Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Roger Schonfeld, Laura Brown, Erich van Rijn, and John Sherer. Laura is is a senior advisor at Ithaka S+R. Erich is Executive Director at the University of California Press. John is the Spangler Family Director of the University of North Carolina Press.

The transition towards open access (OA) varies across publication type, research field, and geography. For example, in STEM publishing, Individual article processing charges (APCs) have given way to transformative agreements, which in turn now seem to be losing favor in some regions. It has been an even greater challenge to develop open models for monograph publishing, given the nature of the business and marketplace for scholarly monographs. Just yesterday, here in The Scholarly Kitchen, four leading university library collections leaders, issued “a call to open 25 university press frontlists by 2030.”

Developing sustainable open access book publishing models is particularly important for university presses which see the benefits of increased dissemination, but already operate under razor-thin margins, and subscribe to open models have gained traction in recent years. To gather evidence that we hope will provide new options for open access models, with generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Association of University Presses and Ithaka S+R have just published our new research study on open access and sales revenue. Our key finding: open access monographs can generate significant revenue — both on the print side and digitally

An illustration of a Flemish printer’s shop, Impressio Librorum. Made in Antwerp, 1580-1605, British Museum.

Project Background

In the university press sector, a number of OA programs for books have been developed, in part to learn more about workflow requirements and the impact on readership. These programs, for example TOME (which refers to itself as a movement) and SHMP (which calls itself a pilot), have relied mostly on subventions. More recently, we have seen a variety of versions of what are generally called “subscribe to open” models for university press monograph publishing, for example through MIT Press’s Direct to Open program. The widest possible experimentation and innovation is needed in order to hasten and sustain the transition to open. 

Some publishing leaders have come to question the assumption that when monographs are published on an open access basis, purchases could decline precipitously or even cease. Could a hybrid model emerge that draws from the best of the existing marketplace for book sales and new publishing models? This is really the essence of our project. 

To explore this question, a team of researchers, drawn from the Association of University Presses, several member presses, and Ithaka S+R collected and analyzed data from 26 university presses.

Key Findings and Implications

OA titles can generate significant print revenue

While there may be some tradeoff between OA editions and print sales, publishers can produce print sales revenue from their OA lists. Publishers may wish to take such revenue into account in considering business models for OA publication today. Put another way, we believe that while print sales for the most part will not cover the full cost of publication, they can contribute a meaningful amount to new hybrid models, so long as the current level of print revenues continues. 

OA titles can generate meaningful digital revenue. 

When made available through consumer channels such as Kindle, ebooks that are available openly on other platforms can in parallel generate meaningful consumer sales. Publishers may benefit from giving focused consideration specific to OA monographs to their pricing and windowing tactics for such channels. We recognize that there are questions about the ethics of selling digital access to a text that is available openly, and we have not tried to investigate the question of whether these consumer channel purchases occurred without awareness of the availability of an OA version or whether the digital platforms like Kindle add enough value in the readers’ eyes to justify the expenditure. 

Outliers are essential. 

A small number of OA titles sell particularly well, just as is historically the case in traditional monograph sales models. Publishers bearing this in mind will be thinking in terms of the sustainability and growth of their lists overall rather than each title individually. We believe that new approaches are needed for list management, budgeting, and forecasting to allow presses to take advantage of these insights. 

Titles with both hard and soft cover formats generate the most revenue

This may be the result of format choices publishers make based on market forecasting, so from our data we cannot be sure that there is a causal relationship. Still, publishers may wish to give additional attention to their format strategy for OA books. And, many publishers may wish to make dual-format publishing the default for a greater share of their OA lists. 

Sales vary widely by field. 

History, arts, and humanities saw lower unit sales while social sciences saw higher unit sales and STEM fields saw the greatest. Publishers may need to pursue different sustainability models for OA books based on their field. Ultimately, this may mean that the search for a sustainable open access model for history, arts, and humanities may be more challenging, unless publishers are able to embed them in lists that have other revenue strengths. 

An opportunity to increase print sales? 

There is currently significant friction for users in navigating from digital to print editions. Publishers and digital distribution platforms should work together to create a more seamless reader experience from digital discoverability of and engagement with the OA version to potential print sales.

In Sum

Our project demonstrates that open access monographs can generate both print and digital revenues at scale across a variety of university presses and their lists. We believe there are opportunities to incorporate this finding into open access publishing models, particularly from university presses but also from other publishers, working in partnership with libraries, authors, foundations, institutional support and also readers. We also believe there are critical opportunities for platforms, distributors, and intermediaries to draw from these findings and create models that embrace the kinds of hybridity that seem most likely to maximize revenue in an open access landscape. We look forward to partnering with all these organizations to explore next steps for impact as well as some of the opportunities, as noted in the report, for further research and investigation. 

Please read our complete research report! 

We thank our colleagues Maya Dayan of Ithaka S+R and Brenna McLaughin of AUPresses who played integral roles in the project and are our co-authors of the report. 

Laura Brown

Laura Brown is a senior advisor at Ithaka S+R, working on a range of projects related to libraries, scholarly communication, and online learning.

Erich van Rijn

Erich van Rijn is Executive Director at the University of California Press. From 2019 through 2021 he chaired the Association of University Presses Open Access Task Force, which is now a standing committee of the Association. He is also currently co-principal investigator with John Sherer at the University of North Carolina Press on an NEH-funded project that is studying the impact of the availability of open access ebooks on the sales of print copies using data gathered from university presses.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

John Sherer

John Sherer 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.


15 Thoughts on "Open Access and Sales Revenue Can Co-Exist"

Could you please clarify why the report does not consider whether the published books were subject to embargo and differentiate sales based on any embargo status?

Hi Giovanni, Thanks for your interest in the project and this very good question. In our data gathering, we asked presses only to include titles that were “born OA,” in other words without embargo. We probably should have made that clear in this post so I apologize for creating confusion on this point.

More broadly, we designed the project to answer a fairly focused core research question and are grateful to have been able to do so with the resources we had available. A detailed analysis of different kinds of embargo conditions and impacts was outside the scope of this project but could be a great next step. There are many additional analyses we believe should be conducted and describe some of them in the report.

You may be interested in looking at the data set, which is posted here: https://doi.org/10.17613/34af-sx32
Our request to publishers defined born-OA as an OA edition available within the first 12-months of initial publication, and collected the individual publication dates for paper, cloth, and OA editions.

It’s a bit late for this study, but maybe you could do a followup using the data from GOBI (now owned by EBSCO and formerly known as YBP). GOBI is a major supplier of print and ebooks to academic libraries and now has data on which books are OA as ebooks. If they are willing to cooperate they could be a significant source of data as to what OA books they are selling how many print copies of.

Hi Melissa, Thanks for your comment. I agree that GOBI would have data on a wider array of titles, but the benefit of gathering the revenue data directly from the publishers is that they have all of it, not just the data from the channels that GOBI can “see.”

Very interesting article. Would be good to have similar articles focusing on the psyche of the prospects (panel or survey perhaps?) and one with the views of marketing and sales experts that are experienced in creating campaigns that generate leads.

This has been the strategy of the National Academies Press for as long as I can remember. You can download their reports for free, or you can buy an ebook or paperback version (see for example bit.ly/48n1HPu). Maybe check with them to see how this model has been working out? (They should have many years of data covering tons of titles.)

Hi Glenn, Absolutely. The benefit of looking at a wider array of publishers is that we have a broader array of fields covered, and also a number of different OA programs captured in our dataset.

Great work on this everyone. Yes, let’s be sure to include these potential revenue streams in modeling the hybrid OA approaches. But I hope we can agree to stop short of creating ” . . models that embrace the kinds of hybridity that seem most likely to maximize revenue in an open access landscape.” We will be better served if we aim for sustainable revenue in the OA landscape, not maximized revenue.

Thanks Curtis. Even university press publishers might in fact want to maximize their sales revenues. After all, they are reinvesting the revenue they generate into other areas that may need to be subsidized; or to pay for growth; or to manage against institutional subventions they receive, which may not always be reliable. So in this case I do think that “maximize” is an appropriate word, as part of generating a sustainable overall business model. I would gladly acknowledge though that the language there could probably have been more clearly formulated!

Thanks for raising this point, Curtis. I agree with Roger that we should have phrased that more artfully. But I also want to strongly emphasize Roger’s further response that the income that UPs receive goes toward supporting the ecosystem we all value. Whether it’s payments of royalties to authors, or investing in new platforms to support emerging forms of scholarship, or paying peer reviewers, or just trying to keep our prices as low as possible. I liken it to the shop-local movement in that your dollars are not just buying something in a transaction, but bolstering a community.

Your comments make sense, Roger and John. I’m 100% behind finding and supporting sustainable OA approaches for UPs. I think I let my experience on the journal side–where the maximized revenue approach reigns and non-profit societies generate surpluses that rival large commercials–influence my comment. Different market, different actors. Maximized sales of OA book titles could be what nudges a hybid OA approach to sustainability. Lots to discuss and consider.

I wonder how sustainable the approach presented here actually is.

I know of a large number of authors and institutions that insist on OA licensing with a “non-commercial” element. Such a license prohibits paid parallel publications.

However, if commercial publication is also permitted under the OA license, then this authorization is not only directed at the original publisher, but also at all conceivable providers. This makes calculations that provide for significant margins difficult if commercial caution is applied. It may be that the original publishers are not currently facing competition from parallel commercial publications – but that could change tomorrow.

I also find it morally questionable to take money from members or institutions of one’s own scientific community for services for which they do not have to pay anything (e-book editions). Does a company that relies on such a business model really ensure credibility among its customers who realize too late that they would have been granted access to the work free of charge by the same supplier?

Thanks for your thoughtful response to this post, Christian. We appreciate the engagement, and realize that there is still much to ponder and study. I just wanted to address the two points that you made. First of all, while not getting too deep into the weeds of Creative Commons licenses, I will say that not all authors choose a Creative Commons license for the open access digital editions that allows for commercial reuse of the material. I can’t speak for other publishers, but our Press has a contract with every author that explicitly grants us a license to print and sell the book in print formats. Our authors are well aware of this and this is all done with their full consent and approval. If they choose a very liberal Creative Commons license such as CC-BY, it is indeed possible that another entity could make a print edition of the book available without consulting the author.

On the second point, the report did raise the issue that there may be ethical considerations when making digital editions freely available and also still selling them through certain channels. However, the report merely seeks to highlight this phenomenon, and passes no judgement on this. Every publisher has to look at this through the lens of their own sustainability strategies and tactics for OA monographs and grapple with that issue on their own. In an effort to facilitate the greater good of OA monograph publication, I think there are strong arguments that could be made in favor of such approaches, but again, the report itself does not presume to pass judgement either way.

Hi, the big debate in this field seems to be in the UK at the moment, when from 1 Jan 2024, all work funded by the national UKRI in book form MUST be OA, no exceptions. There has been pushback from arts and social science though. Some creative works may be able to claim more restrictive CC licences. The pushback is:
Matthew Gandy. 2023 Books under threat: Open access publishing and the neo-liberal academy. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12877
But we have taken a different view, that the move is positive, largely to do with opening up scholarship to those who cannot afford to pay for expensive academic books. Apparently we are part of a collection in response to Gandy’s article.

Batterbury SPJ, A. E. Pia and G. Wielander. 2023. Against Book Enclosures: moving towards more diverse, humane, and accessible book publishing. Area In press.

In any case, the issue is highly political. Opening scholarship to the world means OA books, and low or no BPCs. Latin America leads the way, as is often the case with open access academic publishing. If universities do not fund their presses properly, it is a reflection on their lack of commitment to opening up their scholarship.

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