James Clifford's new book is too expensive

Really? Thirty bucks for the kindle version of Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First CenturyC’mon.

Harvard’s decision to skip a paperback version of this book (at least atm) and release only in digital and hardcover is intriguing, but the price point of both is not. While US$30.00 is not bad for a new hardcover book, it is way too much for the digital version of the book.

To be honest with you, I am afraid that Harvard’s digital pricing marks the beginning of a new trend. Now that many of us are accustomed to buying digital books, I fear that university presses will start jacking the prices of them up to the point where physical copies used to be. At $9.99 I’m definitely a buyer of ethnographers. At $15 publishers will make money off of me as I take a chance on titles that I wouldn’t touch at $30 in paper. But $30 for a DRM’d Amazon digital edition? The tighter you clench your fist, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

What makes it worse is that Clifford’s new book is an anthology of previously published papers. If you are associated with an academic library, you probably have access to several of these papers already. The second chapter, “Indigenous Articulations” is available open access. It’s true that some of the essays have been rewritten or expanded, and that the first chapter and the epilogue are new. But let’s face it, it is the long middle section of the book, “Ishi’s Story” which is the only substantially original part of the book. Are there people out there who really want to pay thirty dollars to listen to James Clifford talk about Ishi for 100 pages? Because if so — this is the book for you.

Back in the day, collected volumes of essays like these were important, because they were often the only way to get your hands on essays that had previously been published in very obscure locations. A press was doing a real service simply by making the works available. But these days we need to really ask what the value is in these sorts of collections, especially for those of us who are not trufans of the author. For people like me who take Clifford seriously as a scholar, but are not a central part of his personal network, this book is priced off our radar.

In the prologue to his book, Clifford writes briefly about the changing role of books in a digital ecosystem, assuring us that his new volume is “constructed with new forms of distribution in mind” because each essay or section can stand on its own. I’m not sure how this is any different from any previous, analog volume of essays essays which were originally written to stand on their own. Still it is heartening to see that Clifford himself, if not HUP, recognizes that knowledge transmitted digitally “cannot, nor should it be, legally contained”. Hopefully Harvard will price this book and their future offerings at a level that we can afford to pay. The other option is a world of unread or — worse — pirated books. And that future will not serve academics or university presses well in the long run.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

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