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Open Access History Monograph Initiative

See Sustainable History Monograph Pilot to return to the pilot’s main page and for current information regarding the initiative’s progress and call for projects.

In December 2014, the University of North Carolina Press received a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create a suite of scaled publishing services for university presses to publish high-quality digital monographs. The growth and benefits of scale have been one of the key trends in modern publishing, but significant structural obstacles prevent most university presses from realizing scale. Using its fully owned distribution subsidiary—Longleaf Services—UNC brought presses together to provide savings, tools, and efficiencies in ways that they could not achieve on their own.[1]

Four years into our grant, we achieved clear success. We have almost tripled the size of Longleaf, dramatically increasing the number of publishers and services in our offering. Our three areas of focus—EDP (Editorial/Design/Production), Marketing, and Operations—have all grown dramatically. However, we believe there remains a significant opportunity to revolutionize the EDP workflow and distribution patterns used by university presses to produce their most specialized monographs.

Background: Defining Strategies for Publishing Monographs

Even within a single discipline—like history—there are many varieties of monographs. But a key distinction for publishers is one that considers different strategies for reaching different readerships depending on the specialization of the book.

Using this approach, a first category of monograph (and the one that presses aspire to the most) consists of serious academic editions meant not only to advance the field but also to engage larger audiences in other disciplines and potentially a broader public. Hundreds of them are published every year and are marketed to scholars, institutions, courses, and even the general reading public. And historically, they’ve sold enough copies (in the 800-1500+ copy range) that the overall economics remain relatively stable. The workflow for producing these books has changed only modestly in recent decades, with the bespoke physical edition remaining the primary format. We’ll refer to these as Strategy A publications. University press workflows are optimized for these types of books where the well-designed, high-quality print volume and traditional marketing and publicity efforts can increase sales and impact.

But the predominant category of university press publishing is the more specialized monograph written for scholars by scholars.[2] For purposes of this overview, we’ll call these Strategy B monographs. These foundational volumes are published out of a sense of mission with the goal of selling a few hundred copies to institutional libraries and other experts in the discipline. The workflow almost precisely mirrors Strategy A, even though the scale is much smaller and the discoverability and use of these volumes suggest that the dominant formats are digital.[3] While revenue from sales is intended to cover the costs to publish, these books almost invariably generate five-figure deficits,[4] and current trends suggest the deficits will only be increasing over time. But because they play a vital role in the promotion and tenure system for humanities scholars and because scholarship in many humanities fields is moved forward through the publication of such monographs, university presses continue to acquire and publish thousands of them annually.[5]

Publishing Strategy Paths

Most university presses will claim their overall endeavor is a blend of both A and B—specialized monographs and translational monographs. But those same presses usually default to Strategy A to publish all of their monographs—regardless of the market size, degree of specialization, or preferred usage norms of the intended audience. There are many reasons for this. One is the aspiration that even the most esoteric topic might find a general readership. There is also bias toward labeling books as too specialized. (Presses may proudly claim to publish specialized titles, but they’re reluctant to identify the individual books that are specialized.) But the overwhelming reason presses primarily use Strategy A is simply because most presses have neither the expertise nor the options to publish them any differently. Our efforts at Longleaf have been about trying to create such an option.

Progress (and Obstacles) to Date

Using our grant from Mellon, Longleaf began developing a support system for a high-quality workflow for Strategy B while still offering traditional workflows for Strategy A for those presses that wanted it. We specifically developed a scaled, digital-first set of processes focused on making copyediting, page composition, and file preparation as efficient and inexpensive as possible.  Our rationale was that because of the financial stress caused by the sales decline in all monographs combined with the realization that the most specialized books are being discovered and used more in digital formats, publishers would begin migrating their more specialized monographs from traditional Strategy A to a new Strategy B.

While we’ve worked with nine different publishers and produced more than 175 titles, we’ve still not had a significant enough breakthrough to dramatically increase the migration to our Strategy B offering. Many presses have expressed concerns about features like auto-composition and a true digital-first, web-based workflow. We’ve encountered a general caution toward preserving traditional methods (i.e., Strategy A), where these activities tend to be carefully overseen by in-house press staff—even if the activities (like copyediting and composition) are still being outsourced by the press (in some cases to the same vendors used by Longleaf) and even if the in-house option is significantly more expensive.


Our conclusion is that a more dramatic intervention with incentives will be required to successfully transition presses to a web-based workflow that delivers their most specialized books quickly and inexpensively in digital formats. We envision a partnership with the Editoria[6] project to build a high-quality workflow for monographs that are optimized for digital discoverability and use. Further, we believe that integrating an open access (OA) digital model will be a key component of a new monograph paradigm—where core publishing activity is streamlined and funded as a service (instead of through cost recovery) by the beneficiaries of this service—namely, the authors’ host institutions.

University presses accrue significant deficits for their specialized titles when they produce them with Strategy A because the costs of creating high-quality print are significant. Specialized monographs instead should be produced in ways that maximize their digital discoverability and reuse. Using our Strategy B to produce OA editions will significantly lower the costs to publish while dramatically increasing access and impact.[7] Once we consistently illustrate the viability of that model, the case for institutional support for monograph publishing becomes greatly enhanced.

 Solution: Open Access as a New Strategy for Publishing Digital Monographs

While there are a number of OA monograph programs under way, there has not been a significant transition to OA by university presses. This is primarily because large-scale funding is not available to subvent the lost digital revenue as well as the potential lost print revenue when digital is free and widely available. One of the most ambitious experiments is the new Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem (TOME) project[8] where institutions are being asked to pay presses not only for the potential lost revenue but also for a significant portion of their overall costs to publish both print and digital. But at $15,000 per book applied to the estimated 3,000 new monographs published a year[9], this model will have challenges to achieving scale.

A new OA approach is needed—one where a streamlined workflow to produce high-quality digital editions is paired with marketplace incentives to explore and maximize print cost-recovery opportunities.

A new open access model for humanities monographs can be broken up into three stages in a way that allows presses to publish in an efficient Strategy B workflow while preserving the option to eventually produce a more traditional Strategy A publication.

  • Stage 1 would precisely mirror the initial processes most presses now use, where a title goes from first draft or proposal, through peer review, acquisition/contract, copyediting, and, ultimately, to a fully credentialed manuscript ready to be typeset for print.
  • Stage 2 would interrupt the traditional workflow at this precise moment so that rather than beginning to design/typeset the text and creating covers, the press instead would distribute the electronic files into an array of online, open access platforms. The press would use Stage 2 (potentially a period of 12–18 months) to evaluate digital usage and potential print marketability.
  • In Stage 3, the press could exercise the option to complete the traditional workflows required to bring a print edition into the cost-recovery marketplace through traditional Strategy A Alternatively, a press could license (for a fee) those marketplace rights to another publisher. In this model, when a press acquires a project, it commits to doing Stage 1 and Stage 2 activities and retains a multi-year option (but not obligation) to perform Stage 3 activities.

Publishing Stages

Stage 1 activities for a press would rely less on the marketplace and align more with the scholarly needs of the discipline. The marketplace can be an important metric, but when funding is exclusively tied to a market that is in slow, asymptotic contraction (as it is now for most presses), it becomes an outsized factor in the decision to publish. The needs of the discipline are subservient to the demands of the commercial marketplace. Presses are doing this core stage of publishing as a service and should largely be subsidized for it by the beneficiaries of these services. Stage 2 activities might be funded by platform providers who could monetize search tools and usage analytics. Stage 3 activities would be self-funded by presses who are willing to accept the risks and rewards of the cost-recovery marketplace.

Financial Impact

In the current model, where presses exclusively use Strategy A, most humanities monographs lose significant money.[10] The goal in this new model is to dramatically reduce the losses on the majority of our books and to focus resources on generating income from the subset of titles that have a significant cost-recovery opportunity. Using methodology from the Ithaka Monograph Study[11] applied against UNC Press actual current costs, we’ve determined that a standard 312-page book that sells 450 copies at a price point of $40 incurs a loss to the Press of almost $14,000 (not including overhead expenses).[12]

By comparison, applying the Ithaka methodology to the three-stage OA model indicates that the overall expense for the first two stages could be reduced by two-thirds. This significantly enhances the macroeconomic efficiency of allowing publishers to make the significant Stage 3 investments in titles only where the probability of a return on those incremental investments exists. Those books will have a much higher prospect of breaking even or generating surplus revenues to feed back into the overall publishing program.


Through a new grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, UNC Press will be bringing together a working group including university presses, open access repositories, and other key stakeholders in order to publish a cluster of 100–150 titles using the three-stage OA model over a three-year timeline. Longleaf staff members will be at the center of this activity, working directly with participating presses, authors, third-party service providers (like Editoria), and the OA platform providers.

Focusing on a single academic discipline—in this case, history—we will attempt to transform publishing in a field that is relatively healthy and culturally cautious but potentially ready to embrace digital publications.[13] If we can have an impact on that discipline, other disciplines could easily follow.

The scale of this pilot is one of the keys to its likelihood for success and impact. Grant funding will fully support the cost of 75 titles, but our ambition is to publish at least 100 titles (and potentially 150) by requesting matching funding from authors’ host institutions.

Grant funds will facilitate the efforts of the working group, subsidize presses for the costs of acquisition, provide Longleaf with the costs of editing and distribution, offset the costs for platform providers to host the books, and provide some support for analyzing usage and financial impacts. 

Expected Outcomes and Benefits

  1. Prove that high-quality OA humanities monographs can be successfully published by university presses and accepted by the academy, even when the primary (and in many cases, sole) format is high-quality digital. In print formats, these books currently are reviewed and cited, win awards, and contribute to the authors’ promotion and tenure packages. We will work with marketing departments at the participating publishers to ensure our digital editions are sent to reviewers and award committees. We will work with key publications in the field as well as key organizations to ensure that these editions are considered for reviews and awards.
  2. Determine the costs to do the first two stages of publishing. In other words, determine what it costs a press to publish and disseminate a digital-only monograph. And by extension, does this number inform what an appropriate title subsidy would be for future models?
  3. Lay the groundwork for a model where new funding sources from institutions are introduced while preserving the role of the university press in making the decision-to-publish. Since the choice of using the three-stage OA option is exercised after the book has been acquired and credentialed, the process avoids the moral hazards associated with other models in which stipends have been assigned before a book is put under peer review.
  4. Develop an understanding of usage impacts of OA publications with a particular focus on distinguishing between analytics that suggest marketplace opportunities versus analytics that simply show usage or citation or other scholarly impacts. In so doing, we will also apply standardization across the variegated OA reporting tools.
  5. Reduce the “time-to-market” for a standard monograph by at least three months
  6. Explore the market dynamics and financial impact on presses of Stage 3 activity.

This model offers all of the benefits that many current OA monograph experiments are yielding, including accelerating and broadening access to scholarship, lowering costs to other university-based units, applying alternative metrics to gauge publication impact, and interacting seamlessly with web-based archives or digital humanities output. But unlike many of the current experiments, it seeks to transform both how monographs are published and the macroeconomic system in which they are published. By offering a staged workflow with different ways of assigning the costs of publication, this model allows different funding sources to enter the stream, including not only authors’ host institutions but also research grant funders, scholarly associations, and private benefactors of the humanities.


The sustainability challenge facing most OA monograph models is to identify the enduring source of funding for university presses to offset potential lost digital income or indirect losses on print revenue when digital is free.[14] Models like Knowledge Unlatched (KU) and the TOME initiative have taken important first steps and have received strong interest from university presses but have struggled to receive broad funding support, largely because the per-title subventions (~$15,000) are so high. Presses are very supportive of these amounts because they represent a revenue windfall compared to current cost-recovery opportunities. Funders have been more reluctant to adopt them because they don’t scale well and the value of spending those sums isn’t immediately transparent.

These unresolved challenges to long-term sustainability are why an uncoupling of publishing processes and a streamlined digital-first workflow are key elements to any reconsideration of funding models. In our program, after manuscripts are identified, we require that authors’ host institutions be asked to provide matching funds in order to share in the publication costs as well as to expand the scope of the pilot. If a customary per-title subvention becomes closer to the level of a journal Article Processing Charge (APC)—which institutions and grantors are very comfortable paying—then new sources of monograph funding should become available.

By building on existing efforts, our new paradigm—with streamlined costs, high levels of access, and robust analytics—aims to ensure the long-term viability of humanities monographs as well as the university presses that are key to their creation and dissemination.

Working Group Members (tentative)

  • John Sherer (Primary Investigator), Director, University of North Carolina Press
  • Seth Denbo, Director of Scholarly Communication, American Historical Association
  • Clay Farr, Executive Director, Longleaf Services
  • Monica McCormick, Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Publishing and Research, University of Delaware
  • Catherine Mitchell, Director of Publishing & Special Collections, California Digital Library
  • Darrin Pratt, Director, University Press of Colorado
  • Frank Smith, Director, Books at JSTOR
  • Lisa Stallings, Editorial, Design, and Production Manager, Longleaf Services
  • Charles Watkinson, Associate University Librarian and Director, University of Michigan Press
  • Karin Wulf, Director, Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture


American Historical Association. 2015. Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians. Washington, DC: American Historical Association.

Association of Research Libraries. n.d. TOME. Accessed February 22, 2018.

Esposito, Joseph J., and Karen Barch. 2017. “Monograph Output of American University Presses, 2009–2013: A Report Prepared for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation” February 10. Accessed February 22, 2018.

Maron, Nancy L., Christine Mulhern, Daniel Rossman, and Kimberly Schmelzinger. 2016. The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward a Transparent Methodology. New York: Ithaka S&R.

Montgomery, Lucy, Neil Saunders, Frances Pinter, and Alkim & Ozaygen. 2017. Exploring Usage of Open Access Books via the JSTOR Platform. London, UK: Knowledge Unlatched Research.

Thompson, John B. 2005. Books in the Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity.

Waters, Donald J. 2016. Monograph Publishing in the Digital Age. July 22, 2016. Accessed January 26, 2018.

Wolff-Eisenberg, Christine, Alisa B. Rod, and Roger C. Schonfeld. 2016. Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2015. New York: Ithaka S&R.


[1] More about Longleaf can be found at

[2] (Thompson 2005)

[3] (Wolff-Eisenberg, Rod and Schonfeld 2016)

[4] (Maron, et al. 2016)

[5] (Esposito and Barch 2017)

[6] Also funded by the Mellon Foundation, Editoria is a project of the University of California Press and the California Digital Library:

[7] (Montgomery, et al. 2017)

[8] (Association of Research Libraries n.d.)

[9] (Esposito and Barch 2017)

[10] Our analysis at UNC Press suggests that fewer than one in three monographs fully pay for themselves through sales.

[11] (Maron, et al. 2016)

[12] The Ithaka study suggests a true “Full Cost Plus,” including overhead costs associated with General and Administrative expenses as well as in-kind support from a host institution, could be 40% more, creating deficits well over $20,000 per book.

[13] (American Historical Association 2015)

[14] The proverbial jury is still out on the question of what happens to print sales when digital editions are free. Since many humanities sales patterns take years to be realized, it will be years before we can draw conclusions. Peter Suber is tracking some of the early studies here:

For more information, please contact John Sherer (

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