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?