The Guardian‘s ‘Anonymous Academic’ runs some numbers today on overly expensive academic hardbacks, the sort that gather dust on the shelves of university libraries…

Seventy-five books [per editor, per year], £80 each, selling on average 300 copies. That’s £1.8m. And he’s just one of their commissioning editors.”

The Guardian‘s academic was told that “friends [can] act as reviewers” for his book proposal. And that the author and his proposal-reviewer “friends” might also add the book to class reading lists, and thus ease it toward becoming a library purchase. Left unsaid, at least in the publisher’s initial phone pitch, is the implication that “friends” might also write book reviews of the title after publication.

These are the sort of books for which there will never be a cheap paperback version, just the choice of a very nice £60-£80 case-bound hardback or an ebook only that’s only slightly cheaper than the paper edition. By my rough calculation the profit per £75 book is around £12,000, even on only 300 sales. To reach that figure I assume each book proposal is swiftly handed off after approval to a home-working freelance, who might be paid £4,500 per book to get it into a publishable state. I also assume there’s a £20 manufacturing and shipping cost to be deducted per book, since in my limited experience as a reviewer and shelf-browser such books tend to be print-on-demand from Lightning Source (look at the very tiny small-print in the very back of the book). Every ebook edition sold, however, would mean about £17 extra profit per book — assuming some of that £17 isn’t passed along as discount offered to the library’s purchasing clerk.

If a telesales lead-generator and initial author handler is given a target of drumming up 75 new book titles per year, as The Guardian‘s article suggests, in the expectation that he only delivers 50, then he’s potentially generating £600,000 profit per year for someone. One suspects his own salary amounts to far less than that.

At that sales/profit ratio might the academic world need to guard against a de facto ‘guaranteed book purchasing’ ring? Perhaps one loosely spread across the world’s libraries and differently configured/staggered for each book title?