Publishing Research Quarterly

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 183–191

Open Access for Scholarly Books?



DOI: 10.1007/s12109-012-9285-0

Cite this article as:
Pinter, F. Pub Res Q (2012) 28: 183. doi:10.1007/s12109-012-9285-0


Over the past two decades, sales of monographs have shrunk by 90 % causing prices to rise dramatically as fewer copies are sold. University libraries struggle to assemble adequate collections, and students and scholars are deprived access, especially in the developing world. Open access can play an important role in ensuring both access to knowledge and encouraging the growth of new markets for scholarly books. This article argues that by facilitating a truly global approach to funding the up-front costs of publishing and open access, there is a sustainable future for the specialist academic ‘long form publication’. Knowledge Unlatched is a new initiative that is creating an international library consortium through which publishers will be able to recover their fixed costs while at the same time reducing prices for libraries.


Academic ebooksCreative commons business modelsGlobal library consortiumKnowledge unlatchedLibrary book budgetsLibrary consortiaLong form publicationMonographsNew publishing modelsOpen access for booksOpen access fundingOpen access publishing models


When I was a student at the London School of Economics most of the books in the library were hidden away deep in the bowels of the university, or stored off site. Getting hold of books was a hit and miss affair. It involved filling in a form, submitting it to the main desk and waiting—and waiting. Sometimes books would appear. Sometimes, however, a slip would come back with the letters ‘GK’ written in pencil at the top; but no books. One day, I asked what ‘GK’ meant. I was told it stood for ‘God Knows’. We have come a long way since then. Automation has made it much easier to find books and order is beginning to prevail in digital collections, even if users may not always have the skills needed to find what they are looking for.

What has not changed, however, is that specialist research monographs are expensive and that only a very privileged group enjoys access to them. While the price of trade books has fallen as online retailing and devices such as the Kindle place downward pressure on unit prices, the costs of purchasing scholarly books have increased. Even libraries struggle to afford comprehensive collections of monographs that can retail at well over £50 a copy. For the most part these books are too expensive for individuals to buy. As a result, getting hold of scholarly books still requires an affiliation with a relatively wealthy library, just as it did when I was a student. This remains the case regardless of whether a researcher (or a student) wants to access books in print or in digital. The select communities that do have access to university collections are now able to browse both the library catalogue and a great deal of scholarly content from their very own laptop, inside or outside the walls of the library. This is a luxury that could scarcely have been imagined 30 years ago. In spite of this, in a world where access to information is faster and easier than at any other time in history, expectations of access have increased. Scholars are now even less conscious of the work and cost involved in amassing and administering library collections than they were when books and journals existed on shelves.

The growing disparity between the capacity of digital technologies to provide access to content, and the difficulties associated with getting hold of specialist research books (aka the long form publication) belies deeper problems in the world of scholarly communication. Budgets have been cut, even at the wealthiest institutions, and it has become more expensive for libraries to maintain journal subscriptions. As a result, hard choices have had to be made. So far protecting access to journals has been seen as a priority. In the United States university library monograph acquisitions only increased by 1 % over the 24-year period from 1980 to 2004, whereas journal acquisitions increased by 180 % [1].

Although research communities and funding bodies are beginning to press more forcefully for wider access to publically funded research, the focus of debate has remained firmly on journals. The ‘crisis in monograph publishing’ that has been observed by publishers and librarians remains largely invisible in wider public debates around scholarly communication. We need to be clear what we mean by a ‘monograph’. In some parts of the world the word has a restrictive meaning referring to a young academic’s first published book, usually a re-working of a PhD thesis. Elsewhere it refers to any specialist research-led book that may be single or multi-authored. Both share the characteristic of being high level and usually, though not always, aimed at small audiences. Here we use the broader definition.

In this article I argue that monograph publishing is in crisis because publishers have been attempting to replicate print business models in a digital world. I believe that this approach is misguided and that more open approaches to content licensing and distribution will help to reinvigorate monograph publishing and stimulate new markets for scholarly books. Real opportunities exist for publishers in a digital world and Open Access licensing will be an important part of sustainable publishing in the twenty-first century.

Historically monographs were the bedrock of scholarly book publishing. Notwithstanding the opportunities for academics to move into lucrative trade publishing, especially in the US in the second half of the twentieth century, most scholars in the humanities and social sciences relied and continue to expect that their research will be published through a mix of monographs and journals. However, for reasons outlined below the old models are no longer working.

The Twentieth Century

Humanities and social science publishing was a lucrative business in the twentieth century, especially after the Second World War. In those heady days books were published in hardback, sometimes with a simultaneous paperback. Libraries could afford to buy the hardback and publishers were able to count on individual paperback purchases too. When the first round of library budget cuts came libraries resorted to buying paperbacks, that is unless the price differential wasn’t so great as to outweigh the costs of strengthening the binding and perhaps even replacing the book over time. Publishers reacted by reducing the number of titles published simultaneously in hardback and paperback. A library never knew whether a paperback would be forthcoming or not, and so had to buy the hardback. Publishers did not know whether the book would warrant a paperback in later years so they loaded all their origination costs onto the hardback.

The number of monograph titles increased as academic communities grew in most parts of the world. However, there was not a corresponding increase in library budgets, even in the wealthier countries. Publishers tried a number of tactics. The birth of the cross-over book that was packaged and promoted to sell to individuals through the trade and libraries through library suppliers increased the print runs for a few. However print runs for most monographs continued to decline.

The Twenty-First Century and Digital

While journal publishing shifted to digital in the nineties, books were much slower to follow. We don’t yet know when the tipping point will be reached when more sales of monographs will be in digital format than in print. But so far, for this genre, the preference amongst academics themselves is for print. Librarians, faced with the cost of housing print are the main drivers towards a quicker transition to digital. We do know that younger academics in some fields are moving towards hybrid types of ‘publications’ that embed multimedia and move seamlessly from print to video and audio. We also know that there are early signs of ‘publishing’ moving away from the traditional publishers into parts of the university, such as libraries where ‘campus based publishing’ [2] is being set up to service the needs of their academics. In short—the whole ecosystem of monograph publishing is in flux.

Although digital technology has, in theory, made it possible for many more people to access content at no extra cost, fewer people than ever before are able to read the books written by university based researchers. Instead, print runs have declined by 90 % [3] and prices have risen as publishers attempt to amortise costs over a smaller number of units. This has been replicated in the digital realm, where similarly high prices prevail. A shrinking market for monographs means that these books tend to make a loss, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Unsurprisingly, individual authors are finding it harder than ever before to ‘get published’ because it has become less commercially attractive for publishers to take on this job. Only a few hundred copies of most monographs now make it onto the shelves of institutional libraries. Although a handful of publishers are still able to turn a profit, it seems doubtful that this model represents the most effective way to support scholarly communication in the twenty-first century.

Open Access Models and Books

Clearly any open access model for books, especially in the humanities and social sciences will need to look different to those adopted in the journal world. Leaving aside the issue of green access, the gold model is predicated on carving out a relatively small amount of money from a research budget that can carry such costs. Most science research budgets can accommodate the need to cover an ‘author side payment’ of a couple of thousand dollars for publication. On the other hand, research budgets in the humanities and social sciences tend to be smaller, or non-existent and the book length content costs are correspondingly greater.

However, there have been some attempts at providing Open Access to books even in the late nineties. One of the first was the National Academies Press. The principle was to publish free of charge online in PDF and, hopefully sell enough print copies to cover costs. Results have been inconclusive.

In completely different circumstances, when the HSRC Press in Cape Town put their books on open content licenses in the mid 2000s they saw a 240 % increase in their print sales. The free content acted as a marketing piece in its own right and generated demand for print copies, especially throughout Africa where cross border trade in books has been particularly hard, not least because of lack of knowledge about what is being published in neighbouring countries.

When one considers the Open Access ventures that have been created over the last decade or so, it is clear that there are almost as many models as there are initiatives. There is a sliding scale of funding models: only a minority of initiatives are financially self-sustainable; a majority operate with a combination of revenue and subsidy from an educational institution or charitable fund. Examples include Michigan University Press’s Digital Culture series and the University of California’s eScholarship program. At the point of writing this article 27 publishers are listed in the Directory of Open Access Books [4] as experimenting with open access book publishing, including some of the best known academic presses.

There are also a few attempts to make open access work in textbook publishing. Flat World Knowledge in the US place their textbooks online on a creative commons non-commercial licence and make their money on print sales and peripherals such as teaching and learning aids. Boonbooks, originally a Danish publisher, now based in London, relies on advertising to pay for the publishing process.

If the normal supply chain in the academic publishing business is author, publisher, library, reader then what is striking about the Open Access initiatives that have been created up to the present is that they originate from almost all the parts of the chain, and straddle or bypass elements of the chain in diverse ways. The Gutenberg-e Project sources and aggregates content through its competition process, paid for by learned societies and foundations while arranging for publication through Columbia University Press, having negotiated making the content available online for free. This is an excellent way of promoting the work of young scholars, but is unlikely to be scalable.

One of the larger publisher driven experiments is at Bloomsbury Academic. Monographs in certain sub-sections of the humanities and social sciences have been published online on a creative commons non-commercial license. The text appears in HTML on the publisher’s site. At the same time Bloomsbury Academic sells print and ebooks through the usual channels. In some instances the books are available in both hardback and paperback, or when there is a surprisingly high interest in a book originally published in hardback, a paperback may be released after a year or two.

This in effect mirrors the world of the twentieth century, though at the same time using the more extensive discoverability of the free content as a marketing tool to promote the print and e-book sales. It is in effect a ‘freemium’ model. So far Bloomsbury Academic is selling at least as many and in many cases more copies than it would have expected using the conventional closed model. In addition authors benefit from expanded readership. The usage patterns help inform the editors at Bloomsbury Academic of current interests in their fields.

Nevertheless, all origination costs need to be amortised across the expected units of sale. Extrapolating from the Bloomsbury Academic experience—if all publishers adopted this model one would see greater usage of free content but the same library budgets would be buying the same number of books (whether print or digital). And publishers would still need to rely on sales of a small number of units at high prices as they do now. The risks for publishers would remain the same and the argument to run down the number of monographs published would remain compelling. The only kinds of publishers that would still be able to make money out of monograph publishing would be the very large that have a very stream-lined operation and charge high prices (e.g. Routledge) or the heavily subsidised that can take on a few such titles each year knowing that without the subsidy each title would make a loss (as many small presses do now). This situation is neither sustainable nor desirable.

We need another solution. We need to find a way of funding the origination costs without expecting these costs to be recovered through an extremely costly selling process of both print and e-books. We rarely see an actual cost breakdown of monographs, but the origination costs actually can account for as much as a third of the total revenue generated by any particular title. And that percentage is based on the price to libraries, which includes all the variable costs and cuts taken by library suppliers and bookshops. The actual return to the publisher of these variables costs can be as little as half of the origination cost again, or expressed differently—half the price paid by the library. A model that uncoupled fixed from variable costs and ensured that fixed costs were paid at the outset of a title’s life would have the benefit of enabling publishers to reduce prices on their print and e-book versions especially where there was added value in the form of a preferred format offered to the customer as well.

In Search of a New Business Model

In searching for a new way of supporting monographs the first step was to look at how they are currently funded. Clearly most of the money that pays for monographs now comes out of university library budgets. However small, and whether shrinking or expanding these budgets underwrite the costs of these books. One approach is to see if there might be more efficient ways of using those budgets. While using the principles of aggregating both supply and demand one approach might be to disaggregate fixed and variable costs in the way these are paid for.

Knowledge Unlatched is a non-for-profit Community Interest Company that is looking to experiment by establishing a global library consortium that will coordinate the shared, up-front payment of the fixed costs of publishing scholarly books to publishers, expressed as a Title Fee. In exchange, publishers will post titles online on an open content license.

This is how the model works:
  1. 1.

    Publishers1 offer titles2 for sale reflecting origination costs only.3

  2. 2.

    Individual libraries4 select titles either as individual titles or as collections (as they do from library suppliers now).

  3. 3.

    Their selections are sent to Knowledge Unlatched5 specifying the titles6 to be purchased7 at the stated price(s).8

  4. 4.

    The price, called a Title Fee is paid to publishers to cover the fixed costs of publishing each title selected by being ordered by a minimum number of libraries.

  5. 5.

    Upon receipt of the Title Fee, publishers make the selected titles available Open Access.9

  6. 6.

    Publishers make print copies and ebook versions of selected titles available to member libraries at a discount off the recommended retail price.10


As the number of member libraries grows and the number of titles on offer increases, the price per title per library decreases. The Title Fee paid to publishers is fixed.

Publishers that participate in the scheme would retain the usual rights to sell print copies and all digital formats to non-members libraries and individuals as before. It is anticipated that publishers will value the opportunity to mitigate the risks of publishing that Knowledge Unlatched offers.

By offering titles to, publishers will gain access to funding to cover the fixed costs of publishing scholarly monographs in the form of a Title Fee that will be paid by the consortium member libraries to publishers. In return for the Title Fee, publishers will make an HTML version (or other agreed sub-optimal version) of specified books available on a creative commons or equivalent open content licence.

Because the fixed costs associated with getting to first digital copy will be covered by the Knowledge Unlatched Title Fee, publishers will be able to sell physical copies of books, or e-book versions, to consortium member libraries at an agreed discount. Publishers will also have the flexibility to experiment with different approaches and maximising their income across a wider market. For example, they might choose to publish books in paperback right away rather than hardback, or develop premium value-added content that libraries and individuals may be willing to pay extra for. Publishers will be able to take on authors or manuscripts that would previously have been considered too risky to publish in a shrinking book market because the risks associated with publishing specialist scholarly monographs will be mitigated by the consortium through the Title Fee.

Taking a single title as an example, if 400 libraries were members of the consortium and the Title Fee was £8,000 each library would pay £20. If there were 600 members the charge to each library would be £13.33. There are two key variables—the Title Fee and the number of library members. A small percentage of the Title Fee will pay for the running costs of the consortium. In the first 3 years a pilot programme will be undertaken—beginning in 2013.

It should remain the role of the market to decide which books will be supported by the consortium. Ultimately it will be the academic community that decides, with libraries facilitating through their choices of which titles (or packages of titles) they purchase. Much will remain as before with publishers competing on the basis of quality publishing with all stakeholders in the academic publishing ecosystem standing to benefit from the results.

Libraries will be able to make their budgets go further. They will facilitate opening access and play a major role in helping resolve the problems facing academic publishing in the twenty-first century. By coming together through such a consortium and pooling library resources to pay the Title Fees of selected high-quality titles, libraries can transform the academic publishing ecosystem in a way that benefits everyone.

Knowledge Unlatched is inviting libraries and publishers to help build a sustainable open future for scholarly books by participating in the 3-year Knowledge Unlatched pilot. Libraries involved in the pilot will be getting new book content from world-class publishers at regular intervals over the course of the pilot and into the future. Libraries will also have access to a range of additional benefits, including special discounts on hardback and e-book formats.

This kind of a business model will help the authors of scholarly books ensure that their work connects with the widest possible audiences. It will also help to maximise the number of authors who are able to benefit from the best aspects of being ‘professionally published’.

In a digital world, discoverability is a powerful driver of sales. Making books digitally available on open content licenses makes them more discoverable through Internet search engines. This not only helps to generate more sales, it helps scholarly work to connect effectively with relevant audiences, regardless of their ability to pay for a copy. This will help to increase the impact of research in the humanities and social sciences and improve returns on investments in this important area of scholarship. By helping publishers to manage the risks associated with publishing work by unknown authors or in emerging areas, Such a business model will make it easier for publishers to take on new works and to make investments of time and resources in tomorrow’s thought leaders.

By building a commercially sustainable market for open access books, readers in all markets, including the world’s poorest, will gain the widest possible access to high-quality scholarship. This model is not only a game-changer in business terms, it holds out the prospect of leveling the playing field when it comes to accessing the corpus of world knowledge.


The challenges associated with navigating a publishing landscape that is being remade by digital technology could not have been imagined when I was a student. They were equally unimaginable when I began my career in publishing several decades ago. Changes in technology are making it possible for researchers—and research communities—to function in new ways. Academics continue to value high quality, professional publishing services [5] and publishers remain eager to provide them. Publishers must find ways to work with libraries and research communities to ensure that the best aspects of a profession that has evolved as part of the scholarly communication ecosystem over decades continue to add value to the activities of research communities in a digital age. Open access has an important role to play in ensuring both access to knowledge and encouraging the growth of new markets for scholarly books. By facilitating a truly global approach to funding the costs of publishing and open access, there is a sustainable future for the specialist academic ‘long form publication’.


Participating publishers would include university and commercial presses, and others. The initiative is meant to scale and could eventually include a significant proportion of the specialised scholarly monographs currently published.


Content would include scholarly monographs and specialised academic titles. A number of straight forward technologies exist to enable publishers to fulfil orders for their titles via the programme, or a partnership with an existing aggregator may be possible. The principal criterion of any fulfilment process would be to keep costs low.


The publisher’s price would reflect its fully loaded first copy costs, plus an operating margin. By logical extension, a publisher’s operation would be sustainable were it to sell all of its titles under this model.


In the U.S., the likely target audience would be primarily (but not exclusively) the libraries in Carnegie Classes 15–17 and Carnegie Class 23. In the UK and Europe the target audience would be university research and teaching libraries.


Knowledge Unlatched to coordinate library participation, probably in conjunction with North American, European, and Australasian consortia. The transaction costs would need to be minimal.


To accelerate and simplify the process, an online selection system would allow the libraries to inform Knowledge Unlatched which titles they would be willing to purchase at the stipulated price(s). The library buying group could set the minimum number of libraries required to enable the purchase to be made (e.g., all titles selected by X% or more of the participating libraries).


The library review and selection process would provide a market demand mechanism sufficient to ensure that publishers provide books of sufficient quality.


There would be no volume discount based on the number of titles selected, as the publishers’ costs are not volume driven—although other incentives will be introduced, such as additional discounts on other products.


The OA version could be PDF, HTML, or some other suboptimal digital format. The licensing would be under a Creative Commons or equivalent open content licences. (The degree of restriction, e.g. non-commercial or no derivatives to be specified by the publisher.).


The value-added versions of ebooks provided to participating libraries would need to provide an exclusive benefit of sufficient value to overcome free ridership. This might include EPUB and/or other desired digital formats, a preferential price on POD or other print editions to member libraries. Other exclusive benefits may include extra metadata/cataloguing, delivering data to library discovery tools. Preferential discounts on other products may be offered.


Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012