Cambridge scholars taking monograph publishing into their own hands
“Frustration!” exclaim Rupert Gatti and Alessandra Tosi, almost in unison, when asked about the motivation behind setting up Open Book Publishers, a not-for-profit open access publisher of monographs in the humanities and social sciences, run by Cambridge-based scholars.
Tosi, co-founder and managing director of the operation, picks up the story. An academic specialising in early 19th century Russian literature, she was delighted when her PhD about a group of little-known Russian authors was published by a Dutch company. Her delight was short-lived however, when she realised that her book was being sold for 85 euros and therefore only accessible in a handful of research libraries and with very few scholars in Russia able to read it because few scholars in Russia could afford to buy it.
“You sign a contract and give away the copyright of your book forever,” explains Tosi. “I couldn’t reach my readers and I couldn’t do anything about it because the work belonged to the publisher now, it wasn’t mine anymore. I realised that this is madness! We are doing all the work – as academics we do the peer review, I had to do all the formatting and all the publisher is doing is distribution – and I realised that this model really does not work for academia. So we tried to do something about it.”
The result was Open Book Publishers (OBP) which now has 15 books in its catalogue and some big plans for the future.
All OBP works are freely available online through Google Books and are soon to be available for free in an xml version on the OBP site. OBP’s co-founder and director Gatti likens the model to some of the initiatives we have seen from the music industry. “We stream a version for free and then charge for the other editions. If you want a version for your Kindle or a pdf you can print then you pay for it. But the charges are low in comparison with other ebooks [£4.95] and come without any digital rights management on them, as a creative commons file,” he says. It is also possible to buy a printed copy – OBP use the print on demand company Lightning Source – and this, too, is at a rate that compares favourably to commercial academic publishers with prices for paperbacks around £15.00 and hardbacks around £25
So how does OBP sustain itself? The full cost to OBP of publishing each book is in the range of £3500. Some authors are able to cover the full amount through publishing grants and authors are encouraged to apply for grants and contribute what they can to help cover the costs (about half of OBP’s revenue comes from those sources) but no author with a good quality book will be turned away for lack of money.
“If the work is deemed to be of high quality, through the stringent peer review process, then we will publish it even if the author cannot afford anything and that has happened with younger authors, especially. We are a not-for-profit enterprise, we would just like to break even. Everything is reinvested in our project. We care about quality more than anything else. That’s why we do it – to publish good works,” says Tosi.
OBP is certainly attracting both strong names – authors it publishes include the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen – and a growing readership. Figures from Google Books suggest there are currently around 130 readers per title per month around the world – in September 2011 OBP notched up readers from 77 countries including African countries, India, Pakistan, and China as well as UK and US.
“What we believe is that there is a large market for academic works which is not being tapped by existing publishers,” says Gatti. “We call it ‘the informed non-academic’. There are lots of people interested in some pretty narrow topic areas of academic research but they have been priced out of that knowledge market by the way that existing academic publishing targets libraries and charges £60 for a book. Without access to research libraries, and unable to pay such high prices for printed editions, intelligent non-academic readers are locked out from accessing new knowledge and research in areas of interest to them.”
As well as increased visibility to new audiences, and the growing reputation of OBP, the publisher also appeals to authors with its promise of speedy publication. OBP is increasingly receiving proposals from younger academics who are attracted by the possibility of having their book published in weeks rather than years – OBP aims to get a response back to authors from referees for a first draft of a manuscript within eight weeks – which may then enable them to apply for a particular position.
OBP’s speed of publication can also work to the benefit of readers as well as authors. Gatti offers the example of a forthcoming book on one of Cicero’s speeches. The speech has recently been adopted for the UK A-level course in Classics, but there is very little appropriate scholarly work on it for teachers and students to draw on. Recognising this problem, Professor Gildenhard, an expert on Cicero’s speeches, wrote a work over the summer and it will be rapidly turned around by OBP for a late autumn publication – in time to be of use to teachers and students this academic year.
OBP is working to set up commenting functions on the book’s area on the website so that teachers will be able to discuss passages, ask questions and have a dialogue with the author. This interactive element is an aspect OBP is aiming to develop further, along with placing additional digital material online, from image galleries to audio, to support titles.
For Gatti, these kinds of developments are what open access publishing is all about – moving from a static presentation of “a book” to a more dynamic, interactive and responsive concept of publishing.
“One of the strengths of open access publication is the regeneration, the recycling of the open access material itself, and also the dialogue and exchange between readers and the author of the published work. We want to develop the concept of the book and part of that is this process of facilitating dialogue – then you can update the book in response to that dialogue. It’s about making better use of open access and what open access is all about. It all looks pretty exciting. We think we’ll be able to pick up new ideas as they come along and run with them. We’ve got a lot of flexibility in how we can move – we’re not stuck in a rut of the old school publishing world,” concludes Gatti.