Pricing the back list
Many scholarly presses complain that they’re finding market conditions tough. But are they doing enough to maximise their revenues?
Consider, for the sake of argument, a monograph on some specialist subject. Let’s say it’s about Shakespeare in translation. Translation into Japanese, if you like. And let’s say that it was published in hard cover in 2006, priced at $75.
Chances are that in 2010 it will still be priced at $75. Many academic presses routinely fail to re-price their back list. Yet there is a clear case for doing so (quite apart from any argument concerning the effect of inflation, which here I will ignore).
In my experience, monographs of this time typically sell most in year 1 – in fact in the first half of year 1. After that, sales tend to decline markedly. After a couple of years they may form only a thin trickle. Interestingly, though, sales often don’t altogether stop. Every now and then somebody, somewhere, buys a copy. The long tail may be thin, but it isn’t non-existent.
The key point here, with regard to pricing, is that in the years that have passed since publication, the demand curve has shifted. In particular, demand is likely to have become much less elastic.
At publication, there are some forces that serve to restrain the price. The purchaser – say, as is typically the case, the librarian is making a judgement about future. Is it the type of book that users will value? Over the years, will it earn its place in the collection? And the publisher may wish to standardise the publication price within a series. And so on.
But three years down the line the conditions are quite different. The purchaser of the odd copy is likely to need it for a specific – for research for monograph they themselves are writing, for example. Are we really to believe that such purchasers would pay $75 but not $85? Or $100, for that matter? Typically these kinds of purchasers need the book more than those who purchased it at publication. They will, therefore, be prepared to pay a higher price.
If you here an academic publisher bemoaning market conditions, ask them about their back list pricing policies. I find they often go a bit quiet.