Announcing: A Very Special Quaker Publishing Award

For years, I’ve been loudly protesting the sky-high, exclusionary prices on “academic” or “scholarly” books and monographs.  The particular focus of my ire has been publications by or about Quakers and Quakerism, though the price-gouging has infected many other fields of study.

Today I want to recognize and celebrate a successful challenge to this uber-inflationary practice.

But first, let me explain that my protests have not been only about the money. I’m all for authors sharing any income generated by scholarly (or other) book sales;  and for that matter, a profitable, diversified publishing industry can help undergird intellectual freedom. I’m not on some anti-capitalist crusade here.

Instead, my basic beef is a religious, theological one: scholarly study of Quakerism is (or should be) not only an academic effort; it is also a ministry to Friends. Quakers need to learn about our history, its highs and lows. We need to explore, reflect on and even debate our evolving religious ideas and issues with deep, reliable context.

There are a surprising number of Friends (& interested non-Friends) doing serious Quaker-oriented intellectual work today. That’s good. Yet the dominant industry practice puts the large bulk of related scholarly publications out of the reach of most Friends and meetings.

I have three such doorstop-thick omnibus anthology tomes that have appeared in recent years on a similar basis: if my Meeting were to buy all three, the price tag would land close to $750 just for the three volumes. And even one would suck up several years’ worth of our book-buying resources. (I published a historical piece in one of these large collections, summing up several years of original research, for which I was paid $0; but that was the deal.)

Then there are the monographs, really no more than overstuffed pamphlets, costing $60 to $100 for about as many under-sized, wide-margin pages. (I have acquired a few of these, in samizdat clandestine form, by routes which need to remain unidentified.)

It is hard to express how exclusionary and counterproductive such projects are: “ridiculous” is one of the milder terms that occurs. 

The economics of the academic publishing can be analyzed at length (more on that here) though as far as I can tell, this situation all comes down to answering a single question, to wit:

Q. Why do academic publishers price so many of their titles so outrageously high? 

The reason, in sum, is:

A. Because they can.

Most individual Quaker scholars are tiny fish swimming in treacherous and stormy seas of academe, and hitherto many have responded to these complaints from me and others with  hangdog shrugs that translate into, “What can you do?”

But as has been pointed out here before, in the past twenty years, there has been a radical technological and marketing revolution in publishing. (My experience of it is described here.) Today there IS something they can (and should) do.

This amazing tide of change has busted wide open the gates of an industry, previously locked down tight against legions of productive independent writers and small publishers with specialized niche interests and audiences. This new opening included drastically reduced costs of entry.

I had long benefited from these changes, so my complaints about scholarly book prices were not just negative. They included repeated calls for Quaker scholars to join the revolution, strike a blow against profiteering, thereby broadening their readership, extending their ministry (and maybe even earning at least a trickle of financial return—no, really, it can happen.)

And now, it appears that at long last, these calls are being heeded. The evidence comes in the form of a newly-arrived volume from the Friends Association for Higher Education, Quakers and the Future of Peacemaking. It hits the shelves this month at a hefty 500 pages, a thick quality paperback priced at —

— wait for it —

$20!

The book includes 24 essays on Quakers and peace witness.

One of those essays is mine. Thus, to borrow a term much bandied about these days, I’ll recuse myself from reviewing it, since I may be biased in favor of my own work (and, full disclosure, I haven’t yet read most of the rest).

But it’s still fair game to note and celebrate the fact that FAHE has now vaulted to pioneer insurgent status in the titanic struggle to bring the fruits of Quaker intellect and scholarship to the masses. (Well, denominationally speaking, Quaker readers don’t amount to much of a mass, but anyway, we still need this affordable accessibility.)

Thus I am pleased to deliver, by no authority but a grateful smile, this Speaking Truth to Profiteering Award to FAHE and its editors, in hopes of encouraging them to push ahead with this new approach, and to urge other Quaker-oriented scholars and authors to follow their practical and economical example.

Congratulations, Friends, and “Carry on!”

5 thoughts on “Announcing: A Very Special Quaker Publishing Award”

  1. This is simply not an accurate understanding of the scholarly book market and how book prices are determined by academic publishers. Academic books have high prices are because they sell so few copies and academic publishers need to break even on the titles. These books are intended for a tiny audience of other scholarly experts and are destined for a library market rather than individual book buyers. An academic publisher might print 100 copies of a book. After those 100 or so library copies are purchased and the publisher recoups its expenses, a less expensive paperback copy is released after 1-2 years. Authors generally get little to no money from library-market scholarly book sales. The book you have identified here was not published by a scholarly publisher, and thus has none of the expenses (indexing, copy editing, typesetting, marketing, copyright clearance, etc) associated with one. The (retired?) editors of the volume apparently have carried out these laborious tasks for free and have used a self-publishing service. This is not a feasible strategy for most working scholars, whose jobs require them to publish with a reputable scholarly book publisher and who do not have the luxury of additional self-exploitation.

    1. This comment is articulate, clear and earnest; it lacks only persuasiveness. If and when academics are ready to think/act outside the box, and organize (even in relatively small networks), they can punch holes in the publisher profiteering racket. The results would be win-win-win-win: libraries can stretch their budgets, authors earn returns (few will get rich from this, but nothing is impossible); publishers can still be profitable; and both the readership and impact will grow. The technology is there, freely available, one need not be a techie to master enough of it to get it to operate, and the market is open. It can be done, and is starting to be done.

      1. Thanks for your reply, Chuck. The issue is tenure and promotion standards, which are rigid. To get and/or keep a job, you need to publish academic books for a (niche, tiny) expert audience of other scholars. These books must be published with a reputable scholarly publisher, such as a university press. The editors of the book you mentioned, being (all? mostly?) retired don’t need to worry about employment, so they were able to self-publish a book and self-exploit to take care of the time-consuming tasks a publisher normally manages for authors by hiring professional typesetters, copy editors, indexers, etc. Most working academics don’t have this luxury.

        There is certainly a different type of book– a popular audience non-fiction trade paperback–that can be published affordably because of the larger expected audience of non-experts. There are even branches of university presses (University of California Press and University of Chicago Press come to mind) that publish straight-to-paperback popular audience books by academics. The problem is that these books generally will (1) not count towards tenure and promotion and (2) require the author is already “famous” or is writing in a field with broad non-expert interest to get a favorable straight-to-paperback contract. So unfortunately this is also not an option for most working scholars.

        1. Hi KM,

          I appreciate your reply. I have some familiarity with academia, including grad study at Harvard, and later surviving two-plus years of adjunct serfdom at Penn State at the turn of the millennium, and a patchwork of in-between gigs.
          I was in the interesting position of being neither fish nor fowl: doing journalism, current history, original historical research, etc., while knowing early on that the faculty path was not right or healthy for me. As a result, my career trajectory was perforce that of most published writers: a variety of day jobs to support my writing, until I reached the renegade equivalent of tenure, aka Social Security. While many of the years were hand-to-mouth, I was still pretty productive as a writer-researcher (my recently drafted bibliography, not yet exhaustive, fills more than 60 pages), and now I have found some of my original work, albeit unvetted & unsanctified by disciplinary “peers,” still creeping into some scholars’ footnotes and bibliographies, where they will likely remain long after I’m gone.
          I’ve also watched the steady shrinking & disappearance of both my main aspirational alternative (newspapers), and the institution/culture of tenure for academics. I now live not far from the North Carolina coast, where a media subgenre has emerged in the form of homemade videos of splendid (& expensive) beach houses collapsing like sudden cardiac casualties into the ever-advancing waves. I see in the washing away of their foundations near-perfect, always chilling metaphors of the steady shriveling of most of the academic “professions.” I wish you all the best in your climb, but am persuaded that entering academia today is like investing the family fortune (the one located between the ears) in shares of, say, the Washington Post.
          What will academics do when tenure is a half-forgotten relic, and the Supreme Court sells the campuses to the most deep-pocketed fundamentalist-minded hedge funds? The new publishing models will, in my view, become increasingly appealing: affordable, independent, and with decent sales, actually a bit remunerative. Those volumes can indeed include indexes and bibliographies, as have some of mine (never mind proofreading, tho; the near-total abandonment thereof is confirmed by nearly all the new “scholarly” books I read today.)
          What will follow the demise of the present academic industry? The ivies will build higher fences, and do well enough; corporations will cherry-pick among STEM and anything needing a lab; in many other fields, particularly the gravely endangered “humanities,” I imagine its survivors facing something closer to my own quixotic path; what more churches are being obliged to bless for their clergy as a “bivocational” status: a day job, with teaching, research & publishing as something more meaningful than simply moonlighting or longterm side hustles; the venerable Quaker term is “ministry.” It wasn’t a conscious “strategy” for me, but if half the Baptist preachers are now doing it, why not we other lumpenscholars? At least, we have an archetype (patron saint?) as old as the Canterbury Tales, in “The Clerk of Oxford”:

          A clerk from Oxford was with us also,
          Who’d turned to getting knowledge, long ago.
          As meagre was his horse as is a rake,
          Nor he himself too fat, I’ll undertake,
          But he looked hollow and went soberly.
          Right threadbare was his overcoat; for he
          Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
          Nor was so worldly as to gain office.
          For he would rather have at his bed’s head
          Some twenty books, all bound in black and red,
          Of Aristotle and his philosophy
          Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
          Yet, and for all he was philosopher,
          He had but little gold within his coffer;
          But all that he might borrow from a friend
          On books and learning he would swiftly spend,
          And then he’d pray right busily for the souls
          Of those who gave him wherewithal for schools.
          Of study took he utmost care and heed.
          Not one word spoke he more than was his need;
          And that was said in fullest reverence
          And short and quick and full of high good sense.
          Pregnant of moral virtue was his speech;
          And gladly would he learn and gladly teach. . . .

          The language may be antique, the technology primitive, but does not the plight feel eerily familiar?

  2. I too have a chapter in “Quakers and the Future of Peacemaking” that has been published at such a reasonable price. I have co-edited (with Ben Pink Dandelion) a past volume in this series: “Quakers, Business, and Industry” (2017). I hope readers of this blogpost will go to Amazon and look at past volumes in this series. They are all worthwhile and they are all available for purchase at $20.

    The editors of the Quakers and Peacemaking volume are not retired, not exactly. My colleague Lonnie Valentine, who retired in 2022, is now deceased. Paul Anderson is a senior scholar at George Fox University. Christy Randazzo teaches very wonderfully at a number of institutions, including the Earlham School of Religion, but does not have either a tenured or tenure-track job at present.

    All that said, I mostly agree with the points raised by KM. If one is willing to donate all one’s labor, then a press like FAHE Press makes sense. If one needs a peer review process to satisfy a present or future employer, and wants others to take a major role in marketing one’s work, then publishing with a university press makes sense. It takes money to pay for these editors. I don’t want all university press editors to be laid off.

    I myself have taken part in both models about equally. Many of the sales of university press books these days are to university libraries. If a book is published by a university press, it is usually the case that hundreds of university libraries will purchase the book, making it possible for a more reasonably priced paperback in one to two years. Self-published books are much more affordable for individual Friends and for local Friends Meeting libraries, especially on the date of initial publication. It is agonizing to have such a bifurcated publishing system, where what is available to academicians is very different to what is purchased by local Friends and local Friends libraries. The libraries that buy both kinds of books are Quaker colleges. Support your Quaker colleges. Send your family members there.

    Thanks to Phil Weinholtz, our publisher, who has donated his services for eight volumes of FAHE Press books by now. He does such excellent and timely work. Phil and all of our editors and all of our chapter authors have donated their work as a service for the Religious Society of Friends, and anyone interested in Quakers. And, yes, I second Chuck’s call: Go to Amazon (or wherever you buy your books) and order these volumes. They have top-notch work, completely up-to-date and advancing our understanding of Quakers tremendously. Please support FAHE Press and all publishers of Quaker books.

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