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The University of North Carolina Press is leading an experiment to significantly lower the cost of producing scholarly books -- an important step toward a sustainable open-access publishing model for monographs.

Many university presses have experimented with open-access monographs, but few have transitioned away from charging fees for most work, as they are unable to do so sustainably, said John Sherer, director of UNC Press.

A big part of the problem is that monographs are incredibly expensive to produce. A 2016 Ithaka S+R study found that monographs can cost anywhere from $15,140 to $129,909 to publish depending on overhead, staff time, design, production and marketing costs. In contrast, a typical science journal might charge around $2,000 to make an article free to read.

While there are some libraries, universities and research funders willing to offer generous subsidies to university presses in order to help them publish OA monographs, many are unwilling to prop the system up at scale, said Sherer.

One ambitious OA monograph initiative, Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem (TOME), offers university presses subsidies of $15,000 per book. Sherer’s project aims to demonstrate that a subsidy of $7,000 could suffice.

By streamlining workflows, Sherer believes university presses could make their processes much more efficient and cost-effective. He also hopes that by making digital copies of monographs free for anyone to download, university presses might actually sell more print copies of books than before.  

Presses Participating in the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot: 

  • University of British Columbia Press
  • University Press of Colorado
  • Cornell University Press
  • Fordham University Press
  • University of Georgia Press
  • University of Hawaii Press
  • Kent State University Press
  • Liverpool University Press
  • Louisiana State University Press
  • Manchester University Press
  • University of Michigan Press
  • University Press of Mississippi
  • University of Nebraska Press
  • University of New Mexico Press
  • University of North Carolina Press
  • Oxford University Press
  • University of Rochester Press
  • University of Virginia Press
  • University of Washington Press

To test scholars' appetite for digital books, each title will be published initially only in a digital format. After a 90-day embargo period, scholars will be offered the option to buy a print copy. 

“Our hypothesis is that making monographs open and digital might actually help to expose them to new audiences,” said Sherer. “If that gets proven -- and we’ll be testing it pretty heavily -- it could mean the books sell better than if the digital version had been paywalled.”

It is unclear whether, given the option to access the digital content for free, many people will choose to purchase print, acknowledges Sherer. But there are several studies indicating that scholars in the humanities prefer engaging with print texts over digital ones, he said. 

Sherer was awarded $950,000 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in July 2018 to support the pilot, which will focus on work by historians. The project, called the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot, has so far recruited 19 university presses to participate. The presses will work collaboratively with Longleaf Services, a not-for-profit publishing services provider owned by UNC Press.

The project’s aim is to publish 75 OA monographs over the next three years. With match funding from authors' home institutions, the project could publish up to 150 books. 

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Each university press involved in the project will carry out the same acquisition and peer-review process, said Sherer. But rather than creating a custom cover and formatting the text for each book as they have before, participating university presses will be encouraged to use the design templates and automated typesetting provided in web-based monograph production platform Editoria -- an open-source tool developed by the University of California Press, the California Digital Library and the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation.

The books may not have the design flair some scholars have come to expect, and that may be off-putting for some authors, said Sherer. But he argues for specialized titles, which are likely to have a small audience, it simply doesn’t make sense for the press to spend a fortune on appearances. The important thing is to disseminate the scholarship as widely as possible.

“The crucial thing with the OA History Monograph project is that the simplified format is the first iteration, but the door is left open for a more elaborate edition later should the reception of the simplified version be particularly positive,” said Charles Watkinson, director of the University of Michigan Press, which is participating in the pilot.

The book cover and formatting may follow a template, but that doesn’t mean it has to be ugly, said Watkinson. “It is necessary and possible to create a handsome-looking simplified OA version; cover templates, for example, can be very beautiful if done well.”

Aside from aesthetics, there is another hurdle to overcome in persuading authors to participate in the project -- a lack of knowledge about open-access publishing, said Seth Denbo, director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives for the American Historical Association.

“Most historians don’t spend a lot of time thinking about scholarly communication. We write books, and publishers publish them,” said Denbo, who is advising the pilot. Though awareness of open-access publishing is growing, Denbo suggests many authors might not fully understand what open access publishing means or believe it holds negative connotations. “There’s a perception that it’s not good quality, that it’s thrown up on the web with no peer review.”

Historians are unlikely to make great fortunes from authoring monographs, but the fact that they won’t make money from the digital sales of their book could give some scholars pause, said Denbo. On the other hand, the pilot "could allow us to publish scholarship that was previously unpublishable," he said, particularly if the work is an obscure field. 

"That's one big difference with monographs, authors get money when a book sells, which doesn't happen for journals ever," said Jeff Kosokoff, assistant university librarian for collection strategy at Duke University. But he doesn't think the loss of income would be a huge deterrent to authors considering making their work open-access. "I think most authors will tell you that income is very small." 

In both journal and book publishing, though the sales model is very different, the objective of the author is usually the same, said Kosokoff. "Authors want to get tenure, have an impact, engage in conversations, raise their stature and become known and acknowledged for being good scholars." 

The stripped-back approach to formatting being tested in the OA monograph pilot might not be right for everyone -- particularly those working in the digital humanities, said Denbo. There are other monograph initiatives, such as Lever Press, that are pushing the boundaries of what monographs can be -- incorporating images, videos and 3-D models.

There is room for lots of experimentation and a variety of approaches, said Denbo. The most important objective is to make historians' work more accessible and visible, he said.

“We have a real problem with the broad discoverability of our ideas."  

Challenging Economics

It can often take university presses two to three years to recoup the costs they put into producing a book, and many operate on tight budgets, said Sherer. Just this week, Stanford University threatened to pull financial support for Stanford University Press.

“Creating affordable, high-quality monographs is inherently deficit publishing, and yet it’s at the core of what university presses do,” said Sherer. “That doesn’t mean presses shouldn’t be striving for sustainability, even if it requires a significant change in how presses operate. And that’s exactly the type of intervention we’re attempting.”

“The scaling and standardization and digital-first features we’re embracing make many people uncomfortable,” he said. “While our project is simply a pilot with limited funding, we do believe that in the long run, institutions might be more willing to fund high-quality monographs that are produced at lower costs and harness the power of the web to distribute exponentially more broadly than we’ve ever been able to before.”

Open access monographs often rely on patronage from libraries, universities or research funders, but this patronage can be hard to come by, said Don Waters, senior program officer for scholarly communications at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

While the Mellon Foundation has been happy to support experiments that build publishers' capacity to produce open access books, it doesn't want to become the funding mechanism for publishing these books in the long-term, said Waters. 

"We are not as passionate about open access as we are about providing the means for scholars to use the digital environment to communicate their ideas. That's really the objective of our funding," said Waters. "To do that in a way that is affordable for all the parties involved is a really delicate balance."

For many university presses, the digital publishing realm is still new, and "actually pretty expensive" because it is not yet familiar, said Waters. "With practice and imagination, we expect the costs to come down."

Not only will the OA history monograph pilot introduce new digital publishing practices to university presses, but it will also help them gauge interest and demand in new titles before going to print, said Waters. "That is a really wonderful idea." 

Martin Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, said the economics of monographs make open-access publishing challenging, even for the most well-funded presses.

There are lots of interesting OA monograph initiatives out there, but many have limited resources, said Kosokoff. "I think people haven't been willing to take the risk to lead a real transformation." 

There are several open-access initiatives, such as Knowledge Unlatched, which have crowdsourced funds from libraries to make scholarly books open access. This model has “shown great promise in mitigating the economic challenges,” said Eve. But when Knowledge Unlatched became a for-profit company, it lost some support from librarians, he said.

Groups like ScholarLed, punctum books, Open Humanities Press and Open Book Publishers are making encouraging progress but are still operating on a small scale, said Eve.

“I hope for a universal open-access ecosystem for books, but the economics remain tough,” said Eve. “That said, we manage to pay for the books that are published at present (they are, after all, published). Figuring out how to redistribute those costs for OA, in a fair way, is the core challenge in my view.”

The nature of monograph publishing and a shortage of funding in the humanities and social sciences “makes it tough to find a sustainable model” for OA publishing, agrees Watkinson. That said, there are open monograph publishers, such as LuminosOA from the University of California, which have been successful in seeking funding from a mixture of sources -- institutional support, print sales and membership schemes. 

“There is such a strong move toward open-access journals and articles at the moment. I worry that if specialist monographs don’t go open access, the work of humanists and qualitative social scientists who work in long-form modes will become less visible,” said Watkinson.

“I don’t want monographs to be left behind.”

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