Academic Publishing and the Death Instinct
Scholars are smart, so why are they letting this happen to their books?
The most disturbing concept Freud ever invented—and he had a few, that bloke—is Thanatos, or the ‘death instinct’. This is an alleged drive among living organisms to destroy themselves.
Many have disputed that such a thing exists. Instincts preserve life—that’s their evolutionary purpose. The idea of a death instinct is impossible, so the critics claim. It’s like that Peacekeeper Missile or soft rock or marijuana initiative or any of those other two-word combinations of things that don’t belong together.
I’ve often criticized Freud, but I’ve come to accept this Thanatos notion, at least as a sociocultural concept. It explains so many otherwise inexplicable happenings in our society.
Take, for example, academic publishers. They are clearly imbued with a death instinct, no? How else can you explain their self-destructive behavior?
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Universities have been publishing books for almost 500 years—dating back to 1534 A.D. when King Henry VIII allowed Cambridge University to set up a printing press. Running one of these publishing outfits is almost a requirement if a college wants to rise in the rankings, but I wonder how much longer this can last. After all, how can you succeed as a publisher if you put so little energy into selling books?
I know one academic publisher that previously sent out two hundred or more review copies of each new book—because they obviously wanted publicity for these titles. Those days are gone. Nowadays their preferred strategy is to send out zero physical copies to reviewers. I’m not exaggerating—I’ve heard it straight from their mouths: their goal is to distribute absolutely no hard copies to media outlets and book critics.
College students are spending 26% less on textbooks this year. That’s a bloodbath for the publishers. But this is the inevitable result whenever you assume the customer has no choice—because, sooner or later, they actually do.
Okay, I don’t blame the publishers entirely—just consider how rarely the New York Times reviews books from academic presses. You might think the cultural elites in New York would give some support to their fellow travelers in idea-mongering, but no dice. They treat those academic books like they’re toxic.
(By the way, I’m grateful to the Times Literary Supplement over in London, which still takes time to tell me about important scholarly works, most of them ignored in US media. But even that last holdout in Britain feels precarious—I fear they’ve been too contaminated by Yankee values.)
Yankee values? That’s up there with the Peacekeeper Missile.
But the lack of review copies is just one symptom among many. Let’s look at a few others.
Just consider the flurry of rebranding efforts in academic publishing. As I’ve explained elsewhere, successful organizations rarely redesign their logos or ‘refresh’ their brands. They don’t have time for such nonsense. But even more to the point, when you’re thriving, your logo is part of that success—it’s a sign of your strength, and you just don’t mess with it.
But that’s clearly not the case in academia nowadays.
I could give you countless examples from college campuses—where ‘rebranding’ is more popular than a hot high school football prospect on a recruiting visit. But I’ll settle for two instances:
My only disappointment is that these brand redesigns didn’t come packaged with a new slogan. May I suggest something along the lines of: Information Solutions for a Changing World.
Or maybe, if we can be a bit more boastful: The Ultimate in Handheld Data Storage.
Does anybody still believe in this rebranding malarkey? Surely any reasonable person can see it’s all smoke and mirrors? But that hardly matters, because the brand redesign has tremendous symbolic value.
That’s why they do it.
The road to hell was once paved with good intentions—but nowadays we settle for symbolic gestures. They're much cheaper than good intentions. And there’s no shortage of symbolic gestures nowadays—more than enough to pave that whole damned highway to hell.
It’s a shame that symbolism doesn’t pay the bills. Or fix problems. And it certainly won’t sell books.
It’s worth revisiting my formative experiences, back in the 1980s, when I was called in as adviser to a $100 million business that was shrinking. The bosses laughed at my analysis of chronic problems in the business and instead decided to change the company’s name and logo. A year later, the business was losing customers at an even faster pace, so they changed the name and logo again. By the time the execs embarked on a third name change, some months later, there wasn’t much left to salvage. It was now a tiny company. But they still did one last ‘brand refresh’ before disappearing, leaving behind no trace.
So excuse me if I don’t share the enthusiasm when a ‘brand remake’ or ‘brand refresh’ is announced—always with a mysterious new logo, as indecipherable as the symbol of a dead ancient religion.
To them it’s a brand refresh, but all I see is a toddler’s jigsaw puzzle. I guess that makes us the toddlers.
I can laugh at these university rebranding efforts, but other problems in academic publishing are far more serious. I could focus on so many symptoms here, each indicating that pervasive Thanatos Freud warned us about. Almost every tool is employed to discourage anyone who might consider reading these academic books—from painfully small fonts to jargon-laden texts—but the most obvious place to start is with pricing.
I’m not even going to deal with those scientific journals, where pricing is so predatory that governments are now intervening. My focus here is my own field—namely, books in the arts and humanities. The abuses are less marked, but still sufficient to make us wonder whether these books are actually supposed to be read.
Let me start with my own backyard, namely jazz scholarship—so I should be excited by an exciting sale at the Routledge website. Or maybe not.
The pricing—even after the large discounts—is the first sign that academic publishers don’t really care about selling books to actual readers. Not every publisher is as aggressive as Routledge, which can’t rely on subsidies from a university (unlike some others), but a similar trend is evident everywhere in academia. Even a short monograph can get priced above one hundred dollars.
At that rate, you could probably hire the author for a personal briefing. Maybe the struggling scholar would even read the whole monograph to you during a Zoom call. A hundred bucks can feed the family for almost a week.
In an earlier day, a reader could wait until a cheaper paperback edition was published—but academic books rarely come out in inexpensive paperbacks nowadays. So most readers will do what I do, namely refuse to buy a book that is priced so high. Maybe we also want to feed the family for a week.
Now let’s consider the lavish attention paid to cover design:
I’ve met bots with a better sense of style.
Couldn’t they find something a little snazzier than these designs—which, as you can see, even get recycled from cover to cover? Are the clip art libraries really that small? But, once again, the larger impression is that the publishers really don’t care what the book looks like. After all, readers aren’t the target market.
The logic behind this is straightforward, although don’t expect anyone to say it out loud. Yet what other explanation is there, except this: (1) Academic publishers have lost faith in their own books, hence (2) they fear nobody would buy them even if they were affordable, but (3) university libraries must buy them, no matter what they cost or how impenetrable the text, so (4) let’s dump them on the market at exorbitant rates, and skim the profits from selling a couple hundred copies.
And it’s true. If you sell 200 copies at $125, you can survive in publishing—provided you’re frugal and don’t waste money on design, fonts, paper, etc.
Ah, but this strategy doesn’t take into account that the same universities pricing academic books so high are also putting the squeeze on their library budgets.
There’s a paradox for you—although not as much fun as the marijuana initiative.
This all might be amusing if it wasn’t so sad. On Monday, the university president tells the college publishing house to put the squeeze on libraries, and on Tuesday tells the college library to put the squeeze on university publishers.
The only reason why university administration doesn’t see the futility of this is that this is the same strategy they use for everything in academia—just consider how they keep raising tuition prices, or STEM journal subscription prices, or textbook prices, or the price of parking a car on campus, or anything else they put their greedy hands on. They assume this can go on forever, in the face of the basic laws of economics—because they are immune to market forces.
At least that’s what they tell themselves. But that very attitude, smug and refusing accountability, is what will make the day of reckoning all the more painful when it arrives in the ivory tower.
If you doubt it, look at what’s already happening to college textbooks—where the same strategy has been pursued for decades. Students have to buy the textbook, don’t they? They’ve got no choice. So they have to pay whatever it costs.
As a result, textbook prices have risen almost 1000% since I went to college.
But a tipping point finally arrived. The day of reckoning, long postponed, finally showed up on the calendar.
In the last few years, students and professors have found a hundred clever ways of avoiding these over-priced textbooks. Piracy is now commonplace—and is anyone surprised if students lose respect for IP rights in the face of outlandish pricing? At the same time, cheap alternatives are showing up everywhere—for example, 60% of US colleges now use free online texts from OpenStax. In other instances, syllabi are loaded with links to free articles, YouTube videos, and other non-traditional study materials.
The bottom line: College students are spending 26% less on textbooks compared to just last year. That’s a bloodbath for the publishers. But this is the inevitable long term result whenever you assume the customer has no choice—because, sooner or later, they actually do. People aren’t fools, even on college campuses, and if you squeeze them enough, they eventually squeeze back.
I’m fortunate—because the publisher of my book The History of Jazz agreed to my suggestion to keep the price low, even for the new and expanded third edition. Sure, I’d like to think that the quality of my writing is why this book is assigned in so many classrooms, but the larger truth is that my competitors have priced themselves out the market.
Consider these purchase prices for physical books on Amazon (as of the time of writing):
Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, 3rd edition: $24.95
Scott Deveaux and Gary Giddins, Jazz, 2nd edition: $148.15
Henry Martin and Keith Waters, Jazz: The First 100 Years: $124.34
Benjamin Bierman, Listening to Jazz, 2nd edition $104.49
These rival books on jazz are excellent, and I’m happy to praise them—but are they really worth five times the price of my book? Under normal circumstances I would have to battle with these books for readers. But not at those prices. That pricing strategy is a gift to me that keeps on giving—and I see it in every royalty check I cash.
Back in my days consulting at BCG, McKinsey, and other settings, I learned that this kind of pricing strategy is the sign of a dying industry with shrinking demand. Your days are numbered, so you squeeze all the cash out of the business before the inevitable collapse. We called it an endgame strategy—those last few moves on the chessboard, before all the pieces are swept off the table.
There are a bunch of private equity firms that specialize in these endgame strategies. They could write a textbook on how it’s done (except there’s no money in textbooks). By the way, they’re probably the same folks who recently bought out your home town newspaper. And just wait and see what they soon start doing in the music business.
But why would an academic publisher resort to an endgame strategy? Do they really need to imitate a private equity firm?
In this case, the wounds are truly self-inflicted. Scholarly works and textbooks don’t need to be a shrinking business. Many other parts of the book business are flourishing right now. In fact, some niches in publishing are growing rapidly (for example my platform Substack).
But those successful publishers worry about readers. That’s why they’re growing.
I absolutely refuse to accept the economic argument for the crisis in academic books. I believe, as a matter of principle, that there’s an audience for smart, scholarly books. There always has been in the past, and there’s no legitimate reason that should have changed.
By the way, I positively don’t buy into that tired argument that stupid online writing has killed demand for intelligent stuff. (Their brains have turned to mush after all this clickbait, the cynical insider will tell you off-the-record, so they just can’t handle anything that requires actual thinking.) If anything, the opposite should be true. Everything I see around me in our fraught culture convinces me that there’s tremendous hunger and unmet demand for smart, independent thinking based on solid research.
If that’s true, how can I explain the decline in academic publishing?
It’s the death wish, my friends. Freud was on to something with his Thanatos shtick. I simply can’t explain what’s happening in our culture any better than that. After all, you could still fix all the problems in scholarly publishing, but that process won’t even start until the organism regains a desire to thrive and grow. Unless that happens, all we’re likely to get is higher prices, smaller fonts, and more jargon-laden texts.
And, yeah, if we wait long enough, maybe another new logo. Probably something that looks like a toddler’s jigsaw puzzle.