More Thoughts on EMEMH Publishing

Yet more on the state of writing, publishing and buying EMEMH books in the age of Print Publishing Collapse.

Wayne Lee recently expressed his disgust at book prices in response to a recent bibliographic notice. And while his (price) point about the expense of Brill books in particular is taken – I’ve flown off the handle myself once or twice, as you can see from the Publishing tag – more and more I’m wondering about the options, and how I should respond as an author and consumer.

We can start with Danley and Speelman’s Seven Years’ War collection published by Brill. As most of us know, Brill’s specialty is ultra-detailed, lengthy studies with a big price tag – my own Vauban under Siege was published with them in 2007 and now runs $180. So let’s put these figures in context. Generally, specialization comes with a higher price tag, because there isn’t as broad a market for such detailed studies – just look at journal subscription prices. If the entire market of EMEMH publishing consisted of such tomes, that would be bad. But is the existence of such an expensive work inherently a bad thing? While my eyes did pop at the $252 list price, after a moment’s reflection I wonder how outraged I really should be. My thinking is as follows:

1) Perhaps Brill actually does provide a service, with a correspondingly high cost. Which other publishers would publish a 20-chapter (18 different authors), 530-page behemoth like that in this day and age? Very few. Instead, publishers insist that a) the book be much shorter, 200-25o pages of text, and b) that the book cover a broader time frame (and possibly a wider geographical scope as well), so as to interest a broader market. Compare the traditional academic monograph with the Palgrave catalog if you haven’t noticed this trend. Simultaneous condensing-and-stretching may be a smart publishing strategy, but I doubt whether that’s necessarily good for the discipline as whole, especially if it replaces what would have been more detailed studies. I know authors who have been forced to stretch their books’ borders far beyond their expertise in order to bring in a larger market, and they aren’t happy with the tacked-on chapters. Ultimately, such market pressures put the marketability of the book ahead of disciplinary knowledge; and in an age of historical specialization, we need details. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I have Palgrave’s Beyond Calvin (192 pages @ $41) for my Reformation course next semester, but I want far more for my own specialty of EMEMH. I don’t want every book to be a 100-year survey of a topic, or an overview of a multi-national war where the author clearly focuses on one or two sides – we need monographs too. Bringing it back to Danley & Speelman, we’ve already had several new surveys of the 7YW published recently (Showalter, Szabo, Baugh), so I’d argue it’s good that we get some new detailed studies, especially if it gets us away from the obsession with Frederick the Great. Journals publishing EMEMH articles could serve the same function, but there are few such specialist journals in existence, and they will easily get lost compared to a collected volume of chapters dedicated to the war.

As series editor at NYU Press, Wayne has indeed put his money where his mouth is, editing several works on early modern military history (around ten chapters and 250 pages) that have been released in paperback at quite reasonable prices ($25 or so). So I guess the question is whether NYU Press would be willing to double the size of an edited collection while shrinking the temporal/geographical scope to, say, a specific war? Or even publish an entire collection on a less popular European war, or a less well-known aspect of a well-known war? Could such a work be published in paperback, i.e. cheaply? If not, which chapters would be condensed and which cut completely, who makes that decision, and what criteria would be used? From the academic consumer’s perspective, would this be NYU Press robbing the field of more detailed studies that might have been published (more expensively) with Brill? Is expanding the reading market to non-specialists (i.e. outside of the EMEMH subfield) worth that sacrifice? Wayne? Maybe we should get Rick Schneid (series editor at Brill) in here for equal time? With Brill, the author really does seem to control the end result, for good or ill. Probably because they don’t need to worry as much about expanding their market beyond libraries and specialized academics.

2) If somebody other than Brill would publish a work just like Mark’s and Pat’s, what would they charge for it? Price is spiraling out of control everywhere – I recall as an undergrad in the early 90s being shocked that a book on Russian military history cost $80! Ahhh youth. These days, your average single-author monograph on early modern European topics at Cambridge, Oxford, etc. costs $100 or more. In fact, I just received a $125 single-author monograph for Christmas on the financial aspects of a single early modern war (240 pages of text). Ashgate and Pickering & Chatto come to mind as alternatives to Brill, although they too charge well north of $100 for their monographs and edited collections. So maybe Brill’s $100-$150 premium to retain the detail and authorial control is worth the price premium if you are really interested in the subject? If I have to pay $125 for a single-author monograph that totals 225 pages, paying twice that amount for twice the page volume and 18 times the authorial and content variety might not be outrageous. And if there aren’t that many new works published on a specific war/topic every year, perhaps that’s an acceptable price to pay? (Now I know what psychologists mean when they talk about the anchoring effect.) Maybe we’ll see more presses selling individual chapters from within edited collections – in which case they become de facto journals I guess.

Perhaps we need to look at the ecology of EMEMH publishing. There needs to be room for blogs, email listservs, journal articles, book chapters, and monographs; illustrated coffee table books, monographic case studies, period-level surveys, and mass market surveys. Prices will vary widely according to medium and genre, and there will undoubtedly be outliers among individual presses. Yet, truth be told, I am constantly amazed at the detailed EMEMH books offered by Brill, unparalleled in number, depth and variety – maybe that’s the price of progress in our subfield? As with any healthy ecosystem, I hope that the balance between the various species doesn’t get out of whack.

What say you?

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8 responses to “More Thoughts on EMEMH Publishing”

  1. Rick says :

    Jamel,

    Series editors have absolutely no control over pricing. The press does not matter. Ask Hew Strachan or Dennis Showalter if they can dictate price to publishers. Editors can recommend, and even beg, but the publisher decides. In regard to Brill’s History of Warfare series of which I am only 1 of 4 series editors -Kelly DeVries is the senior editor- these books are wonderful academic monographs. As such, that impacts marketing, sales and ultimately price. I am not defending pricing, but understand the editors are not responsible.

    Rick

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks Rick. I didn’t mean to imply that they did, but are you suggesting that editors have no influence on price by ‘encouraging’ authors/editors to make their book mss shorter and broader? Am I wrong to think that Brill is less likely to do this, i.e. they will publish an 18-author 530 page work because they know their market will bear a $252 pricetag, whereas most other publishers won’t even try to sell one for that amount? Or are you suggesting that price isn’t closely correlated to page length and/or content breadth/depth? If the two are closely associated, the press decides (whether directly or indirectly by telling potential authors what kind of mss they want to see), though who exactly within the press is beyond my knowledge.
      I’d appreciate your thoughts. And Wayne’s, and anyone else out there knowledgeable on the subject.

      • Rick says :

        Jamel,

        Editors can and do make recommendations to publishers. Academic monographs do not have large press runs, thus a publisher will set a high price due to the limited number of sales vs. the cost of publishing. As a general rule page length is tied to price point, but not always. Looking at books in our series not all the prices correlate to page length.

        On the other hand I remain befuddled why Oxford has a $200-300 price tag per volume on their Germany and the Second World War Series. These volumes are in high demand, yet the price is ridiculously high.

        Rick

  2. Wayne Lee says :

    THere are so many issues here; and Jamel seems to have inexhaustible typing fingers.
    1. I’ve had battles with NYU about pricing, but in general the series editor has almost no role in that process. And although I will participate in the discussion of length and marketability, that’s not really my role either.
    2. I have yet to make sense of pricing at Oxford and especially Cambridge. Azar Gat’s monster War and Human Civilization is quite reasonably priced. But not the WWII books? I don’t get it.
    3. As to marketability of “narrow topics”; setting aside anthologies (which are a problem unto themselves), I’ve been told that marketing types want either books that do one thing (one battle, one war, one technology) or everything (Keegan’s History of Warfare). Transnational work, or comparative work, is very difficult to “shelve” in a category and thus to sell. (which means, woe is me. That’s all I do!).
    4. Prospective creators of an anthology (like Speelman’s), I think, should recognize ahead of time the need to limit the number of chapters or they price themselves out of reality, if not out of publishing all together (and honestly, there are many chapters in that book that recapitulate work already published).
    5. I am persuaded that Greg Urwin’s series, or mine, or Oklahoma, or possibly even UNC (I had this conversation with the head editor there a couple years ago) would publish many of these books currently coming out from Brill (perhaps not the anthologies), and even if “expensive” they wouldn’t be more than $100.

  3. Patrick Speelman says :

    Long time reader; first time responder…

    There are many factors that determine which publishers one approaches for a project. Price of the book is one such factor. But not all projects are solicited by authors. In our case, Brill solicited us and asked us to produce a volume of so many words on the Seven Years’ War. To their credit they also gave us a great deal of creative latitude. Yes, we knew Brill books are expensive; but in the larger scheme of things for me that is less important than producing and publishing knowledge based on sound research. It also gave us an opportunity to craft a very large volume that could appeal to many people—something most other presses would not have allowed due to cost prohibitions.

    Although Brill books are very pricey; they do include their publications in Ebrary database (or maybe Ebook library). Anyone with access to a library that subscribes to that book database has a massive range of Brill pubs in e-form. In the end Inter-Library exists for this reason as well. I really can’t afford to buy all the books I want anyway whether they cost $400 or $100.

    In conclusion, I made no economic profit on the volume, but I have no delusions of grandeur in that direction.

    Pat Speelman
    US Merchant Marine Academy
    Kings Point, NY

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