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This paper was originally presented at an Association of Research Libraries workshop, "The Specialized Scholarly Monograph in Crisis, or How Can I Get Tenure If You Won't Publish My Book?" at a session September 11, 1997, called "Economics of the Specialized Monograph." It is reprinted here with permission.
Do we publishers exaggerate when we say it is becoming too expensive to publish monographs? If anything, I argue that we have minimized the problem. Today I want to discuss four issues: first, that we need to have a nuanced understanding of the definition of monograph; second, that the single greatest reason our financial problems have become severe is because declining library sales have dramatically decreased the number of copies we can print; third, that the losses for presses are nearly intolerable, as I will show you with actual dollar amounts; and fourth, that publishers face these problems despite economies we have taken. My larger goal is to ground discussions about our mission in the sad realities of daily life and ledgers.
Can there be a word with more meanings than the word monograph? For some people, monograph is a generic term for anything an academic press publishes. For others, who spend more time with publishers' catalogs, monograph may refer to everything a press publishes except its regional list of cookbooks and nature guides. But I propose a more limited definition. For me, a monograph is a book intended for specialists that has no significant course-adoption potential at the undergrad level, and that about 200 libraries will buy.
What this means is that if a publisher expects a book to have at least some course use, it is not a monograph. It is easier to say this than to plan for it, because hope springs eternal among acquisitions editors. Most editors, when they propose a book for publication, will claim it has upper-level-undergraduate and graduate-course adoption potential. What that means is that a book may not be perceived as a monograph at first, but if we study its sales pattern, retroactively, it may show its true colors as a monograph.
There are of course those few books that surprise us in a different way — that we identify as a monograph but then go on to do better than expected. That phenomenon is rare. You've all heard Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity — he knows it what he sees it. That doesn't always apply for the monograph.
The definition of a monograph varies in more ways. It varies from field to field. For example, I think it is fair to say that most books in film studies sell better than most books in organizational sociology, and most books in cultural studies sell better than most books in European political history. Whether we approve of new trends or not, they do affect sales.
The definition of a monograph also varies according to the status of the author. A monograph by a chaired professor might sell better than a monograph by a junior scholar. Although the word "tenure" is part of the title of this conference, scholars of all ranks write monographs.
Given the definitional problem, you can see why some university-press people still think they publish a lot of monographs, while others say they don't. At Rutgers University Press, for example, we focus on books that have some course use, and try to limit the number of monographs we publish to about 20 percent of our list, but others looking at our catalog might conclude we are fooling ourselves, and might raise that 20 percent figure to 60 percent. Whatever the percentage, we are turning down more books than ever solely because they won't sell, but we all publish at least some monographs. Even if we would like to publish fewer, the truth is that to do so we would have to replace monographs with books that would sell better, and those are not easy to find. We encourage scholars to write for an audience beyond their peers, and many claim they are doing so, but few fulfill that promise. Academia is still set up to produce monographs; that is the pool from which we make our selections.
As we look at the finances of monograph publishing, I recommend that we focus on the hypothetical monograph that's in a relatively traditional field, written by a junior scholar, where the editor correctly assesses the audience to be limited. I don't mean to suggest that other kinds of books don't have severe financial difficulties, but I think the worst case is a common case.
With this hypothetical book in mind, let's ask why the problem has become so severe that it now justifies a conference.
A Precarious Business
There are many reasons, including the cost of paper, and the tendency for manuscripts to get longer and longer, but the single biggest reason is the loss of library sales. Publishing monographs was a precarious business when a publisher could print 1,500 copies, knowing that libraries would buy half and individuals would buy the remaining half. Now we see libraries buying 200 copies instead of 700. Many people assume that if you're printing half as many books as you once did, your costs will be correspondingly cut in half. Certainly that's true for some costs, such as paper, but most of our costs — for example, the cost of an ad and of copyediting — will remain the same whether we publish ten books or ten thousand. There are fewer books to absorb similar costs. Lower print runs mean higher prices, which also mean that fewer individuals can buy books, which further lowers the print run, and so on down that vicious spiral.
"We publishers have many ways of analyzing how a book works for us financially"
Now we're going to move to a typical hypothetical book by our hot shot academic, Mona Graff. I wanted to give her book a title that was as cute as her name, but this proved to be sensitive. I needed to make sure I did not pick one of those long, esoteric titles that would tempt Proxmire to nominate us for what he used to call the Golden Fleece Award — the kind of project where many people wonder why such a specialized topic needs to see the light of day. The truth is that it is not just those highly specialized topics that are endangered, but many other books along the continuum. To sidestep the issue of what is deserving, I've selected this generic title: Wisdom Matters.
Below are some of the factors an editor must keep in mind when preparing a budget:
Wisdom Matters: An Influential Study of a Serious Subject That Does More than Fill a Gap But Requires Specialized Knowledge
(Important as reminder that costs (and price) may rise)
(Direct relationship between price and length)
Cloth print run:
(Assumes 4 year sales, write down policies vary)
|Paperback print run:||0|
Cloth list price:
(Low for monograph, even lower price won't help)
|Paperback list price:||n/a|
Cloth average discount:
(Wholesalers, conventions, overstock sales, author discount)
- Is the publication date next year or in three years? Costs could change.
- Is the book 200 pages or 600? Length is one of the factors that dramatically affects costs and price for print publishers.
- Are the dimensions of the book standard or oversize, and are there illustrations? This could be a factor in fields where illustrations are important to the argument. Today that is not only art history but the many other fields that use visual as well as textual evidence. It is expensive to add illustrations, but a large part of this expense may be permissions, which will be constant despite the technology used to disseminate the book.
- What is the print run? 600 is optimistic. Just in the last few weeks, I have actually come to think that 500 would be a more realistic number. By Monday, it may be down to 450.
- Will the book be just in hardback? You might think yes, if it is a monograph, but some fields such as women's studies, sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies are very invested in paperbacks.
- What will the price be? This obviously affects how much money the press takes in. Prices of scholarly books are not as sensitive as you might think. Lowering the price a few dollars is unlikely to have a proportionately positive effect on the market.
- What will the discount be? Oops. Many readers forget that the bookstore or wholesaler takes a cut, ranging from 10 percent to 54 percent.
Now, let's go to an actual title budget, which you can also call a profit and loss statement, or, to be precise, a loss statement. We publishers have many ways of analyzing how a book works for us financially, but I am going to use only the simplest of these methods — a look at the bottom line. Also, keep in mind that the way I have set this up, though common, is not universal. Every publisher handles title budgets a little differently, and gets slightly different costs from vendors. I'll mention a few variations, but the general picture is typical.
Cloth sales, minus gratis
Gratis: author, review, exam, p.r., write down
|Cost of sales|
|Interior design||$ 200|
Paper, printing, binding
|Jacket printing||$ 0|
|Total cost of sales||$6,752|
Let's assume we're printing Mona Graff's book only in hardback, with a 600 copy run, at a $40 price, with a standard discount for a monograph.
Rather than going through these costs in detail, I want to tell you about many of the economies that they represent, and then look at the result. These numbers represent efforts to save money by asking authors for both hard copies and disks, which may mean passing along some of our costs to authors. They represent savings by copy editing disks on screen and then sending relatively clean disks to the printer. They represent a low cost but effective generic interior design. They represent paper, printing, and binding costs that are kept low through a state-mandated competitive bid process.
One of the effects of the reduced print run is that it leads to a higher unit cost. Those numbers also represent a decision to eliminate the dust jacket. On the other hand, those figures represent my belief that we don't want to ask authors for camera-ready copy, though I should note that some presses will do so, again passing on costs to authors. And the figures represent my belief that most authors deserve a modest royalty for their intellectual property, though I should note that other presses feel differently about royalties. Most of the costs on that table are caused by our traditional use of the print medium, with the exception of the design and royalty costs, which are not media-specific. The total costs — about $6,800 — may not look prohibitive to you, but the true picture surfaces with the next table.
TITLE BUDGET, part 3
|Honoraria to reviewers||$ 250|
Freelance copy editing
|Freelance jacket production||$ 0|
|Total Operating Expenses||$22,075|
Again, let me tell you about some economies we have taken to cope with the effect of decreasing print runs. The figures represent membership in a sales consortium that reduces costs. The figures also reflect our use of freelance copy editors to whom, I say with shame, we pay no benefits, and our decision, I also say with shame, to skip professional proofreading. Note the $18,000 listed for overhead — salaries, staples, and (the way we calculate costs) about 80 percent of our marketing. (By the way, even though some of us are marketing on the Internet, that has not replaced print ads and fliers. Authors expect both.) That $18,000 represents an average figure that we tack on to every book. We cannot survive unless we can cover our overhead. Most of the costs on this table are not confined to the medium of print. Looking at just the biggest figure, $18,000 for overhead, and assuming the bulk of that is salaries, I want to argue that whether you publish in print or a different medium, you will still need managers, acquiring editors, copy editors, designers, marketers, permissions experts, computer gurus, customer service staffs, and accountants. At the bottom, you can see that sad bottom line — we lose $13,600 if we sell out our print run.
Imagine for a minute that you are a publisher who publishes 60 books per year, each of which loses $13,600. Simple multiplication will show you that you will need to report to the president of your university that you are losing a total of $816,000 per year. A typical university press subsidy is somewhere between 0 and $400,000 a year. Of course, you will not lose all of that money in the year you publish any one particular book, but you will be losing money from other books published in other years, so the net effect is still abominable.
What do our readers get for that $13,600 loss per book? They do get value that we add to the project, beyond the stack of pages that the author delivers to us. As you can tell from the costs I have itemized, we spend money on selection, peer review, editing, design, and marketing. So we have the value of Mona Graff's ideas, plus what we have added to that value. This would all be lovely if we could recover our costs. There's a bit of an ethical problem here too, similar to the one health-care economists deal with. If we add, say $5,000 in value to each title, but each title is read by only 500 readers, is that the way we should be using our money? That's a question most of us would like to ignore.
I can show you that our financial problems will not be solved if we publish Mona's book in both paperback and hardback, what I call the dual edition option. Let's assume a print run of 300 hardback copies and 1200 paperback copies, at prices of $50 and $19, with standard discounts for such books. Under this scenario the cloth sales would be very small, and to allow for a lower priced paperback we would be forced to increase the hardback price, which of course is a source of friction between publishers and librarians, and reduces the hardback sale even further.
Cloth sales, minus gratis
|Paper sales, minus gratis||$14,439|
|Cost of sales|
|interior design||$ 200|
paper, printing, binding
|jacket printing||$ 0|
|Total cost of sales||$ 9281|
In theory, many of us try to limit such a dual-edition option to books that are likely to have classroom use, but in practice we cannot always predict that and are pressured by academics — who falsely believe that the availability of a paperback guarantees course use — into publishing dual editions when it does not make financial sense to do so. I, for one, yield to such pressure regularly. This situation has progressed so far that we may be beyond the point of no return. Lowering our hardback prices by a couple of dollars, from say $50 to $47, is hardly going to bring relief. Some of us believe we are marching toward a time, in paperback-centric disciplines, when it makes no sense to publish a hardback at all, and where we'll have $30 paperbacks, with one price for individuals and libraries alike. But to come back to this example, you will see that the total cost of sales is $9,300, which of course is higher than with the hardback-only option because we are producing more books.
More importantly, as we move to operating costs, we see that many of our costs have remained the same as they did with the hardback-only option, but because we feel we must stick with the artificially low paperback price of $19, we are faced with the depressing bottom line loss of $8,842.
TITLE BUDGET, part 5
|Honoraria to reviewers||$ 250|
Freelance copy editing
|Freelance jacket production||$ 300|
|Total Operating Expenses||$23,499|
Note that the budget for dual editions reflects the same sorts of economies and efficiencies that we had with the hardback only budget.
To sum up, we have cut our print runs, and anticipate doing so further. The lower the run, the higher the price, the lower the sales, and so on. We have investigated and pursued cost-cutting strategies, including the use of disks to minimize rekeyboarding, editing on screen, eliminating dust jackets, multi-press consortiums, and outsourcing. We are professionals who are really quite efficient at what we do, if we say so ourselves. But even with our valiant efforts, we can barely keep our heads above water. The revenue we take in through sales is simply too low to cover our costs. We are eager to explore alternatives, but dubious that there is a simple cure. I know that Colin Day and Scott Bennett are about to treat you to alternative models. For the sake of comparison with these models, I am going to hazard a guess at what it would cost us in the next three to five years if we did business as usual. I believe we would require deficits of at least twice what we are receiving now. Let's keep this in mind as we ponder the alternatives.
Marlie Parker Wasserman has served as Director of Rutgers University Press since 1995. Previously, she was Executive Editor for the Social Sciences at Routledge, and before that, Associate Director and Editor in Chief at Rutgers University Press. She began her career in publishing at the University of Chicago Press in the '70s, where she acquired manuscripts in sociology and anthropology. You may contact her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org