The Bookseller of 2 October tells us “An open letter signed by more than 900 librarians, researchers, lecturers and students has called for the government to investigate the ‘exorbitant’ pricing and licensing of academic e-books.” The justification for demanding cheaper ebooks in Britain seems to be that we are in a (sort of) coronavirus lockdown, so students are having to read stuff online.

What is it that makes people think they have a right to cheap books, and that publishers are in some way obligated to oblige? If they want academic ebooks for £1.99 why don’t they just go ahead and try to publish a few? The reason is obviously that they’ve no idea how to — and if they did, they’d also have discovered that for materials in slight demand a high price is inevitable. Book publishers tend to aim to price their books as low as they can: after all we are not so dumb that we don’t realize that the more copies you sell the better, and to see that the lower the price the more copies you’ll sell. But at a lower price, if you can’t sell enough extra copies, you can’t afford to do the book at all. Still it is obviously easier just to bash those who assign the prices than to come up with solutions to the basic problem. From the tiny bit of the report we non-subscribers are allowed to see (cheap books!), we don’t really know who signed the letter. It could be one librarian, two researchers, three lecturers and 894 students, though I’d rather doubt that breakdown, because students nowadays seem to be able to get almost all the readings they are asked to do as free digital texts on reserve at the library. 

Now you or I might like to pay less for books, especially those heavy expensive ones. But write a letter to the government! Who thinks the government is responsible for academic book prices? For people who really can’t afford to pay more, a sort of solution is provided by the public library system — better these librarians and their co-signers should write a letter protesting the funding cuts the public libraries are being subjected to. Book publishing is not a public utility: do these people who want cheap books think that the book publishing industry should be nationalized, and the prices charged for books be subsidized out of general funds? Of course not: I suspect many of them just want to give the appearance of being sympathetic to the poor student — and here’s a cheap way of doing it. Did any of the lecturers and researchers who happen to be authors consider the (perfectly viable) option of insisting to their publisher that their book be offered at a lower price, the difference in the amortization of the publisher’s costs being made up by a nice little check from the author. Well of course we’d all say that was an appalling notion: it’s the fat-cats who have to have their pips squeezed not the poor toiling authors. Trouble is, in the universe of academic book publishing there are no fat cats to target: our cats are actually pretty trim. (The fatness of trade publishers is also pretty insignificant on any scale comparing all businesses.) If they are proposing that academic books be made cheaper by some sort of subsidization of publishers or a book grant to students, well OK — but just try to stop students spending their grant on things other than education!

Parenthetically I have to note that part of all this confusion about ebook prices is the assumption by lots of commentators (including many who should know better) that there are no costs involved in publishing an ebook.