It was somewhere in 2004 or 2005 when I first received an email out of the blue from an editor at Oxford University Press asking me what I was working on at the moment. For a young professor that’s quite an email to receive. It’s like the consummate doodler of superheroes getting an email from Stan Lee asking what he’s been drawing lately. And so began my working relationship with Oxford University Press that would result in the publication of my 2009 book Theology in Search of Foundations.
In many ways, Oxford was excellent to work with. They offered a rigorous peer-review vetting process with two anonymous reviewers which, if greatly protracting the time period from writing to publication, nonetheless ensured a tighter and streamlined argument. The copy editing and type-setting was top notch. And I was especially impressed with the cover art and final packaging. Unlike most publishers which offer the author a couple options for cover art (if that), Oxford presented five different possibilities. (As you can see, I chose the cover of the boardwalk disappearing into the mist.) All in all, the experience with Oxford was excellent, even if the entire process took about five years from initial contact to publication.
However, I wish when I received that initial contact email that I had a better grasp on the costs of publishing with Oxford. I don’t mean that they charge the author for things like type-setting and copy editing (though I did have to compile my own index). I have heard many horror stories of authors having to subsidize the publication of their academic books to the tune of thousands of dollars, only to have a few hundred copies sold. And that strikes me as a rather meager return on investment. I’m happy to say that Oxford didn’t ask me for a dime (though that index did take awhile!).
The cost I’m talking about is the balance between the prestige of publication with what I call a “halo publisher” vs. the cost of diminished accessibility in terms of price point. So what, you ask, is a halo publisher? I get the term from the analogy with what automobile journalists call a halo car. This is a car which has ultra low market volume but high performance and very high cost. From a strictly economic perspective the halo car makes little to no sense. Think, for example, of the Lexus LFA. This is an ultra-exclusive super car that Toyota spent years developing. It was priced at about $400,000 US and Toyota/Lexus restricted production to only a few thousand cars.
There really are two reasons for producing a car like the LFA. The first is to use it as a running laboratory to develop various technologies that can eventually “trickle down” into other more widely accessible models. Who knows? Someday the lowly Corolla and Camry will probably incorporate technology fine-tuned in the LFA.
But this is really only a secondary benefit since a simple concept car already serves the role of technology development. The real motivating factor for the halo car is precisely that it will provide a halo effect on the automotive brand generally. Chevrolet has the Corvette, Dodge had the Viper (I say “had” because the new Viper is under the SRT brand), Nissan has the GTR, Honda/Acura had and will again have the NSX, and Hyundai has the Equus (yes gearheads, one of these things is not like the other). And Toyota/Lexus has the LFA. With a stellar automobile like this the brand cache of Lexus rises. Everywhere the couple thousand LFAs go they act as rolling billboards for the brand.
Publishers like Oxford UP, Harvard UP and Cambridge UP function like a halo car. So, for example, I’ve published with Edinburgh University Press, Baker, Inter-Varsity, Paternoster and Biblica. Some of these publishers are better known than others, but none of them has the sheen of a world-class academic publisher like Oxford. In that sense, there is a definite value to having the light cast by the halo publisher on one’s CV. And I was certainly aware of this fact when I first received an enquiry from Oxford.
What I didn’t appreciate at the time was the cost of the halo publisher, for exclusivity demands a high price. I was not one to read publishing contracts carefully. It turned out that my book would initially only be available in hardback with a price of $100. If it sold 500 copies within a certain period of time Oxford would publish a soft cover for a more reasonable price (perhaps $30 or $40). You’re probably wondering what kind of business model this is. The idea is to sell high priced hardbacks to research libraries (who have budgets for such things) and a handful of graduate students (who don’t). And so it was. All told I probably sold 200 or 300 copies and received enough royalties to take my family out to a good steakhouse two nights in a row. And that’s it.
So I have the luster of the halo publisher on my CV. But at what cost? How about this: people emailing me saying things like “I wish I could buy your book but I just can’t afford it. Is there a soft cover coming out soon?” (My answer? Sure, just buy two hundred hardbacks and they’ll print your cheaper soft cover. Of course with two hundred hardbacks you’ll no longer need it.)
And then there was the fellow who wrote to say “Sorry I have to ask, but could you please photocopy chapter six for me? I need to see what you say for my graduate thesis research.” I photocopied the chapter and dropped it in the post, but let’s just say it was bitter-sweet (more the former than the latter).
Let’s put this in concrete terms. If I had gone with a publisher like Baker Academic (assuming they would have been interested) the book would have been published as a softcover priced at about $25. I would have given up the glow of the halo publisher at the cost of reaching perhaps hundreds more readers.
This leaves me with an unsettling question: was the halo effect worth the cost of hundreds of readers (and perhaps enough additional royalties for two more evenings out at a fine restaurant)? In one sense this is a notoriously difficult question to answer. Hundreds of readers is easy to quantify (at least theoretically) but how does one quantify the effect of a halo publication? I think there are two ways: professionally and personally.
Professionally I ask: could there be a situation where a search committee might opt not to offer me a position because I lacked a true halo publication on my CV? I doubt it. Would I be denied tenure for lack of a halo publication? Nope.
The only other possible benefit is personal. By this I mean pure ego as in the flush of pride you get every time you tell somebody you have a halo publication. But believe me, that wears off very quickly. And it is pounded into the dirt every time you get one of those emails saying “I wish I could afford your book…”
And so I come to the final, painful question: what good is the luster of the greatest halo publisher if it means you never reach your readers?