The arguments for open access (OA) monographs are many and varied. There is, of course, the unchallenged commonplace that OA makes the world a better place, which is coupled with the teleological argument (common among computer types) that OA is inevitable, so why not go to the head of the line? (One might inquire: If it is indeed inevitable, why is it necessary to work so hard to make it happen?) There is the Public Goods argument: since much of the funding for the creation and publication of monographs comes from the public trough (salaried academics at public universities, purchases by libraries from the same quarter, etc.), it’s piggy to make the public pay a second time. There is the Pent-up Demand perspective, which states that since all the world, even at the rolling hills of Duke or at Stanford’s Palm Drive, is starving, even a penny for critical scholarship is simply too much: Make it free and watch usage soar! Then there is the Economic Tough Times argument: library budgets are stretched to the breaking point by the avaricious pricing of a few journals publishers, leaving only crumbs for the publishers of monographs: better a book were OA then left to molder on the shelves of a warehouse. We have some megatrends analysis, too, as in “universities are not investing in the humanities, so the monograph, which primarily supports humanities research, is collateral damage.” Concerning the failure of the monograph to prosper in the traditional marketplace, my observation is simply that librarians, their trade associations notwithstanding, are very, very smart people and are getting better and better at identifying what their constituencies want and have become skillful at satisfying these needs with great efficiency. The monograph, in other words, is not collateral damage but the primary target of the expeditionary force.
Whatever the reason, the OA monograph is very much with us now and, I think, is almost certainly going to be a bigger part of scholarly communications in the next few years. Whether it will continue to grow hinges upon the all-important matter of sustainability. Here the outlook is cloudy, though one sometimes is surprised by a shaft of sunlight even in a Nordic winter.
Which brings us to the ticklish question of how OA monographs can make money. Remember, these are books written by scholars for other scholars and thus have little marketplace demand and must be supported in other ways. Among the candidates:
- Some variant of Gold OA. In the journals world Gold OA is supported by Article Processing Charges (APCs) paid for out of research grants or by the authors themselves, but books occupy a different economy where research funds are scarce and the cost of publication ($10,000-$35,000) would exceed the means of all but the best-heeled academics. The emerging candidate to fund the OA monograph is thus the provost, who would create a fund to support scholars on campus. It’s an interesting question why a provost, who may simultaneously be cutting the budget of the conventional university press, would pay for books that the librarian on the other side of the quad will not. Some philanthropies may step up to this, however, at least in the early days, but ongoing support is probably the duty of an author’s own institution and no one else. Or there is the possibility of the federal government taking over this responsibility, as many people advocate and expect. Presumably this would be an amendment to a bill passed by an enthusiastic Congress to provide free college tuition to one and all.
- The tip jar. In its most sophisticated form this is known as “the NPR model,” where motivated people chip in and unmotivated people do not. Unlike NPR, with its large national audience (not to mention other forms of support), scholarly monographs seeking donations are likely to struggle. And there is a matter of dignity, is there not?, when scholars are reduced to the level of buskers on a subway platform. On the other hand, we have seen some significant successes with this strategy. Exhibit A is the physics arXiv at Cornell, which is in part supported by library donations. The question for monographs is whether this model is replicable.
- Value-added services. The idea here is that you can give a digital version of a book away, provided that you find other things to charge for. So, for example, one can aggregate audiences to sell to advertisers; or perhaps a superior edition of a work can be sold (with audio and video enhancements, for example). This is also the world of print on demand, about which more in a moment.
Let’s also consider a related item, the potential to reduce the cost of publication sufficiently to lessen the financial requirements of sustainability. The problem with this point of view is simply that the presses have been assiduously working on it for years now, and it truly is galling to hear people with no or little publishing experience talk about significant reductions in costs as though this were the easiest thing in the world. Proponents of the radical cost-reduction theory usually begin with the assumption that university presses don’t know their way around the digital publishing world: Get rid of print and work exclusively with digital editions and the cost of publishing will drop to a level that perhaps even the tip jar could support.
The bad news is that this is not true. The simple truth is that academic publishers make money with print. Yes, every time a print book is sold, about 45-55% of the sum received by the publisher falls to the bottom line. (The figure is substantially higher for ebooks, and if everybody who buys print books were willing to switch to digital copies, publishers would be delighted.) This is because academic books have a high gross margin (what’s left after you subtract the costs of paper, printing, binding, and royalties, if any). The problem with profitability has to do with the cost of editorial operations, which have to be spread across all the copies, both print and digital, that are sold. The fact is that if publishers stopped printing books tomorrow, they would lose more money.
Ironically, print is probably the best value-added service to bring to the OA world. The idea here is that the OA digital version would serve as promotion for a print edition. And there would seem to be an opportunity here, which lies in the preference many people have for print, which almost 10 years after the launch of the Kindle still controls about 75% of the overall book market and a higher percentage for academic titles. (It gives one pause to contemplate how different the ecosystems are for books and journals.) Unfortunately, this model — use free online texts to drive the sale of print texts–has been tried extensively, but the take-up for print after viewing a free online edition is generally quite small — not zero, but small. Thus there is no reason not to do this, but it would be a mistake to expect that such a financial model would support the entire enterprise.
But why stop with print? Perhaps an OA publisher could sell editions with other attributes. So, for example, a book could be put online in a digital format that is hard to read for any length of time. A charge could then be imposed for superior versions, providing some other revenue to complement the print-on-demand service. Alas, this has been experimented with as well, with meager results. Unless a new value-added service is invented, it appears that once a book is posted online for free, there will be few ways to generate revenue.
There is another problem with the strategy of adding value to the free edition, though, and that is that the quality of ebooks is bound to get better even as print more or less remains in place. This is the basic problem with using OA versions to sell other editions: as the digital versions offered in OA get better, there will be less reason to purchase any enhancements. In other words, for OA to help to promote the sale of other editions, the OA version must be created in as inferior a way as imaginable.
Which brings us back to the provost. It seems likely to me that provosts will seek funds to support the publication of their faculties’ books, at least for a period of time. But there are some hard questions here: How many books and at what level of support? Will some disciplines have a clearer path to funding? And what happens in an economic downturn, or even in good times when the heads of important departments lobby the provost for additional support? The authors’ fund can be squeezed a bit, perhaps a bit more.
This is the core problem: if provosts are unwilling to support the current university press world, which earns back about 90% of its costs from the marketplace, why would they, in the long run, be willing to step up to support the very same books but at greater expense?