Upon its appearance at the beginning of the month, this Guardian article, in which an academic takes umbrage at the way academic publishers operate, stirred up considerable controversy. What follows are some reflections on the anonymous writer's arguments, informed by both my subsequent conversations with former editorial colleagues within the business and my personal experience of both academia and academic publishing.
A good starting point is the claim picked out by the Guardian sub-editor and used as the title: "Academics are being hoodwinked into writing books nobody can buy". The central complaint here is that monographs are priced too high - certainly high enough to put them beyond the reach of individual students and academics. This arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the market for monos - they're only intended for university libraries, whose budgets can absorb the costs. Even if monos were significantly cheaper, people wouldn't buy them in larger numbers, as they're very much a specialist/niche product by definition. This misunderstanding doesn't come as much of a surprise to someone who's worked in academic publishing - whether or not you attribute it to ego, many academics are delusional in imagining the potential market for their publications to be far larger than it actually is.
The high price of monos is undeniable, but the author's figures are wrong (in the current climate, monos sell far fewer than 300 copies - print runs are often under 100) and in fixating on the publishers' greed he/she (deliberately?) takes no account of the substantial cut of the price taken by other parties (library suppliers, in particular). While it's true that monos can be profitable, especially given falling production costs, publishers would argue that the high price is what makes them commercially viable - like it or not, profit is the prime motivation for the major academic publishers (unlike university presses). If monos weren't priced at such a level to make them commercially viable, then such potentially valuable research wouldn't be published at all.
This relates to another Guardian article, from 2011, in which George Monbiot savaged the publishers of academic journals, arguing that - far from existing to disseminate knowledge - they're actually hell-bent on restricting access through prohibitive pricing strategies. If so, then it's impossible to brand them - as he did, with characteristic ridiculous hyperbole - as "the most ruthless capitalists in the western world". After all, surely being a capitalist (especially a "ruthless" one) means harbouring the desire to sell your products as widely as possible?
All that said, this was an issue that did concern me when I was working for a publisher myself. As I've implied, for commercial publishers all the talk of "knowledge dissemination" is ultimately a bit of a fig leaf - it's the rather less noble pursuit of a profit margin that's critical. The anonymous academic takes aim at the sausage factory mentality that comes from the need to meet demanding commercial targets and, in my experience, occasionally results in the commissioning and publication of books of questionable academic merit.
When challenged on this point, one publishing friend took a neo-conservative view, arguing (essentially) that the market determines the value of any piece of research. The capitalist model, he argued, effectively guards against bad commissioning decisions because a publisher can't continually produce poor books and not expect sales to decline and lists to dwindle as the imprint loses prestige. The crux of the issue here is the meaning of "bad". If it's understood as merely being synonymous with "unprofitable" (which, admittedly, is the way commercial publishers would define it), then he has a point. However, projected profitability, based on assumptions of marketability, is not necessarily a guarantee of academic quality, just as (speaking as a fan of relatively obscure music) the sales and popularity of a song is not necessarily a guarantee of its musical quality.
At university presses, publishing decisions are taken by scholarly committees, independent of commercial considerations, which must surely make the process more rigorous in terms of assessing academic merit. Of course, the flip side of this is that academic merit doesn't necessarily equate to significant sales - which is why so many university presses have been running into financial trouble in recent years.
Like Monbiot, the anonymous author also complains about the whole concept of academic publishers selling taxpayer-funded research back to academics and students for their own financial gain. Again, this is an issue that has troubled me at times, but this critical perspective fails to acknowledge the significant added value that publishers provide, in terms of everything from production expertise, peer review, marketing and dissemination to digital asset management, increasingly important in the modern context - all things regularly ignored or underestimated by authors.
And then, finally, there's the question of whether academics are being "hoodwinked". This paints them as naive young innocents being exploited by profit-hungry publishers who appeal to their personal vanity. Here, the complainant is both too kind and too cruel to his/her fellow academics. Too cruel, because "vanity" is too strong a word - not only does publication effectively validate the research that academics live and breathe, and so is about much more than just being able to crow about having your name on the front of a book, it also ignores the pressure to publish that institutions exert on their staff. Too kind, because academics aren't hoodwinked innocents at all. There's no subterfuge - academics need to publish for REF purposes and to further their own careers (or even simply to keep their jobs), while publishers need to publish to make money. In this respect, it doesn't really make sense to talk about one party being exploited by the other - as grubby as it might seem, the relationship is mutually beneficial.
Incidentally, in the wake of the initial article and ensuing furore, the Guardian provided a platform for both a publisher and a librarian to respond. They did so in much the same terms as above.
(Thanks to Louise and David for the links.)