Thursday, March 01, 2007

Why We Write Books

Brian Tamanaha

Let's be clear: It's not for the money. Academic books take several thousand hours to research and write. Many university press books sell only a few hundred copies (mainly to libraries). A scholarly book that gets over the 2000 sales mark is doing very well. I get about two dollars for every paperback copy sold, and about five dollars for every hardcover copy sold (based on a 10% author royalty). I've earned about $3000 or so for each of my last three books (ignoring the total of $300 that I received for my first book). You can figure out the hourly rate of return from this information (I prefer not to do the calculation myself).

There are other financial returns for producing a book--perhaps a bit larger raise the year the book comes out--but not enough to make anyone do it. And remember that when someone embarks on a book project there is no advance guarantee that it will be published (unless your name is Posner or Sunstein).

Yes, there is also satisfaction and other psychic benefits (including prestige) for producing a book, but this must be weighed against the sacrifices made to get it done. And one must also consider the anxiety that is constant companion of the writing process--anxiety that it might not be published, anxiety that it might be sharply criticized, or, even worse, anxiety that it might be ignored, and sink to the bottom without making a sound in the sea of books that come out every year.

So why write books? The pleasures of reading, learning, writing and creating have a lot to do with it. But for many authors the most important factor is our conviction that the ideas and information contained in the book matter. Above all else, we want the book to be read in the hope that people will think about what we have written.

I am sharing these thoughts for two reasons. First, taking a deep breath in anticipation of what lies ahead, I am now embarking on a new book project. So I cannot escape thinking "why do it?" Second, these thoughts are offered as a long-winded explanation/excuse for what I am about to do: blatantly promote my recent book, Law as Means to an End. A positive review of the book, available here, was just published in the Law and Politics Review.

In the spirit of Jack's post below about using Haiku to describe our work, I have composed the following from the review:

excellent treatment
a lively, lucid manner is a must read

If that's not enough to get you to check it out (image on the sidebar), let me add that it received an honorable mention award for outstanding Professional/Scholarly Law book of 2006 from the Association of American Publishers. Sandy Levinson's excellent Our Undemocratic Constitution received the same award in the Government & Political Science category, I am pleased to report, so Balkinization contributors were well represented.

You will find our books worth reading if you care about the state of our political and legal system.


Given what you've said, why don't more authors ask their publishers for permission to post the full-text online free, so that it gets disseminated as widely as possible?


I would have no problem with that, but publishers are in the business to make money (naturally). As long as the book sells (and with the new print on demand technology), it is not in their economic interest to comply with the request.

Authors can go the self-publish, self-dissemination-for-free route, but the book will not be taken seriously unless the author is a big name (and even then there will be raised eyebrows).



I thought the haiku was supposed to replace the abstract, not the jacket blurbs. Of course you think it's a good book, but what the hell is it about?

How do casebook royalties compare?

I guess it is about time I buy a few of these books (once I clear the in-basket a bit). I'm particularly interested in Balkin's "Cybercrime"; I have an professional interest (so to speak) in the CALEA laws and the means of interception and analysis, as well as my longer standing interest in constitutional law.....


You guys are fantastic, thanks for blogging so us who are not legal experts can get the scholarly look at what's going on with things like FISA and Guantanamo.

I'll be sure to check out your books, as well as your colleagues at Balkinization's, Brian.

Commercial publishers, yes--but university presses claim *not* to be in the business to make money. Yale UP, for example, is a *department of the university*, and speaks of its mission in these terms: "By publishing serious works that contribute to a global understanding of human affairs, Yale University Press aids in the discovery and dissemination of light and truth, lux et veritas, which is a central purpose of Yale University." It seems like if this is taken seriously, it then becomes an open question how best to spread knowledge, and how best to finance it within universities. (Aside from the empirical question of whether it would even hurt revenue--after all, most of the potential audience can already get the book through a library; people buy things for somewhat different reasons than just reading them.)

(I note that some presses seem to be taking tentative steps in this directions, as with Balkin's book, and Benkler's, etc. May these experiments continue!)

Don't the same "problems" apply equally to articles (time consuming, may not be published [or may be published in a journal you're not happy with], may be criticized, etc.)? And with articles you don't get any royalties from publication. It seems like the main reason to write books is the same reason you'd write an article, or an op-ed: because you have something to say. It just so happens that your thought sometimes turns into a 2 page op-ed; sometimes a 50 page article; and sometimes a 200 page book.

University presses used to be in the business of publishing their own professors' work -- i.e., if you taught at Michigan, then Michigan's UP was your forum.

But UPs were financial sink-holes, so schools started cutting support. To survive, presses had to worry more about sales. To do this they started competing for authors/works that had a better chance of selling -- and they also started feeling out niche markets.

UPs might "claim" to be in the business of spreading knowledge -- and I don't think that's an empty claim. But I think you infer too much from it, when you conclude that they're not out to make money. I don't think they're looking for huge profits -- but they do have to sell to survive.

The real hindrance to the dissemination of these works, as I see it, is the problem of reliability or credibility that Brian touched on. If you self-publish a book to "get it out there," it won't be taken seriously because it hasn't gone through the vetting process. UPs provide credibility -- along with publication and distribution -- but they have no incentive to provide it for free.

I do think, though, that it should be possible to make online, pdf-style versions of books available for download for a nominal fee. Say, $3.99. I would think this would increase sales substantially (thus increasing dissemination) -- and I don't see how there would be much overhead for the publisher. I'm not sure why UPs haven't moved in this direction yet...?

As for articles -- I think Kevin's basically right. But also, sometimes publishing a few articles is necessary to establishing a "name" for yourself, to make the book publishing more likely. This is where motivations other than money come into play. Most UPs won't really consider your book ms unless you've got a few publications to your name already -- usually articles in good journals. Again, it goes to the vetting/credibility issue: if you've been published already, you've been vetted already.

Considering all of this, it's no surprise that blogging generally lacks any scholarly "pull" -- because anyone can throw up a blog. (Pun intended.)

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