$7100 for a Archaeology Book! The Economics of Archaeology Publishing

Posted on September 1, 2014


In the last few months I have fielded some questions from Tracy at Archaeology in Tennessee and Maria at Sprache der Dinge about publishing in archaeology. Unfortunately, I don’t think I did their questions justice with my short emails. So I am going to spend this week’s blog posts on publishing in archaeology, including DIY publishing digital books. First up the $7200 book.

How Book Publishing Works

While I would love to include journals in this series that is just going to be too much to cover and will have to wait for another series. I am going to discuss monographs a.k.a books. So how do we get the $7200 book. Well for one it is an Encyclopedia with 8015 pages, 2619 illustrations (1828 illus. in color) is 11 volumes and the print version is “only” $5700, $7100 comes with digital access (still high but not as title catching, sorry about the slight deception). Still that is $1-.70 a page. Imagine if you paid $1 per page for the last book you read. How much would that have cost? $150? $220?

Print Costs Pennies

It seems outrageous and then you find out that  the printing costs for books is only a tiny percentage of the total costs. Depending on the quality of the paper and size the cost of printing it is probably only a $1 or $2. Even a single print on demand book, 200 pages long, can be had for about $4-5. (Though if you use quality paper, leather bound, etc. the price can quickly climb) Even when you take into account things like shipping, people to stock shelves, and the overhead of a physical location of a bookstore those costs only account for 30% or less of the total costs. A minimum wage worker only adds pennies to the price of a book in a bookstore.

I took a look at print on demand for the $7100 book- about $200-300 to print a book that size (well, that many volumes and split into smaller 350 page books) depending the quality of paper and cover, 5% of the cost. Making it nicer (glossy paper, hardback, etc.) could push the price much higher, around $1000 but that is still only 18% of the price.

Other things that add pennies not dollars to the price:

  • Hardback vs. softback. Hardbacks cost only marginally more expensive than softback books. It costs on average about $3.50 to print most hardbacks. It is 100% a marketing ploy to charge 20-50% more for a hardback and then releasing a “cheaper” softback a few years later.
  • Color vs. black and white. It is amazing how much the big publishers Springer, Evilsevier (Elsevier), etc. will  charge to print figures in color in an Open Access publication. Color images can drive up prices in that they require higher quality paper but overall it is pennies the difference in costs for color printing. When I say pennies even if color costs 100% more, B&W is only $.01 per page so it would be $.02 per page. The cost of 100 page book goes from $1 to $2 if it was 100% color images. It will still retail for $20-30.

Now you might really be questioning how come archaeology books cost so much when it costs $3.50 (about £2.20 in the UK) to print a 150-200 page hardback?

Pitchforks or Dollar Signs

I have run into only two reactions from archaeologists when they find this information out- ‘those greedy bastards’ or ‘my god, I need to publish a book to make money’ (Actually, a third reaction is ‘meh’). The problem is that the picture is much more complicated. For one, most of the costs come from paying the people involved in making the book and the second is that the economic models of publishing are brutal:

The Economics of Mass Media Publishing

The economics of each are very different for each type of publication. There are mass media publications. These are your Jared Diamond type books but I also include fiction works as well. There are quite a few archaeologists who write fiction work.

The most common misconception is that all of publishing works like mass media publishing, it doesn’t. Mass media publishing tends to pay an author an upfront fee and a small percentage of the profits. There are so many different publishers out there that give so many different deals that I can’t possibly list them all (upfront payment-no percentage, percentage after the publisher makes so much, the deals are endless) . However, the standard is fee upfront and percentage (small) of the profits.

The most important fact to remember is that most mass media books lose money. It is hard to get stats on this and it would vary from publisher to publisher but roughly 1 out 20 books makes money (some claim it is 1 out 100). It is a long tail model. Essentially, about 17-18 books will lose money (very little but still not really make money). 1-2 will break even/make a little, but one will pay for all the rest. That one is the Harry Potters of the world but also the Of Mice and Mens too. Think about how many “classics” of literature you have read in school throughout your lifetime. Those classics can sell thousands of copies a year for decades.

However, publishers are always chasing those breakouts and having to take a hit on all the other books they published and didn’t make money from. Moreover, those classics and blockbusters are probably 1 in 5000 or 10,000 books published, if not more. A success is a book that can sell in the low 10s of thousands. 100s of thousands are your blockbusters. This model is built on the idea of selling tens of thousands of copies to individuals for relatively cheap prices 10-20 $/£.

The Economics of Scholarly Publishing

Scholarly publishing makes up the vast majority of archaeology publishing and works on a very different model. These are you PhD thesis turned into a book, lifes work on pottery of small-area-vill, large excavations, and edited books. Edited books being a bunch of different authors contribute a chapter each, usually they come out of a conference or session in a conference. They are very narrow in their subject and focus.

Authors almost never get paid upfront or at all. Contributing to an edited volume means you get paid nothing. Usually, putting together an edited volume pays nothing. Though sometimes you might get a small percentage of the profits (5%, 10% or 15%) or a stipend. These stipends are usually very small and as you will see does not make up for the time spent. Another key difference is that instead of individual people buying these books the vast majority of them are bought by libraries.

The most important fact to remember about scholarly publishing is that the average print run is now around 200-300 books (Gardiner & Musto 2004; Greco &. Wharton 2008; Thompson 2005). Yes, it is very unlikely that more than a few hundred of these books will ever be printed, let alone sold. This has of course changed in the last few decades. In the 1970s print runs use to be into the several thousands but because journals have squeezed library budgets they can no longer afford to buy these books. It is also way you see prices like $7200 for a book. They are banking on probably only selling a few dozen of them (if that) and may not make money on it.  That is a bit extreme but explains how now all new archaeology books are in the 50-100 £/$ range. They are not aimed at individuals, they are aimed at a handful of libraries.  It is the exact reversal of the ‘Mass Media’ publishing which aims for lots of books at a low price.

The second most important fact to remember is that even with those prices some publishers can’t make money off of scholarly books. Many of these books are published by Scholarly societies and small University Presses, not ones like Oxford Press. Most of them just break even or lose money. Most Universities and Scholarly Societies have presses because of the scholarly duty to disseminate knowledge, not to make money.

Economics of Textbooks and How-to Guides

These sort of books fall in between these two extremes. A good textbook that is bought by hundreds if not thousands of students each year for decades is like a mass media publication. However, a how-to guide aimed at a few thousand archaeologists will be closer to scholarly publishing. There is no one model that fits these in between type books.

Why Authors and Publishers Lose Money

The real cost of books is not in their physical or digital production but in people’s time. You can do the math yourself. Let’s say you can write 500 good words an hour. For a six thousand word book that is 120 hours of work. How let’s say you got a stipend to write the book of a $1000 because you are writing a scholarly book. Not counting editing, time spent marketing your book (most author’s end up doing that themselves) , and a whole host of other work accounted for it you are making a whopping $8.30 and hour. When you take into account all the other work involved you might be down to $2 an hour. Now imagine the cost of an editor getting paid a real wage. A book might cost $3.50 to print but $20 to edit.

Percentages are not better. With a miraculously $25 profit on a $100 book but only selling 250 of them you end up with  $125 at 2% profit share and at 20% you make $1,250. Less than minimum wage if you send 120 hours working on it.

DIY Won’t Help

I have heard a lot of people say they will cut out the middle man and publish the book themselves. Well Amazon gives you 70% of the royalties for digital kindle books, minus some downloading costs. The catch is that it is for books between $2.99 and $9.99. Any more or less and you only get 30% royalties. So to get make minimum wage for 200 hours of work (120 writing first draft, 70 hours self editing, 10 hours marketing) you would have to sell 290 digital only books, actually around 300-325 because there are hidden fees. Also, that does not take into account all the other work you do for the book.

There is No Mass Market for Scholarly Archaeology

300 doesn’t seems like a lot and if you are aiming for mass media it is achievable. However, for scholarly work it is probably not obtainable. Think of everyone who has published on the topic of your book. Now cut that in half and cut that number in half again. That is probably the number of individuals that will buy your book. Is it more than 300?

You won’t have access to the libraries. Publishers may not do a lot for you in some cases (edited volumes tend to be put together and edited by others) but they have invested in marketing and access infrastructure. Many librarians won’t entertain self-published work as an option to buy. Also, publishers can make some money by selling books are parts of bundles, you can’t.  The 200-300 sales publishers i.e. university presses and societies, rely on are not available to you. It is a completely different economic model.

Edit- Matt, who works in publishing made this interesting comment

“A couple of points you have to remember are that, in scholarly publishing, libraries now make up a smaller and smaller share of the sales – meaning that print runs are either being reduced, or the publishers are trying to sell more copies via the traditional retail outlets. These outlets are increasingly using centralised buying systems, getting their stock direct from wholesale warehouses rather than direct from the publisher. It makes a great deal of sense for them to do so, as the wholesaler can supply items in 48 hours (as opposed to the publishers 14 days). These wholesale warehouses ‘demand’ a very high discount from publishers – anywhere up to %60-%70 of cover price – which means that any publishers profit has to be found in the other %30-%40. When you take in to account print costs (actually usually a ‘bit’ higher than those examples you cite – but not much), the editorial costs, layout, design and marketing – then there really isn’t much of that %30-%40 left over. Given that the average print run for a scholarly work is now far less than the 300 you mention (that was a decade ago) things in academic publishing are, to be blunt, a bit tight. In recent years I have seen hardback print runs of 90 and 120.”

I should add when I quote lower print costs but if you want quality paper, a good binding etc. That $1 or 2$ extra can eat away at that 30-40% that publishers have to work in.

Beer Money

I have talked to several archaeologists who have self-published or get a percentage of the profits from their books with publishers. Basically, they end up with beer money. There are a few notable exceptions for some academics who have written textbooks that get bought by hundreds of undergrads each year. Even then when you take into account the time they spent on the book almost none of them have made close to minimum wage, some lose money.

That even counts for people who already did most of the writing for other projects e.g. PhD, CRM project. Yes, you did a lot of the work but you will still put in 40? 80? 100? more hours of work to sell only 100 books.

It not about the money, money

There are a million reasons to publish that is not about the money. People like to share what they know. If you are looking for a career in academia then you need to publish. You could be doing it to get your name out there. People love to hire the person who ‘wrote the book’ on (insert topic).

In no way do I want to discourage people from publishing by talking about the economics but I did want to clear up some misconceptions. I have had way too many conversations with people saying they want to become a professor, publish books, and live off of the royalties of the books….

Consider Open Access

A final thought to leave you with. People won’t read a book that costs $9.99 but will read a free one. Our book, on Blogging and Archaeology, has had at least 1000 downloads in 5 months between just Chris and I’s websites. It was published all over the place and we don’t have the full stats. One of my wife’s coworkers read it after someone in Australia sent it to her. It might have been read by 2-3k so far, but at least 1000 times. If you goal is to disseminate knowledge, get your name known, or make money through other means then consider Open Access. If you are DIY publishing it makes very little sense to charge $9.99 for a book so you can make $2 an hour for your work. If you got a single CRM contract or academic grant because you wrote a book someone read (because it was open access) it will pay 100X the little beer money you would get from 100 people buying your book. Just a thought.


Gardiner Eileen & Ronald G. Musto. 2004. Electronic Publication: The State of the Question, A paper presented at the 2004 American Philological Association Meeting.

Greco, A.N. and Wharton, R.M. 2008. Should university presses adopt an open access (electronic publishing) business model for all of their scholarly books?. In ELPUB. Open Scholarship: Authority, Community, and Sustainability in the Age of Web 2.0 ñ Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Electronic Publishing. L. Chan and S. Mornati, eds, Toronto.

Gardiner Eileen & Ronald G. Musto. 2004. Electronic Publication: The State of the Question, A paper presented at the 2004 American Philological Association Meeting.

Greco, A.N. and Wharton, R.M. 2008. Should university presses adopt an open access (electronic publishing) business model for all of their scholarly books?. In ELPUB. Open Scholarship: Authority, Community, and Sustainability in the Age of Web 2.0 ñ Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Electronic Publishing. L. Chan and S. Mornati, eds, Toronto.

Posted in: Uncategorized