Book publishing, uploading pdfs, and print on demand

Graham Harman has some good thoughts on book publishing here – sparked by someone uploading his book Tool Being.

I agree with Graham on this, although I don’t have his experience of publishing a book in simultaneous print and free pdf format. Recently someone uploaded my Understanding Henri Lefebvre and I’ve seen various other books online at different times – they don’t always stay around for long. My objection comes when the books are made available online very soon after publication, when it might damage the sales that the publishers need to make to recoup their costs. Making books is expensive – while authors get very little by way of royalties, editors, copy-editors, designers, printers, etc. all cost money. If the book is translated the publisher will have paid rights and a translator. If these are uploaded quickly then it threatens future translations. Book publishers, unlike journals, usually pay their reviewers too. Those costs are there, whether or not the books cost money – open access publishing, of journals as well as books, is not free entirely, even if there is no cost to the reader.

Understanding Henri Lefebvre, like Mapping the Present, is now available as print-on-demand from Continuum. I recently had to order copies of both as I needed extras, and they are very clearly not the quality of the originals. The paper is much thinner, the print quality not as good, and the nice inner black cover on Mapping the Present is gone. They are much more expensive than the original versions, and both books moved to print-on-demand when the original print runs, and, I think, a reprint of Mapping the Present, sold out. Why they need to be more expensive when the core costs have been recouped is unclear – you might say that print-on-demand is expensive, but it’s not that expensive, and it wouldn’t explain the similarly high costs for an e-copy. So I certainly don’t object to people sharing pdfs in such instances. I was a bit less happy when Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography was circulating online soon after publication, especially since Jeremy Crampton and I had made real efforts to ensure it was available in paperback immediately. The viability of future book production, and future book cost, does rely on enough copies being sold to make that business model sustainable, and I know Ashgate did some of its later books in simultaneous hardback and paperback precisely because Foucault and Geography had done relatively well.

One way forward is exactly that pioneered by Open Humanities, Punctum Books and the like – print copies available at a cost but e-copies available at either no cost to reader or at a reduced rate. The challenge, of course, is making such ventures sustainable when these clearly cost money to produce, even if not to read. Perhaps more conventional publishers could follow this for books that have moved to print-on-demand – make an e-copy available at dramatically reduced price, and paper copies for those that want that. Books like Mapping the Present and Understanding Henri Lefebvre have already recouped their costs. Perhaps I should ensure this is built into future contracts.

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9 Responses to Book publishing, uploading pdfs, and print on demand

  1. dustmote says:

    I don’t see why free downloading, even right after publication, would damage the profits of the publisher. Making books is expensive, books are expensive too. And their main target buyer (in the case of academic books) is not individuals, but institutions. Circulation online won’t prevent institutions buying those books, it won’t stop individuals either. Why? It’s not only a matter of price. Some people, like you, love to have better quality prints. They wouldn’t enjoy reading pdf on a screen, even the latest e-ink screen. While others, like me, are more and more inclined to read with an e-reader. People were worried a lot about music downloading, when it first came out. Now free downloadable music is everywhere, and recording company is still making money. There’s a different market. Well, that’s my take as a reader, I may think differently if being an author.

    • stuartelden says:

      Perhaps, though I’m not convinced. Library budgets are under strain, and I’m not sure the same number of copies will be bought if libraries know that students can access the book for free online. What’s to stop the library simply linking to the pdf from their online catalogue and not buying the book? Prices then may go up to cover the publisher costs when there are fewer sales. This increases the likelihood of people skipping the physical copy. Unless publishers cover at least their costs, and possibly make a (small) profit, they are less likely to publish more work by that author, in that series, or in that field. It’s getting increasingly difficult for earlier career authors to get their books where they want, unless they accept hardback only at an expensive price. Edited collections are difficult to place. Translations are increasingly difficult to come by, unless they are by the big, safe names – look how almost everything by Badiou, Agamben, etc. is now in English, after publishers realised they would sell, when other authors are not translated at all.
      With music, yes, the big record companies still make a profit. The big bands still make enough or more than enough money – though much of that is from touring and merchandise. But smaller independent companies and smaller bands are struggling. Is music not being made because of this? It’s possible, which is one of the reasons I buy as much music as I can in physical copy, and often direct from the artist or independent stores.
      The risk with the idea of freely available material is that it may reduce the quality and quantity of material out there. This isn’t to say that there are no problems with the existing model of course.

  2. Mark Purcell says:

    I am increasingly coming to think the for-profit, printing-on-paper model, at least for academic books, is not long for this world. One option is self-publishing, just formatting one’s word document into a nice clean pdf that has the exact look of a scanned, typeset book. Then people get it free and print it themselves, if they want (or read it on a screen–ugh). The other option I guess is non-profit paper publishing, which has to be close to what the small academic presses are doing, like Georgia, given what their margins must be. I don’t know, as I pay for my own permissions and proper copy editor at Wiley, I am wondering why I am bothering with academic subdivisions of giant corporations…I will look into the Open Humanities option…

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Mark. There are pressures, certainly. But I do think publishers add value – the process of review and editorial control means that we can read knowing that it has passed at least some standards. You’d need to change the whole appointment/tenure/promotion system if self-publishing was to become viable. I wonder how people find the experience of publishing with presses like Open Humanities when it comes to the job market.

      • Mark Purcell says:

        Yes the Open Humanities model looks good, at least it seems to take care of the question of scholarly standards (i.e. it looks like a ‘normal’ press). Their editorial board is a bunch of superstars (Latour, Negri…). I for one am ready (I think) to ‘count’ an Open Humanities book just like I would an OUP or a Wiley, etc. I wonder what their costs are for taking the word document from the author and producing the final pdf they offer, which looks quite good. Levi Bryant might know…

  3. Pingback: Guerrilla Metaphysics « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  4. dustmote says:

    “The risk with the idea of freely available material is that it may reduce the quality and quantity of material out there”, true. And it’s exactly because of this Mark would bother himself with giant corporations, for people are convinced (and you know they are) that free knowledge is less valuable than the paid one. Yes this belief is grounded on the whole system, as you said, evaluation, promotion and so on. Like the old statement, there’s no alternative. There’s no alternative? Probably not, at large. But there’re plenty of movements taking place in the margin, like the free culture movement, sharism, copyleft.. then in academia you have more and more open access publishing options. OK, the ‘regime’ of academic publishing may not change in the short term (and longer term). But we like to imagine something else don’t we, like ‘path to the possible’?

  5. Death Metal Nightmare says:

    major pirate. not a student. very small income. still bought Graham’s 4Xobject, Guerrilla metaphysics, and Tool Being (and plan on getting Weird Realism ASAP. also have bought other OOO authors books). i bought his books because i respect his work.

    anti-capitalist? yep. moral justification for pirating? sometimes.

    PDF’s are great for sampling or supplementing your way through books, or if its the only media format. not a fan otherwise.

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