Thursday, July 28, 2011

a new reformation: the rort that is academic (biblical) publishing

I just got notice from an academic (Biblical) publishing house. A new book. Price $90.

What a rort.

What happened to the Reformation? Remember the people who died for the belief that the Bible belonged not to an exclusive elite, but to the whole people of God, who insisted that translation be in the vernacular, who fought for lay interpretation.

500 years later, we still have an elite, sustained by the academic publishing market, fused with the research academic. Here’s how it works.

Academics do research. They need to publish their research, so they write. What they write is quite elite, so only a few people read it. So not many books sell. So the price is expensive.

Yet other’s in the academic guild have to read what their peers write. So academic libraries still have to buy these books no matter how expensive. Which means a guaranteed market. And ensures little competitive pressure to make a book more accessible.

I know this happens in all academic disciplines. I know that “pure” research (cf applied research) is important. I know that there is an academic speak which is is an important shorthand (see my post – Can I swap your pliers for my Economic Trinity?)

But when books are priced at $90, the world of biblical scholarship has priced itself as an elitist occupation, affordable to a few, inaccessible to the many. Anyone for a new reformation?

Posted by steve at 04:56 PM


  1. Anyone for a new reformation?

    I’m working on it. One of the reasons I set up a publishing company to deal with this kind of crap.

    We’ve just produced a book which was a collection of papers from some academic conferences on emerging Asian mission movements. Putting a “market price” on it would be fine for Western scholars, but would make it completely inaccessible to the kind of people it’s written about. Compare “An Introduction to Third World Theologies”, which goes for $30 – that would certainly make third world Bible colleges think twice.

    So we’re selling it for $8, and the e-book version for half that again. (I notice that, again, “Introduction to Third World Theologies” is the same price in printed or e-book format. I’m fairly sure that bits cost less than ink and paper.)

    “So not many books sell. So the price is expensive” simply isn’t true any more, given the advent of new publishing models such as print-on-demand. The only reason prices are so high is because the market supports it and tradition demands it. And, perhaps, because the academics themselves expect it – would they really give much credence to a weighty philosophical tome priced at $4.99?

    Comment by Simon Cozens — July 28, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

  2. Yes we do!

    Two steps in your necessity chain are no longer really needed: books and libraries. Obviously we have emotional and aesthetic attachments to them, but as a way to distribute writing they can easily be replaced by forums like this one: blogs, websites, online archives. But that leaves two things: “academics… need to publish” (for career measurement, i.e. funding) and the curation rĂ´le of editors and peer review. Given the democratization afforded by the Internet, can we redefine “publication”, and find new ways of curating? In the music world, people like @solobasssteve are advocating and using tools like BandCamp to publish (and get paid), and Twitter word-of-mouth for curation. I suspect that model won’t translate directly to theology (!) but it shows the viability of approaches radically different from the traditional ones.

    Comment by Keith Wansbrough — July 28, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

  3. Love what you’re doing Simon. That’s fab.

    Keith and Simon I do think that the role of editor is really, really important in this. Lots of self-published stuff is pretty poor in my opinion. I was reading a book from a digital publisher earlier in the year, which had a chapter from an excellent contemporary theologian, with some quite grating typos.

    It was a reminder to me of how important editors are. So I do think we need to keep in mind a way to fund editors. Which is till not prohibitive. When the Emergent manifesto came out in 2007, I did a rant about the US-centric nature of it. And then went and talked to an editor about helping me pull together a digital book an Emerging manifesto.

    It was doable, but still required me to make a cash deposit of some $4000, plus have the energy to pull the book together, plus work on selling so that I got my deposit back.


    Comment by steve — July 28, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

  4. But for academic publishing there already IS another model, it works fine in the sciences. User pays. As you said, Steve: “Academics need to publish.” So, make them pay for the editing, then the paper codex versions are cheap and the electronic can be freely available.

    The trouble is the academic “game” has been about scarcity, publishing with Oxford or Brill is expensive, so it “must” be valuable… the dinosaurs have not yet realised that the asteroid has struck and the world is changing. The intellectual economies of scarcity are held together by string and tissue paper… look at the music industry. Film is next, and way way down the track humanities academics will discover that the world has changed. How sad though that Theologians are at the back of the herd, you’d think (if we [= here the Church in the West] had not bought into the “modern” materialist worldview so thoroughly) that we [here = theologians] should be the first to see the value of the other way.

    Comment by Tim Bulkeley — July 29, 2011 @ 7:23 am

  5. My wife said $90 was reasonable for an academic text book (in market terms). She also said that it was at the lower end price wise for text books she had to buy for her Sport’s Science degrees.

    Comment by Mark Stevens — July 30, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

  6. Mark,

    Are you suggesting that if other people/disciplines/groups do it, then it is OK? Sort of like an ethic in which Christian practice simply adopts the patterns of the cultures around us?


    Comment by steve — July 31, 2011 @ 12:08 am

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