While wending its merry way through IP law and the like, the Swartz thread at Crooked Timber hit on the everlasting problem of who buys scholarly monographs. The answer, of course, is not very many people, although I suspect publishers would not be enthusiastic about this particular excuse for torrenting. Despite Stephen Greenblatt's call for literature types to purchase each other's books, most of us don't do that, because...wait for it...they're frequently priced at $90 and over. Faced with such prices, even the most devout book enthusiast will either trawl the used book shelves (or online listings) or buy groceries. Neither of those things does much for the average publisher's bottom line, although they may be good for supermarkets. Moreover, Kindle and other digitized editions often aren't sufficiently bargain-priced to make them worth the investment; do most people really want to spend $50.39 on an electronic copy?
Part of the problem is that monographs have a sell-by date. They're supposed to have a sell-by date. That's how scholarship works. (One of the reasons I do literary history is that you can still trawl it for footnotes even after the argument has been superseded.) But this means that, unlike a good scholarly edition, most monographs aren't a great personal investment--at least, not at retail prices. I wonder if it's time to go back to the future: reinstate subscription libraries? At least some of us would take out renewable subscriptions to a publisher's entire list--or, perhaps, a consortium of publishers' entire list--if it meant that we could access anything at any time. This is the sort of package publishers are starting to offer universities, but why not offer them to individuals, with or without academic affiliations? (The infuriating unwillingness of the big database companies to offer individual subscriptions is another post.)