November 15, 2006
By Robert Townsend
As historians, we love our books. Two interesting new reports provide useful information on how and where books are being distributed.
First, Publisher’s Weekly reports on a new survey of book-buying patterns by the general public. More than two-thirds of the book-buying public still shops in bookstores apparently, while just 23 percent buy their books online. Sadly, for those who think of books as more elevated form of communication, almost half (43 percent) bought books at a department or discount store. Yes, you read that right—more people buy books from places like Wal-Mart than Amazon or Bookfinder.com.
Of course, for most academic historians, the library remains a critical (though often underappreciated) source for books and a key market for historical monographs. A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics offers a snapshot of academic libraries in 2004. Most of the information is pretty dry stuff, but it does offer further evidence about the pressures on history monographs. The 3,653 academic libraries in the U.S. spent more than $5.7 billion in 2004, of which, $2.2 billion went toward “information resources” such as books and serial publications. For a discipline that holds the book in high esteem, it is rather troubling to see that serial publications consume more than two thirds of the libraries’ acquisitions budgets. Most of those serials expenditures were going toward expensive scientific, technical, and medical journals. According to Library Journal the average physics journal will cost libraries $2,850 this year, while the average health sciences journal cost $1,132. This compares to just $201 for the average history journal. It is hardly surprising then that most of the money and most of the efforts to fix the system (like enforced open access) tend to follow the money.