The decline of academic book sales

Michael Jubb’s recent report on (UK) Academic Books and their Future (warning ! dreaded pdf format !) — part of the Academic Book of the Future-project — makes for depressing reading.

Matthew Reisz’s piece in Times Higher Education sums it up pretty well: Worst sellers: warning of existential crisis for academic books, as “the number of individual [academic] titles sold rose by 45 per cent, from 43,000 to 63,000” between 2005 and 2014 — but (Nielsen BookScan-tracked sales figures): “show a decline for academic books of 13 per cent between 2005 and 2014, from 4.34 million to 3.76 million annually”. Add it all up, and: “this meant that average sales per title fell from 100 to 60″…

The median is likely lower yet.

That is from Michael Orthofer of Literary Saloon, by the way here is my earlier Conversation with Michael.


I don't have anything to back this up with beyond my own experience and hearsay, but it seems more schools are demanding students use texts specific to those institutions.

That has always been the case, in understated way. A department chairman's introductory text is likely to be used those teaching that course within that department.

One of the publisher tricks is 'customized' POD texts. They'll remove chapters a professor isn't going to use and add a paper or two of the prof's (which enables them to pay kickbacks in the form of 'royalties') for those chapters. Voila -- legalized payola and a text that's worthless on the resale market.

None of that rings a bell from my experiences. Maybe a difference from the biological and statistical sciences? All our books were standard editions with decent resale.

Given the ridiculous explosion in textbook prices, maybe the entire genre well and truly deserves to disappear, and one should just nod and say good riddance...


There's no reason for textbooks to exist in an age of Wikipedia, Google, Khan Academy, SSRN and Arxiv.

This has nothing at all to do with textbooks.

The discussion of lower-level textbooks (the bad stuff kids are forced to buy) and the rest of academic books should really be separate as these markets are driven by completely different factors.

Do these sales figures account for the electronic access rights correctly? 5-10 years ago I could've been stealing all the books I need online, nowadays that's much less needed as I can access most of the more recent titles thru the uni's subscription to SpringerLink and analogous services.

It's hard to see how they could, since such rights aren't convertible into "sales" but indeed, Springer, Oxford, and Cambridge have been going hard on this, and they are three of the most important academic publishers. Plus all the publishers who participate in Project MUSE. What I don't know is how the royalties translate--I assume given the prices of these services that it's more like a movie showing on HBO (less per viewer than the DVD sale, but extremely significant) than it is like music streaming, which pays peanuts, but I don't really know. I assume that the publishers wouldn't be so keen to do it themselves if the money wasn't there.

Academic titles aren't textbooks, but specialized books on an academic subject matter (like a book on the economic history of horseshoes 1748-1759).

I found that work to be shoddy.

Seems like you have horse sense; you will ride roughshod over the herd.

Meanwhile nothing happened, nothing ever happened.
And still nothing happened, nothing ever looked like happening.
It was a bloody pantomime.
It was a strangely restless time.

Trouser-legs and pantaloons.  Such a pity, this kind of indifference, isn’t it?

I suspect the decline tracks academic library collection budgets. Other than authors' acquaintances, libraries are likely the only markets for almost all academic titles.

With smaller families, there are fewer aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins to hector into buying the book.

Mom! Buy my monograph on the Neo-Scandinavian movement in Portuguese literature. (A Wodehouse joke.)

Maybe most academic titles are worthless.

Not enough entirely so. But there certainly are specific University presses that are a write off.

Oxford and Cambridge are less susceptible to ridiculous fads. Marginally.

I am not convinced that Oxford or Cambridge are less taken up with fads. From what I can see they are as obsessed with race and gender as everyone else if not more so.

Rather I think you would have to go to a much lower university press to get something sensible. Some presses specialize. TC recommended a book by Brill which is great if you want to pay $250 for something utterly obscure on Central Asia. Fads do not get a look in. If you want something on the military the University Press of Kansas produces good stuff. If you want something on Native Americans, there are University Presses that do it in a sensible way. I would think that North Carolina is more likely to produce something sensible than Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard. Yale has pockets of solid work.

But as a general rule academics produce nonsense for other academics to read. Except they don't. So there are no sales. Popular works in the humanities and social sciences rarely come from real academics or academic presses these days. But if you want something on the oppressive capitalist and patriarchal nature of barbed wire, I am sure there is a prestigious academic press that will provide.

Except with a view to tenure.

@ Rich Berger 2:36pm

99 percent of academia as a whole is, as everyone knows, just utter shit. Full of the most useless, and often vile people imaginable. But the 1 percent that isn't -- Cowen being a prime example -- is fabulous. Society funds the 99 percent (grudgingly) to get the 1 percent.

No discussion on pricing? I put as much work into a novel I sell for $3.99 as a Professor puts into a book his or her academic publisher decides to price at $30 or $40 or even $60, and we're wondering why the latter doesn't sell?

The purpose of your $3.99 novel is (probably) to to sell the novel and make your living as a writer.

The purpose of that academic book is to get tenure or look productive after tenure, and make your living as an academic. Actually selling the book would be a bonus, but isn't the actual purpose at all.

When was the last time you picked up an academic title for $60?

I regularly see $200-$300, and recently >$600 and the bindings are terrible. I recently needed a Springer reprint that cost $230 and the text was actually blurry while the color plates were clearly just photocopied in black and white.

PUP publishes quite a few worthy books at reasonable prices and provides sample chapters.

PUP = Princeton U. Press

"depressing"? To whom?

See the future, people. In (far less than?) 20 years, K-12 will be issued in an iPad format. This will be a win win, for students, taxpayers, everybody except the schoolteachers (union?). Are authors still owed royalties on A-B-C and 1-2-3?

It will start with K-12, and move up through university levels subsequently.

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