Books,  Open content,  publishing

Calling OA academic book publishers

Now is the time for you to seize the moment and make a small to modest profit while performing a useful academic function. 

Okay it's not quite a passionate rallying cry, but I've been thinking about open access book publishing recently for two reasons. The first is that on an almost monthly basis I get emails from colleagues/peers/random people asking me about my experience of publishing with Bloomsbury Academic because they are writing a book proposal and want to go open access. They've either been told no by established publishers or 'yes, but it'll cost you £20,000 – will your university fund it'. To which the answer is no, or 'eff off you cheeky money grabbing …', depending on the author. This indicates to me that there is a market for more OA book publishers out there. 

While we're here, I'll answer the query about Bloomsbury – my experience was very positive, they did a professional job on copy editing, they were prepared to go to several designers to get a cover we liked, they produced a good web site for the free online version, and were brave in giving it a CC-NC licence. So, I'd commend them to any authors.

The second event that set me thinking about OA book publishers was the recent FlatWorld Knowledge debacle. Once proclaimed as a model for sustainable open textbooks, they recently announced that, erm, they weren't offering books for free anymore.

I don't know FWK's business model but it seems to me they went too ambitious. They were after that big US set textbook market. This means you have to have a big product. Which means you can then get venture capital (of $26 million), which means you have to have a really big product, and so it goes on. They developed their own platform to allow annotation of books, and sales system. But when you're doing that you get through a fast money burn rate, and then the idea of, you know, giving books away seems less appealing to the VCs who've piled their money in.

But I think the more modest market of academic text books could be accommodated by a far simpler model. The reason academics are going to publishers and not just sticking their own books up online is that they get a range of benefits from the publisher, which include:

  • Reputational benefit – if you self-publish you're seen as a looney with a fragile ego, if a publisher puts your book out, you're an author. This matters in academia where the book sales won't amount to much more than in literature (where you can be the next 50 shades success and not give a damn about reputation because you have a massive yacht).
  • Copyediting – you really do need a professional to go through an 80,000 word book and do a proper job of copyediting
  • Layout, design – no, you can't use that clip art. Or comic sans.
  • Manufacture – making all those book things
  • Promotion – this is probably the biggest one. Getting books into libraries, promoted at conferences and reviewed in places is difficult. I have to say all my publishers have really relied on me to provide places for review, and even then I'm not sure they ever got them reviewed, so this service isn't as good as it should be. But library distribution is important.

I've raised this before, but it seems to me that these functions are not difficult to realise for a commercial publishers and don't require huge amounts of upfront investment, unlike FWK, if they make use of existing tools. Let's take each of them in turn:

  • Reputational benefit – this will take time to acquire, and will need the publisher to operate a quality threshold. This will probably necessitate reviewers looking at proposals and making recommendations. I do this occasionally and going rate seems to be about £50-£100.
  • Copyediting – this is generally outsourced by publishers (mine were in India). 
  • Layout, design – again, this can be outsourced. You'd want a housestyle and template, and much of it can be done by the author.
  • Manufacture – use print on demand or simply operate through a provider such as Blurb. You provide the online version free, and take a percentage of the sales of the print ones.
  • Promotion – this would require decent knowledge of how to get books into libraries, and a good social media, network presence. But it's not insurmountable and most publishers don't do great at this anyway.

So how to make it all pay? I'd suggest two options:

1) The authors pay upfront the production costs (for copy-editing, reviewing, design and initial print run), but then keep a large proportion of profits. My royalty because I wanted to go OA was less than 10%, so authors may want to gamble and go for a 50% return if they think it'll sell well. 

2) Company pays production costs, but claims a larger percentage of royalties.

In both cases the online text is free under a CC licence and the physical book costs (and maybe a 99p Kindle version?). I think there are a lot of models that could be explored here that existing publishers don't seem willing to engage with. This would be a prime model for University presses of course, but most of those have been sold off or disbanded, so I'll reiterate my call for a rebirth of university presses. But it looks like some publishers are giving it a go – Open Book Publishers are operating a model similar to the one I've set out for academic texts in the Humanities. I think there's room for a few more in the market too.

It's not without risks, and the returns may not be as large as FWK hoped for, but I think it's a viable business model. And it's one the sector seems to require. So, go on you entrepreneurial types, give it a go. I'll come on board as your Chief Biscuit Officer if you want.




  • mweller

    Yes – this is exactly what university presses should be doing but most of them don’t exist now. I updated the post to mention this, as LSE Impact blog want to republish it, so made sense to include it. In what we are obliged to call “the current climate” university presses won’t operate at a loss, but they could operate not for profit with the above model? Apart from Athabasca I’m not aware of any that do.

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