Think about your own personal backlist, the pieces you wrote years and years ago that haven’t been cited in a decade or more and, truth be told, didn’t get a heck of a lot of play even when they were first published. Suppose someone contacted you out of the blue to ask for permission to reprint one of those articles. How would you react?
Naturally, there would be an initial moment of Ralph Kramden-esque euphoria – “Alice, we’re sittin’ on a gold mine!” But when you came to your senses, you would probably realize, sadly, that the market value of your old work is roughly zero, any excerpting or reprinting presents a matchless opportunity to get the work in front of new eyes, and the obvious thing to do is simply to grant permission unconditionally. Perhaps you might ask for a nominal sum, though for my own part, I find it difficult to imagine having the courage (nerve? gall?) to do so, and in fact have never asked for money in exchange for permission.
This is why neither of us is editor of a university press. In the bizarre world of academic publishing, everything has a just price, set if not divinely then by the customs of our people from time out of mind. I had the occasion to discover this recently when seeking permission to reprint short excerpts from several works in a forthcoming casebook I have written with Guy Charles, Election Law in the American Political System (Aspen). For your enlightenment, here is the relevant correspondence between me and the editor of a well-known university press:
Gardner: "The amount of text I am asking to use is five paragraphs – about 800 words. The price I have been quoted is $645 – nearly a dollar a word. They are good words, to be sure, but that price is – and I really don’t know how to say this delicately – absurd. We would like to excerpt from one essay in a collection . . . that is [more than 25] years old. . . . I note that [the collection] is listed on Amazon’s best-seller list at number 2,769,366. . . . The figure of $645 that I’ve been quoted . . . bears no relation to the value of the underlying asset. Requests for similar works we have submitted through the Copyright Clearinghouse Center have come in priced between about $44 and $80. . . . "
Editor: "I can appreciate that from your perspective . . . the fee appears high. We do not, however, calculate our permission fees based on Amazon rankings, the age of the material, or the value others place on it. Such indicators are highly subjective and changeable and would result in unjustifiable inequities. Rather, we use a very specific fee chart . . . . We cannot negotiate a special rate for you based on your particular circumstances, as we must treat every request equally. "
Oh, I see, your fees are established by a CHART – well, why didn’t you say so? And who indeed would be so foolish as to take into account “the value other place on” a work? Ridiculous! Yes, of course you must “treat every request equally”; we wouldn’t want any authors to feel bad if their permissions went out at a price reflecting their actual value, would we?
No wonder university presses are in trouble!