18 August 2003

I seldom read The Volokh Conspiracy. First of all, as a lawyer who represents authors, I get conspiracy theories every day—and some of them are even true. ;-) Second, despite the number of participants in the Conspiracy, there is remarkably little diversity in views; perhaps this indicates only that it's a good conspiracy? As should be obvious by now, there isn't a lot of agreement from this end.

   Today there was a "well, duuuh!" moment from one of the conspirators. David Bernstein mused upon his recent experiences with academic publishing. That all of this is incredibly obvious to someone who has seriously studied the publishing industry is not the point. That it is not obvious to those who have not, and who do not have access to reputable sources (nor the ability to determine whether a particular source even is reputable), is closer.

   The real point, though, is that Mr. Bernstein did not mention the single factor that ordinarily separates an academic press from a corporate press (they are both, contrary to Mr. Bernstein's misuse of the term, "commercial" presses): that the academic press probably gave his book more than a spellcheck. When I worked for the academic division of a corporate press, the immediate and obvious difference was the level and kind of editing afforded to different works; given my employer's reputation in the publishing community, that in-house difference was pretty consistent with the outside.

   However, this leads to another question. My employer typically priced its books (even academic books) in the same price range, or perhaps marginally above that range, as comparable-form books from mainstream presses like Simon & Schuster. That is, a trade paperback for a book with a low print run would run not more than $24, and that for a reference book, at a time that the average original trade paperback ran $16 to $20. The differences in audience and print run account for that differential. It is the inverse inquiry that is interesting. If my employer, whose per-unit costs of production were higher than those of the bigger publishers, could price so close to the works coming from those bigger publishers, and still give significantly greater editorial attention to the books, precisely what is one paying the bigger publisher for in the first place?

   The appearance of Bernstein's article is purely coincidental, even though it fits in with yesterday afternoon's entry.