Funding Open Access Book Publishing: A Different Approach

Funding open access ebooks has advanced significantly in recent years beyond book processing charges (BPC) levied on authors. Originators of alternative funding models, such as crowdfunding from Knowledge Unlatched, have spurred an increase in innovative models that rely on a mix of grant funding, central university funding, and library funding or converting books to open access upon the realization of a revenue target. Examples include  Direct to Open (2DO) from MIT Press and Fund to Mission from University of Michigan Press, which rely on a mix of funding participants, most prominently library supported membership or subscription commitments. Cambridge Flip it Open and Bloomsbury Open Collections convert pre-selected books to open access upon realization of a pre-set sales target.

But these newer models for funding open access, as effective as they are in replacing BPCs, are vulnerable to a specific critique regarding institutional participation. From the perspective of global participation and support, these new models are likely out-of-reach for most institutions. If the base of institutions funding these open access models are in the hundreds rather than in the thousands, and based largely in Europe and North America and not in the Global South, we should ask if authors from these non-participating institutions will be equally pursued as publishing targets. I am not suggesting a willful disregard for authors from the Global South, but rather that editorial staffing, practices, author signings, etc., often reinforce past patterns without very intentional intervention. Time will tell and data will emerge as to who is being published and from which continent and institution they work, but the concern should keep us open to funding solutions that avoid BPCs and ensure global participation from libraries in the Global South.

The Troubling Logic Behind Book Processing Charges

The BPC is, in my view, deeply problematic. There are two reasons: 1) The burden to absorb the publishing cost often rests with the author, when it is not covered by university funding. And while it is true that the BPC can be paid with research grant funding, this means less money available to support actual research, and 2) that cost is enormously opaque. The oft-cited 2016 Ithaka S&R research reporton the cost of publishing a monograph presents a very wide range of costs associated with publishing a monograph, from $15,140 to $129,909. A more recent report from the Association of University Presses places the average cost at just under $20,000. These numbers include widely disparate inputs for staff time across every significant function from acquisitions, to development and production, then marketing and sales.

Are these actual “publishing costs” or a reflection of total business operating costs, which might be laden with poor practices? In my view as a 20-year publishing industry veteran, if it costs the publishing house, on average, $20,000 to produce a monograph, and in cases much, much more because of permissions, design, etc., that would be regarded as highly inefficient. To be fair, most BPCs are below $10,000, but I believe a case can be made for a much lower actual cost of acquiring, producing, and selling a high-quality academic book, based on my experience at a large publishing house and in several small, specialty publishing start-ups.

A Different Approach to Funding Open Access

A different model for funding open access would be to include it as an operating cost covered through revenue realization. All publishing houses have a mix of product models across print and digital that encompass single title and collection sales. As a proposal, what if five percent of the total revenue generated across all these sales was directed to funding open access?

Funding Open Access: How Much Does It Cost?

A model such as the proposed would  benefit from full transparency in direct publishing costs, and it would require pricing for all publisher product models at or below par for the industry. The publisher could share actual book production cost inclusive of all pre-production costs, editorial services, design, developmental and copy editing, paging, proofing, and final production; in short, all actual book production costs minus acquisition costs and marketing and sales costs. In my view, this represents the actual cost of publishing a title. Acquisitions, marketing, and sales can be efficient or inefficient and are nearly impossible to allocate to a specific title without putting the proverbial thumb in the air. Every six months, the average publishing costs by line item could be shared on the publisher’s website

The five percent of revenue set aside in the same six-month period could then be allocated to fund titles released as open access at the published per title book production cost. For example, $200,000 in revenues would render $10,000 toward open access publishing, which would support two titles at $4,000 with a surplus of $2000 rolled over to the next six-month period of book production cost accounting.

This is effectively a hybrid publishing model and will not satisfy the aspirations of those seeking a fully open access publishing ecosystem. But I cast my publishing gaze across much more than the publishing of research and scholarly monographs and I acknowledge that many, many authors want to earn royalties.

Open Access Publishing: Who Gets Published?

The publishers’ author agreement would give the author the choice to opt in or opt out of consideration for open access publishing. This is a first in, first out model. It is not a guarantee that the book will be published open access, but it is a promise to the author that opts in that they will hold a place in line for their title to be published open access or converted to open access post-publication. There is an important exception to the first in, first out rule. An editorial board, could vote to move a title to the front of the line if there is a compelling social reason to do so. Consider, for example, the emergence of a pandemic and how this might shift publishing priorities in the public good. A model such as this is “equity rich” in that the author chooses to publish open access; not the publisher choosing who gets published open access.

This is a proposal for a new form of funding and publishing open access that is based on transparency and equity. It is a hybrid model of sorts, but it assumes an efficient and effective publishing house selling content at or below average market pricing and then publishing with quality and care. It is a model that puts all authors on equal footing, regardless of their home institution and the universities’’ capacity to contribute to what are effectively membership models. And it is a model that does not rely on grant funding, university funding, nor authors paying out-of-pocket BPCs. It is, of course, not perfect, but it is different and should serve as a discussion starter.

This post first appeared on Scholarly Kitchen (@scholarlykitchn) on July 5, 2023. This post generated a lot of commentary; please see the original post to read the comments for discussion:  


Written by: David Parker

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