Saturday, November 24, 2007

The economics of quality

It is a platitude of economics that competition drives the price of a product down towards the cost of producing it. However, it is also a truism that the cost of producing something is variable. Hence, a lower price or greater profit margin can be generated if production costs are reduced.

There are at least two ways in which costs can be reduced: (i) the efficiency of the production process can be increased; or (ii) the quality of the product can be reduced.

In television, it seems that competition has resulted in a reduction to the quality of the product. I would also argue that in the world of academic publishing, the physical quality of the books published in the past decade or so, do not match the quality of the books published in the 1970s and 1980s. I am not thinking here of the quality of the intellectual contents, but the quality of the book itself, as an extended physical object.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Academic Press published a series of monographs and textbooks entitled Pure and Applied Mathematics, edited by Samuel Eilenberg and Hyman Bass. These were beautiful books. The paper was of the highest quality; the choice of fonts and typeface was perfect, the text bejewelled with calligraphically sculpted fraktur and script characters; and the books were covered in a type of green leather hide, bearing their titles in gold leaf lettering. These books even smelt good when you opened them. There is nothing comparable in academic publishing today.

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