the book crisis

The acquisitions editor for my upcoming books at one of the premier university presses, with a major and prestigious sociology list, reports that he’s not coming to ASA, for the first time in who knows how long:

I am afraid we will not be attending the ASA this August. This will be the first time in at least 30 years. The financial crisis has damaged the book market severely. We had to let 7 good people go, and we are cutting costs across the board. I hope of course that we will attend next year in Atlanta.

My co-author on the books writes:

That [the press in question] will not be attending ASA is just astounding, and astoundingly bad.  We may get these books published just under the wire, before the final death of books.  I must be the only one who still buys books (literally thousands of dollars a year on Amazon).

While I don’t spend thousands a year, and I try to patronize local bookstores when I can, the sentiment holds here too: I buy tons of books a year too. Is this cyclical? Transformative? Realignment? Comments?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

9 thoughts on “the book crisis”

  1. My understanding is that romance novels are doing just fine right now. Academic books depend heavily on library sales, and university libraries have been hard hit by the cut backs in funding for higher education. This has been happening for years at the public institutions, and the recent crisis I imagine has hit the private schools as well.


  2. Right, our supposedly R1 library has completely stopped buying books. On the other hand, I’m told the undergrad textbook market is doing fine. Maybe you’re aiming too high.


  3. This is scary, because I’m trying to write a book at them moment, and it’ll be a few months before I have enough chapters ready to send out a proposal to publishers. Stepping back a bit, though, I think some of the predictions about the imminent disappearance of books are overkill. Certainly, independent bookstores are going under, and that’s really sad, but it seems to me that it is more related to the general economic downturn than technologies like the Kindle. As far as I can see, people still buy plenty of books, but increasingly they buy cheaper used copies online. I think it’s possible that one day all books will be digital, but I don’t think that will be for quite a while. And academia will probably be the last holdout of hard copy books because it’s still so much easier to underline sentences and scribble notes on paper.


  4. There will always be books. The question is the transition to digital formats and how that will affect the organization of the book business. Will there be physical book stores? What kinds of books will persist in hard copy?

    I’d advise people who write books: if you still care to read books, there’s a good chance that others will also care and that means that there’s a market. The fact that a publisher isn’t showing up is serious, but may indicate the current crisis.


  5. re “buy cheaper used copies on line” note that this does not help to compensate the people who wrote the creative content, nor the editors, nor publishers. Many used books are sold for basically nothing (i.e. 10 cents or a dollar) — the vendor makes money on the shipping costs. Before on-line sales, the problem was the photocopying of books, which gave profits to copy-machine vendors but not to the people who produced the book. One question I’ve wondered is whether there is a way for the book industry to capture some of the profit from the “used book” market, i.e. to sell the book in some format that can compete in price (inclusive of shipping) with the used market.


  6. One question I’ve wondered is whether there is a way for the book industry to capture some of the profit from the “used book” market, i.e. to sell the book in some format that can compete in price (inclusive of shipping) with the used market.

    There is for high selling textbooks, and it’s a rip-off: they bring out a new edition every year and by various means try to get faculty to require students to buy it.

    More generally, this is a question that university presses have been facing for at least a decade, though they are not really sure what to do. Chicago began experimenting with Adobe’s ebook format just this week., and the AAUP talked about this for the duration of their conference last month. And of course the behavior of some journal publishers is a different problem again. (There the problem is that the publisher captures all the available profit thanks to disciplinary and institutional investment in the prestige of particular.)

    In related news someone mentioned that the ASA recently decided to farm its journals out to Sage. Is that right?


  7. I followed Kieran’s links over to crookedtimber for the Elsevier scandal. I’ve already thought we should boycott Elsevier for their pricing structure; now I think we should boycott them for unethical behavior. But I don’t see many significant sociology journals on their lists.

    In any event, I agree that academics generally have different interests from publishers. And different interests from most creative artists. We produce the content and generally expect to earn basically nothing directly from its publication. (Instead, our earnings are usually indirect, via university salaries.) So it is in the academic’s interest for the publication to be essentially free, as what matters most to us is how many people read what we have written.

    We are concerned about status and reputation, and the narrow gates of the high prestige journals assure greater benefits to the few who get through them, so those of us who expect to be able to publish in high prestige outlets have an interest in keeping the number of slots small in high prestige outlets. But the peer review for quality control is provided for free.

    Book writers publishing solely for academic audiences seem to me to be in pretty much the same situation as journal article writers. Book writers who expect to gain readers from the broader public would have a different configuration of interests.


  8. Andrew points out a very serious issue. But, I think we also need to consider how the the publishers are viewing meetings. And, while this isn’t optimal, I don’t think this spells the death of the book. First, I doubt that “University Press X” is abandoning the ASA meetings. I’d bet that they will maintain considerable visibility–only with no senior staff on hand to deal with more serious issues like manuscript selection and development. And, I can’t blame them. For “floor presence” at the ASA, the staffs from the conglomerates running the Uni X, Uni B, and Uni C Press tent may do a perfectly fine job of helping people find books for courses and such.
    What they are abandoning is on-site active solicitation for new work. Book contracts may become more competitive, but I don’t think presses are going void. It’ll probably be a 20% contraction. And, we can forget ever making any money from an academic book, not that we much could have anytime.

    Of course, we could always write romance novels….er…maybe not me…


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