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.
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.
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.
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.