Friday, May 8, 2009

Butterflies are free...why not books?

I'm not sure what Yglesias is thinking here. It seems that he's unhappy about having to pay $33.59 (on Kindle; $95 if he wants a paper and glue copy) for a philosophy book (which Yglesias admits is "relatively obscure"):

Given that the marginal cost to Cambridge University Press of giving me a Kindle copy of the book is almost $0 it seems a bit absurd for the price to be so high. What’s more, according to the CUP website: “As a department of the University of Cambridge, its purpose is to further the University’s objective of advancing knowledge, education, learning, and research.” It seems to me that knowledge, education, learning, and research are not being advanced by seeking to extract exorbitant monopoly rents from relatively obscure philosophy books. Would not knowledge, education, learning, and research be better advanced by making such books as widely available as is practical? Obviously, in an era of physical books even a commitment to such a policy would imply a fairly high price. But electronic publishing via Kindle, it seems to me, ought to change the occasion.

We live in a world where, in principle, it ought to be viable for CUP to offer Peter Railton’s books for sale quite cheaply....That, it seems to me, would be a world in which knowledge, education, learning, and research are being advanced.
Perhaps Matt is so fixated on the Internet that he's decided everything should be free, though his own book (not even available for Kindle) sells at a discounted rate of $15.57 at Amazon. But his argument doesn't hold up at all.

First of all, let's dispense with the Kindle vs. tangible book point. I can pretty much guarantee you that 408 pages, even including printing, handling, and delivery, doesn't require a premium of $61.41. Clearly, the price comes from other considerations than just those of production costs.

Second, why does the obscurity of the book matter? Sure, Railton might sell more books if each was priced at $5, or $1, whatever the medium, but the publisher has made a decision that the right price point is $95 or $33. This exposes a common myth, that markets exist to get products to people; that's untrue, of course, markets exist to maximize profits. If CUP can make the most money selling 1 copy a year, they'll price it in just that way (I'm deliberately ignoring the odd aspects of university presses).

And that point is true regardless of the popularity or sales of the book.

Let's move on to the nub of the argument, that books should be priced in such a way as to advance "knowledge, education, learning, and research." You know, I'd love that too. I have all kinds of books that were bought for just those purposes, and I would certainly love it if all of them had been virtually given away.

If you want to contend that Matt's point is specifically about Cambridge University Press because of the statement he found on their web site, well, that's just not enough. Presumably every publisher could list similar goals, even if profit is a little higher in the mix for a commercial publisher, but CUP has employees and a building and expenses that need to be covered, and that's not going to happen if they're just freely disseminating information.

And why would any author sign up with a publisher that told them, "You're not going to make anything from your work because we're here to advance knowledge"? (Of course, one could argue that the book isn't publishable by a mainstream publisher due to its obscurity; then why is it publishable at all?) Yglesias himself writes a blog that may advance knowledge, and he's paid for that, even though his organization could advance more knowledge if he gave them his blogging skills for free.

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