Will Open Access disrupt Books even more than Journals?

October 25, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Open Access (OA) week is drawing to a close, so I thought I’d take a look at the stats for How Change Happens, published three years ago this week. They were pretty mind blowing, at least for an author.

HCH was published by Oxford University Press and has been OA since day 1 – you can download the pdf for free, or just read it online via Google Books and other platforms. For the first twoyears, as I wrote this time last year, the publisher reckoned OA helped publicize the book and garner some extra sales of print copies and ebooks.

But what’s happened in year 3 is totally different. The sales figures for HCH suggest that the print version of the work had a very defined life of a couple of years, and print sales have slowed to a trickle. Not so OA – total readership doubled in year 3 (October to October), from 70,000 to 142,000.

For the graphically minded, it’s all here – the yellow line is sales tailing off; blue is pdf downloads which are rising steadily, and the green line is online readers, which have taken off (and remember, 2019 figures are only up to end September).

How Change Happens sales

This makes a strong case for HCH being a successful OA initiative, and it certainly seems to have boosted dissemination, but that’s not true of all books and this is one of the complicating factors in thinking about bringing OA to books: one size does not fit all. Some, more scholarly, monographs have a much longer shelf life, for example. One option there is for book publishers to follow journals in charging fees to authors and institutions wishing to go OA. On How Change Happens, we waived royalties in return for OA, which came to the same thing for HCH, but wouldn’t for the smaller sales of more academic tomes.

Most publishers charge around £10,000 per book (which, per word, is a lot cheaper than the ‘author processing charges’ levied by academic journals). Some (including my publisher, Oxford University Press) are also able to offer a ‘restrospective OA’ option where the charge falls for each year after publication, on the basis that as print sales are secured there can be a proportionate reduction in the OA charge.

Fly Fishing by JR Hartley
Now in OA pdf

Which conjures up a lovely image  of a postscript to an iconic ad from the 1970s where JR Hartley, having scoured bookshops for his out of print book, could instead rustle up the money for the publisher to make the work available digitally in perpetuity and  achieve publishing immortality for Fly Fishing – balm to the authorial soul.

It seems to me that the potential for disruption of book publishing by OA could be even more profound than that for academic journals. The drivers are a combination of  the benefits of open research, technology, and the demands of research funders. Kristalina Georgieva, the new boss of the IMF, announced earlier this month (para 7) that it will make all its research OA from the start of next year (the World Bank got there a while ago).

From the funding side a significant amount of attention is being given to Plan S, described by no less an OA pioneer than Wikipedia as ‘an initiative for open-access science publishing that was launched by Science Europe on 4 September 2018. It is an initiative of “cOAlition S”, a consortium launched by major national research agencies and funders from twelve European countries. The plan requires scientists and researchers who benefit from state-funded research organisations and institutions to publish their work in open repositories or in journals that are available to all by 2021.’

Many researchers rely on funding from governments and other official bodies, so initiatives like Plan S will have a huge impact on the way they publish their work.

We’re looking at an industry transformed: everything free online, small runs of print on demand paper copies for relevant events and moments; a fluid world where what matters is the electronic file, while the particular channels through which it gets in front of our eyeballs varies according to time, place and book (if I can still use that word). Who pays for it is going to be a headache, but in terms of readership, the future looks brilliant!

Plus nice write up of a range of OA issues in academia on the LSE Impact blog

October 25, 2019
Duncan Green