Sara Grimme and Charles Watkinson talked to two experienced OA ebook publishers, Lara Speicher and Erich van Rijn, about the real and perceived costs of producing open access monographs.

Lara Speicher is the founding Head of Publishing at UCL Press, the UK’s first fully open access press. Erich van Rijn is in charge of Open Access at the University of California Press and was one of the founders of its LuminosOA monograph program. Both imprints were established in 2015.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” as the 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is famously meant to have said (at least according to Mark Twain). This is certainly true of open access book costs, where an understanding of the assumptions behind any widely tweeted number is essential. Writing about “why book processing charges (BPCs) vary so much,” the pioneer of open access book publishing Frances Pinter has written that “observers of monograph publishing often complain of a lack of transparency around publishing ‘costs.’ There is the sense that BPCs are arbitrary and do not relate to real costs. The actual story is both simpler and more complicated.” And, as Lucy Barnes and Rupert Gatti write on their Open Book Publisher blog, “there needs to be much more awareness of the diversity of presses operating in Arts and Humanities book publishing today – particularly those presses that are already Open Access – and the range of business models and strategies they adopt.” 

Are Open Access monographs cheaper to produce?

Lara SpeicherLara: “My immediate reaction is “no, they’re not cheaper.” But cost very much depends on the type of book we’re talking about because there is such a huge range within what we describe as the “monograph.” While I don’t see that it being open access necessarily means it’s cheaper, I do think that there are ways of doing things that could be more cost effective. I’m thinking in particular of the Sustainable History Monograph Project which is looking at precisely this question: Is there a certain type of niche book that can be produced in a more streamlined, cost-effective way and doesn’t necessarily need the intensive commissioning, development, and production input that a trade monograph or a very highly illustrated work would. This is a question about the costs of monographs in general, not specifically about open access monographs.”

Erich van RijnErich: “Yes, you have to identify what is included in your definition of production costs when you say “produce a monograph.” There is a large amount of staff time and overhead that goes into fully developing monographs. Those costs can be highly variable between presses and book types as Lara pointed out. Think about the difference between a complicated edited scientific collection, and a 6 x 9 inch black and white monograph that comes in in pretty decent shape, doesn’t require a lot of development, and where peer review is fairly straightforward. These have such different factors in figuring out what the overall cost of doing them is. In general I will say that, as university presses, we tend to be heavily focused on the humanities and social sciences and there’s a tradition of deep involvement in manuscript acquisition, development, and coordination of peer review which is expensive.”

Lara: “I agree with everything Eric said. But imagine a different scenario in which traditional monographs were not published commercially anymore, sales fall off a cliff edge, and it becomes unviable. Would we approach the commissioning process differently? Could it be less labor intensive with less development if the goal was just making the information available, rather than crafting a book and building a list and doing all those things that university presses currently do for all their books. Essentially moving more towards a service rather than a publisher model for certain types of book that might otherwise be financially unviable in a traditional cost-recovery model.”

“The challenge for most university presses is that the infrastructure that’s needed to support open access publication is different to what’s needed to support a sales-driven publication approach.”

: “Possible cost savings coming from not having to implement access restriction are an interesting thing to explore. The challenge for most university presses is that the infrastructure that’s needed to support open access publication is different to what’s needed to support a sales-driven publication approach. So you have to support those two different kinds of infrastructure in the same organization. On the OA side you want to be able to have somebody who can report nicely on usage and develop dashboards to demonstrate the efficacy of the publishing program. And on the unit sales-driven side, you need a sales manager and people who are constantly trying to get books into the sales channels. You also need different kinds of infrastructure in the back office where you’re processing things like book processing charges rather than doing royalties accounting. It adds up to a complicated set of operations to support under one roof. I’m rather envious of a publisher who can support one or the other, rather than both. We’re in that kind of messy transition period. It doesn’t cost any extra to do a print book. All our OA monographs are prepared as printer-ready files as part of the composition process and then they’re set up as a print-on-demand (POD) title. We’re then able to leverage the commercial supply chain. It’s an advantage you have in doing OA monographs for the moment; that you’re able to recover some of those costs through the sale of print based materials.”

Lara: “Whether to make any ebook versions available for sale is something we’ve grappled with. In terms of directly downloadable format, we don’t make an EPUB freely available, only the PDF. But our model is to charge the lowest amount possible. We’ve recently decided to make our ebooks 99 pence, for example, as another way of exposing them. There is a cost in the additional formatting and distribution but it is not large. Charging the lowest price possible is our approach. If people want Kindle specifically or that type of format, then it’s OK to charge a nominal amount, but it’s hard to justify charging the same as print. In terms of the costs associated with OA dissemination, that is definitely something that presses need to consider. Distributing to a wide range of OA platforms, collating and reporting on a lot of download data, that takes some resource to do systematically.”

Erich: “We’ve always tried to distribute our ebooks and print books that are done through the OA program as widely as possible. There are some e-retailers where the requirements are so complicated that it doesn’t make sense to get OA titles into those programs, but the Kindle, for example, is a central distribution point for a lot of people who want to consume long form content on a device. In general, wherever we can make a book available, we will but we don’t try and do so as a cost recovery mechanism. If we put a book into a retail program and it has a price, it generally would only be because having a price is necessary to get into that channel.”

“Whatever the real situation, there certainly is a common misconception that open access books are cheaper to produce.”

Lara: “Whatever the real situation, there certainly is a common misconception that open access books are cheaper to produce. There are also other negative misconceptions about OA being of lesser quality and not being peer reviewed. So you’ve got both sides: some assuming that it’s lower quality, and others assuming that it can be the same quality but for less cost.”

It is ultimately clear that open access monographs are not cheaper to produce, and that such assumptions are incorrectly driven by misperceptions around quality and distribution costs, amongst other things. A monograph is a monograph, and differences are more likely to exist between presses and book types than by business models. It is perhaps more pertinent to ask if the monograph itself can, over time, be produced differently to be more cost-effective, and whether there are other ways of creating, packaging and distributing content. For now, however, the answer on cost seems clear.

In our next post, Lara and Erich will continue the discussion as we ask how we will pay for open access monographs, and how the investment in open monographs can be justified.


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