A sign of things to come?

Derek Croxton’s general narrative of the history of the treaty of Westphalia has finally been published.

Croxton, Derek. Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

The Peace of Westphalia, which brought to a close the Thirty Years War, is arguably the most important treaty signed before the twentieth century. It was a signal event of the early modern era, thoroughly of its time even as it prefigured the radical political developments of subsequent centuries. This sweeping, exhaustively researched history is the first comprehensive account of the treaty and its wider significance to appear in the English language. Bringing together the latest scholarship with an engaging narrative, it retraces the European situation leading up to the Congress of Westphalia, exploring its political and intellectual underpinnings and placing it in a broad global and chronological context. In doing so, it definitively fills a massive lacuna in the scholarly literature while offering fascinating insights into the long historical transition to modernity.

In addition to being envious that Derek’s published yet another book, I was also a bit taken aback by the book. Not the content mind you. But the context. Let me explain.

So here we have a narrative on the Peace of Westphalia, surely the most well-known peace conference of the early modern period – even present-minded political scientists are familiar with it, Westphalia often being described as a turning point in modern Western diplomatic history, the beginning of the modern international state-system. Given its name recognition, it’s not a surprise that it would be published by a hybrid academic-popular publisher like Palgrave Macmillan.

What did surprise me, however, is its cost. A narrative history of probably the most famous early modern peace treaty, providing the only recent full-length narrative history of the peace that I can think of. Yet this book lists at $115. From Palgrave Macmillan – not a press I normally think of as giving Brill pricing a run for its money. In fact, it’s priced only $10 more than Derek’s 2001 edited dictionary on the peace, by Greenwood. What’s going on here?

Theories:

  • Academic publishers are in a world of hurt, and even books like this mandate a $100+ price tag. I suppose the 400 pages may have increased the price, but I wouldn’t think by that much. Would a 250-page book have decreased the price by $60? Somebody should calculate how many more dollars your book will cost for every year you delay its publication.
  • Diplomatic history is in trouble. If this is what a book on Westphalia costs, I shudder to think of how much they would charge for a history of the peace of Rijswijk (Ryswick)!
  • Early modern European history is in trouble. It’s not just this book. All sorts of books on early modern European history, by a variety of presses, are regularly selling in hardcover for $100 these days. Is this because English-reading audiences don’t care about the period?

All of these theories happen to be backed up by other data, whether it’s the number of faculty research in the fields, the number of job postings in the fields, the number of publications and presentations in the field…

My assumptions (that may not be correct, and haven’t really been clarified in past Publishing discussions):

  • List price is a signal for the popularity of a book, a calculation made by the publisher to make a profit while not pricing the book out of the market.
  • Some topics will not be published at all, since publishers aren’t willing to charge the astronomical amount that would be required for them to get their money back from the printing.
  • Price is largely driven by the format: hardcover vs. paper. Hardcover books are much more expensive, and if your book is only published in hardcover, that’s an indication that the publisher doesn’t think it will sell many copies regardless of the price.

Thoughts?

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5 responses to “A sign of things to come?”

  1. Erik Lund says :

    i) Fewer libraries buying books.
    ii) Anecdata: fewer struggling academics buying books; more people squeezed out of academic life and into careers where dropping $115 on a book every few weeks just isn’t that big a deal.

  2. Gary says :

    I’m sure the publishers have worked out the economics of charging $100 or $200 for a book, but most of us balk at paying that much and will wait for the paperback version to hit the used book market (abebooks being my favorite.) This exactly what happened with Candan Badem’s excellent history of the Ottoman Empire’s involvement in the Crimean War, originally on sale for over $200 and now available used in paperback for $50-75 (and sadly considered a bargain).

    • jostwald says :

      Unfortunately, most academic books, originally published in hardcover, never get converted into print, which means you need to find the used copies for (usually) outrageous prices.

      Some presses (e.g. Cambridge) have been converting their backlist into print-on-demand, e.g. Owen’s War at Sea under Queen Anne.

  3. Averrones says :

    What puzzles me even more than such hardcover prices is the same pricing of ebooks. E.g., Ashgate publishers unleash a ton of ebooks priced around $100.

    Also, I have noticed that books with price over $100 get pirated a lot, so may be such price is an additional incentive to thieves, which lowers its sales even more.

    • jostwald says :

      Good question. Digital books can be even more expensive to produce, especially if you include features that make ebooks so special in the first place. Maybe publishers don’t want to have to explain why digital books cost so much less when they don’t use any paper?

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