Friday, February 12, 2021

Creating Value with Open Access Books

Can a book be more valuable if it's free? How valuable? To whom? How do we unlock this value?

a lock with ebooks
I've been wrestling with these questions for over ten years now.  And for each of these questions, the answer is... it depends. A truism of the bookselling business is that "Every book is different" and the same is true of the book freeing "business".

Recently there's been increased interest in academic communities around Open Access book publishing and in academic book relicensing (adding an Open Access License to an already published book). Both endeavors have been struggling with the central question of how to value an open access book. The uncertainty in OA book valuation has led to many rookie mistakes among OA stakeholders. For example, when we first started, we assumed that reader interest would accelerate the relicensing process for older books whose sales had declined. But the opposite turned out to be true. Evidence of reader interest let rights holders know that these backlist titles were much more valuable than sales would indicate, thus precluding any notion of making them Open Access. Pro tip: if you want to pay a publisher to make a books free, don't publish your list of incredibly valuable books!

Instead of a strictly transactional approach, it's more useful to consider the myriad ways that academic books create value. Each of these value mechanisms offer buttons that we can push to promote open access, and point to new structures for markets where participants join together to create mutual value.

First, consider the book's reader. The value created is the reader's increased knowledge, understanding and sometimes, sheer enjoyment. The fact of open access does not itself create the value, but removes some of the barriers which might suppress this value. It's almost impossible to quantify the understanding and enjoyment from books; but "hours spent reading" might be a useful proxy for it.

Next consider a book's creator. While a small number of creators derive an income stream from their books, most academic authors benefit primarily from the development and dissemination of their ideas. In many fields of inquiry, publishing a book is the academic's path to tenure. Educators (and their students!) similarly benefit. In principle, you might assess a textbook's value by measuring student performance.

The value of a book to a publisher can be more than just direct sales revenue. A widely distributed book can be a marketing tool for a publisher's entire business. In the world of Open Access, we can see new revenue models emerging - publication charges, events, sponsorships, even grants and memberships. 

The value of a book to society as a whole can be enormous. In areas of research, a book might lead to technological advances, healthier living, or a more equitable society. Or a book might create outrage, civil strife, and misinformation. That's another issue entirely!

Books can be valuable to secondary distributors as well. Both used book resellers and libraries add value to physical books by increasing their usage. This is much harder to accomplish for paywalled ebooks! Since academic libraries are often considered as potential funding sources for Open Access publishing it's worth noting that the value of an open access ebook to a library is entirely indirect. When a library acts as an Open Access funding source, it's acting as a proxy for the community it serves.

This brings us to communities. The vast majority of books create value for specific communities, not societies as a whole. I believe that community-based funding is the most sustainable path for support of Open Access Books. Community supported OA article publishing has already had plenty of support. Communities organized by discipline have been particularly successful: consider the success that ArXiv has had in promoting Open Access in physics, both at the preprint level and for journals in high-energy physics. A similar story can be told for biomedicine, Pubmed and Pubmed Central. A different sort of community success story has been SciELO, which has used Open Access to address challenges faced by scholars in Latin America.

So far, however, sustainable Open Access has proven to be challenging for scholarly ebooks. My next few posts will discuss the challenges and ways forward for support of ebook relicensing and for OA ebook creation:


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