When I was new to managing publishing enterprises, more years ago than I will list at this point, I was quick to task my staff with earnest managerial questions like “so how much is this costing us?” and of course the inevitable corollary “and how do we make it cheaper?” They were quick to respond with equally earnest and appropriate questions and comments of their own such as: “what counts as a cost?” and “for what quality of work?” and, of course, “it depends.” We counted hours, we counted materials, we juggled numbers for in-house and out-sourced production and pondered whether to include the cost of office space bandwidth provided by our parent institution. As I barely scraped through my undergraduate economics class, even more years earlier, I had heartily embraced the characterization of economics as the dismal science. As a publishing professional acutely concerned with financial accounting, and reckoning, I concluded publishing economics was the gloomiest science of all.

Which is not to say that I was not, and remain now, morbidly fascinated by the exchange of value, in cash, reputation and intellectual contribution, within the publishing industry. Far preceding my tenure as the editor of JEP, this journal has long been supplying fodder for my gloomy contemplation of the economic costs and contributions of publishing. In fact, almost two decades ago, in September of 1998, JEP published a special issue on the costs of electronic publishing, an issue containing articles whose titles would not be out of place today, from Michael Jensen’s Cost Recovery and Destiny: Developing the Appropriateness Matrix to Mike Cuenca’s Opinion: Where's the Multimedia in Online Journalism? by way of Hal Varian on The Future of Electronic Journals.

Having just recently passed JEP’s 20th anniversary and taken stock of our articles that have attracted attention over the years, I was prompted to begin seeking out contributions on what I broadly termed the economics of publishing. Happily for JEP, and not entirely coincidentally, my search coincided with an uptick in national and foundation attention to the question of the cost of scholarly monograph publishing. As the results of a number of significant investigations into the costs of scholarly monographs and ways in which to bear those costs began to emerge, we were lucky enough to persuade several researchers and scholars to bring together their voices in our journal and to present them in a dialogue on questions of the economics of scholarly monograph publishing.

As Paul Courant and Terri Geitgey describe:

one possible funding method that appears to be gaining traction is that of direct institutional author subventions for monographs, a model proposed in a prospectus issued by the Task Force on Scholarly Communication. The Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) created the Task Force in order to better examine and address the issues and challenges faced by the current system of scholarly monograph publishing in general, and specifically, “to address the inability of a market model to adequately support research monograph publication based primarily on scholarly merit.” This Task Force suggested a model of faculty title subvention designed to ensure the long-term economic viability of foundational scholarly monographic publishing, while promoting the emergence of innovative digital models.

In order to study the viability of this institutional funding model in the context of real-world examples, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded a grant to Indiana University and the University of Michigan to “explore how a potential ‘subvention’ system of funding in which universities and colleges paid the costs of producing humanities monographs (rather than expecting publishers to recoup their costs from consumer payments) could work at two major research universities.”

Two of the articles collected in this issue of JEP result from that study. The first of these, “Determining the Financial Cost of Scholarly Book Publishing” by Scott Smart et al. reports on establishing a framework to catalog and understand the costs associated with monograph publication using data from Indiana University Press and University of Michigan Press. This paper provides an evidence-based approach to identifying and delineating the costs specific to scholarly book publishing, while offering a replicable methodology for discerning with reasonable accuracy the “true” cost of publishing an academic monograph. As will most of my readers, I expect, when I received the manuscript I quickly skimmed to find the punch line. How much does the scholarly monograph cost? By these authors’ lights, $27,000.

If you disagree with the number, the study is admirable in its emphasis on replicability and the transparency of its methodology, so you can run the calculations with your own data and see how the number suits your experience and instincts. And if you’re still skeptical, turn to “The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward A Transparent Methodology” by Nancy Maron. As Maron describes, her work “is the result of a planning grant awarded to IthakaS+R by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, to convene a panel of experts to develop a study methodology for determining in as granular a way as possible the true costs of publishing scholarly monographs.”

Again, to cut to the chase, so I don’t immediately lose my readers to hunting for the answer in Maron’s careful and skillfully articulated work, the answer is in the range of 23 to 50 thousand dollars, depending on the inclusiveness of component costs, the size of the press producing those books, and the quality standards of the finished product. Like Smart et al, Maron is painstakingly attentive in documenting and sharing her methodology and seeks for the work it undertakes to be replicable. The two articles are different in the breadth of their attention, the first conducting a focused case study on two institutions as exemplars, the second conducted in consultation with twenty participating presses and taking into account almost 400 titles.

Courant and Geitgey’s “Preliminary Examination of ‘Free Riding’ in U.S. Monograph Publication” reminds us that production costs are not the only economic stakes in scholarly monograph publishing. As part of the Michigan and Indiana research team whose work we learn about from Scott Smart, they observe that “two of the main themes or concerns that arose during the course of the case studies can be thought of as a two-sided coin, with the ‘free riders’ problem on one side, and an ‘unintended consequence’ problem on the other.” Their examination here considers the nature of free riding in the scholarly book publishing economy and reflects upon whether a shift to an institutional author subvention model would alleviate or acerbate a free rider problem already in play at university presses.

While these three new articles on their own provide excellent fodder for chewing over questions of cost management in scholarly monograph publishing, this editor inevitably noted that these articles would be even richer sharing space with an article published in our most recent issue, that offers the scholars’ point of view on many of the same questions these new articles address. Michael Elliott’s “The Future of the Monograph In the Digital Era: A Report to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation” details how, over the course of six months during the 2014-15 academic year, a working group of faculty and administrators at Emory University met regularly to explore and understand the development of a new model for supporting and disseminating book-length publication in the humanities.

In this issue, we also undertake some consideration of a different kind of intervention into the economics of publishing. Adam Hodgkin’s reviews The Once and Future Publishing Library, a short monograph by Ann Okerson and Alex Holzman reporting on the increasing engagement of libraries in publishing activity, an engagement driven by opportunity, the desire to meet community needs and the goal of creating a more sustainable economic environment for libraries and those they serve.

Stepping into our archives, as I encourage all of my readers to do, can be an entry into an intellectual labyrinth inviting consideration of many publishing questions, both historical and contemporary. To help prevent you from getting pleasantly lost in that labyrinth, we have appended to this issue’s table of contents a few highlights from our past contributions on understanding the economics of publishing. In 2014, Richard Nash discussed The Business of Culture in Post Industrial Times. 4 years earlier, John Hilton III and David Wiley explored a question still vexing the industry today — The Short-Term Influence of Free Digital Versions of Books on Print Sales; in 2008, Julian H. Fisher was arguing for Scholarly Publishing Re-invented: Real Costs and Real Freedoms. And then in the way back time of 1998, Marlie Wasserman was asking “How Much Does It Cost To Publish A Monograph and Why?”, the very question echoing through much of the work presented here.

Wasserman’s number is, well, it depends, but comes down around $22,000 in production costs, a figure that can be weighed and judged (with passage of time and changes in labor an material costs in mind) against Smart’s $27,000 or Maron’s possible $50,000. And while you’re thinking about those possibilities, consider that the cost University of California’s Luminos charges its authors to support open access, a charge presumably intended to cover cost, is a baseline of $15,000, while in the U.K., Cambridge University Press is supporting open access through a standard book processing charge of £6,500, about $8,500 by today’s currency conversion. Then reach for your calculator, your aspirin, your whiskey, or other drug of choice to begin to reconcile these very various reckonings of the costs of producing those works of scholarship and analysis so vital to the understanding of our current and historical condition. Then seek out the company of others doing the same, and listen as the conversation becomes an argument on the nature and amount of the true costs of publishing these books, an argument which this issue of JEP does not aspire to resolve. We do, however, aspire to inform that argument and to contribute meaningfully to its articulation. The authors and their work represented in this issue make important and accessible contributions.