The Library Basement
Reading under ground

To whom are sales of biblical studies books marketed?

I read a post recently about a topic which is near and dear to me - the ridiculous cost of some works of biblical scholarship. Larry Hurtado's solution was to plead with the publishers for better pricing, which is a nice gesture, though unlikely to be effective. I, being me, suggested that authors freely-license their works and then publishers can compete on the quality of their offering, not based on an exclusive copyright license. There were others in the thread who had the same basic stance as me, which was encouraging. But I digress from my intended topic.

Part of the reason why academic publishers can get away with very high prices on limited runs is that they are marketing first and foremost to libraries. A research library will pay a heavy sum for a new hardback, knowing that the value will be reaped by many patrons who might use that work in the future. My first thought on this was that it was sort of shameful that biblical scholarship is marketed mostly to libraries (and doesn't that say something interesting about the nature of current scholarship?).

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that marketing scholarship has many positive arguments in its favor.

Sustainability - The ego of the author or the investors of a publisher might want to see high sales numbers, but printing one copy of a book for each time it will be read is a silly waste of resources. Better to print the book once to be shared among many future readers, so as to earn the best return on the natural resources invested in the printing.

Practicality - When I first thought of books marketed to libraries, reference books came to mind. But then I realized that reference books are the works which scholars use regularly and perennially, and so could make good use of a private copy. It is the individual texts, commentaries, and topical studies which a scholar will need to consult for only a season. The library lends itself perfectly to the ebbs and flows of scholarship. It's just too expensive to buy each of the works I would need to thoroughly research a proposition.

Community - Nothing symbolizes epistemic openness better than the library. The benefit of one location having all the books you might need is that it also has books which may argue against your point, or merely interest you. And there are other people at the library who can share their learning and opinions as well. If I am a scholar building a personal library of books which suit my own interest, I run the risk of submersing myself in bias.

So fear not, biblical scholars. It is true that some books are so expensive, only libraries can afford them. But that is not such a bad thing!

Category: education