An anthropologist’s guide to Chicago’s 75% off ebook sale

I love ebook sales. They’re a great way to pick up books you’ve always wanted but couldn’t afford. In fact, they’re a great, low-cost way to take a chance on book you’ve never heard of but which looks interesting. Heck, there’s an education to be had just scrolling through the books on sale and discovering new authors. For people without access to an academic library (or who have run out of room in their home libraries *cough*), cheap ebooks are a great way to get more access to knowledge. Radical publishers like Verso, Pluto, PM Press, and others have long had ebook sales (thank you!) and now The University of Chicago has thrown their hat into the ring with a 75% off sale. What are the best ways to approach this sale? Read on!

Think before you buy. Then browse like crazy

Chicago let’s you download spreadsheets of their lists (a ‘list’ is publishing speak for ‘all the books we publish in a certain area’. There are ‘history lists’ and ‘philosophy lists’ etc.). So: Sit there and think about what topics you are interested in and what authors you have to follow. Then download the spreadsheet and look through their list trying to find books that match your interests.

Here is a Google sheet of Chicago’s anthropology list, stripped down to its bare essentials

It’s only about 370 entries, so it won’t take too long to scan. And again, just scanning the list is an education in and of itself.

Then once that is done and you have a sense of what you want, feel free to go crazy and explore Chicago’s website. Browse random-ass topics that sound interesting but that you know nothing about. Who knows what treasures you might find?

One important thing to note about the Chicago website: The “Only General Interest Books” button. Toggle this bad boy to see what the press thinks are their most appealing books. If you are an anthropologist like me, for instance, and want to learn about physics but know nothing about it, this is the way to find non-opaque physics books.

Buy at both ends of the price curve.

The first thing to note is that this is only a 75% off sale, and not a 90% off sale, like Verso’s. And alas, Chicago’s ebook prices are higher than Verso’s as well. This sale is not about buying a US$15 ebook for 90% off. It is about a bunch of ebooks at US$35 for 75% off.

To me, US$5 is the maximum I’d pay for an ebook ‘on sale’. After all, these days its not unusual for academic titles to go for US$10 to US$20 (which is what the print price tends to be). Paying more than 5 bucks doesn’t feel like a deal to me. It feels like the real price of an ebook, and the list price of US$35 feels too high. 2 bucks is the price point at which I start buying stuff just because I might read it someday. I don’t change my behaviour for any price underneath that. To me paying 1 buck for an ebook is basically like paying 2. But I’m a rich first worlder, so ymmv.

Overall, I think it makes more sense to buy at both ends of the price curve: find expensive books you really want and can’t get elsewhere, but then also snap up some cheapies (I highly recommend the Chicago Guides to the Academic Life and Writing, Editing, and Publishing) that are a steal at 75% off. Go big for a big discount, or go small for a small final price — the books priced in the middle are kinda just an ok deal at 75% off.

Make sure the book you want isn’t available elsewhere

If you are a student or professor, make sure your library doesn’t already have the title you’re looking for as an ebook. Chicago is not a speciality press — lots of libraries carry their titles. If you haven’t already, get a public library card. your local public library probably has a pretty good selection of ebooks, including academic ones.

You should also check Google and Amazon, the two main vendors of ebooks. Chicago books are cheaper on Google than they are on Amazon, so check Google Books or Google Play. Depending on how Google marks down its ebooks, and how Chicago marks them up, I think there are a few cases where it is actually cheaper to buy the book on Google than it is to buy it from Chicago, even at reduced price. Or the difference is negligible.

Google Apprentice Alf

Chicago’s ebooks come with DRM, or digital rights management. This makes them difficult to read and annotate on your preferred ebook reader. It also makes it difficult to share the book for teaching. Afaik, it is ok to share 10% of a book, or 1 chapter, with your class (this is called ‘fair use’). But DRM makes this a pain in the butt to actually do. I’d recommend using a tool like Apprentice Alf to free your ebooks of DRM so you can read and annotate them as you like.

That said, this post is about how to give the press your money. Chicago is huge by university press standards, but it’s not Elsevier — it’s not unreasonable to ask you to actually buy recent in-print books from them instead of downloading them from some Russian library site, especially if you are relatively well off by global standards. DRM removal tools about making your books easier to use, not easier to circulate. Which brings me to…

And finally… don’t forget to read your new books!

Learning is different from downloading. No matter how many PDFs or ebooks you download, you will not learn much from them until you actually read them. I know, I know, sometimes it feels if you download enough of them, and very quickly, somehow the experience is educative. But really, we all know better than that. The best thing to do with your books is read them. So turn off your social media feed, force quit your email, deactivate the alerts on Bubble Witch Saga 2 on your phone, and enjoy the fruits of all your sorting, browsing, and clicking by actually reading the books you’ve purchased. The people at Chicago are a weird lot — I know, I’ve met them! — they aren’t driven by avarice. They genuinely are more interested in having their books read than they are in filling a bathtub full of gold doubloons and jumping in. Make them happy and read their authors.

What books would you recommend from the sale? Any advice I’ve overlooked? Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know!