This work package (WP3) and the questions associated with it surrounded potential revenue streams in an open-access world. Participants were asked to reflect on their experiences of revenue models, but also cost models, in an open-access world of books.
Print and its subsidy or otherwise was a recurring theme in our discussion. Conventional university press publishers noted that they had seen year-on-year decline in print revenue sales volume. On the other hand, new OA startup university presses had seen a steady increase in their sales of print alongside the OA edition – perhaps unsurprisingly given that they were starting from zero. It was notable, however, that these presses had seen sales of print, even though they had begun from a point at which a digital edition was available openly. That said, it was noted that acquisitions librarians were becoming more sceptical of print purchases as they contended with shelf space and other ingest requirements leading to the humorous suggestion that a potential business model for open-access books could be: pay us, or we’ll send you a print copy!
Among the new university press startups that featured in our discussions, a key theme was the role of institutional subsidy. Many of these presses were treated as cost centres, rather than revenue centres, by their institutions – although there was always an imperative to recover as many costs as possible and break-even was a desirable outcome. Instead, several of these presses appear to be operating in the reputational/prestige space for institutions that wish to push their brand into the global research environment. Certainly, if institutional finances will permit this, it remains an excellent way to operate a press for the public good – a kind of “generous thinking”, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick might have it, even while there are key benefits for the institutions operating such presses themselves. At a time when some US universities have threatened cuts to their own presses, it is heartening and welcome to see such progress. On the other hand, presses that receive subsidies, but that then charge authors/institutions as well through BPCs, must take care not to present a “priceberg” of their revenue model that appears transparent, but that actually submerges much of the realistic detail (e.g. estates costs and staff costs provided on an in-kind basis).
Cost models were also hotly debated, though. For there is little point in discussing revenues unless one commensurately measures these against costs. One of the core costs for US university presses lies in retaining a team of commissioning editors to travel to major events and to have such figures working with authors throughout the writing process. Indeed, this is seen as a unique selling point of these presses; that they can work with authors to sculpt the book into a better artefact. In this sense, some of these costs are a type of “dark art” that, in reality, is institutional training for authors at other institutions. How happy would university presses be to think that they subsidise the writing training of authors at other universities with whom they nominally compete? Perhaps not very, but as one participant pointed out, this is in some ways the “infrastructure of humanities scholarship” – an interlinked network of nodes that improves work through collaboration. The challenge is that this cost is not made visible or frequently understood in this way.
Featured image from Unsplash by Fabian Blank. Excluded from the CC BY license.