Should history books cost an arm and a leg?

Over at the always-interesting Boston 1775 blog, J.L. Bell draws our attention to an interesting new title on gossip in American history.  Unfortunately, as he notes, a copy of the book will set you back nearly a hundred bucks.

Hefty price tags aren’t unusual when it comes to academic books.  Many university press hardcovers cost upwards of forty dollars.  If you’re only going to sell a few copies of a book to large research libraries, it makes sense to slap a high price on each copy.

But what about readers who want copies of these pricey academic books?  Many of them are probably going to be academics themselves, and they can get a free book from a journal looking for a review or a complimentary desk copy from publishers who want to sell to students.  Other potential readers—grad students, bloggers, independent scholars, reenactors, and history buffs—will either have to cough up some serious dough or wait for copies to start showing up in used bookstores or on Ebay.

One of my professors refuses to submit her manuscripts to one very prominent academic publisher because their books are so expensive.  She feels an obligation to make her work accessible and useful to people beyond the academy.

If your primary concern is writing for an academic audience, or if publication is just a means to some professional end (job, tenure, promotion, accolades), then you can afford to be unconcerned about your book’s cost. But I think it’s worth asking whether historians have an obligation to do whatever they can to ensure that interested lay readers can afford their books.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Should history books cost an arm and a leg?

  1. As someone who has often paid an arm and a leg for hefty prices, I had to stop. I just couldn’t afford it. I worked out a deal with a local college, so I can check out any of their books for a $20/year membership fee. It’s worth the drive back and forth to the school.

    I do not think historians should be required to do anything. However, they have to consider if they want their work accessible and more likely to be remembered/cherished for all time (hello, Thucydides). Or do they want it collecting dust in some hidden shelf in a university?

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