Business Models for Open Access Books—A Compendium

On 15 February 2022, the Open Access Scholarly Publishing Association (OASPA) sponsored a webinar documenting some of the business models of a range of open access book presses. The webinar was chaired by Lucy Barnes of Open Book Publishers (OBP), a non-profit, scholar-led, independent open access book publisher in the UK. She asked the panelists not only about their diverse open access book publishing models but also why these particular models were selected. Four case studies were presented.

Critical questions: How can open access books be funded? How are they currently funded? What are some of the currently available funding and business models? Why were these particular models selected?

Publishing in an African context

The first presenter, Editor and Publishing Manager François van Schalkwyk, explained the OA access model of African Minds. He briefly outlined the context of open access publishing in the general African context vs. the more specific South African context. For example, on the continent of Africa, there are no overarching institutional or governmental policies supporting open access. That said, universities in South Africa may receive government publication subsidies, meaning that, in South Africa, publishing generates income for these universities. Therefore, funding may be available to some researchers. For this reason, African Minds publishes books using a hybrid model. Where funding is available, page fees or book processing charges (BPCs) are applied and the book is published as Gold Open Access. Where funding is not available, the book is published as Diamond Open Access and the author is not billed.[1] [2]

Usage-based publishers

Beth Bouloukos, the second presenter, is from Amherst College Press and Lever Press. Both are Platinum Open Access presses, also known as Diamond Open Access, and library funded, meaning the publishing fees are not billed to the author. Amherst College Press is funded fully by Amherst College, and Lever Press is a consortium of 44 US campuses and is funded thusly. Also, Amherst College Press is open access, digital first and peer-reviewed. Amherst College Press, in line with Amherst College’s focus, primarily publishes research in the humanities, music, literature and art history. Rather than focusing on book sales, the priorities are the audience, distribution and promotion of the books in new geographic locations.

Lever Press has a strong readership all over the globe, which enables new partnership with a diverse array of libraries. The Lever Consortium model is flexible, and the cost of becoming a member of Lever Press ranges from 5000 USD to 12000 USD (4630 to 11,120 CHF), depending on the size of the university. Direct production costs are an average of 6000 USD (5560 CHF), but this cost estimate does not include yearly subscriptions, such as for Fulcrum. An interesting distinction of Lever Press is their use of the platform Fulcrum, which allows them to have media-rich offerings, such as digital books. Fulcrum builds functionalities within the program with the aim of improving accessibility by publishing books with alt text, audiovisual material and PDFs and ePub available for use on laptops and mobiles.

Additional note: Amherst College Press and Lever Press are not market based, but rather usage based. The usage reports across platforms are significantly higher than in traditional publishing thanks to the accessibility.

Diamond Open Access books

Julien McHardy from Mattering Press was third to speak. Mattering Press, a press for open access books within relational research on science, technology and society run by PhD students, believes knowledge dissemination cannot meaningfully be separated from production. As another Diamond Open Access publisher, their books are published at no cost to the author and freely available as eBooks, HTMLs and PDFs, similar to Lever Press, but in stark contrast to larger commercial presses that only offer PDFs.

The board of Mattering Press is made up of individuals who donate their time and handle the majority of production. Only aspects such as copy edit are outsourced, and these are the only individuals paid traditionally for their work. Mattering Press charges a flat fee of 6000 GBP (7320 CHF) to the institution, and the bare bones production cost, excluding hidden labor costs, is around 2500 GBP (3050 CHF). McHardy made a point of noting that this is not Mattering Press’ business model per se, but rather an opportunistic way of functioning.

Commercial interests

McHardy took the end of the presentation to dig deeper into the notion of a business model and how it has been so seamlessly naturalized and widely circulated. He finds that the alignment of individual needs and commercial flows has been thoughtlessly imposed on, for example, public interest organizations funded with public money. In his opinion, this alignment (often wrongly) assumes that book publishing can be considered a business with some level of sustainability and targeted growth. Meanwhile, he asserts that this industry, out of necessity, must continue to be subsidized.

Although for a time Mattering Press began to be run more as a business, this has since tapered off and they have returned to their earlier way of working, with less interest in conforming to a sustainable contemporary business model. In his closing statement, McHardy asked listeners to take a step back and think of publishing not via the lens of a traditional business model but as a mode of collaboration and a relationship between production and labor over financial flows.

Queer-led publishing

Vincent van Gerven Oei spoke on behalf of Punctum Books as the fourth and final panelist. Punctum Books is a queer-led public benefit corporation that publishes under what van Gerven Oei wittily described as a Sparkling Diamond Open Access license. No mandatory book processing charge is applied, although Punctum does accept payment from authors with access to institutional funding, and authors retain their copyright and can select their license (most publish under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0). They publish between 30 and 40 publications per year and aim to handle the majority of production in house, with the aid of a group of freelance copy editors. Trans-disciplinary research is highly valued; as are the humanities, social sciences, arts and architecture. The books are not only peer reviewed but also engaged with deeply on a scholarly level.

As a scholar-led press, the team at Punctum Books is part of the peer review process. When Punctum Books becomes involved in a project, they do everything in their power to assure the book can be brought to a publishable standard. They decouple financial considerations from editorial considerations, more in line with a trade press, and publish books in which they have an interest and with which they can best engage.

The reviews are carefully tailored to the needs of the editor or author, and peer reviews can be open or blind, decided collaboratively. The BPC is about 5500 USD (5095 CHF) per book, and the books are available in depositories such as OAPEN, JSTOR, and Project MUSE, and as hard copies available via print on demand, which can be ordered via KDP, Amazon and book stores such as Fahert Books & Associates or academic libraries such as Gobi and YBP, and open metadata via Thoth. OAPEN and JSTOR have been the most effective methods of dissemination.

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[1] The primary difference between these two publishing models is whether an author (or in some cases the institution) is billed, as in Gold Open Access, or not, as in Diamond Open Access.

[2] All currency conversions in this article are a rounded average and are based on the exchange rate on 10 March 2022.