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Making OA Monographs More Discoverable, Usable, and Sustainable

We are entering the third and final year of the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot (SHMP). SHMP is an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded initiative to publish open digital editions of high-quality books from university presses in the field of history. Unlike other Open Access (OA) pilots, SHMP transforms the publishing process and outputs, while focusing on a single academic discipline. Led by the University of North Carolina Press and using its subsidiary, Longleaf Services, we have helped our partner presses (there are twenty-three) produce eleven monographs with another nine in active production. You can find the published books indexed on the OAPEN platform and the Internet Archive as well as many other open platforms. We have funding from Mellon to produce up to 75 of these titles.

Why do we say SHMP uniquely transforms the publishing process? The OA pilots most university presses are participating in are TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem), Knowledge Unlatched (KU), and the various programs from the NEH (their backlist open book program, and the newer Fellowship OA program). But those programs are only funding experiments. Presses are expected to acquire, produce, and market books in conventional ways, but a cash stipend is provided to the press in exchange for the agreement to price their digital editions at zero. The workflow is usually print-centric, with eBooks converted from the print-ready file at the end of the publishing process. These pilots have been important in allowing presses to experiment with something that is culturally still challenging; they have provided much-needed financial subsidies to presses; and they have allowed hundreds of university press monographs to be completely open to scholars, students, and publics throughout the world.

SHMP is unique because it requires an intervention much earlier in the workflow than these other programs. We require standardization upstream because these are monographs whose primary use will likely be in digital formats. The way digital platforms display books requires standardization since the books are usually rendered as part of a network of scholarship that is discovered through common, linked digital tools. Bespoke cover and interior designs, which are vital to the traditional model of print cost-recovery, become less important than digital affordances like ORCIDs, DOIs, and robust metadata. In SHMP, we take a manuscript from a university press after it has been acquired, peer-reviewed, and otherwise credentialed by the press, and when it is ready to begin the process of copyediting, typesetting, and file creation. We manage these tasks at Longleaf and then distribute eBook files widely (most university presses don’t have distribution connections with OA platforms like OAPEN or the Internet Archive). We provide the press with a print-ready pdf they can use to put a pay-walled print edition into the marketplace. And finally, we provide the presses with both qualitative and quantitative usage data.

Now that we have built the required infrastructure and we’re beginning to help presses put books out into the world, we’re starting to draw some early conclusions.

Cultural obstacles at presses and among authors are significant.
Presses dedicate significant resources to intentionally create and market the printed book as a physical object, each one carefully (and usually quite beautifully) designed for a specific kind of print customer—although the number of print customers is ever-dwindling. It is certainly true at the University of North Carolina Press that print revenue continues to dwarf digital income. This is why it makes sense for presses to invest most of their human capital in the print side of the business. When we introduce a workflow that marginalizes the print side of the business, it is justifiably viewed with more than little suspicion.

At the same time, we’re not the first people to discover that many historians are dubious of Open Access. We’ve seen several examples where a press identified a project they felt would be a good candidate for the pilot, but the author expressed concerns about either our standardization, or even just the fact that the books would be free. One author said they were excited about the prospect of their book being widely available, especially in parts of the world that have historically been under-served by university presses. But they didn’t like the cover template, so they declined to participate. The desire to have their work widely available has its limits.

We need a better understanding of the intentions of OA subsidies.
Most of the other pilots for OA monographs have stipulated that subventions to a press need to be in the five-figure range. TOME is suggesting $15,000 per book. The KU numbers are variable, but they’ve usually approached or exceeded $10,000. The newest NEH program only allows $5,500, but a press can wait three years before making the eBook free so it’s already generated a significant amount of income before the OA edition is introduced. These are significant sums and many people have raised concerns about how well five-figure subsidies will scale when you consider the fact that university presses publish thousands of monographs annually.

But let’s look a little more closely at the money. At UNC Press, our gross revenue on specialized monographs is usually between $15,000 and $20,000. And the digital portion of that revenue is about 18%, so let’s say it tops off at $3,600 in digital income. A $15,000 stipend does more than cover our lost digital revenue. There may be some erosion in print when digital is free, but I’ll argue below that this issue requires further study. Getting a subsidy like that is a windfall to a university press, going far beyond hedging the revenue risk of making a single book OA. The question I would have for funders is whether they’re attempting to hedge the risk to a press in making an individual book open, or are they using OA as a new funding mechanism to more generally support presses? At UNC Press an amount like $15,000 to make a specialized monograph OA does more than cover the revenue risk going OA. It helps support our overall publishing program.

Digital-first workflows can drive down costs and thereby introduce new potential funding models.
Because of the standardization we’ve introduced, we have dramatically reduced costs. The Ithaka study on the cost of monograph publishing showed that many monographs cost between $25,000 and $40,000 to produce.[1] Our pilot provides $7,000 in Mellon funds to the originating press to offset their costs for acquiring a project (covering acquisition editors’ time, peer review, developmental editing, board review, etc.). We also use Mellon funds at Longleaf to cover copyediting, typesetting, and file preparation, which cost Longleaf about $4,000 per book. Thus, the total SHMP costs are $11,000 per book to put a high-quality digital file into the world and to provide the press a print-ready file that they can use to start selling print editions. For SHMP, of course, Mellon is funding all of that, but let’s imagine the press was taking on the $11,000 debt themselves. This compares very favorably to the Ithaka numbers, and if you sell any print copies at all, it reduces the net deficit even further.  A press would need to sell only about 400 copies of a $40 print edition to be at break-even. We’re beginning to show that OA, if done in a digital-first, standardized workflow, can be significantly more discoverable, usable, and sustainable than traditional print-centric monograph publishing.

These simplified calculations elide over some of the overhead expenses and marketing costs, but overhead and marketing expenses could be significantly reduced when the necessity for cost-recovery is significantly diminished. We may need fewer sales people, or accountants, or inventory managers, or customer service representatives, or auditors, if our goal is to stimulate downloads and usage instead of trying (and usually failing) to generate enough sales transactions to cover all of our costs. Can we imagine a new scalable and sustainable long-term OA monograph funding model where a press only needs to receive a $5,000 stipend and sell as few as 220 print copies (of a modestly priced print edition) to break even?

Analytics are tough.
One of our commitments to our partner presses and their authors is to deliver usage analytics. We’re attempting to collect data from at least five distribution platforms—Internet Archive, OAPEN, ProjectMUSE, Books at JSTOR, and EBSCO. Like others before us, we are discovering the challenges of collating and normalizing data from a variety of platforms. Different definitions, time-periods, and data delivery tools means there is a lot of manual work that will not scale. The good news is that early indications are that there is substantial usage going on. The manual work will be worth it.

There are challenges to building an OA overlay on an existing cost-recovery workflow.
Because our intervention is more substantial than other OA programs, we’re learning how disruptive OA generally, and our project more specifically, can be to an individual press. Everything from contract and permissions to metadata and file distribution are meaningfully different. Marketing—which is a very high overhead expense for most presses—looks very different when the goal is generating a download and usage instead of generating a sale. Publishing OA concurrently while doing traditional cost-recovery publishing sometimes feels like it requires two separate, but parallel, streams rather than one holistic workflow.

What happens to print revenue when digital is free?
We’ll be asking our publishers to provide us with print sales data so we can compare that activity against the digital usage data we’re compiling. Taken together, we will have a strong data set which we will openly publish and allow for others to perform future analysis. This strikes me as a great topic for a research project now that university presses collectively have published hundreds of new and backlist monographs via Open Access. A recent survey of Association of University Presses members suggested most presses either don’t know or don’t believe that OA has a negative impact on print sales. At UNC Press we opened a lot of our academic content in digital platforms like ProQuest, MUSE, JSTOR, and the Internet Archive during the early outbreak of the pandemic. But our year-over-year print sales actually increased during that time.

There may be a growing body of evidence suggesting that print does not decline significantly when digital is free—especially for specialized monographs. And it leads to a compelling and counterintuitive hypothesis that is in dire need of testing: If historians start their research in digital formats, but pivot to print when they do immersive reading, annotation, and other traditional forms of engagement, could you flip the conventional wisdom on its head and ask whether Open Access can lead to an increase in print sales?



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