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Seeking a Path toward Open Access for Books

An auctioneer and her assistants scan the crow...

An auctioneer and her assistants scan the crowd for bidders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend recently asked me to give some thought as to how to devise a financially sustainable program to make books open access (OA).  This is not an easy problem.

While a clear method for making research articles OA now exists and has been validated by the marketplace (I refer to the Gold OA programs of such organizations as PLoS, Hindawi, and BMC), books are a different matter. For one thing, they are longer; thus the author fees would have to be significantly higher–much, much larger than the $1,350, say, charged by PLoS ONE.  What author could afford that?  Another problem is that grant money for books is not nearly as generous as it is for scientific articles.  Part of this is a reflection of the curious fact that books are disproportionately based in the humanities, whereas the sciences are more article-driven:  the sciences get the funding, which eventually finds its way into author-pays articles.  From a technical point of view, it’s easy to make books OA; from a financial point of view, it’s hard to make books OA.

If I may indulge in a digression:  We hear talk all the time about the need to fund the sciences, but when I look at what’s happening in Washington right now, I wonder if we would be better off if John Boehner and Harry Reid studied chemistry or Shakespeare. The crisis of the humanities monograph is in some measure born of a misunderstanding of the real needs of our society.

Putting politics aside, the question about OA books took me to Eric Hellman, founder of Unglue.it, an innovative service designed to make books OA. (The company name is also the URL.)  Hellman’s notion is that one could bolt together a number of features of social media and create a kind of OA marketplace around them.  It’s a clever idea.  Unglue.it is essentially a sophisticated eBay; it brings together people with an interest in OA books and the copyright owners of those books.  The transactions on the site aim to purchase the rights for the books and make them OA.

Here is how it works.  A Web community is built around Unglue.it, which proposes books that it would like to see OA.  Some of these nominations are fanciful (there is no way the estate of George Orwell is going to sell off the rights to 1984), but some are within reason, mostly academic monographs with little market potential, but of value to a narrow but dedicated group of scholars.  Publishers (or the estates of authors) respond to these nominations and offer to make some titles available on the site.  The community then switches to crowdfunding mode, attempting to chip in enough money to release the copyright.  Once a threshold is reached, the book is “unglued” and made available with a Creative Commons license.  So a Web marketplace, crowdfunding, and OA:  all of these elements were not on the horizon 15 years ago, but perhaps the desire for OA books has been with us a long time and only now is its consummation within reach, made possible by the shrewd application of technology.

Unglue.it is now changing its program to soften the hard edge of the threshold for funding, eliminating the all-or-nothing formula.  Instead of waiting until a certain sum of money has been pledged before making the book OA, now advocates of the book will purchase an electronic version of it.  When enough people purchase copies, the book becomes OA.  Thus a purchaser/funder gets full access to the digital edition for him or herself, and when enough purchasers get on board, the book is made freely available for everyone.  So in this formulation Unglue.it is a kind of bookstore that is running a special promotion:  buy enough copies of this book and it will be free for one and all.

I don’t know if this will work or not, but I am impressed with the ingenuity of the design.  The core problem, it seems to me, is that most publishers and author estates don’t want to release the rights of their books.  Outside the world of not-for-profit publishing, which is very large for academic books (university presses, for example), the Unglue.it proposition is likely to be subjected to a cold economic analysis.  If my granddad were the author of A History of the Byzantine Empire (a made-up example), which is still under copyright, I would release the rights only if I thought that the Unglue.it community were willing to pay more than the rights are really worth.  On the other hand, the book may be out of print:  how much would I insist on then?  I am familiar with one successful publisher that used to routinely buy the rights to out-of-print books for a flat sum in the range of $200-$500.  Most authors (usually their estates) were thrilled to get anything for the books.  Unglue.it may tap into that same sentiment.

Another intriguing dimension to this program is the promotional value of making a book OA.  Let’s suppose there is a book that is not selling well or may not be selling at all.  It’s put into the Unglue.it program, which attracts attention.  The community is told that after the sale of 100 copies (or whatever) the book will become OA.  Will the promise of the copyright release in itself bring buyers to the site?  Consumer products companies do promotions like this frequently, often around Christmas:  For every box of soap you buy, we will donate $.50 to save the whales.  Lots of whales owe their lives to this kind of thing.  From a marketing point of view, are OA books any different?

About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “Seeking a Path toward Open Access for Books

  1. Joe: Great article. It seems to me that the Springer E book program which is making money by offering some 3,500 books as an e package to libraries and companies which can then “lend” them is the way to go. It is an OA model but still returns money to the company and authors.

    Posted by Harvey Kane | Oct 10, 2013, 8:40 am
  2. Amazon and its competitors already reduce the price for titles that no longer have a strong market. B&N lists several editions of David Copperfield for $0.99. Won’t this cut into the Unglue model?

    Posted by Ken Lanfear | Oct 10, 2013, 8:43 am
  3. Joe forgets that I canvassed a number of possible approaches to OA book publishing in my article “Back to the Future” (Against the Grain, February 2011), based on a talk I gave at the 2010 Charleston Conference: http://www.psupress.org/news/pdf/v23-1_Thatcher.pdf. I cover crowdfunding there and also such ideas as a library acquisitions collective, which was suggested by Eric Hellman in a Liblicense posting (and later taken up by Frances Pinter in her Knowledge Unlatched program). Very recently Liblicense has had a discussion about OA book publishing following Ann Okerson’s posting of a link to a report emanating from Canada, which covers the subject not only there but also in Europe and the U.S. As I noted in my response, it omitted any mention of Australia, which is farther advanced in OA book publishing than any other country, but helpfully Colin Steele posted another reply in which he gave a good overview of what has been happening in that country. There is much more going on there that Joe’s article suggests.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Oct 10, 2013, 1:53 pm
  4. Thanks for the very thoughtful article!

    Just to respond to some of the comments/questions:

    1. I don’t think that Springer would characterize its ebook package as an OA program. They would characterize it as a very successful product that has vastly increased access to their backlist books. I think that this and programs like it will play an important role in making ebooks a more vital part of the scholarly publishing landscape.

    2. Funny you should mention David Copperfield. Since it’s in the public domain it belongs to all of us, We can make it available for ∞% less than B&N. Download the epub from https://unglue.it/work/97931/ (we link to the Gutenberg version). And we charge $0.00 = £0.00 = €0.00 = ¥0.00. So I think that cuts into the B&N model more than vice-versa.

    3. Sandy’s recent contribution to LibLicense makes me hope that it’s an excerpt from a book he’s writing. I hope Unglue.it can help make that book Open Access. Worth reading, along with the report it comments on: http://listserv.crl.edu/wa.exe?A2=ind1310&L=LIBLICENSE-L&D=0&P=28261

    One tiny correction to Joe’s article. Gluejar Inc. is the Corporate Entity that hosts the Unglue.it business. The story of Gluejar’s name is recounted here: http://go-to-hellman.blogspot.com/2009/12/story-of-gluejar.html

    Eric

    Posted by gluejar | Oct 10, 2013, 9:33 pm
  5. Good article. What’s in it for writers? I think that might depend on the age of the writer. Those with little left to go might happily sell their copyrights for one-off payments. Those with infinity before them might calculate receiving even small royalty payments on a regular basis is a sound decision. Presumably we would we have much higher one-off payments for established writers who were also in the twilight years?

    Posted by Robert Cooper | Oct 10, 2013, 9:54 pm
  6. It’s encouraging to see the development of these models that share costs among a community with shared interests. Knowledge Unlatched just introduced their first Pilot Collection of 28 new books from 13 publishers for a fee of $1680 per library with 200 libraries. That fee is reduced if more than 200 libraries sign up or if the library is buying any of the titles through another channel. The pledge period closes at the end of January so publishers are paid prepublication. KU has made provision for libraries to be involved in shaping the process and the content going forward to adapt the model as it evolves.

    Posted by judyluther | Oct 11, 2013, 12:43 pm
    • After posting this piece, I received a request to write about Knowledge Unlatched. I don’t know enough about the program at this time to offer any coherent thoughts about it (it’s over a year since Frances Pinter summarized it for me). I hope to study KU later this autumn and will write about it if indeed I have anything original to say.

      Posted by Joseph Esposito | Oct 11, 2013, 4:01 pm
      • I admire Frances greatly for what she has accomplished, both with KU and earlier with Bloomsbury Academic, but I still feel that the best and easiest solution to the OA monograph challenge is one that does not require setting up a new institutional infrastructure, as KU does, but instead extending one that is already in place, viz., the competition among top research universities for the best faculty. That dynamic can be used to spur these universities to increase the initial grant that most of them already give their new tenure-track hires–now on the order of $10,000 or so–up to an amount, say, around $30,000, that would cover the full cost (not just the “first copy” cost, as the KU scheme does) of publishing a monograph OA. As Paul Courant, who shares this view with me, pointed out at a workshop at Harvard where Frances presented her idea for KU, the total investment that a university makes in a scholar over his or her entire career would make this increase in the size of an initial grant just a drop in the bucket. Universities have fiercely competed for faculty for a long time–and, of course, have competed for other personnel, like football coaches, as well–so why not take advantage of this existing dynamic for the benefit of extending the possibilities for OA? Nothing new would be needed, other than to get universities to recognize the win/win nature of this kind of competition, which differs from the zero-sum competition among them for top football coaches, for example. (I say “win/win” precisely because all of these faculty would be producing and publishing research that would be maximally available to everyone under OA, though of course the university with the most productive faculty would still earn a premium–not quite like one university’s win/loss record in football being directly related to a rival university’s.)

        Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Oct 12, 2013, 8:16 am
        • Thanks Sandy for prompting me to think how far Knowledge Unlatched has come since that early 2012 workshop. KU is not intended to solve the monograph crisis for young US tenured track scholars. It has a much broader mission, and yet, at the same time, is more modest in what it is trying to achieve. KU is one (and only one) of a number of new ways of enabling scholarly long form publications (aka books) be available open access to the whole world. As we’ve spent much of the intervening period researching, consulting, surveying and adapting the basic KU business model we’ve found that there is no single silver bullet. KU is not a solution to all scholarly communications issues, and nor should there be any one solution. We’re hoping, however, to open up new pathways. ARL and AAU are working on the specific problem you’ve addressed.

          Posted by Frances Pinter | Oct 14, 2013, 4:36 am

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