Why Linguists Should Worry About Book Prices and Digital Access

An issue that may seem to be a bit esoteric is the pricing of linguistics books on Amazon, but I do think it has a negative impact in efforts to disseminate information among ourselves and to the community. As most linguists know, most new hardback books are usually over $100 to purchase, but even paperbacks can be expensive. Even paperbacks range from the relatively cheap $30 to over $50.

In my experience, the general public is interested in certain linguistic topics such as the history of English (or other heritage languages). They may also be interested in certain policy issues such as education and language. If possible, it would be helpful for people to get reliable information at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, really good linguistics books at a reasonable price are very scarce.

Indo-European Books

One topic that the general public is fascinated with in Indo-European, but it’s also an issue that leads to lots of problematic theories and political debates. The Nazi “Aryan race” is the worst case scenario of tying a linguistic theory to racism. Pointing people to a good Indo-european handbook might help people understand the methodologies more and put the information. These exist, but are usually over $40.

Right now the The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World by J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams is selling for just under $60. The Cambridge University Press’ textbook Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics) by James Clackson is about $45. Another textbook from Blackwell,
Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction by Benjamin Fortson is about $60. The cheapest respectable book is the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots (under $17) and a few books that focus more on archaeology than language.

Or you could spend $4.99 (free on Kindle) and get Indo-European Origins by William Davey. Reviews are mixed, but I would be concerned with this review that noted that “Googling for an author’s name did not provide any insight at all in regards with his background, so I’m still in some doubt” (I also could not find much on Google). Nevertheless, other people seem to like it, but is it as well researched as other books? Another reviewer feels dubious. But right now, it’s the top link in Amazon. Hmmm.

Lack of Basic References

In a similar vein, as an instructor, I would like my students to read informed sources about different languages or language families, but helping them find basic information is more frustrating than it needs to be in the digital age. A lot the handbooks I would recommend range between $60 to over $300, and most are print only.

Obviously, no undergraduate would make this investment, and it’s steep even for a graduate student or faculty member. Traditionally students could go to the library for these resources (and I do remind my students to step inside the library), but not all the books may even be in the library. Or they may be on permanent loan to an instructor or desperate graduate student.

At the moment, the quickest source for linguistic facts is Wikipedia, and I’ve been known to look things up myself. Hopefully, some of the editors have been able to fund purchasing of the quality resources I’ve mentioned…but you never know.

How Pricing Affects Awareness

The general assumption of academic publishing is that linguistics books are meant for either libraries or other linguists who will agree to pay an increased price that reflects a buying pool. But now that new digital options have emerged, it is time to rethink how information is distributed and take advantage of cheaper models of distribution. The Rutgers Optimality Archive (ROA) allows researchers to both access and contribute information for free. The Atlas of North American English by William Labov can be licensed by libraries in a digital format any registered user can download. Mouton also provides some information at http://www.atlas.mouton-content.com/.

Libraries are starting to realize these resources are necessary, but we need to find ways to encourage other publishers to make their handbooks more readily available in a digital format. I would also like more of an iTunes model where individual chapters could be purchased as needed.

Our Tax Dollars at Work?

As other organizations such as the Association of Research Libraries have pointed out, many American academic projects are at least partially funded by U.S. government agencies. Therefore, our tax dollars are actually paying for results which should be available to the public. This is similar to the idea that content produced by the federal government is public domain. As many instructors will tell you, it is not as if they expect to live off of royalties from their books based on the limitations of distribution.

It is important to remember that publishers do need to be compensated, but the beauty of the iTunes model is that it provides access to more publishers than traditional music media distribution. It also allows customers more choice in what to buy the chance to preview what they buy. I have become a much more educated music listener thanks to iTunes. It would be great if a similar model could allow people to become more educated citizens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *