Book Buying

Like many law profs, I have a generous research budget from my institution.  And, like many of us, I have a number of competing uses for it — travel, research assistants, research materials, etc.  One thing I try to do every year is ensure that I spend at least 20% of it on university press books.  There are several reasons for this.  One is that — with apologies to the author of the apocryphal Willie Sutton quote — books are often where the ideas and knowledge are.  Another is that my preferred method of reading is pen-in-hand, underlining and making margin notes as I go — something libraries tend (rightly) to frown upon when done in their books.  But the third is that I think that, as academics, we have an obligation to pay it forward, to use our resources to help sustain basic academic and intellectual infrastructure.

In their quest for something approaching a balanced budget, many university presses try to strike a balance, publishing some books that will bring in net revenue to balance out those that definitely will not.  If university presses disappeared tomorrow, the former category of books would still be published; after all, some for-profit publishing house would have the incentive to snap them up.  But the latter category would not.  And the latter category is the source of a great deal of our collected wisdom.  (I have just finished Ernst Kantorowicz’s magisterial The King’s Two Bodies, which is still in print from Princeton; I have trouble imagining that Random House would have published it.)  So the question for any university press will naturally be how much they can afford to subsidize the worthy money-losers.

Buying university press books — whether it’s the money-making kind or the money-losing kind — helps subsidize the publication of a larger number of worthy books at lower prices.  And this is good for all of us in our roles as both producers and consumers of scholarship.  It is also good for our colleagues in disciplines where books have higher production costs (because, for example, they need illustrations) and smaller potential audiences (because, for example, the field is simply smaller than law), concerns to which being married to an art historian has made me especially attentive.  We are, after all, part of a larger university and academic community, as well as our law school communities.

So, for those of you lucky enough to have generous research budgets, I hope you’ll join me in setting aside some portion for buying university press books.  It is, after all, unusual that we can feel virtuous for purchasing something that we really wanted to have, anyway!

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11 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    Lose the sense of virtue. That’s your students’ money you’re spending.

  2. Josh Chafetz says:

    With all due respect, no it isn’t. It’s the law school’s money, some (but not all) of which came from tuition. When I buy a pizza, the money ceases to be “mine” and becomes the pizza joint’s; the same goes for tuition money, which was the students’ before they chose to spend it on a high-quality legal education. The students, of course, could have chosen not to go to law school and thereby spent no money at all. Part of what they are paying for when they pay for law school is a high-quality faculty that does high-quality scholarship. And high-quality scholarship costs money.

  3. Anon says:

    Most law schools consider the office copies purchased by the professor to be owned by the school and the law library and professors are obligated to return them if they leave the school – ideally without marks. So, if you really want to help out university presses and you want to mark in the books, you should buy them with your own money. I’m not positive if you don’t spend your research budget there is more money available for student financial aid (as opposed to going elsewhere even less noble), but spending with your own money is certainly more virtuous.

  4. Josh Chafetz says:

    Anon — you may be right, and I do use my own money on books that are not research-related. But very few faculty leave their research budgets unspent. So I was addressing the question of how to spend a research budget, not whether to.

  5. Ken Rhodes says:

    “…books are often where the ideas and knowledge are.”

    Just wondering … do you have to convince your students of that? Do they think it’s a notion of obsolete technology?

  6. Jim Maloney says:

    @3 (writing in the books):

    As a frequent buyer of second-hand books, I have often read the notes in margins left by previous readers. They sometimes add value. Besides, Josh didn’t say whether he uses pencil or pen…

    @4 (how v. whether):

    Even more common than “That’s where the money is…” is “Use it or lose it.” Research budgets are but one paradigmatic example. Far better on a large scale that faculty spend some of that money on books, cycling the funds back through the system of academic remuneration, than that they leave it unspent, such that budget cuts will eventually kick in, with inevitable and possibly irreversible erosive effect.

    @5 (obsolete technology?)
    There’s nothing obsolete about books in print. The ability to use them with no hardware other than a light source (which may well be the free one 92 x 10^6 miles away) essentially prevents their obsolescence. Besides, it’s been shown that humans still read faster and more effectively from print on paper than from a screen-type display. Kindles and computers are nice alternatives, but they don’t render the low-tech original modality obsolete by any means.

  7. I’m not sure about Anon #3, and I’ve heard a variety of statements from people at different schools about the fine print. I believe that the fine print at my school says that any tech purchases I buy remain with the school, as well as any purchase which is individually over some threshold (I think it’s individual items over $200 or $300) — that is, if I buy a $500 encyclopedia set, title to it remains with the school.

    But my impression is that this kind of thing varies a whole lot from school to school, so YMMV.

  8. Marc DeGirolami says:

    Great post. I agree with just about all of it, from the tacit preference for obsolete technologies to the pleasure of marking up books to the decision to set aside a definite amount for the purchase of UP books. Most especially, I appreciate and agree with the point that as part of, as Anthony Grafton has described it recently, a republic of letters, law professors ought to support the project of helping to advance book-depth scholarship across disciplines. That project is not only worthwhile for its own sake (as well as, increasingly, for the advancement of legal knowledge), but it is also suggestive of a healthfully collegial cast of mind across the disciplines — that we are all in some way engaged together in a common and communal enterprise, and that we should try to contribute, even if in small ways, to that joint project.

    At my school, one can use one’s budget to obtain books related to one’s work which one can mark up at will, and one can also go through the library to obtain books which can remain in one’s office, but which would stay with the library upon one’s departure from the school and so are best not marked up.

  9. Adam says:

    You say “Buying university press books … helps subsidize the publication of a larger number of worthy books at lower prices.” I think this statement lacks context. University presses are expensive. It’s not clear to me what value they add to lead to those high prices, but I think that if you want to think about worthy books at lower prices, you should look to the publish-on-demand models, which churn out books for much lower costs.

  10. A.J. Sutter says:

    How do you manage keeping the proportion so low as 20%?? Why should reaching that level from below be a struggle — or an achievement — in your line of work?

  11. Former law student says:

    If faculty research budgets are high enough that 20% can be dedicated to activities that have less to do with moving forward your research than with your goals of what else to subsidize, then perhaps that’s an argument for lowering research budgets and lowering tuition.