The Textbook Syndrome

They do complain, now and again. “What do you mean, you don’t take textbooks? Do you know how much I had to pay for these?”

Yes, and that was in 1992 dollars, too, French-fried frijoles. I don’t even have to look. If it was a textbook less than two years old, you’d have sold it back to the bookstore for the going rate and not bothered to bring it to me.

The price of textbooks is based, of course, on their captive audience, and is not my fault at all. The disease extends to other academic productions.

I was looking through a book which traced the origin and purpose of a sixteenth century manuscript. Pages in the back listed other publications of the press, which specializes in medieval culture. One or two looked interesting, and I checked online to see if, say, a copy of this book discussing the effect prophecy had on politics could be had for a dollar or two.

I was impressed enough by what I learned to look up some of the other books on the list, including the one I’d been browsing. THAT book is coming out in paperback next April, by the way. For forty-two bucks. The hardcover I had in my hand can be had for anything between ninety and a hundred and twenty.

The book is not illustrated, and its design is more functional than ornamental: nice and easy to read, but not any special, limited, handmade paper, letterpress edition. It is not centuries old; it was published in 2012. No, that price comes about because the number of institutions and individuals who would buy it is limited, and the expense of the book has to be made up somehow. The publishers are counting on the hope that this limited audience will be made up of people or institutions which MUST have the book.

With any luck, the Newberry needs this for the collection. Because if I price that book at, say, one quarter of the original price and then put it in Books & Authors, where we put textual criticism, I will get enough screams to stock a haunted house. “How DARE you put a thirty dollar book in with the five dollar ones? How DARE you price a little book from 2012 at thirty bucks? How DARE you shock a customer this way?”

What way did you want me to shock you, pumpkin spice crouton?

Of course, I could put it on the Collectors table. But how many customers, looking for a 2012 volume on Tudor minstrel manuscripts, would head straight for Collectors? I had the same problem a few years ago with some $600 texts on endocrinology. I priced them at a couple hundred each, put them in Health, and took the screams. The same thing happened when I put those hundred dollar scholarly editions of W.E.B. DuBois into African-American Studies. In that case, it was made worse because a paperback edition was available for some of the same books. But THOSE came from a mainstream press, which could afford to print lots of copies and make up their expenses in quantity.

If only you’d look at these things from the right angle, caramel apple Tang. Don’t think of it as a thirty dollar book. Think of it as a book with a 75 percent markdown. A smile is just a frown turned upside-down. (Read that in a textbook.)

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