Let’s say there’s an interesting but somewhat obscure book I’m interested in. Say, Electromagnetic Pulse Propagation in Causal Dielectrics. It’s a very technical work about a very specific subject, so the total print run was probably very small. Maybe a few hundred or a thousand or so? I have no idea, but it can’t be very large.
The library has it, but of the few thousand people in the world who are interested in this sort of thing, a few dozen are here at Texas A&M. The book is already both checked out and recalled; for all I know there’s recall requests stacked several deep. Now the university is a very collegial place, I’m sure I could find the person who has it and they’d let me borrow it. I don’t need it that badly though, so I’m not going to bother with all that. Either way it still wouldn’t solve the problem of there being only one physical book and many people who want to read it.
I could buy it, but if you were curious and clicked on the Amazon.com link above you’ve already seen that there’s all of one copy available from a third party seller and they want more than $400 for it. If I had that kind of money to blow, and I don’t, it wouldn’t be on this book. You see the problem.
It’s a general problem. A major publisher publishing small runs for a limited audience is expensive. Neither scientists nor libraries want to spend huge amounts of money to buy multiple copies of obscure works, and so scarcity is the inevitable result. Is there a way around this? Offhand I can think of two non-exclusive options, both of which have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Self-Publishing: Have a printing firm fire up individual copies on demand. While not necessarily cheap, it’s a lot cheaper than $400 per book. The downside is that self-publishing tends to have a stigma of low quality control and crazy and/or self-delusional authors. For science specifically, self-publishers can’t afford to hire editors to check the mathematical or scientific accuracy of the published works. I don’t think any of these are insurmountable. Quality is just a function of picking out a good printing firm, and I think scientists would be willing to take the minor caveat emptor accuracy risk if the author is known and respected in the field.
Electronic Publishing: Written a book? Slap it on the arxiv or equivalent, let everyone read it under a free Creative Commons license. The major downside here is that you’ve just written a book that you’re not getting paid for. Or, set up a paid download site where scientists can pay $10 or something to download the PDF. Scientists are a relatively conscientious lot, I think most of them would pay a reasonable price rather than bootlegging. While it still wouldn’t be a lot of money, there would be more sales and very probably more money per book for the author than in traditional commercial publishing.
Neither of these options are perfect. Still, I can’t help but feel that more options than traditional publishing would be good for science.