This seems like a very good idea. Few if any sales will be discouraged: the people who want to remember the exhibition with an expensive coffee-table book will probably still want the book, and the Google Books scan probably generates sales to people who see the book on line and think it would be lovely to have it on paper. But the main thing is that the Met understands its mission as disseminating information to the public, not making money for the stockholders.
We can contrast this with the attitude of Princeton University Press. Princeton University Press wants $81.60 for the ebook version of F. E. Peters’ Jerusalem, a book published in 1985. We repeat that this is the ebook, so no material costs whatsoever are involved. You might think that, say, $19.95 would seem a bit much for a 38-year-old backlisted ebook, but at least it would not trigger the automatic “outrageous” flag in every sane brain. You laugh at $81.60. You will not pay it. And your reaction is probably typical. Does Princeton University Press really make more money by pricing this ebook at $81.60 than it would make by pricing it at $9.99?
Now, if you want the book on paper, well, that runs into money. For Jerusalem, the price is $260—for a paperback copy.
What accounts for that price? How does the publisher justify it?
“The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions.”
Gosh! Dr. Boli—and he is revealing a trade secret here—uses the latest print-on-demand technology in his celebrated Publishing Empire, too! But he sure feels like a sucker now for pricing The Emperor at $11.88 when he could be charging twenty times that. To reveal another trade secret, he actually makes a small profit at that price. It is just enough so that the book sales pay for the Web hosting and domain names in the on-line division of the Publishing Empire, which is thus self-supporting and therefore self-justifying. Furthermore, Dr. Boli will point out that he wrote the book, which cost him some amount of effort, whereas Princeton University Press is merely scrounging in the big old barrel of long-out-of-print books to which they still have the rights. For that they get $260. Or at least they ask $260. We must suppose that they do sometimes get it, doubtless from people who are spending other people’s money, because the “Legacy Library” scam has been going on for several years.
But now you can amuse yourself for a moment by speculating: How much of the $260 price for Jerusalem do you suppose goes to F. E. Peters, the author thereof, thus promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts by encouraging him to write more books?
The answer: None of it, because F. E. Peters died three years ago.