Why Can’t Academic Publishing Be More like iTunes?

Kindle works fairly well for novels and light non-fiction, but I have always wondered why academic publishing can’t be more like iTunes or even like journals in the Libraries. Why can’t we allow users to purchase chapters? And why to prices of eBooks remain high if we’re not killing trees and are saving on printing costs?

Holy High Prices!

The Kindle/iBook price for an academic book are still ridiculously high. For example
the Kindle edition of the Oxford Handbook of Chinese Linguistics is a whopping $139.99 (i.e. $140). In Amazon’s defense, it IS a discount from the hardcover price of £115 (ca. $175) which happens to translate to $174.99 in the iBooks store.

BUT…do I really want to pay $175 for essentially a PDF (or ePub file) that just lives in a tablet device? Not really. For $175 (or more like $65), I actually want a real book that I can stick on a shelf.

But why $175 in the first place? No linguistics book I have ever seen has had color graphics. The main “cost” would be the special fonts, but costs have dropped for those. I realize that the expectation is that the market is limited to Libraries and Chinese linguistics instructors, so prices traditionally were high to cover production costs. But does it have to be that way? I think people interested in linguistics or people of Chinese heritage would be a potential market, if prices were more in line with a book like The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (History of Imperial China) ($9.99 on Kindle). These days, that’s the price of a paperback.

Note: If we compare the book market to the music market, we can think on album prices. No one would think of buying an indie or world music album for over $100 when best selling albums run between $8-15 on iTunes. Economics can be strange.

Why Can’t we Buy Chapters?

If we can’t lower academic book prices due to mysterious economic forces, can we at least buy chapters? Unlike novels, many academic books can be easily broken into chunks. For instance the $175 Handbook of Chinese Linguistics is actually composed of fifty-five (55) chapters on topics including the Sinitc language family, topic prominence in Chinese syntax, Middle Chinese phonology (with a separate chapter on old Chinese), Chinese-Japanese language contact, tone perception and even the Taiwan sign language.

Buying the whole book would be fantastic, but there’s a chance a researcher really only need 1-2 chapters to complete a research project. Wouldn’t it be great if we could purchase JUST THAT CHAPTER? Dividing $175/55 is about $3.19 per chapter. What a deal! It would actually be cheaper and less time consuming to purchase a $3.19 chapter than to (ahem) photocopy the chapter in the library…assuming your library has the book.

Ironically, this is how journal subscriptions in the libraries work. Anyone in the state of Pennsylvania can get access many journals one through the Penn State libraries Web site, and once an article is found, it can be downloaded. However, chapters in “handbooks” can cover materials in a way articles don’t. I would love to give students a good reading on the history of Chinese languages in digital format, but it’s not really available through the Libraries. Right now, the best best is Wikipedia.

Can we Print What We Buy?

In iTunes, we can play songs we buy on multiple devices, including audio CDs in the car on CD players at home. But you can’t easily print a Kindle book unless you have a wireless printer and a Kindle device (forget if you happen to have Kindle for iPad). Reading material just on a device is OK for novels, but hard for academic works where you need to highlight text, add notes, tab with Post its or just quickly page through to look up data.

Even working with recipes on a Kindle can be a challenge (do I really want my iPad in the kitchen while I cook?). The Kindle has notes tools, but they are not as efficient as the pens. I also want to be able to quickly access a library and not worry about shuffling memory on a device (which is still less than a desktop or whatever you can get on Dropbox or an academic server). It’s for these reasons that students still buy print textbooks, even if the electronic version might be a little cheaper.

If we can download music with DRM information but play it on multiple devices, why can’t we do the same thing with PDF/ePub files? Are publishers really that worried about blackmarket PDF’s on Chinese tones? If they are, offering separate chapters for $3.19 would help I think. I think it would generate more income for the publishers instead of for copy shops.

A Democracy Issue

Academics are often concerned about the lack of basic knowledge in their individual areas, and traditionally, the K-12 system has traditionally been called to account. But I think pricing of good academic books has also been an issue. Adults, more than children and teens, can begin to understand the importance of self-study, but sometimes resources are lacking.

Suppose I decide I AM interested in Chinese tones. If I’m an academic, I could get some basic information from the library bookshelves, but not all libraries have these resources. The last time I checked at the local library, the pickings on the phonology of tonal languages was quite slim.

It would be great if I could order a book on Chinese tones or even a chapter at a reasonable price, or if the library could provide digital access for me (since print book shelf space is scarce).

Digital Books in the Library

The idea of the library housing digital books is starting to happen. I was looking into William Labov’s Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change. It’s not really in stock at Amazon, but if you want it used, you can expect to pay between $700-$1100. Fortunately, a digital version is available at the Penn State University Libraries. You can even select and print individual chapters for review. What a deal!

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