Robbins Burling “On High Priced Publishers”

April 1, 2013

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