The evil publishers and the worlds knowledge

On: April 8, 2013
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About Sebastiaan Andeweg


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In my previous blog post I pointed out that free information does not exist, for there’s always someone who has to gather the information, and that person needs to live. It sounds like a way advocate the way things are organized in the publishing industry. Yes, they would say, information is not free and thus you have to pay us. It might sound reasonable, but it is not entirely true.

The way things are organized in today’s publishing industry are not what they should be. Prices are high, much higher than is necessary to keep the authors alive. Where’s the money going? Definitely into the pockets of the greedy publishers.

I am doing a masters program to become an editor, part of that evil industry, and during my study I had a publisher explain the three main markets for books. First, you have the general book market: here you find the books for the public, fiction and non-fiction, from novel to cookbook. Second, there’s the scientific market: those are the books for the scholars in the university libraries. Third, there’s the educational market: those are the books for the classrooms.

Next, the publisher explained the economical difference between them. The general book market is really risky: there is a huge audience, but no-one can predict what they want to buy. You have some clues, but overall it’s more diffuse. The scientific market is much better for the publisher. ‘Just start a journal,’ the publisher said, ‘get some good articles about the subject and you can name the price: the libraries will pay almost everything.’ The educational market seemed to be even more profitable.

You might think publishers are greedy and evil, and maybe they are, at a certain height. But they also have a wrong reaction to the things that are happening in the market. Due to the economic crisis, universities are spending less money on new books and journals. Instead of ordering one copy for every library they have, they order one copy for the whole university, allowing libraries to share their collection with each other. In the Netherlands (university) libraries are looking more and more to ‘de collectie Nederland’ than to their own collection alone.

The reaction of the publishing industry is just to raise the prices. They want to make 100 out of it, first it cost 10 and they sold 10 copies, now with 5 copies they just ask 20 for it. It’s a nice model, except that it will not hold very long. Universities will even buy less copies, until there’s just one copy available that’s unaffordable. Because that’s what is happening: copies becoming unaffordable.

In the newly industrialized countries, there’s less science than in Europe and the USA. Part of it because they can’t afford all of the journals and books they need to study. In order to get educated, they make use of initiatives like Library.nu, sites where they can find thousands of digital books online. Unfortunately for them, the Euro-American publishing industry killed Library.nu, thinking they would sell more legal copies by doing that. But can the students afford the legal copies?

Instead of raising the price of publications, the publishing industry should lower the prices, so they can open a broader market.

And what if the publishing industry doesn’t do anything? For the newly industrialized countries, it would be better to just ignore the western copyright for some years. The USA did something like it with works from England, and China is doing really well by not recognizing western copyright. They need(ed) that knowledge to create their own knowledge. In the end, the world as a whole would benefit from it.

Maybe the ones that have power over the knowledge nowadays don’t want to give it to those new countries, because they are afraid of loosing their power. But isn’t it that competition makes us stronger?

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