By Alexander Dean

As I eat a bowl of noodles at my desk, I have before me Neal Stephenson’s latest contribution to the realm of science fiction: Fall, a fairly substantial tome weighing in at 896 pages. The list price is $35.00. And next to that is one of our older editions, Pi-Yen Chen’s Chinese Buddhist Monastic Chants, which I have been referring to as I prepare a new volume that will have some similar elements. Our price for Chen’s book, which is 165 pages? $150.

What gives? At one-fifth the size, how can a book of Buddhist chant cost over four times as much as a science fiction novel? Could the demand for Chinese Buddhist chant transcriptions, translations, and critical analysis be so high as to drive the price up, far beyond a new release from a best-selling author of fiction?

At one point, as a student, I remember hearing what seemed at the time to be a plausible explanation for the high prices of academic books: “They’re priced for libraries.” I nodded my head wisely, not really knowing what was meant. I supposed it must be something like health insurance driving up the costs of medical devices, with everything happening in a closed system wherein libraries had access to vast funds that placed them outside the bounds of the market. As an employee of a small company that does, indeed, survive mainly on sales to libraries, I now know that this is far from the truth, at least for our books.[1] Although as an editor I am not involved in the details of budgeting and pricing in the company, I do know that the cost of each edition is figured very finely, even down to hours per page, at each stage of the editing and production process, and that the editions are priced as low as possible while still allowing the company to stay in business.[2] Indeed, my paycheck depends on it.

Now, I am not sure how much it costs to edit and produce a Neal Stephenson book; my guess is that he is rather the expert on his own fictional worlds, and the duties of his editors therefore run more towards proofreading, spell-checking, etc., rather than grappling with the substance of the work. But a critical edition of historical music is not a creation ex nihilo: the research needed to present any such volume grows from an existing body of research and inhabits a space in the actual world, with all the attendant moving parts and potential for both fortuitous correspondence and calamitous interference. In addition, a Recent Researches edition will take its place among an existing series of volumes, with established, albeit flexible, expectations for layout, scope, and rigor.

Certainly the editor (that is, the outside “author” of the critical edition) of a Recent Researches volume is often a specialist, with expertise specific to the music presented. But no musicologist, performer, or bibliophile has the luxury of the fiction writer, whose world can fade into obscurity at its furthest reaches, like Tolkien’s Númenor. The historical context for any piece of music instead retains its detail beyond the geographical, generic, and temporal vanishing points, and these borders, established by the editor, should be patrolled and supervised by those who have the experience to do so.

And how to ensure that the volume editor is, in fact, an expert in the first place? Again, judgment must be made on an informed basis, before a proposed edition is even accepted for publication. An informed judgment, in the case of historical editions of music, must come from musicologists who have specific experience in producing these editions.

So our editorial department comprises Ph.D. musicologists who, after our degree training, have received further training on the job here at A-R Editions. Our production staff, in addition, not only understand music notation, including clefs, transpositions, cautionary accidentals, basso continuo figures, orchestral scoring, early music notation, and so forth, but also have been trained specifically in engraving according to A-R house style.

To return to those “hours per page”: what do they consist of? Actually, time, and therefore money, is spent on projects before these are even calculated (and those calculations themselves take time and money)—in fact, even on projects that are never published. Proposals are reviewed by the entire editorial staff, as well as by the series editors, and each proposal is judged on its own merits. Although these reviews are not blind, it is the project that we focus on, rather than the scholar submitting it. In this we must be able to accurately gauge whether the proposal accurately reflects existing scholarship, whether the secondary scholarship cited is itself reliable, and whether the editorial assumptions made are appropriate to the repertory—in these judgments we are wearing our “Ph.D.” hats. Then, we must also assess whether the edition is right for our series, whether we can fit it into our schedule, and whether our customers would be interested in it—for this we are wearing our “publisher” hats. And, at each stage of a project’s development, those hats will switch back and forth. For example, when copyediting, I may want to circle a passage (or even a single note) that looks off, for the editor to check against the source. A pitch a semitone off in an orchestral tutti on a tonic chord is fairly straightforward, but what about on the dominant? Could it be a flat ninth? A chromatic passing tone? Musicologists reading this will already be asking themselves the questions necessary for the answer (what year was it written, where was it performed, what is the style of the rest of the piece, where in the piece does the cadence fall, etc.). And what of a sixteenth-century madrigal, an eighteenth-century cantata, or (in an especially interesting pair of volumes I worked on recently) an eighteenth-century Italian composer living in England and consciously imitating a sixteenth-century style insofar as it was understood at the time?

Then there are the more tedious but equally necessary tasks of collating, recording, and checking the tables, bibliographical citations, footnotes, and source abbreviations. In this I try to bring back my own memories, as a first-year graduate student, of bouncing back and forth in Sibley Music Library between the reference materials on the first floor (RISM, Hill and Stephens, New Vogel, New Grove) and the collected editions on the third floor. Sometimes a too-casual approach to indexing or source citation can eat up an entire afternoon that might have been spent learning the actual information the citations were meant to point toward. And this is as much the responsibility of the publisher as of the author, especially in a series like Recent Researches, where the methodology in the author’s manuscript is likely to be tweaked somewhat for consistency with the rest of the series.

When an author’s manuscript arrives here, our editorial staff migrate the text into new templates formatted specifically for our production process. These files are then comprehensively copyedited, a process involving everything from spell-checking to suggesting entirely different chapter layouts (or deletions): the copyedit is vetted by the author at this stage before the proofs are even made. Then the production staff take these formatted, copyedited, and vetted files and painstakingly create the final product in our house style—the average is around 70% editorial work, 30% production work, although that can vary depending on the project.

Bearing in mind that everything that happens in publishing happens in different stages, and that each stage must be proofread according to the previous stage so that no new errors are introduced while existing problems are being solved, you may begin to see the need for full-time, trained employees shepherding the creation of something as complex as a historical edition of music. The work that comes our way is of high quality, presented to us by leaders in the field, and represents artistic and scholarly creations that will be of lasting benefit to society. Many things are available these days for the price of a few mouse clicks, an email address, and access to your personal data. Nevertheless, I see no weakening of the old maxim: you get what you pay for.

[1] A-R’s publications might be said to be “priced for libraries,” but in the sense that libraries are almost our only customers; in other words, we do not choose a price because we sell to libraries, we choose between selling to libraries and not selling anything at all. If the anticipated costs are too high and/or anticipated sales too low, we might decide not to publish an otherwise worthy edition, simply because it is not economically feasible to do so. An occasional volume can be published at a loss (for example, most every volume in our Oral Traditions series), but we cannot stay in business by publishing for niche audiences within a niche market, nor by publishing projects that are overly (and often unnecessarily) complex.

[2] If you are interested in the nitty-gritty: A-R’s pricing methodology for Recent Researches editions is “cost-plus pricing,” meaning we take the direct costs of the book plus an additional amount needed to cover overhead expenses (rent, health insurance, sales and marketing costs, etc.) and divide that by the number of anticipated sales in the first six months or so after publication. Since the sales number is low (and expected to remain low), it is our constant struggle to keep the costs low as well. But most of these costs, other than hours on a project, are fixed or slowly but steadily increasing.

Alexander Dean is a house editor with A-R Editions.