I was browsing Facebook today and saw a post from Thomas Kidd of Baylor University announcing the forthcoming release of a festschrift for retired Notre Dame historian George Marsden. I am a huge fan of Marsden and his work. Though I have never officially been his student, he has profoundly shaped my work as a historian and my vocation as Christian scholar. So needless to say I was thrilled to see that Kidd, Kurt Peterson, and Darren Dochuck have brought together essays by Marsden’s friends and students in a book entitled American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History. The book will be out in October, and I am sure we will cover it more extensively at that time.
But this post is not really about George Marsden or about the content of this forthcoming festschrift. It is actually about the fact that the retail price of American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History is $59.40. Now I have been around the world of academic publishing long enough to know that once the book appears it will discounted by Amazon. I know that if the book does well, it will be published in a cheaper paperback edition. I know that places like University of Notre Dame Press and other university presses usually target academic libraries with hardcover editions. I know that festschrifts are often expensive because they are not steady-sellers.
Yet when I see prices like this, it makes me think more broadly about university press publishing. I am at a stage in my career in which I want to write for readers. Most of us publish our first book (usually some version of our dissertation) to get tenure and promotion. Yes, we hope that people will read it and some of us even want to write in such a way that is accessible to non-academics. We may even hope that our book might change the field. But for many of us the retail price of that first monograph is not as important as the long term economic benefits and job security it will bring us in terms of tenure.
So I wonder: Are university presses the best option for those of us who want to write for readers, especially when such presses charge such high prices for our books? I am not blaming university presses here. I fully understand the difficulty that university press publishing is facing today. In some cases they have to jack up the price of a book just to break even on it. But at this stage of my career I don’t have much interest in writing a book that is too expensive for the people who want to, or ought to, read it. Lately I have tried to write books with speaking engagements in mind. It is very hard to show up at a venue, give what I hope is a compelling talk about the book that might actually prompt a layperson to consider reading it, and then ask that person to head to the back of the room and buy a copy of the book for $50.00.
I realize that not everyone in academia thinks about their books this way. Many are content to spend their careers writing monographs that have a very limited readership. This is fine. There are many ways to understand the academic vocation. But if you are a scholar who writes for audiences larger than the traditional academic ones, I would love to hear from you.
I have been thinking for a long time about breaking ranks with the culture of academic publishing. While writing a monograph or two is still absolutely essential to establish a platform and even obtain some job security, I am wondering if it is time to seek out other kinds of publishers for my work–publishers that can deliver a quality book at a reasonable price. (In some respects I have already done this with Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?). And I am not simply talking here about the big New York trade publishers. I am also thinking about small presses with strong marketing departments who can make my books accessible–both economically and aesthetically– to the people who may want to read them.
In the end, I am not opposed to publishing with a university press. After I finish my current project on the history of the American Bible Society I will be a publishing another book with a university press. (More on that in another post–not ready to announce it yet). But I wonder if anyone has brought the subject of price points into a contract negotiation with a university press. Does this ever happen?