Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Open Access for Backlist Books, Part I: The Slush Pile

"Kale emerging from a slush pile"
(CC BY, Eric Hellman)
Book publishers hate their "slush pile": books submitted for publication unsolicited, rarely with literary merit and unlikely to make money for the publisher if accepted. In contrast, book publishers love their backlist; a strong backlist is what allows a book publisher to remain consistently profitable even when most of their newly published books fail to turn a profit. A publisher's backlist typically consists of a large number of "slushy" books that generate negligible income and a few steady "evergreen" earners. Publishers don't talk much about the backlist slush pile, maybe because it reminds them of their inability to predict a book's commercial success.

With the advent of digital books has come new possibilities for generating value from the backlist slush pile. Digital books can be kept "in print" at essentially no cost (printed books need warehouse space) which has allowed publishers to avoid rights reversion in many cases. Some types of books can be bundled in ebook aggregations that can be offered on a subscription basis. This is reminiscent of the way investment bankers created valuable securities by packaging junk bonds with opaque derivatives.

Open access is a more broadly beneficial way to generate value from the backlist slush pile. There is a reason that libraries keep large numbers of books on their shelves even when they don't circulate for years. The myriad ways that books can create value doesn't have to be tied to book sales, as I wrote in my previous post.

Those of us who want to promote Open Access for backlist ebooks have a number of strategies at our disposal. The most basic strategy is to promote the visibility of these books. Libraries can add listings for these ebooks in their catalogs. Aggregators can make these books easier to find.

Switching backlist books to Open Access licenses can be expensive and difficult. While the cost of digitization has dropped dramatically over the past decade, quality control is still a significant conversion expense. Licensing-related expenses are sometimes large. Unlike journals and journal articles, academic books are typically covered by publishing agreements that give authors royalties on sales and licensing, and give authors control over derivative works such as translations. No publisher would consent to OA relicensing without the consent and support of the author. For older books, a publisher may not even have electronic rights (in the US, the Tasini decision established that electronic rights are separate from print rights), or may need to have a lawyer interpret the language of the original publishing contract. 

While most scholarly publishers obtain worldwide rights to the books they publish, rights for trade books are very often divided among markets. Open-access licenses such as the Creative Commons licenses are not limited to markets, so a license conversion would require the participation of every rights holder worldwide. 

The CC BY license can be problematic for books containing illustrations or figures used by permission from third party rights holders. "All Rights Reserved" illustrations are often included in Open Access Books, but they are carved out of the license by separate rights statements, and to be safe, publishers use the CC BY-ND or CC BY-ND-NC license for the complete book, as the permissions do not cover derivative works. Since the CC BY license allows derivative works, it cannot be used in cases where translation rights have been sold (without also buying out the translation rights). A publisher cannot use a CC BY license for a translated work without also having rights to the original work.

The bottom line is that converting a backlist book to OA often requires economic motivations quite apart from any lost sales. Luckily, there's evidence that opening access can lead to increased sales. Nagaraj and Reimers found that digitization and exposure through Google Books increased sales of print editions by 35% for books in the Public Domain.  In addition, a publisher's commercial position and prestige can be enhanced by the attribution requirement in Creative Commons licenses.

Additional motivation for OA conversion of the backlist slush pile has been supplied by programs such as used by Knowledge Unlatched, where libraries contribute to to a fund used for "unlatching" backlist books. (Knowledge Unlatched has programs for front list books as well.) While such programs can in principle be applied for the "evergreen" backlist, the incentives currently in place result in the unlatching of books in the "slush pile" backlist. While value for society is being gained this way, the willingness of publishers to "unlatch" hundreds of these books poses the question of how much library funding for Open Access should be allocated to the discount bin, as opposed to the backlist books most used in libraries. That's the topic of my next post! 


This is the second in a series of posts about creating value of Open Access books. The others are:


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