An unbundled publishing business proposal

Day #116 Absurdity & Suicide

For my digital scholarship book I have been reading about the tenure process a lot (I'll blog it soon). One of the issues that arises is that peer-review is always perceived as the gold standard. Promotion committees in universities, faced with the complexity of judging research in highly specialised fields, revert to using peer-review publication as a proxy. This is becoming problematic in the humanities in particular where the academic book is seen as the main evidence of excellence in research. Such monographs were often published by university presses. But in financially straitened times, many presses are closing, and if they are staying in business then they need to make publishing decisions with very strong financial incentives – they're only going to publish those books which they can be sure will be profitable.

Now, I think we should be finding new ways of achieving what peer-review provides for us, but in the meantime here is a business proposal. Publishing a book is easy – anyone can do it without the need for approval from a publisher using services such as Blurb and Lulu. But in academia we still want the peer-review filter prior to publication.

So here's my publishing business proposal – a service which sits on top of an online publisher such as Blurb. The model would work something like this:

  1. The author pays a modest fee (let's say £100) for peer-review which is organised by the company. They then either pass the book, get modifications or reject it. 
  2. Once accepted the author publishes via Blurb (or other service), using the publishing company's style sheet to mark it as approved, and with a set price.
  3. An additional proof-reading service can be provided by the company, for a fee.
  4. The author gets to keep all profits from the sale of the book, hopefully recouping the cost of the initial peer-review process, and making more than they would through the small percentage from traditional publishers.

What is missing is the distribution channel into libraries and book stores here, but that might be an additional service that the author could again opt for at a fee.

What this model does is unbundle the various functions of a publisher and allow authors to pay for them selectively, but to keep all of the profit from the book. At the moment these services are all bundled together and the author pays by only getting a small percentage of the royalties. The unbundled model allows greater flexibility and also means that an author can take a risk if they really want to publish something but it may be unprofitable. In the current model we have conflated academic worthiness and profitability – when you review a book you are really passing a judgement on how well it will sell, not on how academically sound it is. By separating out these elements this model brings clarity (I think) to the process, and still allows academics the peer-review filter they cherish.

Is someone already doing this and if not, anyone want to fund it?


  1. Is it actually neccessary to have peer review in a traditional way? If you extend the electronic publishing model available through services like blurb, our new company (which I am game to set up 😉 ) could also offer an online peer endorsement model like on iSpot or Connexions. Karen

  2. I was wondering if you ever considered changing the layout of your blog? It’s very well written; I love what you’ve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.

  3. Hi Martin, this issue is obviously still on my mind as I have sought out this post again. I love what you’ve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.

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