In our first part, I looked at some factors that I think may drive up the price of the book in justifiable manners. On the other hand, there are some practices that I think are less excusable, and I’d like to talk about them here.
When thinking about this post, however, I realized that an emphasis on small presses might seem unfair. Fortunately, the large ones provide much better examples. Let’s take a look at a few, which I’ve picked largely because they’re free of the potential cost-increasing factors mentioned in the first part.
Let’s take the Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West. This is the best historical summary of the course of Western magic that I have ever read. The authors of the chapters are top-notch, it uses appropriate but sparse black and white illustrations, and it’s a hardback without any fancy binding.
It’s also $165 retail, which I consider to be completely unacceptable. Even the Kindle edition is over $100. This is well over the amount I want to invest in a non-primary text, and I only own it due to the generosity of my parents at Christmas. (It fell out of a broken bag into a drift of dirty snow a few days later, of course.) It’s a shame that such a useful, informative, educational work should be so expensive that only collectors and larger libraries can possibly purchase it.
Then we have Brill. Oh, what can we say about Brill? We have this great edition of Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia in the original Latin, with footnotes covering the influences, an in-depth introduction, and other goodies. This is $150 – although I suppose you have to make up the losses in sale for publishing a book in Latin somehow. Past offerings have sometimes been over $200.
If you scroll through their catalog online running a search on “magic,” you’ll see – hey, some of these prices have dropped considerably. Sure, if you want the Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals, there’s a substantial cost, and I’m sure many readers will still find a $60 paperback outrageous, but it appears they’ve slashed their prices effectively in half from some of those I’ve seen in the past and included a paperback edition here or there. So, slight kudos there.
I was also going to cite the Ashgate Research Companion to Medieval Magic, another work from reputable scholars in the field at a price point around $150, if I remember correctly. It appears that the book has been transferred to Routledge, so we’ll have to keep an eye on it. We should bear in mind, however, that the Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult is now available only as an $120 ebook – and, for the record, contains very little about the “occult.”
This leads us to another exacerbating factor – large publishers’ use of buzzwords in titles to drive sales. Small presses, in my experience, are very up front in their descriptions of their works. If they say that a work is an exploration of some “current,” for example, I know I can safely ignore it. (That’s my preference, and yours may differ.) If an academic book has “magic” or “occult” in the title, it might be a work dealing with those topics exclusively, or someone might have thrown in a chapter on those topics at the last minute so they could make it more salable. Thus, not only are you buying an expensive book, it could be a practically useless one.
My most expensive purchase in this regard was Karl Bell’s The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, 1780-1914. Given that I regularly write about nineteenth-century magicians such as George Graham and Frederick Hockley, I thought it might be a good purchase. What did not find, however, was the index online, which I believe has been posted since the book appeared. If you scroll down to the entries on “magic,” you can see why I was disappointed – and out over $100.
I’m sure that many readers will have thought by now, “But these books are priced for library purchase, not for private individuals!” Next time, I’ll deal with that question, while also turning the focus back to smaller presses.