Sunday, May 8, 2011

Open Access eBooks, Part 3. Business Models for Creation

No Shelf Required: E-books in LibrariesHere's the third section of my draft of a book chapter for a book edited by No Shelf Required's Sue Polanka. I previously posted the introduction; and What does Open Access mean for eBooks subsequent posts will cover Open Access E-Books in Libraries and a Conclusion. Note that while the blog always uses "ebook" as one word, the book will use the hyphenated form, "e-book". The comments on the second section prompted me to make significant revisions, which I have posted.

Business Models for Creation of Open Access E-Books

Any model for e-book publishing must have a business model for recouping the expenses of production: reviewing, editing, formatting, design, etc. In this section, we’ll review methods that can be used to support Open Access e-book publishing.

In 2009 Cory Doctorow put together a collection of short stories called “With a Little Help” and documented the process of publishing it in a series of columns on Publisher’s Weekly. He used a variety of business models to support the project, as detailed below, and the e-book version was released under a Creative Common License.

DIY publishing models

One way to meet the costs of e-book production is to keep those costs close to zero. Free blogging sites have made it simple for authors to produce blogs and other sorts of websites; additional tools are available to add keywords, links, and images. Other tools can convert a blog or similar website to the EPUB e-book format; EPUB export is available in Apple’s Pages word processor and it’s likely that other programs will soon follow suit.

With a Little HelpGiven these tools, authors can produce e-books on their own, with no other expense than the value of their time. For With a Little Help Doctorow did most of the production himself; as the title suggests, he got friends to help out with things such as cover and book design.

In the “Do It Yourself” or DIY model, there are essentially no expenses to recoup. If the author wants to earn something, additional money needs to be spent on an ISBN and a bit more to get metadata into a feed for Amazon. But if income is not the object, the e-book can simply be posted on a website and made available to the world. A CC license allows the e-books to be distributed in a wide variety of channels.

In fact, with the consent of the editor, this book chapter will be released as a DIY Open Access e-book in EPUB format, with a CC BY-ND license. The author hopes to profit primarily from the experience of doing so.

Freemium models

“Freemium” refers to the business model, common on websites, to offer one level of service for free, and then, when the user is solidly hooked on the use of the service, to offer them a premium level of service for a fee. The difficulty of this model is to have a service that’s attractive enough at the free level of service to drive premium conversions, and at the same time to have the free service be limited enough that upgrades deliver significant value.

In the e-book space, the traditional premium service is typically either the print version or an updated or otherwise enhanced digital edition. O’Reilly has used this model to great effect, by allowing authors to make free PDF versions available on websites while O’Reilly sells print versions through traditional channels.

In Doctorow’s project, he offered Print-on-demand versions through for $18 each, along with 250 “super-limited hardcovers” for $275 each: These were hand-bound on acid-free paper and included original paper “ephemera”, and came with a memory card with the full text of the book and audiobook. The $275 version turned out to be the big moneymaker.

As e-book readers become preferred over print by users, using print as a revenue engine may run out of steam. Bloomsbury Academic is building a platform that also uses e-book versions as the premium. While CC noncommercial versions are available for reading online, the books will also be issued for purchase in print and on Kindle and Sony readers. It’s possible that publishers will look at enhancing e-books with supplementary content or deep semantic mark-up as their revenue driver; a bare-bones Open Access version would serve as promotional vehicles for the core product.

Advertising and promotional models

Cost-free and Open-Access content can promote more than just a premium edition of the same content. E-Book formats are much like HTML web sites in that they can embed links; even javascript functionality is becoming available in e-book content. Publishers can use these types of functionality to generate revenue through advertising. A quick look at iPad or Android App Stores reveals a huge selection of free, advertising-supported Apps, including many apps that simply wrap e-book content.

In one scenario where this might happen, an author of a book series might produce an OA electronic version of the first in the series. The free e-book could have embedded links or “in-app purchase” buttons for subsequent books in the series. OA E-books might also be supported by contextual links and/or product placement; imagine a story featuring a sports car where the brand and model of the car are chosen based on support from a car company.

Another type of promotion that can be furthered by all types of free e-books is personal brand-building. It could be argued that Cory Doctorow’s biggest payoff from the With a Little Help project was that it increased his fame and thus his ability to make money on appearances, commissions, and on the Boing-Boing website. (One story in the collection was a $10,000 commission) Seth Godin

Public funding

Some books, such as those relating to education, public health, political or social advocacy, or scientific research, fulfill a public purpose. Publication of these books using a form of Open Access will further their public purpose. The costs of production and release of these-books can financed by foundations, charities, political action committees, private individuals, or governments.

European governments have joined together to fund the digitization and distribution of cultural heritage works through Europeana. Funded by the European Commission and national ministries of culture, Europeana acts as a portal enabling distribution of large numbers of OA e-books. In the US, books created by the federal government belong by law to the public domain, but there’s no centralized funding of OA e-books or their distribution.

In developing countries, governments seeking to provide textbooks to large numbers of student will eventually find that producing e-textbooks, released for free, is the only scalable method of providing for their national educational needs. Many states in India, for example, already release their state-published textbooks on an OA basis.

A variation on public funding for OA e-books in the context of academic monograph publishing has been proposed by Frances Pinter. Her idea is for libraries to join together in a cooperative, diverting a fraction of their acquisition budgets to fund the fixed costs of producing new monographs by university and commercial scholarly presses, which would then be made Open Access. She estimates that individual libraries could save over 75%, depending on the participation rate.

Another sort of public funding model with a long history of use is the “tip-jar”, or more profitably, the pay-what-you want model. Here, the creator urges his audience to leave some money as a “thank you” in return for value received. Doctorow reported receiving over $1200 using a Paypal-powered donation box, which actually did better than his print-on-demand offering.


Wikipedia and the more specialized wiki sites it has spawned are excellent examples of Internet resources created by large numbers of individuals working together virtually. These volunteer collaborations have replaced printed encyclopedias for most people, and might be considered to be the largest, most dynamic Open Access e-books in existence. Most users wouldn’t consider these websites to be books, even though the printed equivalents certainly were.

An organization called “Distributed Proofreaders” (DP) is an aggregation of volunteer effort clearly focused on e-books. Many of the digital texts in Project Gutenberg have been produced by DP volunteers who check and correct OCR transcriptions of scanned books. While OCR (optical character recognition) can be very accurate for modern books, books and magazines printed in the nineteenth century and earlier present a variety of challenges. The resulting digitized works are dedicated to the public domain.


The model that the author is working on at Gluejar Inc. is crowd funding. It’s analogous to the method that public radio and public television is funded in the U.S., except that every book that’s to be released with a Creative Commons license has a fund drive of its own. Once the producer’s price has been matched by reader pledges, an Open Access e-book is released. The pledge drives are managed by a website.

Authors have used crowd-funding websites such as to cover the expenses of completing a new book. For example, Mur Lafferty raised over $19,000 from more than 250 backers to fund book design, cover design, and e-book conversion for a fantasy audio series. In a few cases, the projects use Creative Commons licenses. Stephen Duncombe, a Professor at NYU, has been trying to raise $3500 to fund the further production of an open-source version of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, which is distributed with a CC BY-SA license. (Of course the underlying work is in the public domain, but the new translations, annotations, and commentary is subject to copyright.)

To get a better idea of how crowd-funding might scale to large numbers of books, consider the author of a romance series. Rights for the earliest books in the series have reverted to her, but there’s no cash to convert the book to e-book formats. She contacts the pledge-drive website, and enters an offer to release the first book under a Creative Commons license in exchange for a lump sum payment that she considers to be fair and which covers the conversion to e-book. Fans of the series can then go to the site and pledge support. If the author's offer price is met, supporters get billed, and the author gets the payment. The resulting e-book file is sent to all the people who have pledged, and put on a feed for the rest of the world to pick up. Since the e-book is now Creative Commons licensed, it can be redistributed for free.

In another scenario, a reader launches the pledge campaign, perhaps someone who has found the book in a library. The library metadata is pushed to the pledge-drive site and other fans can pledge their support. Eventually, the pledge amount gets big enough to attract notice from rights holders, who can then show up, deliver the e-book, and take the cash off the table and divide it among themselves.

  1. Cory Doctorow's With a Little Help Project
  2. Bloomsbury Academic
  3. Seth Godin's What Matters Now
  4. Europeana
  5. Distributed Proofreaders
  6. Mur Lafferty's Kickstarter Project- The Afterlife Series: Heaven, Hell, Earth, Wasteland, War
  7. Stephen Duncombe's Open Utopia project on Kickstarter:The Open Utopia: A New Kind of Old Book 
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  1. Posted for Jodi Schneider:

    "EPUB export is available in Apple’s Pages word processor and it’s likely that other programs will soon follow suit."--I think several others already have. Liz Castro, of, is who I'd ask.

    For instance, you can convert easily with Pandoc, a markdown processor that can also take input from text, HTML, etc.

    Regarding freemiums, consider citing Kevin Kelly's "Better than Free". Here's my summary which links to the PDF. I also noticed a Readercon panel on funding models for books which might be relevant.

    Seems like something is missing here: "(One story in the collection was a $10,000 commission) Seth Godin"

    "She estimates that individual libraries could save over 75%, depending on the participation rate." -- I assume that's 75% of acquisition costs; it's worth making that explicit since there are other costs. This is definitely worth citing so that others can follow up on it.

    It might also be worth mentioning DP's methods (i.e. how very, very distributed they are.) As a side note, I'd really like a way to mark pages as needing review, then push them back to Project Gutenberg and similar projects. I frequently notice typos while reading which I'm too lazy to check and report later.

    Stephen Duncombe did get more than the amount of funding he asked for in his kickstarter project

    Indicating citations and footnotes (i.e. that they exist) in the text would be useful; I didn't notice them until getting to the endnotes.

    I'm looking forward to the published version -- this is great stuff, Eric, and I loved part 2!

  2. These were hand-bound on acid-free paper and included original paper “ephemera”, and came with a memory card with the full text of the book and audiobook. The $275 version turned out to be the big moneymaker.

    Reminiscent of the books for sale in Anthropologie, isn't it? Book as decorative or lifestyle object, social signifier.

    I guess given how nakedly obvious it was in this case that they weren't paying for the content, it had better be an excellent container.