On the face of it this seems like a good idea: Cambridge University Press is introducing a new format, Cambridge Elements, which will publish material falling in size between the journal article and the full-blown book. STM Publishing News brings us the information.

“Work of between 50-120 pages will be published digitally and through print-on-demand as ‘Cambridge Elements’ – concise, peer-reviewed guides to key and current topics across all fields of study and research. These will be organised into focused series, edited by leading scholars. They will combine the speed, flexibility and versatility of digital with the highest academic standards.”*

The problem publishers have with short books on academic topics isn’t fundamentally a problem of page count: it’s really the pricing of little books that stumps us. All publishers tend to consider the costs of running the business, the overhead, as a lump which has to be divided up between every book we sell, so that, ideally, each single sale we make during the year delivers its little contribution to balancing off the overhead. Recover a bit less: a loss. Recover a bit more: profit. A little book looks like it should have a correspondingly low price: but retail price does not march in lock step with page count, so such a book will always tend to look expensive — unless you can sell so many that your fixed costs can be recovered over thousands and thousands of lower-priced sales.

We tend to earn the money to pay for the ongoing business by applying a standard percentage of our overhead to every copy of every book. So if you plan to price the book at $100 maybe $45 will be what you get from the trade after your discount, and of your receipts maybe 45% ($20.25) will be notionally counted as the overhead contribution. But unless it sells fantastically well a little book will not be able to cover overhead adequately — 45% of a small number being an even smaller number. Now one could, dangerously, mount an argument that CUP’s overhead was covered by all the books and journals they are already publishing and that by adding a series called Elements they are not really adding to the costs of running the business, that any sales will really just be gravy. To conclude that this means that Elements could attract an overhead allocation of say 10% would enable you to publish at a price which people might actually pay, and this would allow Elements to succeed. But few publishers are going to be willing to open this door: just imagine what’d happen if Elements succeeded wildly, beyond all expectations, and you started publishing more and more of them. It’d start representing a large proportion of the shipments made by your warehouse, and would occupy more and more staff time in all other departments. If suddenly 50% of your sales are only earning a 10% allocation toward overheads your costs will rapidly exceed your recovery. Death by success.

Of course it is unlikely that the success of Elements could end up representing 50% of sales, but conservative accounting will militate against ever “fooling” yourself like this. I have while working more than once suggested a dodge of this kind. If you have a Shakespeare series, competing with other series distinguished only by annotation and introductory material, the different texts will end up sharing the market. Drop your retail price $2 and everyone will buy yours: bingo! 100% of the market at $2 is worth so much more than 10% of the market at $15. I have always (correctly) been rebuffed. The book market is relatively conservative and is slow to move. Professors recommend texts and will be slow to take the price paid by students into account. By the time any effect on sales might get started competitors will have responded by dropping their prices too, and nobody wants to get into a race to the bottom.

Our alternative approach to the short book is inflation: I once turned a manuscript of less than 50 pages into a 128 page book. Lots of white space, and very readable type! But we all hope that the book buyer is focussed on heft rather than number of words on a page. The publisher of short books for specialized audiences faces a choice: either the books will look relatively expensive, or they will be allowed to underperform financially, as a sort of service to the academic community. One way university presses occasionally manage to achieve this sort of result is by a grant from an outside body. Who knows: maybe CUP got such a grant.

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* Dare one suggest that this sounds a bit like a rather more academic version of the Oxford series Very Short Introductions. That series succeeds by selling surprisingly well. And its prices are not really all that bargain-basement low. Of course I’ve no idea what CUP’s pricing plans are.