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I like to read philosophy and some of the books published by academics are sold at very high prices compared to average layperson books.

I was wondering who is the target audience/customer for these published books. As the average reader is very unlikely to consider paying more than $20 for a book.

To give some example, many books from OUP Oxford.

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    Can this be tagged philosophy? In the sciences, $60 for a book is very cheap Apr 18 at 14:34
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    Indeed, textbooks that are well over $100 are common in undergraduate STEM disciplines. And those are books that actually sell compared with a niche monograph.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 18 at 14:48
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    Yep, after those $400+ aerospace books, $60 sounds like a bargain...
    – Therac
    Apr 18 at 21:36
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    @JonCuster: One should probably add, though, that this seems to be somewhat specific for the United States and its tradition to base undergraduate courses on specific textbooks. For instance, undergraduate books in math in Germany don't tend to be particularly expensive. Apr 18 at 21:38
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    Also, many academic books are aimed at professionals, not students, where institutional budgets support the cost, not individual wallets.
    – Randall
    Apr 19 at 0:18

10 Answers 10

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The target audience is presumably other researchers. Researchers normally buy books from grant money or university money, not out of their own pocket, so they are not terribly concerned about the price.

Note that in many fields it's not terribly difficult to find these overpriced books online (e.g. on LibGen), if you're willing not to be too scrupulous about copyright law.

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  • I would much rather have seen the last paragraph as an explicit warning not to embrace this ethical lapse rather than a hint that it's not too serious a one. Apr 21 at 14:46
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    @EthanBolker I included the paragraph precisely because I don't see an ethical lapse in a curious layman using these kinds of websites to get access to academic books/papers primarily intended to be bought by professional researchers from university/grant funds. Imo there is no ethical obligation to slavishly follow the law. YMMV of course. Apr 21 at 14:56
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    @EthanBolker let's not confuse something being illegal with it being unethical. In my view, what's actually unethical is to unthinkingly funnel the taxes of our fellow citizens as well as donations intended for medical research to these publishers which do nothing but rent-seek on the basis of academic output they had no part in producing. Apr 21 at 16:55
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    I heard a professor reacting to hearing his paper/book is on libgen: "Good, then people are reading it". Apr 23 at 15:35
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I have never written such a book myself, but I suspect that there are three target audiences for such books:

  1. students who are forced to obtain the book because their professor strongly recommends it or is required to follow the course;
  2. university libraries;
  3. researchers in the field.
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    I am a "normal" person who has purchased expensive books on occasion for purposes that deviate from the original intent. I once bought a book called, "Regional Integration in Early Modern Scandinavia" because my ancestors were from Denmark and I was looking for a source on their earlier Norwegian origin. It's published by a university in Denmark. I may not be their "target audience" but some more casual researchers also rely on such books, and sometimes a premium price is ok because the research is so niche there are no other sources. Apr 23 at 5:00
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You can often find the intended readership on the book's webpage or a marketing flyer put together by the publisher.

Example:

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Example:

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If the price is high, it's a sign that the intended readership is narrow, and therefore that it is aimed at advanced level.

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    "If the price is high, it's a sign that the intended readership is narrow, and therefore that it is aimed at advanced level." -- it may also be a sign that the intended readership is (a possibly large number of) undergraduate students who have no choice whether or not to buy it or not if they wish to take a certain course.
    – ajd
    Apr 18 at 21:13
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    @ajd Aren't those students quite likely to buy the book second-hand anyway (or more like tenth-hand in practice)? At least where I'm from, the average student doesn't really buy dozens of expensive textbooks brand new and then keep them for the rest of their life. Of course, this makes the market for brand new books even smaller, pushing the price up, but I wouldn't really see anything nefarious in the pricing.
    – TooTea
    Apr 19 at 10:48
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    @TooTea Here are the problems I ran into with buying used copies of books in school. The professor insists on having the latest version of the book, the books have some digital tie-in that can only be activated once, and the difference in price between new and used is negligible. Apr 19 at 12:30
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    @TooTea All too often, publishers release new editions of texts every year or two. I suspect that this is, in large part, to kill the secondary market. Right now, I am stilly trying to support four different editions of the calculus text that we teach out of. :/ Apr 19 at 20:53
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    @user21820 In the fall, I will be using only my own text for precaculus. It has taken me about three years to get the point where I feel that I have the material prepared well enough to be useful, and that the problems (and solutions) are basically complete. The big challenge is having a collection of well-aligned problems for students to practice with, and that just takes time. :/ I'm hoping to start work on calculus next year (or the year after---soonish). Apr 20 at 11:50
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No book is or goes useless when it comes to readership. There are so many libraries (public or school/universities) that buy the latest editions of every types of books. I am from the STEM background, where every new book on technical subjects costs more than USD100. You can find readers of the books from every genre possible otherwise it would not exist. Paying or not paying for the book is a separate topic. I can talk about myself at least. Even though I am not educated in the field of interior design and architecture, yet they fascinate me a lot. And not only that I like to read such publications (books, magazines, etc). I don't like to spend money on things that have shorter lifespan and books are one of them as you read them once and they spend rest of their lives in a nicely decorated bookshelves. I find it unfair. So, I either head to library or ask in my local book circle if someone has or can borrow me or even sell at a cheaper price tag.

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I was wondering who is the target audience/customer for these published books. As the average reader is very unlikely to consider paying more than $20 for a book.

Exactly: the target audience is not the average reader. The target audience is the scholar, professional (or advanced amateur) community. How the scholar community pays the books, it is another topic.

Let's make an example: you need a screwdriver, you can buy a random screwdriver for 2$ or a (brand starting with W and ending with urth Zebra) for 15$.

A 7x factor for a screwdriver, but I think we can agree the average layperson is very unlikely to consider paying more than 5$ for a screwdriver.

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    I think I bought a screwdriver 2 years back for $20 from the Home Depot because it was the cheapest one i could find Apr 19 at 17:35
  • @SidharthGhoshal a bit overpriced, but I remember Home Depot had good quality tool (early 2000s). Do you still have them? do they still work? And since we speak about screwdrivers ... do the screws still have their heads :D ? Very hard screwdrivers are easy to make, and they easily destroy screws ...
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 19 at 19:43
  • when im at home i usually just use my dad's tools that he acquired in the 1990s (idk where he bought them). For that particular screwdriver the company I was working for needed it for a small robotics project and so I went and bought one and probably wasn't surprised by the price because of "I think i'm buying this for life" expectation. (Edit: 3-4 years back not 2, how time flies) Apr 19 at 20:08
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To add to the other answers, it may help to understand that these fees are often not paid by real working academics, but are passed on either to university libraries, or to grant funds, or to students (if the book is a textbook). Many universities also have programs where academics can order the book directly through the university library. So the researchers actually working in a field do not experience the cost directly. Unfortunately, that means the publisher can basically set the price to be whatever they want, without any major repercussions.

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    These books sell in such small numbers that they're barely profitable at these prices. Apr 19 at 7:52
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First, $60 is not really that much for such a book. These days, $20 (which you mention) is the price for a relatively small paperback book. For example, my most recent purchase is Reality is not what it Seems by Carlo Rovelli. This is a short book (c. 250 relatively pages) and it's in paperback and the price was $18 in a regular bookstore. Another is The Investigator by John Sandford. That one is a mystery and truly mass market. It's a very small paperback and about 400 pages. Price was $11.00.

Second, the economics of the book business are such that the author will get a relatively small portion of the cover price. I don't know the exact numbers (which will vary by book, author, and publisher) but I would guess that an author is lucky to get 20% of the cover price and 10% might be more likely. So, that's (say) $10 per copy of that book. And books in niche areas are unlikely to sell many copies. And they take many, many hours to write.

Third, others have mentioned some of the audiences for the book. But, for sure, they are not the "average reader". But I'd like to make another point. I also like to read philosophy. If you look at "price per book" they are indeed expensive. But if we look at "price per hour" they are not. The Sandford book I mentioned took me about 6 hours to read. That's $2.00 per hour. I haven't read the Rovelli yet, but I'm guessing it will take me about 5 hours, that's $4.00 per hour. An academic philosophy book? That will take many hours. They are typically quite long and often fairly dense. 20 hours would be $3.00 hour, and some such books take me longer than that!

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I would like to add a much more extreme example:

  • €1855 (new edition yearly): Janes Weapons, Infantry 24/25 Yearbook (directly from publisher, in April 2024)

This book is not intended for individuals at all. A very narrow range of organizations and specialized libraries are going to buy those books. When I was looking for a copy of the book for academic work, the only copy available through the library search system of my country was located in a library in the capital that is specialized on the general topic (defence) and was only available to read on-premise (unless you were an employee of certain government agencies).

Usually when you think of books, you think of them as a medium for mass distribution of information. But sometimes a book can also be something else, like a subscription to a kind of database in my example. Something which is expensive to compile and the information changes regularly, so before it spreads too wide it's already outdated and a new edition of the book has to be bought.

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    If only there was some kind of global computer network that could make this information available without the cost of publishing and distribution; and which could be updated easily and cheaply. But then, greedy publishers wouldn't get to bend readers over and violate their wallets quite so much, would they? Apr 21 at 13:25
  • Sod ... I expect the cranks will swamp such any such network that bypasses publishers...
    – GEdgar
    Apr 23 at 1:46
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The target audience is as mentioned by others above. In my lifetime books are generally much cheaper in most arenas due to book price changes over the last 30 years.

However, specialist books - and there are fewer and fewer of these nowadays because of Kindle editions - have higher production costs and a more limited market pool. Hence the higher price relative to general book market.

Your saviour in the case of "classic" texts, i.e. on topics that will not become obsolete in a few years like many software technology topics - is the secondhand market. Check out not only Amazon, B & N, Alibris, etc but also EBay and your local secondhand goods portal websites. It is amazing the bargains you can get when the "book estate" of some professor or serious professional is sold off as a job lot.

I have found quite a few written-in-English gems on Amazon France/Germany/Italy/Spain.

Make your money work hard for you.

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Anyone who wants them badly enough to buy them. That includes me. I'm a former academic and I read them for fun and enhanced knowledge. Learning from a textbook is sometimes also a cheaper way to learn than going back to university if you have the prerequisite knowledge and the self confidence to try, if you are picking up a related subject to something you already know. I have heard people refer to this, if it is relevant in any way to your career, as "continuing education", though often that involves a certificate or conference of some sort. But investing in your own knowledge, skills, and credentials is always worth the time!

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