Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Erich van Rijn. Erich is the Interim Director and Finance Director at the University of California Press.
The Charleston Library Conference happened once again in person, and with a very robust number of attendees. It was interesting to observe what has changed and what has stayed the same since the last time I attended the conference in 2017. One thing that’s changed for the better is that the statue of John Calhoun that conference attendees have typically marched by on their way to sessions at the Gaillard Center was removed from Francis Marion Square in 2020 during the pandemic. One of the things that has definitely stayed the same, and has been amplified to some degree, is a strong focus of the conference organizers on open access. This has been spurred along by the messy inevitability of open access (OA) in the journals business and the library’s ongoing and somewhat uncertain role in facilitating it. However, I’ve also noticed an uptick in interest in open access book publishing models, and what libraries can and can’t do to facilitate these models.
Is Luminos Working?
In 2015, my former boss and current Scholarly Kitchen Chef/PLOS CEO Alison Mudditt led a team at the University of California Press who launched our Luminos open access monograph publishing program. The program survives to this day largely unchanged. Briefly, the program starts with the assumption the baseline cost of publishing a monograph is roughly $15,000. In order to recover those costs, Luminos uses a cost-sharing model that involves direct contributions from the author’s institution, money from a library membership fund, direct subsidy from the Press, and sales of print copies of the book. The elevator pitch for the program was (and is) that these funds combined allow for the global digital distribution of an openly licensed edition of the monograph. When it was launched, the Luminos program was one of the very few initiatives that was really trying to tackle the whole issue of open access books. Since then, many others have now waded into the fray, including the TOME project, which was launched in 2017, and Luminos is far from the only initiative that allows for open access book publication.
At dinner one night in Charleston, another publisher leaned over to me and asked bluntly, “Is Luminos working?” My answer at the time was, yes. But this question forced me to reflect a bit more carefully about the economics of Luminos and of OA monograph publishing more generally and what the library’s role in facilitating open access for books can really be. Answering the question about Luminos’s success depends a lot on what the measures of success are and how publishers, particularly university presses, deal with the difficult problem of the relationship between the costs of open access and the revenue derived from sales, largely to individuals, of their lengthy backlist of previously published books. Looking at Luminos strictly as a financial proposition, I think the results are a mixed bag. However, looking at Luminos as a way to create a pathway to immediate, unembargoed open access for the monographs published in the program that enhances these books’ impact and usage, I think it’s hard not to argue that it has been a success.
A chief challenge of the business of open access book publishing for university presses, however, has been the tremendously high costs of publishing a book. These are well documented in the 2016 Ithaka S+R study on the costs of publishing monographs, which is still in my opinion a highly valid and very important study, although not everyone agrees with the conclusions. The $15,000 figure that Luminos has used since its launch in 2015 is on the very very low end of the spectrum that is documented in that report, and is likely not realistic. But while not dismissing the cost side of the equation, I think what a lot of folks are beginning to consider is the revenue side, which is how university presses actually recover their costs of operation since most of us receive a small amount of direct institutional support at best.
Revenue from the Library
Many of the open access books efforts at university presses have been creatively exploring how to generate enough revenue through OA monograph publishing that authors can publish without having to do any independent fundraising. Several that emerged and were featured at Charleston, which largely focus on the collective buying power of academic libraries are:
- TheMIT Press Direct to Open model;
- Central European Press’s Opening the Future;
- University of Michigan Press’s Fund to Mission.
Beyond these program-specific projects, a somewhat recent entrant is the so-called “Third Way” Project, which is under development. It is a multi-publisher initiative that involves a one-time payment to publishers that would de-risk an embargoed free-to-read model for the ebook. Those one-time payments would be enabled by library purchases of a collection of books that would be made free to read after a period of time, but would be available to participating libraries immediately. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have played a role at various points in its initial conception.)
Something these initiatives that have emerged in recent years have in common is that they are less focused on making a better case for the cost of monograph publishing. We all know acquiring, developing, producing, and marketing monographs is expensive, so how are we going to make this work? All of these programs lean fairly heavily on participation from academic libraries to make them work in a way that allows books to be made open (or, at least free to read) with no author payment required. This is not a small feat, and although there may be quibbles with all of these approaches, I think all are to be lauded for tackling the important project of trying to figure out open access books.
Revenue Beyond the Library
However, part of the issue with a flip to OA publishing for books as opposed to journals is that university press book publishing programs recover their costs by cultivating a diversity of revenue streams, which include academic library sales, but also sales to consumer channels. In addition, many of those revenue streams involve the sale of older, previously published “backlist” titles. Most university presses receive only a small amount of institutional support, if any at all, so we are generally forced to operate in the market to generate revenue to recover our costs of operation. Unlike journals publishing, where proportionately more revenue comes from academic library spending, my experience is that consumer purchases of books account for a very large share of most university press’s revenues. This is a feature and a bug. As library expenditures on book acquisition have declined over the decades, the consumer market has picked up the slack for many presses, which has helped keep the lights on for them. But on the flipside, it makes financing the publication of a university press book a lot more risky because it is less dependent on a fairly predictable number of library sales.
Academic book publishers, and specifically university presses, are rightly concerned that if a shift to open access publishing diminishes the ongoing revenue streams from consumer channels by making older content freely available in digital formats, this might have deleterious effects on a university press’s long-term sustainability as a program. This issue was cited as a possible concern already in 2016 in the Ithaka S+R report. The authors wrote:
As publishers introduce OA titles to their lists, most, if not all, will still have print and perhaps even a premium or enhanced digital version for sale via consumer channels. What will the impact on revenue per title be as a result of this? While such sales for an OA title will likely decline, it may depend on the title and the formats offered.
So just to summarize, there are two facts that are often overlooked when we discuss how university presses generally recover the costs of publishing their frontlist of new titles and how they might finance open access for monographs:
- A very large portion of a university press’s sales are not to academic libraries. Libraries are key to a university press’s overall success, and our model doesn’t work without them, but our model also depends on other revenue sources;
- Most of a university press’s annual revenues derive not from sales of new books, but from sales of previously published titles collectively known as the “backlist,” which are generally those titles that were published more than twelve months ago. The sales of these titles may adversely be impacted by the availability of open access formats as readers transition to digital.
Adding It All Up
I would argue that very few monographs recover their entire costs of publication within 1-3 years after publication, no matter what methodology you use to compute the costs. But the book economy that grew up in the post-WWII era allowed university presses to ride the long tail of their backlist into the consumer channels. Even monographs contribute to the backlist over time, often being adopted in college courses and selling in modest numbers annually that help a university press to recoup its investments in the newer books that it needs to publish. While sales of monographs have decreased over the years, I would argue that it has been many decades since academic library purchases funded the traditional university press’s operations single-handedly or nearly single-handedly even for the most specialized scholarship. Thus, the cost-sharing model of Luminos shines a light on the ongoing funding dynamic that will be necessary to continue to facilitate open access. Libraries can and should be part of that solution, but they can’t be the whole solution. One of the many successes of Luminos has been to ask the academic library community to contribute what I would call a reasonable amount to opening up monographs by contributing to a membership fund. Those who have stepped up have allowed us to keep the program operating as the program has grown to become nearly 20% of our monograph output. But I have concerns that even the Luminos model will create a drag on our backlist over time, particularly if it were scaled up without an increase in the funding that we receive per title.
The imprint of the traditional university press still holds value to many stakeholders in the scholarly publishing ecosystem. They are respected for many reasons, but first and foremost for the editorial development that they invest in a work. Our editorial teams, peer reviewers, and faculty committee members invest countless hours in projects, many of which go on to become field-defining projects, but some of which never even see the light of day for various reasons. That is expensive work. While I don’t think that it’s the libraries’ responsibility to fund a university press’s entire infrastructure, one or more stakeholders will need to in order to secure funding for a successful transformation of the monograph publishing ecosystem to a more open model.
So, is this a solvable problem? Yes, but we won’t get there overnight. Publishers usually want to make decisions that are informed by data. An NEH-funded study that the Association of University Presses is conducting with John Sherer at the University of North Carolina Press and myself as co-Principal Investigators on the continuing viability of sales of print copies in the consumer channels in an open access world will help inform the ongoing viability of models that continue to factor in some revenue from print sales. We have collected the preliminary data, and will be reporting our findings along with Roger Schonfeld and Laura Brown at Ithaka S+R in 2023. But as the world migrates seemingly inexorably to the digital, continuing sales of print books bankrolling the free availability of ebooks may be a transitional model, but likely not a transformational one. Other solutions will need to be found, and collaboration will be key. There is still work to be done to find a model that will really work for university presses.
But back to the original question from my publisher friend—is Luminos working? My answer would be that because it’s embedded in a 130 year old publishing program with a capacious and highly regarded backlist that can help bankroll it, we have been able to continue to make it work. It has created more equitable access to a lot of important scholarship, and it has made that work more impactful. But different publishers are still experimenting with different ways to tackle the thorny problem of generating enough revenue to programmatically support open access monographs. In 2015, we decided to throw caution to the wind, and worry less about how OA might impact the program. This was a bold move. We will continue to revise the model, learn what we can from other approaches, and continue to pursue other models that create a pathway to open access for our authors. Several other programs are growing and are standing on the shoulders of our effort and others’. They may yet build a better mousetrap. Everyone is still figuring this out — and we all should continue to do so while working collaboratively to crack this nut. From my perspective, no university press is going to solve this problem alone. There is still more work to be done, but I would argue that ongoing experimentation with different approaches to getting to open is in all of our interests in order to enhance the impact of university press scholarship.