It’s sad to see an important publishing house wrecked when some corporate empire or pirate acquires it. One of the latest is Seuil, publisher of Badiou, Barthes, Genette, Greimas, Jakobson, Kristeva, Lacan, Todorov, and other figures in French literary theory & philosophy. Chloé Delaume has a summary of the current troubles, which have followed upon the acquisition of Seuil by Hervé de la Martinière. Misgivings expressed when the acquisition took place have been confirmed by the departure of one CEO for having secretly profited from the sale of shares before the acquisition and of another this fall. Editors and authors too have been leaving. L’Observateur has (for the time being) a list of items concerning La Martinière-Le Seuil; see also La machine à lire, an open letter to Martinière from independent booksellers at Librairie Compagnie, and a pessimistic report by Jacob Epstein, “Independent publishers: becoming their own worst enemy?” at The Book & the Computer.
Similar things have been happening, of course, in the English-language publishing world. Why should this matter to philosophers? Taylor & Francis (which owns Routledge and many journals), Springer (which now owns Kluwer, which owns Reidel), and three or four university presses publish the bulk of work in analytic philosophy, philosophy of science, and logic. Trade presses that used to include contemporary philosophy in their lists no longer do, or publish only textbooks and reference works. University presses like Chicago have for some time had to be self-supporting, which means, among other things, that large editorial projects (like the publication of the papers of Peirce and Russell), unless they are subsidized, have less chance of being undertaken. Increasingly the major university presses operate as if they were upmarket trade presses, and choose the manuscripts to be published accordingly.
As Epstein writes, “Trade book publishing is by nature a cottage industry, decentralized, improvisational, personal”. The force of ‘by nature’ is to indicate not that trade publishing has an essence but that it has an end, which is the publication of good and occasionally of great works. It is not obvious that unchecked market forces serve that end (as one small German publisher notes, the conglomerates expect 10 to 15 per cent returns in an industry that traditionally yields closer to 5 per cent). The Internet may alleviate some of the problems noted by Schiffrin and Epstein, by altering the economics of publication and distribution. But that will require a revision of attitudes toward electronic publishing (e.g., for purposes of tenure review) and an enlightened attitude on the part of the universities on whom the burden of supporting academic publication will fall.
Philosophy journals and books remain relatively cheap. In the sciences it’s another matter. On the situation in mathematics, see Rob Kirby, “Fleeced?”, Notices of the AMS, Feb 2004, p181 (also available here), his letter to Elsevier in the Newsletter on Serial Pricing Issues 199 (21 Jan 1998), and followups in 202 (12 Mar 1998). The cumulative price increase in mathematics journals from 1993 to 2002 was 256% (source: ALA Serial Prices, 2002); the US inflation index over the same period was 23%.
EPSTEIN, Jacob. Book business (Norton, 2002). —A chronicle of the consolidation of the trade publishing industry. See Michael Wolff, “Epstein unbound”, New York Metro 1 Nov 1999.
SCHIFFRIN, André. The business of books (Verso, 2001). —How international media conglomerates have taken over the publishing industry.
“Publier, diffuser, et distribuer”. Transcription of a discussion organized by the Syndicat National de l’Édition (France), 9 Mar 2004. At L’Observateur.