Robbins Burling “On High Priced Publishers”

What follows is a guest post by Robbins Burling, on the timely issue of the ethics of dealing with high-priced publishers.  He is grateful for your comments and feedback.  -Elaine Francis

On High Priced Publishers

I was recently contacted by the linguistics editor of a publisher that is sometimes regarded, as “prestigious” and that I will refer to simply as “Publisher X”. This publisher is well known, both for its stunningly beautiful books and for its outrageous prices. The editor asked me to review a manuscript of a grammar of a language that is spoken near the region of northeastern India where I have done extensive field work.  I have been distressed by the prices that this and similar publishers charge, so I asked the editor what their plans were, should they decide to publish the book, for making it available to speakers of the language.  None of the speakers would be able to pay the list price.  The editor’s answer was soothing but completely non-committal: “One . . . solution would indeed be to liaise with a local publisher in India. Another might be to produce cheap paperbacks.” For several years now, I have heard suggestions from friends of Publisher X that they might arrange ways of making inexpensive copies available to scholars of the region, and to speakers of the languages, but nothing has ever come of such suggestions. I have learned to distrust their vague expressions of hope, so I declined their request to review the manuscript

I know it is possible to publish books that sell for much less than Publisher X charges.  In 2004 I had a 400 page grammar of the Garo language published in Delhi. You are unlikely to have heard of the publisher, but I am pleased to give its name:  Bibliophile South Asia. Today, you can order my book from Amazon for $42 plus postage.  Or, you can order if from Abebooks in India for US$18.84 plus about $9 for postage to the US.  If you live in India your postage will be less, of course.   $18.84 is still a substantial sum for most people in India, but it is not completely out of range. It is also modest enough so that I can be generous about giving copies to my Garo friends.  By comparison, Publisher X has a 900 page book on a Northeast Indian language that Amazon offers for $301.  Calculate the difference in price per page!  I could not find this book on the web site of Abebooks

Colleagues have told me that scholars who are seeking employment or tenure, need to publish with “prestigious” publishers because recruitment and tenure committees will judge such books more favorably.  This may well be true, but if it is, it is a scandal.  Imagine that you hold a book from Publisher X in your left hand and one from Bibliophile South Asia in your right. You want to decide which is the better book, and which author deserves a job offer. The book from BSA is well put together on decent paper, but it cannot be denied that the book from Publisher X has a lush opulence, a sort of high class glamour, that the book from BSA lacks.  But, surely, lush opulence is not what a committee should be looking for. Rather, what they ought to be looking for is the quality of the contents and, indirectly, the quality of writer’s mind. For that, neither the reputation of the publisher nor the opulence of its manufacture is of any importance. We can only judge the books by looking inside. Have we forgotten the proverb that tells us not to judge a book by its cover?

Although we cannot know the quality of a book by the quality of its manufacture, I do think that we can learn something from its price:  In particular, we learn a good deal about the author’s sense of responsibility to the men and women who taught him or her about their language. When writing about people whose nations are poor and who are themselves still poor, I believe that we have an obligation to do whatever we can to make sure that the books we write are as inexpensive as possible.  True, some of what we write is too esoteric and obscure to be of any real interest to the speakers, but that is not true of all of our work, and we might even try harder to write in a way that could be of interest to the people who speak the languages and to whom we owe so much.

The problem of lush books at high prices has a second side.  High book and journal prices are breaking the budgets of university libraries. The worst offenders are commercial publishers of scientific journals, but Publisher X contributes to the budget crunch.  How long will the taxpayers of the put up with it?

I would urge my friends and colleges who are tempted by the likes of Publisher X to find alternative ways to publish their work. I would urge recruitment and promotion committees to remind themselves regularly, that a scholarly book and its author should never be judged by the lushness its printing, but only by its intellectual and scholarly content.  Since private buyers for the books of Publisher X are probably few, I see little need to urge a boycott on private buyers, but I wish University Libraries could impose a boycott without being charged with restraint of trade.

I do suggest to my colleagues that they try to find publishers who will price their books more reasonably than Publisher X.

Robbins Burling

University of Michigan

15 Responses to Robbins Burling “On High Priced Publishers”

  1. One thought I’ve had is to retain the right to distribute the preprint version, or some similar version with identical pagination. This allows you to share a PDF or a printout of it with anyone you choose. You could work out an arrangement with the publisher that the preprint can’t be distributed secondhand, so that people with a copy can’t share it; instead if anyone wants a copy they have to come directly to you. This would prevent dilution of the publication’s value for the publisher, but would at the same time allow you to make it available to anyone you want.

    The most important thing is for authors to retain the copyright to their works. Signing over copyright to the publisher is a grave mistake, and authors should insist on retaining as much control over their works as possible.

  2. Mike Cahill says:

    Agree with Crippen, but there’s often a problem in asking people not to share a book with others — they do it anyway. There are ways to lock a document, I hear, so that it needs a password, or can only be opened on one computer. The thing the publisher would not want is the author sharing it with someone who’s a potential buyer. So you may be able to work out an agreement saying you’d only share it with people in a certain geographical area, for example.

    That being said, there’s an unavoidable tension between publishing with an expensive publisher because it advances the author’s career more, and publishing with a more modest publisher because it would be more available to a wider audience. (If you’ll excuse the commercial, this reminds me that at the 2010 LSA Symposium on “Developing Orthographies for Unwritten Languages,” a non-American linguist said “If you publish this, I sure hope SIL publishes, because then we can afford it!” And so we are…)

    A more comprehensive answer would be that writers of books which could benefit the local population should deliberately publish with more modest publishers. That might involve a degree of sacrifice, admittedly. How many would be willing to do that? I don’t know.

  3. Thanks for this post. I’m at a point to be dealing with this question, since I’ve been looking for a publisher for the dictionary and probably text collection of the California language I work on. Colleagues have encouraged me to try to publish with one of the major university presses, or with what is probably your Expensive Publisher X. In fact, Expensive Publisher X has shown some slight degree of interest in publishing the work, which would be great, because most of the presses have told me clearly that dictionaries are money-losers and they don’t want them. I do have a source of funding to supply some copies of the published work to the community, regardless of how it’s published, but that funding would go further if the book was cheaper, of course.
    So far I haven’t been discussing it with small, specific-topics publishers for the region. One reason is that my colleagues have told me the book will matter more if it’s published by a big-name publisher. I’m tenured, so it’s not a matter of tenure review even. Maybe they think it will be noticed more, or will be taken more seriously in the academic world, if it comes from a big-name publisher. Also, it seems like a book from a big-name publisher is more likely to be bought by libraries (and thus to reach a larger academic audience), even if it does cost libraries more.
    I think it’s not a matter of what the book _looks_ like. I think it’s a matter of how selective the publisher is assumed to be. If the work is published by a big-name (expensive) publisher, academics assume it’s been through more stringent review of the content, and has passed a higher bar.
    Your post reassures me that at least if I choose to (and if either type of publisher wants to publish it), I could publish with a small, lesser-known publisher in good conscience, prioritizing affordability for the community over what linguists think about the book.

  4. Abel says:

    For any research funded from tax and/or funded for some general benefit, it is hardly defensible not to make the results publicly available. It can be done since we have internet. Every other option is simply a way not to share the wealth of knowledge.

    For some purposes, this may be different. For instance, without patents a pharmaceutical company may not want to invest in cost-effective production of a medicine. Then there are some hard ethical nuts to crack. However this is not an issue in linguistics.

  5. Thank you Robbins. As for publishing towards tenure/promotion, my experience as a freshly-minted associate prof. in a smaller state-funded university in the U.S. is that it’s not *only* what/who the publishing house is, but how, and how often, the book (or article) is received by the academic readership community (and how the work is reviewed or responded to). Citation frequencies, professional opinions of the work, that kind of thing. I guess there is a correlation between major publishing house release and higher citation frequency. So, there could be the risk that excellent grammars published (at less cost) with a pub. house in India take longer to find their way into the hands of other scholars and reviewers. But one way to deal with this dilemma would be for scholars and journal editors to work with authors and publishers everywhere to make all materials known entities, to publicize their existence, to encourage university libraries to make these purchases, etc. There is then this extra effort/responsibility-of-promotion factor that then falls into the hands of scholars and editors. It’s an effort that I’m willing to engage in, especially if the product is also more easily available to the communities who played such a central role in its creation in the first place.

  6. Peter Hook says:

    I think the key issue for promotion-to-tenure committees is not what the Indians call “get-up” (appearance) but stringency of review: How carefully does a manuscript get reviewed by a big name [consequently more expensive] publisher compared to a lesser known [cheaper] publisher? The answer is usually pretty obvious.
    We might encourage members of P&T committees to read papers and monographs more carefully but members of such committees are engaged in projects of their own and are grateful for quicker and easier ways to estimate the quality of a junior colleague’s work. Waging a war against this kind of discrimination is like waging a war against gravity.

  7. Mazaudon says:

    Dear Rob,
    While I quite agree with all your points, I am surprised that no one has pointed out the responsibility of the large University libraries in this state of affairs. I was sometime ago looking through the stacks of a very prestigious Ivy league library in the Tibeto-Burman section, where I found on the shelf the book by your friend, published by publisher X, and not your book, Rob, which was in storage. I also found two dictionaries of languages of Nepal on the shelf, published by publisher X or maybe publisher Y (there are a couple or trio of these big publishers), and not another dictionary done by an excellent scholar I know, which was published by a publisher in Nepal; that one also was in storage. Did anyone of you, lucky American scholars who have access to fantastic libraries and their stacks, ever think of asking your librarians why these books were not on the shelf ? If libraries believe that only what they pay expensively for deserves to be promoted, don’t they contribute to the problem?

    Martine Mazaudon

  8. Lauren Gawne says:

    1. I’ve used Print on Demand to make a dictionary, it was good in some ways and problematic in others.
    2. As a researcher coming to the end of the PhD process I feel a lot of expectation that I should strive towards writing a monograph with a ‘reputable’ (‘expensive’) publisher.

    A year ago I published a small Lamjung Yolmo dictionary at the request of several of the speakers I was working with. I decided to do this through the Melbourne University print on demand (PoD) Custom Print Centre. There were a number of reasons for this. The first being that ‘no one wants to print dictionaries anymore’ and compared to Annemarie Hari’s magestic dictionary of the main branch of Yolmo, this small book is mainly geared towards speakers of the language and a small set of Tibeto-Burman researchers. The other reason was that a faster turn around was desirable, as it was part of a PhD project where this was a side task. Finally, by going for a PoD option I could retain complete control (under a creative commons license), and distribute the book digitally as well as in paper (it’s kindly hosted by the WoLP ( and I could purchase discount priced copies to take back to Nepal. If anyone does purchase any copies, this would fund future printing to take back to Lamjung Yolmo speakers.

    There are some problems with this method. The first is that, unlike large commercial publishers, small presses like this aren’t so stable. It appears that the CBC at Melbourne has been absorbed into some other part of the university and it’s not clear what will happen to titles already in their catalogue – so heavens knows what will happen if I ever want to make more copies. Secondly, although people say it’s a ‘nice’ thing to do, I’ve also been told by some people that there’s no academic merit to it because of the lack of peer-reviewing. Obviously it’s not as optimal a publication as something that has been double-blind peer reviewed, but it was never going to be that kind of publication anyway, geared as it was towards sharing outputs with the language-speakers themselves.

    While I’m still glad that I decided to go this route for the dictionary, I’ve been told by various people that I need to aim towards a monograph with a ‘reputable’ (read: expensive) publisher. This has ramped up since I have submitted my PhD for examination. Given that these days many such publishers require you to do your own formatting and present camera-ready proofs, I’m not sure what benefit I get out of it (apart, of course, from the benefit of some colleague feedback by way of the reviews – but most of the time they’re not getting paid to provide this feedback) – the main benefit appears to be the publication point-scoring, and the stamp of legitimacy it gives to your work (even if just a few people eventually read it and find it useful). Having said that, I have other (admittedly, fewer) people telling me I should just focus on writing lots of peer-reviewed articles, so there isn’t entirely consensus on this point.

  9. Bill Croft says:

    The situation is not going to change any time soon. Publisher X has taken over the operations of a major publisher of reasonably-priced grammars, dictionaries and text collections (i.e. cheap enough for an employed academic, though not language speakers). And Publisher X used to offer 40-50% discount on their grammars to members of certain professional societies. This made their grammars (barely) affordable to individual scholars, if not the language speakers. They eliminated that discount a couple years ago.

    Publisher X, on the other hand, has the leading typologists as editors of their grammar series, and a long track record of publishing quality grammars. The publisher whose operations they took over was losing money. Publisher X is a private company, whose primary concern is making a profit. When I protested about the elimination of the discount, several colleagues told me that I should be grateful that Publisher X published quality reference grammars of small languages at all.

    I can’t see this situation lasting, but I also don’t see it changing rapidly either. The pricing model of Publisher X (and other academic publishers) is in a death spiral: fewer scholars and institutions buy the books; the publishers raise the price to cover costs; even fewer copies are sold; and the cycle is repeated until the publisher quits publishing the specialist works like grammars, dictionaries and texts. Someday perhaps they will adopt the music model of offering electronic wares (albeit of lower physical quality) cheaply enough to encourage wider purchase.

    Another possibility is the physics model, where control of the publishing process was largely wrested from the commercial publishers (or so it is said). There have been some attempts to do so in linguistics with e-journals. But we would need to establish a high-quality operation with a good track record, and for many years that would never look as good to tenure committees as Publisher X. It would take a brave untenured faculty member to submit their grammar to such a publisher instead of Publisher X.

    Yet another possibility would be that the field changes such that descriptive linguistics is so highly regarded that there would be as wide demand for reference grammars as for theoretical monographs; it would be commercially feasible for publishers to sell grammars for a reasonable price (and there would be multiple publishers leading to competition); and publishing a quality grammar or even a dictionary and text collection would be an easy route to prominence in the field and employment and tenure at any institution.

    Having said that, some university publishers have reasonable pricing models. For example, University of California Publications in Linguistics has a long track record, an excellent editorial board, publishes hardcopies at prices that individual scholars can afford, and has been making their recent monographs (including grammars) available as pdfs for free after an embargo period, at [NB: I have no association with UC or UC Press.] Possibly the best route to reasonable pricing of language descriptions is through university publishers rather than private publishers such as Publisher X. Universities might also be persuaded more easily than private publishers to take ethical factors into consideration in publishing language descriptions.

  10. Stef Spronck says:

    I think there are two elements in this discussion that at least in my experience are not necessarily connected: the price of academic publications and access by the community to the products of research. Where I work in Aboriginal Australia the academic outcome of my fieldwork will be of very limited use to the community and I’ve been able to discuss this openly with community members. They see my PhD thesis as *an* outcome of my presence in the community, but not necessarily the one that will be of most interest to them.

    Of course things may be different in other areas but descriptive grammars are idiosyncratic academic products that at least in my experience hardly meet any of the language goals a small language community might have. And I don’t think that linguists should promise that they will. Even in a literate endangered language community, no one will be able to use a descriptive grammar for the purpose of language maintenance. But many of the materials that are developed over the course of a grammar writing project can, such as wordlists/dictionaries, transcribed texts and especially recordings with stories that are also useful for a non-linguistic purposes.

    Making these available requires additional time and effort and as with Lauren’s remark about the academic appreciation of dictionaries I think that there is wide agreement among field linguists now that providing community outcomes is an obligation that comes with academic fieldwork and should be valued accordingly. I will certainly be sending/bringing copies of any published material to local organisations and people I’ve worked with. But irrespective of the important debate about academic publishing models, I don’t believe having a low-priced grammar by itself sufficiently addresses the ethical implications of linguistic fieldwork.

  11. Thank you for this comment, Stef! Grammars don’t make fluent speakers, although they may be necessary as one part of the process. Of course, it would be nice to make copies of the grammar available anyway, if people want them for other reasons. But as you point out, the grammar written for academics usually won’t help the community with their own language goals. Dictionaries and text collections may be more necessary to the community though, especially if there are few or no living fluent speakers, so we may run into the publication price issue there even so.

  12. Mark W. Post says:

    I want to come out pretty strongly here against the implication made above, which surfaces frequently in these sorts of discussions, that since descriptive grammars are mostly not readable by most laypeople – particularly in less-developed societies, apparently – rendering them available to laypeople is perhaps not a high priority. This idea misses the thrust of Rob’s complaint, which is that we have (Rob argues) a *responsibility* to make the products of our research – whatever those products may be – *available* to the people who made them possible, if only so that they can see what those products are. This is particularly true in the case of “comprehensive accounts” (grammars, dictionaries) of minority languages, since such languages are often seen as integral to a community’s cultural identity. No, most laypeople won’t read a descriptive grammar in the way it was written to be read, or may not even “read” it at all. But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have use-value, even use-value that the writer might not predict or even understand. In the area where I work, a tribe whose language had been derisively termed “a dialect” (interestingly reanalysed by some as “a dialogue”, but that’s another story) for decades, and excluded from the public education system accordingly, received a 947-page hardbound copy of a grammar of their language, brought it to the state assembly, banged it down on the table and said, “*now* tell us that this isn’t a language!” Within a month, a resolution was passed enabling introduction of this language into state schools, and requiring funds to be earmarked for teacher-training and materials development. So no, that grammar didn’t serve the “purpose of language maintenance” in the way that, for example, one might imagine a textbook or even a nifty website might. But that didn’t mean that the community couldn’t make use of it in the broader context.

    That’s not to deny the important point that other types of materials – dictionaries, text collections, DVDs, websites, etc. – should be made when possible in the course of a field project, nor that such projects should be valued by scholars, institutions, and tenure boards, etc. – I agree on both points, they should be. But Rob’s point regarding our field’s responsibility to make the products of publicly-supported research available to that public (whether “support” is in terms of tax dollars, or work hours, or in terms of, let’s say, community contribution) remains.

  13. Stef Spronck says:

    Thanks Mark, I very much agree with this and I certainly did not intend to argue with any of Robbins’ points, least of all with the need to make sure that the community has access to any academic materials based on their knowledge (although I think the responsibility for this lies with the researcher above all).

    What I responded to was Robbins’ heartfelt plea for recognising the importance of small speaker communities for linguistic research and honouring this contribution appropriately. I just fear that the price of a publication is an issue from a community perspective because the academic outcome is in many cases the *only* tangible outcome of a field project. And I suspect that this is not because it actually best serves the goals of both the academic community and the Indigenous community, but because of some of the motivations you hint at in your final paragraph.

    I think that the concerns Robbins raises about the price of academic publications and community ethics are both very sound. The only point I wanted to add was that I think that the community ethics argument is part of a slightly different/wider debate than the one involving publisher X.

  14. Agreed, Mark: I don’t mean that people are off the hook on finding a way to supply copies of whatever they write about the language to the community. Yes, it’s always important, and shows just a basic level of respect, to make sure the community gets copies, lots of copies, of whatever work is produced. And your example of how the grammar can be useful regardless of how readable it is to community members is a great one. But my own wish is for more thinking about what kinds of materials or activities help create more fluent speakers, or help the community reach whatever else their language goals are. A grammar is often not very much help on that. Sometimes people try to write the grammar in such a way that the community can read it too, and don’t realize what the limitations on the use of that grammar are.

  15. Brill has a grammar series entitled Languages of the Greater Himalayan Region. The good people at Mouton de Gruyter likewise publish grammars of endangered languages in their series Mouton Grammar Library. Both series are expensive and expensive to produce, but they are durable, edited and institutionally well distributed around the globe.

    The Brill series is substantially subsidised and sometimes manages to break even, though quite a number grammars incur a loss. The loss on grammars, despite the subvention, is compensated by profits made on other types of books.

    For a decade I have negotiated with publishers in Nepal (both private and governmental), India and Thailand about publishing the Brill grammars for distribution in South and Southeast Asia at a price affordable for members of target language communities. The cost to the Asian publishers for printing the Brill books to be paid to Brill would be zero. After years of negotiations, there have been no takers. Even one South Asian publisher which publishes other Brill books on the Himalayas was not interested in the grammars. Grammars are not often best sellers, and they generally incur a loss.

    Mouton de Gruyter made similar efforts to get its Mouton Grammar Library published in an inexpensive South Asian edition. After years of effort, there were no takers. The fact of the matter is that publishing grammars like paperback adventure novels is not a viable enterprise.

    Rob has fulminated against both Brill and Mouton de Gruyter for years for producing durable edited grammars of endangered languages with a good institutional distribution because of the price involved, even though the grammar series run at a loss. Make no mistake about it: Brill makes handsome profits, but not at all on the grammars. The publishers of both grammar series mentioned are obviously aware of their running losses, but they see the distribution of grammars of endangered languages as a service which they render.

    Since I have spent years trying to get inexpensive South Asian editions published, it now strikes me as rather facile to posture oneself as a moral preceptor indulging a pet peeve whilst ignoring global market realities, which Brill and Mouton can do nothing about. Even in a target language community, the acquisition of a new mobile phone with snazzy functions will for most people generally have a higher priority than buying a grammar book, written in English, Nepali, Mandarin or any other language.

    Lincom Europa is one publisher which started off with the philosophy of producing affordable grammar books, which soon became relatively expensive anyway, even though these grammars are not durably or handsomely produced. Maybe Abebooks is the answer to all our woes, but Rob’s book is not as well distributed institutionally as the grammar books of the Brill series and the Mouton Grammar Library series. Maybe Rob should negotiate for Abebooks to commit to publish and distribute South Asian editions of all the books of the two series mentioned. Let us see how much these books will cost and how well they will be distributed.

    Responsible members of the Himalayan Languages Project have managed to distribute anywhere between a few dozen to 250 copies of their expensive durable grammars to their respective language communities by individually raising subventions to do so and buying in bulk at the author’s discount from the publishers. A handsomely bound volume is useful for a library, but a solid and tangible tribute to your native language is not just a resource but a matter of pride to members of the native language community.

    Grammar books would sell better if they were fashion accessories. The hardback book is itself slowly but surely becoming an increasingly endangered species. It has long occurred to most of us that the internet and PDFs are one of several ways forward. It is obviously good thing for linguists to try to get their grammars distributed, both globally and particularly to the members of their respective language communities, but it is all too facile to criticise the very publishers who produce and effectively distribute durable and well-produced grammars of endangered languages even when these publishers reap no direct financial profits for this service.

    Good wishes to all,

    George van Driem

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