return complimentary copies rather than sell them to used book dealers, but these books often make it to the bookstores anyway.

Since the lifetime of a textbook is so short, the print runs are relatively small. The fewere copies of a book you can count on selling, the smaller the print run will be, and the higher the cost per book. One of the reasons why, when a hard cover book comes out at $25 to $30 dollars, and a paperback later comes out and costs anywhere from $7.99 up to, say, $17 or so is not that paperbacks are so much cheaper to print. It is that when a book goes into paperback, the print quantities are generally higher. So if a book like one of the Blackwell companions is projected to sell, say, 2000 or 3000 copies, it is going to be priced much higher than if it is is projected to sell 50,000 copies.

One thing that might partially account for the high cost of the Christian mysticism book is the number of contributors. I am assuming that most or all of the selections that appear in the book were written for it. Coordinating the work of a large number of authors is not an easy task (as I am sure Alan Mitchell's wife can tell us). 

I would suspect that Wiley expects most sales of a book like this to be made to libraries and institutions. Based on (full disclosure) no knowledge whatsoever, I wonder why the Kindle and Nook versions could not be considerably less expensive, since libraries and institutions are no doubt going to buy print copies, and there might be a significant audience of ordinary mortals like ourselves who would buy the book at, say, $25 or $35, but who are not going to pay $150 for a Kindle book. If e-book sales do not significantly cut into print sales, then there is no reason not to price an e-book significantly lower than the print book, provided more e-book sales at a lower price bring in more revenue than fewer e-book sales at the higher price. College textbook publishers have been selling e-books at about half the price of print books. Partly that is for public relations purposes. My knowledge may be dated already, but college students in the past have tended to buy print books even when e-books are sold at a %50 percent discount. This allows textbook publisher who are accused of pricing their books too high (unjustly, in my opinion) to say, "Look, students can buy this book at half price as an e-book, so how can you accuse us of setting our prices too high?" 


Bought a great grammar book circa 1950 (Correct Writing) for $1.01 plus shipping $6.99, for the grandson. It is his grandfather's and (mine) favorite for commas, semi-colons, parenthesis, etc.

I don't understand why this is a big issue.  I have always had to pay a lot of money for specialized books in my field, especially grammars and lexica. As an undergraduate at Frodham I paid $100 for a French dictionary of semitic inscriptions, and that was back in 1972.  It has only 342 pages.  Books published buy the great houses of Europe, Peeters, Brill, deGrutyer, Mohr-Siebeck, Vandenoeck & Ruprecht are all very pricey.    Many academics I know just take it for granted the we have to pay such prices to use the tools of our trade.

I just noticed that wonderful Freudian slip "buy" for "by". LOL

If folks will forgive the digression - Alan, I really loved the litte comment where you talked about how proud you are of your wife.  It made my day for some reason.  Congratulations to her, and best wishes to both of you.

Why the differences?  Supply and demand.

OK, I was too brief. But David Nickol explains it.  I too have had some experience with academic publishing. There are limited markets for many books, and the fixed costs of production are the same, whether spread among thousands of books or a few hundred.

This is a big issue for people of limited incomes or limited discretionary funds.

Why do authors publish their books in such expensive venues?

If leaders of a field announce that they will stay away from publishing expensive books, they can change the behavior.

Why do authors publish their books in such expensive venues?

Tenure. Promotion. Merit-based raises.

Jim P.

Thanks.  She did a great job getting 40 top notch authors for this volume and in getting them to submit their essays on time, within three years of her invitation to them to write for it.  That is a major accomplishment in academia.


Sometimes, as in my wife's case, publishers solicit authors to write or edit the book for one of their series. The Wiley "companions" are extensive, spanning several fields.  Also, authors may wish to publish with certain publisers for a variety of reasons.

Also, more and more academic publishers (not vanity presses, but respected publishers in their respective fields) are requiring subventions. This has been common among Eurpoean publishers for a while, but is now hitting U.S. academic shores. So in order to keep your book from costing as much as a Joe Kamonchak pamphlet, you have to pony up several thousand dollars to help cover production costs. Sometimes one's institution will cover part of the subvention, but not always.

Tim Gowers, a Fields medalist (the Math version of a Nobel prize) has started a campaign against Elsevier.

All you need to fight unreasonably high costs of books, now that books are so much easier to produce, is to find better, cheaper ways to get information out to potential readers, and to get highly visible people on board. Fritz, tenured professors can lead the way.

Alan, I have no intention to criticize your wife's book!

But I have been struck as well by the cost of both college textbooks and academic books. Sometimes I think that editors are on their way out and that some of them are trying to  cash in before their profession disappears. 

Please excuse this off-topic remark:

"The Eagle Unbowed..." goes for 24.99 at Amazon.  In my opinion, worth it just to have in my collection of books "to be read".


I have heard that publishers of serious works of Catholic theology do not expect to sell more than 1,500 to 2,000 copies--and this in the country in which, we are regularly told, we have the best educated Catholic laity in all of Christian history. (What percentage of the U.S. Catholic population is 2,000?)  That is why, I presume, the price tends to be high.  I wonder what the expectations were with regard to the Wiley book on mysticism.  I also wonder whether there might not be a catch-22 operating.  They jack up the price because they don't expect many people to buy the book, and many people do not buy the book because the price is too high....

About the small number of buyers of theology books --

I suspect that that non-academics generally do not want to wade through footnotes and counter-arguments of no interest to them.  The general public just wants very clear summaries of the basic developments from legitimate authorities.   Why aren't there more such popularizations?  I suspect it's because  it  takes a really first rate mind to write simply and clearly about difficult subjects, and most academics, while they're generally highly intelligent don't have that sort of genius.  The paradigm of great philosophical writers is Plato -- he wrote both simply and deeply, but how many philosophers even approach his genius?

Consequently there just aren't that many authoritative works that are both relatively simple and deep.  And that's what would sell.  I might add that a contemporary example in philosophy is Thomas Nagel.  He's brilliant enough to write clearly enough for non-specialists, and his popularizations sell nicely.  Dawkins works has sold 8.5 mlllion copies, but, again, he's clear (if over-simplified).

Why aren't there more such popularizations?

I suspect it's because many academics are interested, by definition, in exploring ideas and are content to share them with their academic peers in order to foster academic discussions and thus refine or deepen their ideas. Popularization is a different game, with different goals and skills, and academics are not selected based on that. I suppose that one is more likely to encounter people interested in popularization among, maybe, journalists, but then they have no particular reason to be interested in and able to read advanced theological books.

I've always thought that academic publishers existed primarily to serve us, and that the profits they might obtain were merely a mechanism to keep them interested, but I recently had an unusual conversation with a publisher. He uses the profit from large sales to lower the price of some books that are expected to sell in small quantities, in order to sell more of them.  How does he choose those books? Based on what subfield he thinks needs to be promoted and to encourage more research in that area. So the editor is actually doing a bit of scientific policy himself!

In any case, in the world of online pdf's and private productions of professional quality, the existence of academic publishers and the concept of spending large amounts of money to have access to the work of another academic is not going to survive much longer, in my opinion.

Claire --

There needn't be a conflict between academic research and popularizations.  Some of the top academic scientists have written for the public, e.g., Einstein.  biologist Steven Jay Gould, psychologist/economist Daniel Kahneman, not to mention Thomas Kuhn of pardigm shifts fame, and most recently philosopher Thomas Nagel (his Mind and Cosmos was on Amazon's Top 100, or so I've read).  Bertrand Russell even got a Nobel prize for literature, and I don't doubt that his influence was so strong because he wrote so clearly for the general educated public. 

It happens sometimes, of course,but there is no particular reason why a good academic should be a good popularizer. Not an outright conflict, but not much of a correlation.

I served on the Editorial Board of one of the Elsevier journals and I understand the frustration of Gowers and others with them. Over the years, they have bought up smaller journals and own journals across the entire set of academic disciplines. As the giant in the field, they could dictate policies but folks in narrow disciplines were limited in their opportunities to publish elsewhere. As Deacon Fritz has pointed out above, tenure, promotion and merit raises are tied to publishing. If you don't publish in academia, you perish.  Location of the publication and the nature of the writing are evaluated in very quantiative ways now.  Publishing in prestigious journals or academic presses are weighted more heavily in the tenure review process, and publications of original scholarly research count more than books published for a general audience.  Those two factors contribute significantly to the dearth of writing for a non-technical reader by the original scholars.  

As far as remuneration, editors of journals and members of the editorial boards are paid very low salaries, if at all. Generally they do it for the love of the profession and for the visibility it gives them. Sometimes they are given free access to electronic databases which can facilitate their own scholarly work, but doesn't show up in the paycheck. Authors of books and textbooks write for the same reason, not for expectations of great financial benefit. I've written or co-authored several text books and chapters in other books.  Let's say that I'm not seeing any financial benefit in my retirement years!

As far as remuneration, editors of journals and members of the editorial boards are paid very low salaries, if at all.

That is one of the reasons why the high cost is a mystery: the writing is done by a scholar, who  receives no money for it; an unpaid scientific editor, also a scholar, finds reviewers, who are also scholars and evaluate the writing, also without any financial compensation. None of the academics involved get any direct money from all that work, and nowadays the authors also take care of the formatting, so the publisher does a lot less work than they used to: so where does the money go?  


If "Publishing in prestigious journals or academic presses are weighted more heavily in the tenure review process, and publications of original scholarly research count more than books published for a general audience", and if "Authors of books and textbooks write for the same reason (for the love of the profession and for the visibility), not for expectations of great financial benefit", then there is no great obstacle against moving to a to a different way to proceeding that would do away with the cost, something along the lines of putting the pdf file of a book somewhere wher all can access it freely. 

I incline to agree with Claire.  What she suggests is already being done, of course, when students simply photocopy very expensive books--even at 10 cents a page they could have the book at a third or a quarter of the price.  It's illegal, of course, but it goes on.  (It might even be a reason why publishers demand so high a price--another catch-22 operating?)

I've been tempted to follow Claire's suggesion for myself.  I have at least three books in my computer which I've been unable to liberate.  Rather than go through the hassle of getting them published and then priced beyond the means of the 99%, why not just put them out on the Internet?

Joseph, now that Commonweal has dropped its "moral reservations about patronizing predatory companies" that it expressed so movingly in "The Best Case Against Amazon You'll Ever Read," perhaps you could publish your books for Kindle.  They would be available at a cost YOU chose, and you would get 70% of the royalties.

(The person who has been formatting Commonweal's ebooks for Amazon could assist you with preparing your manuscripts.)



While I'm not in the biz, I expect that part of the value-add that an academic publisher provides to an academic author is the ability to promote and distribute.  There are many authors aiming for a popular audience who self-publish these days, but getting reviewers to review a self-published book, bookstores to carry it and readers to buy it calls for a different set of skills than writing, and most authors aren't very good at them. 


The audio version of Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit costs 39.95 at Amazon, or is free with trial membership.

Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Christian Mysticism is $159.96 for Kindle.

Promotion and distribution is not so critical if the book is academic and the author someone already well known. Then word will get out.

More at risk is perennity. Web pages get dismantled, links break, and what about 50 years down the line? For scientific articles the now ubiquitous Arxiv site was a breakthrough in that regard.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment