Friday, March 12, 2010

Word of the Day: Oligopsony

Okay, my last Word of the Day (so-called) was about four months ago! But however inapt the label is, let’s press on with a new one. Today’s WOTD is a recent coinage in the science of economics, first minted in the middle of the 20th century, and assembled out of trusty Greek roots — ironic, considering the state of Greece’s economy these days! It’s a pretty uncommon word (it isn’t in the spelling dictionary for Microsoft Word, always a fair guide), and in fact I had never heard it until recently. So how did it land on my radar screen? You might guess it was from reading the political and economic news, but while I do read a lot of that, I haven’t seen oligopsony there. No, I learned of the word reading Robert Burchfield’s excellent book, The English Language (OUP, 1985).

According to Burchfield:

oligopsony (from the prefix oligo–, Greek ὀλίγος ‘small’, in plural [ὀλίγοι] ‘few’, and ὀψωνειν ‘to buy provisions’) first recorded in 1943 in the sense ‘in marketing, a situation in which only a small number of buyers exists for a product’ […]. [1]

Other definitions emphasize that in addition to a small number of buyers, oligopsony often implies a large number of sellers. Now, this struck me as the mot juste, indeed parfait, for describing the situation in publishing scholarly books about J.R.R. Tolkien. A great many people are producing (or want to produce) them, but there aren’t nearly so many buying them. Indeed, I have it from several people in a good position to know that most monographs on Tolkien sell no more than a few hundred copies. That sounds like an oligopsonistic marketplace to me!

As a side note, Robert Burchfield has a direct connection to Tolkien himself — or had, I should say; he passed away in 2004. But long before that, he studied under both Tolkien and Lewis at Oxford. During Burchfield’s last couple of years there, Tolkien supervised his graduate work on “an edition of The Ormulum, a late-12th-century text the language of which requires knowledge of the early Scandinavian languages as well as, of course, Old and Middle English. Tolkien had the necessary erudition, and was an inspiring supervisor” [2]. His accomplishments were too numerous to list here, but a few of the most relevant for students of Tolkien:

  • He worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, as Tolkien had done decades before; and in fact, Burchfield eventually became Chief Editor, something Tolkien never did.
  • He contributed an essay, “Ormulum: Words copied by Jan van Vliet from parts now lost”, to the Tolkien Festschrift, English and Medieval Studies Presented to J.R.R. Tolkien on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday (eds. Norman Davis and C.L. Wrenn, Allen & Unwin, 1962). Burchfield’s essay runs on pp. [94]–111.
  • Also in 1962, and in the year leading up to it, Tolkien completed his edition of the Ancrene Wisse with assistance from Burchfield [3].
  • Over the course of roughly the same years again, culminating in 1966, Burchfield assisted C.T. Onions with The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Onions was one of the editors of the OED during Tolkien’s time there almost a half-century earlier, and he was one of the “Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford” Tolkien gently lampooned in Famer Giles of Ham (the other three were Murray, Bradley, and Craigie).
  • Finally, a point not relevant to Tolkien, but I can’t resist pointing it out: Burchfield was a Kiwi, just like another of my favorite etymologists of roughly the same years, Eric Partridge.

I highly recommend his book, The English Language. It’s different in many respects from similar books (such as those of David Crystal, Charles Barber, Bill Bryson, and of course, Eric Partridge). The Birmingham Post — paper of record in Tolkien’s old stomping grounds — described it as “so skilfully [sic] written that it must surely take a place among the best three or four books ever written about our language.” I certainly agree, but sadly, Burchfield’s book seems to have gone out of print. Well, scholarly books on the history of the English language are an oligopsonistic market. So it goes.

[1] Burchfield, Robert. The English Language. Oxford Language Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985; revised and reprinted, 2002, p. 44.

[2] The Independent. “Robert Burchfield. Workaholic Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries.” 9 July 2004.

[3] See Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s Chronology for the years 1961–2.


  1. The FishWife3/13/2010 12:48 AM

    What an amazingly insightful and interesting post. I hope one day you will be appreciated in all markets, oligopsonistic as well as others. You're a truly gifted writer in my most humble opinion.

  2. Thank you, darling! I appreciate that vote of confidence so much and will keep it close to my heart. :)

  3. A wonderful word indeed. Thanks for that gift!

    However, I should think that oligopsonic markets in scholarly monographs exist in very many more fields than just Tolkien Studies. That is, as a budding Tolkien scholar you write as if the word best applies to your (our) own field. But that can't be the case - all of academia is pathetically atomized, with vanishingly few readers for fantastically specialized research papers. But no, I take it back. The word carries the seeds of its own real obscurity, by the following analysis:

    Consider the "great many" people who you say wish to write and sell Tolkien scholarship, thus satisfying oligopsony's other requirement - can they really outnumber the buyers, as a net equation? Say they outnumber buyers by four to one (large number/small number). At two hundred sales per Tolkien monograph (as your sources say), assuming all are bought by other Tolkien scholars, that would imply, say, about six hundred other Tolkien scholars who would like to get published - who aren't even bothering to support their own market by buying their colleagues' books. And frankly, the idea of there being 800 people qualified and desiring to publish in Tolkien Studies strikes me as a bit high, given the difficulties the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia had in rounding up contributors a few years ago. In fact, Routledge used the reverse ratio: 200 contributors, 800 copies published!

    I'm reminded of a story of a scholar in my family who was congratulated on publishing his latest book. "You must be proud to see your work reach the public at last!" "Not really. There's only three people in the world who will be able to understand it." Thus, the world of academic publishing: very few buyers - but even fewer sellers. Not oligopsonic at all.

    It all feels a bit contradictory, the more I think about it. The definition of oligopsony that includes "often implies a large number of sellers" doesn't make economic sense. With not enough buyers, and too many sellers, the excess sellers will immediately leave the market (or never enter it in the first place) until a viable price is reached. So the "great many" sellers in reality are potential sellers only, waiting for the number of buyers to increase somehow. That, perhaps, does describe Tolkien Studies where many serious Tolkien fans/scholars would love to read and write about Tolkien for a living if only someone would pay them to do so: an embryonic or virtual academic field.

    The Burchfield book sounds good! It's on my list.

  4. A thoughtful comment, squire, as usual. Thoughtful and well-articulated enough to be worth my offering a couple of responses:

    However, I should think that oligopsonic markets in scholarly monographs exist in very many more fields than just Tolkien Studies. That is, as a budding Tolkien scholar you write as if the word best applies to your (our) own field.

    I didn’t mean to imply I thought that. I said the word seemed perfect for describing Tolkien studies; I didn’t say only Tolkien studies, and I gave another example at the end of my post. No, you’re right: all of academic publishing (and not just in the humanities) has a vanishingly small number of buyers. The majority, in fact, are not even people, but libraries.

    Consider the “great many” people who you say wish to write and sell Tolkien scholarship, thus satisfying oligopsony’s other requirement - can they really outnumber the buyers, as a net equation?

    First, the other “requirement” isn’t present in all definitions. The simplest definitions seems only to say the number of buyers should be small. Certainly, that is the case in Tolkien studies. Second, your economic calculus doesn’t take the whole picture into account. For example, it’s not necessarily four times as many sellers as buyers, each producing a single book. It could be the same number of individual sellers as buyers, or fewer sellers, but each seller produces multiple books. Yes, some definitions say “sellers” and “buyers”, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. Burchfield, for example, referred to the “product”, not the “seller”.

    In addition, we aren’t talking only about people qualified to publish books in Tolkien studies. There are plenty of under– or unqualified people who want to do it, either out of fannish impulses or in some attempt to get onto a perceived gravy train. (Of course, they’re headed for disappointment.) I’m thinking of books like The Lord of the Rings and Philolophy and other, even worse things, all chasing that relatively small number of buyers.

    The definition of oligopsony that includes “often implies a large number of sellers” doesn’t make economic sense. With not enough buyers, and too many sellers, the excess sellers will immediately leave the market (or never enter it in the first place) until a viable price is reached.

    You would think so, and in most cases, it’s probably true. In publishing, this fails to take into account motives other than profit. For instance, ego; for another instance, job requirements (aka “publish or perish”, regardless of the financial outcome). Of course, I do wonder why the publishers bother, in many cases.

    Other examples of oligopsony I’ve seen cited are the cases of the relatively large number of tobacco and cocoa growers versus the small number of buyers (as few as three or four companies buying as much as 90% of what’s produced). The growers in these cases often have very little alternative but to take what they can get; it’s not as simple as leaving the market.

  5. Harm J. Schelhaas3/13/2010 11:00 PM

    The market traditionally described as oligopsonic is a buyers’ market, in which the few buyers can more or less impose their conditions (as in Jason’s tobacco and cocoa examples).

    Oligopolies in the traditional sense often make as little economic sense as Squire argues for oligopsonies - if there are so many buyers, why don't more sellers enter the market or, if there are so few sellers, why don’t the buyers leave the market. Often, however, buyers cannot do without the goods in question and have little or no alternative, and there are external constraints preventing new sellers entering the market.

    The markets of specialist academic books (or that of would-be academic Tolkienophilic books) are no buyers’ markets, they are mainly served by university presses at exorbitant prices. This is because the writers are not really the sellers, like the readers they are the buyers. The university presses are the real sellers, and they are oligopolists that can say to their buyers: ‘no commercial press is going to publish this stuff, so if you want it, you’ll have to pay any price we set, and if you want it published, you have to accept any price we set (and see very little of it in royalties)’. Of late, publishing on demand is causing changes, but for now, the providers of publishing on demand facilities are largely oligopolists themselves.

    Tolkienophilic books are not really an exception. Whatever has been published commercially has been absolute rubbish (i.e. Day, Noel); the exceptions - those books by Christopher Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter, Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, Douglas Anderson and John Rateliff that have been published by (A&U >) HC or HM - largely the result of the peculiar position of the Tolkien Estate. Apart from that there are either quality books published by niche publishers (either fan-based chargeing reasonable prices or universities systematically overchargeing) or commercial rubbish peddled to the foolish public at large.

  6. In the course of a discussion of Tolkien's academic standing, an inquirer asked me if Tolkien had any notable grad students. I named Robert Burchfield as one, but the citation fell flat as my inquirer had never heard of him. O well.

    More kiwis in Tolkien's life: Kenneth Sisam and J.A.W. Bennett.

  7. Harm, you make a good case. I would argue that Walking Tree seems to be finding a middle ground between absolute rubbish at reasonable prices and high(er) quality at extortionate prices. Of course, part of the way Walking Tree does this is (a) print on demand; and (b) I have been told they pay no royalties to authors whatsoever. By the way, I have been told that even some of the Tolkien titles HC / HM have published have been hard sells.

    David, thanks for that. I had forgotten that Sisam and Bennett were from New Zealand. When I've been asked about notable students of Tolkien's, Norman Davis is another I've often mentioned. As you probably know, he went on to revise the Tolkien/Gordon edition of SGGK, among many other contributions to the field.

  8. In some situations, a single market can be monopolistic on one hand and monopsonistic on the other: for example, a monopoly electric power company may also be the only market for cogenerated power.