Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by John Sherer. John is the Spangler Family Director of the University of North Carolina Press. He is the chair of the Association of University Presses Open Access Committee and is the Primary Investigator in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded, Sustainable History Monograph Pilot.
Within the scholarly book publishing community, it’s not particularly controversial to claim that free digital editions of monographs will erode print sales. After all, who would pay for something they can get for free? These books already sell so few copies, and the economics are so unfavorable, that further revenue erosion could easily shatter an already precarious ecosystem. That said, there’s a growing body of research indicating that readers strongly prefer print formats for these publications (for example see the 2018 Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey and Naomi Baron’s Words on Screen). And there’s anecdotal reporting that in open access (OA) experiments at university presses, print sales have been stable. Can we review sales data for OA titles to find out if the claim of print cannibalization is true?
The National Endowment for the Humanities has just funded a research project to empirically review whether the availability of OA editions of university press monographs has a quantifiable effect on the sales performance of print editions. I’ll be working with my co-PI, Erich van Rijn from the University of California Press (who helped draft this post), along with the Association of University Presses (AUPresses) and Roger Schonfeld (full disclosure, a regular contributor to this site) and Laura Brown from Ithaka S+R to collect sales data and try to draw some conclusions.
Are Monographs Too Specialized or Too Expensive?
The collective work of university presses to publish and distribute monographs is one of the cornerstones of the creation and advancement of scholarship in the humanities and many of the social sciences. By at least one estimate, more than 4,000 new monographs are published by university presses annually. While sales have been in decline for many decades, the last decade’s development of digital distribution networks created the potential for dramatically reversing this trend and increasing the accessibility, use, and impact of these monographs. But even though the vast majority of new university press monograph are published simultaneously in print and digital formats, there has not been a dramatic increase in revenues. There has not been a major expansion of collections development by academic libraries, despite significantly lower per-title costs. Does that validate a common criticism that these books are simply too specialized? Or are the obstacles still financial? If you could remove the paywalls to digital editions, would usage and impact significantly increase?
University Presses and the Marginalization OA
There have been a number of university press OA pilots in the past five years including NEH/Mellon Open Book grants, TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem), Knowledge Unlatched, NEH Fellowship Open Book Program, and the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot. In addition to some exciting new start-ups, established presses like MIT, Michigan, and California have also shown extensive leadership in opening their own books. Foundations have contributed millions of dollars to initiate pilots and support capacity-building for open models of publications. Through these and other initiatives, there are now thousands of university press books that have been published in open digital editions with print copies for sale.
While there is a prevailing desire among membership within AUPresses to do more OA publishing, in internal surveys we’ve confirmed that presses cite long-term, sustainable funding models as the top problem in implementing OA. Even with the millions of dollars spent in experimentation, OA remains very much on the fringes within the university press world, making up less than 5% of new monograph output. In a permanently challenging fiscal environment, the prevalent assumption that open digital editions will cannibalize revenues has stopped OA from growing, resulting in the suppression of a substantial body of humanities scholarship. However, no one is citing data on print cannibalization. It just feels like common sense.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic created an unwanted opportunity to conduct a test.
The Unexpected Pandemic Experiment
During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when students, faculty, scholars, and researchers were being displaced from campuses and research centers, platforms like Books at JSTOR, EBSCO, and Project MUSE asked university presses to temporarily make their digital monographs free to read and open to anyone via so-called emergency libraries. Not every press said yes, but many did. This created an unprecedented real-world experiment where these vendors could look at the usage of books that had long been paywalled but were suddenly free to read. No one was surprised that usage went up. But many of us were surprised by how much their usage increased and that much of the growth occurred in regions which have historically lacked access to such works. At the same time, many presses saw increases in print activity. It was a unique moment and we’ll probably never be able to unpack everything that was going on, but during those months in the spring and summer of 2020, when much of the world seemed to be falling apart at the seams, the myth that university press monographs were too esoteric to be read was shattered. These books circulated in both digital and print formats at unprecedented rates.
What We Hope to Learn
Even if it is true that in more stable situations, OA erodes print revenues, then understanding the degree to which print is reduced could be a key guidepost in modeling a sustainable OA subsidy. But if it is not correct—if OA has only a marginal impact on print revenues—then there could be a substantial opportunity to expand OA publishing. But let’s also give ourselves permission to imagine a more surprising result. What if the discoverability afforded by OA leads to an increase in print revenues? What if highly accessible digital content becomes a marketing tool that leads to print transactions? Could there be a scenario where the global impact of university press monographs increases exponentially, and print revenues ride those coattails? It could have a transformational impact on the future of monograph publishing and the accessibility of humanities scholarship writ large.