Time for more Keynes

In a blog post yesterday Benjamin Mitra-Kahn – now chief economist at IP Australia but perhaps even better known as the author of a superb thesis on the history of defining and measuring the economy – pointed out that Keynes’s works are now out of copyright. The copyright has been held by the Royal Economic Society, which has published the Collected Writings in a handsome series (The General Theory is Volume 7) (RES members can get them online).

The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes: Volume 7

However, there is no reliable, reasonably priced paperback version at the moment of Keynes’s major works. (Be warned – expert readers say the paperbacks that pop up on Amazon (pirate editions until this week) are poorly produced and full of inaccuracies.)

So as well as Benjamin Mitra-Kahn’s suggestion of putting all of the works and collected papers online – a terrific idea, practical proposals needed – it would be great if a publisher would pick up the need for a paperback classic version so we can get students reading them for themselves again.


Bringing reason to readers

A modest benefit of our ‘interesting’ times is that the world of ideas is flourishing. This is good news for readers – all the books, the explosion of interesting things to read online – and for the publishers who care about ideas.Feeding the demand for understanding was the thinking behind my own modest publishing effort, the LPP Perspectives series.

It is very cheering to see some university presses responding to the demand among the wider public, not just academics, for serious thought. And what’s more, some are thriving on it too. I wrote about this after the last meeting of Princeton University Press’s European Advisory Board, of which I’m a member. Today and yesterday there has been the first conference in the UK organised by the Association of American University Presses, with many UK university presses participating, as well as American ones. This includes a brand new UK university press, Goldsmiths Press – who sent me this week one of their first titles which looks a must read for all disgruntled (ie. all) British academics, Les Back’s Academic Diary (Or Why Higher Education Still Matters).

Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters

As a recent article in the Bookseller points out, times are challenging for university presses, caught between the rough and tumble of commercial publishing and the rough and tumble of higher education. But I agree with the conclusion that these are good times for publishers encouraging the public engagement of scholars – perhaps precisely because they are not such good times for the world. People are demanding debate and there is a responsibility on academics, and their publishers, to supply reason and evidence amid the demagoguery out there.


Complements and substitutes

I spotted some tweets this morning about increases in the sales of physical media, including books.

Print books are on the rise again 571 million paper books have been sold in the US in 2015 https://t.co/1KcL5lApE6 https://t.co/eYYt5zE8cU
21/12/2015 09:18
Book sales rising; biggest movie opening ever; fastest album sales ever, WaPo doing OK. We owe the internet an apology.
21/12/2015 08:21

These developments seem to overturn the narrative of ever-greater cannibalisation by online consumption.

But that narrative assumes physical and digital versions are always substitutes for each other, when there is no a priori reason to think that substitutability is boundless. The same substitution assumption was made about telephones when they first spread, but the empirical evidence seems to be that telephone and face-to-face contact might have become complements for each other rather than substitutes. The easier it became to arrange to meet someone in person, the more often it happened.

This is unlikely to be true for all physical media. While it is easy to see how reading part of a book online, or an article about a book, could start to increase physical sales, or how listening to music online can stimulate concert-going and maybe CD buying (even LPs!), it is less obviously true about newspapers, say. I don’t want to be all Pollyanna about this – and Anita Elberse’s Blockbusters for one provides some of the gloomier evidence about the effect of the switch to digital on most content suppliers even if the aggregate figures look healthy.

But the moral is, at least be aware of what you assume about substitutes and complements when predicting the future impact of digital; if you haven’t thought about it, you’ve still made an assumption. It might be wrong.

Blockbusters: Why Big Hits – and Big Risks – are the Future of the Entertainment Business


Bringing ideas to the world

Last week I attended the European Advisory Board meeting of Princeton University Press, the theme of the discussion being the role of university presses in the globalized 21st century. A while ago Sam Leith had an interesting article in the Guardian praising university presses for their stewardship of non-fiction publishing at a time when many commercial publishers have become fearful ‘me-too’ merchants. It could seem paradoxical: the university presses’ freedom from short term commercial pressure has created the conditions for longer term success, at least for some. Happily, Princeton University Press is one of those that’s thriving. There is a huge appetite for ideas, and the scholarly presses publishing books that address a wider audience than only academics and their libraries have been there to meet it. The appetite is also global, and again a small group of university presses have addressed the global market (much of PUP’s recent growth has been outside its home market in the US).

The other question is what will the ‘university’ part of ‘global university press’ look like in a decade or two? Higher education is ripe for disruption. It seems clear now this will not take the form of MOOCs, although they will have their market. Yet who knows what shape exactly it will take. One of my advisory board colleagues suggested publishing could be able to provide the true interdisciplinarity modern global issues require, whereas traditional university departmental silos discourage it. My hunch is that keeping a clear focus on the ‘product’ being the provision of ideas and scholarship to readers of all kinds around the world, and being agnostic about the exact means of delivering those ideas, will be the way to ride out disruptive technologies. A ‘freemium’ approach looks a good bet too: for example, the open access Digital Einstein website alongside the Quotable Einstein along with many other of his books for sale. (I note by the way there’s a holiday discount at the moment on purchases via the PUP website!)

My latest three books have been published by Princeton, and I’m delighted to be associated with such a distinguished purveyor of ideas to the world. During the holidays I’ll do my look ahead to forthcoming books in 2016 (publishers – do send me catalogues if you haven’t already) but here’s a trailer for just a few PUP titles for 2016: Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible by William Goetzmann; Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert Frank; and – just arrived at Enlightenment Towers, due for publicaiton on 27 January, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living since the Civil War. I’m really looking forward to reading this over the holiday, & spoiling for a fight with Prof Gordon – but who knows, maybe he’ll win me over to his ‘innovation is so over’ thesis.

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible  Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy  The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)



Who benefits from e-books?

It’s holiday time and the world divides into those who download all their reading onto an electronic device and those who cart piles of books around in their suitcase. I’m one of the latter, although getting better about leaving paperbacks I’ve read behind in hotels and cottages. However, I have downloaded onto my iPad the articles from the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (free to read & always excellent.)

Among this issue’s essays is a symposium on technology, the labour market and growth, which looks terrific. There’s also a very interesting article by Richard Gilbert on ebooks and publishing, which concludes the outlook is not great for traditional publishers:

“The e-book story shows how the traditional players in the book industry are struggling to achieve a new market equilibrium in a time where their industry is facing severe technological disruption and illustrates the hazards they face in attempting to manage the transition to that new equilibrium.”
My gloss would be that not all publishers are the same. As The Guardian noted recently, university presses are doing well – I agree with Sam Leith here that the big conglomerates are too ‘me too’ in their approach; and as a small publisher myself with LPP I’m optimistic for new entrants. On the whole, innovation in the book world has so far probably been good for readers as there is a proliferation of new titles and formats.