Small Publishers Find a Niche with Open Access Books

Small Publishers Find a Niche with Open Access Books

University presses, learned societies and small commercial publishers that have been the most vulnerable to disruption brought by the Internet, open access (OA) movement and tight library budgets are starting to experiment with models for publishing OA books. The good news for them? Three of the five most dominate academic publishers are not.

Simba Information has examined the open access publishing market in two recent reports: Open Access Book Publishing 2016-2020 and Open Access Journal Publishing 2016-2020. Our research revealed that the large traditional subscription-based publishers are all actively involved in OA journals, but the same is not true in OA books.

Springer Nature’s Palgrave Macmillan and Informa’s Routledge have OA book programs, but Elsevier, John Wiley & Sons and Wolters Kluwer do not.

Social Science & Humanities Publishers Early Adopters

The reality of the market is that scholarly and academic books of all disciplines are in decline. Print sales have simply fallen faster than paid e-books have been able to replace them. The monograph, so reliant on the academic library, has been hit the hardest. This falls heavily on the social sciences and humanities (SSH), where the monograph is often the format of choice for publishing research. So it is not surprising that SHH monograph publishers have been the first to try new models.

Springer Nature and Informa are committed to social science and humanities books and open access. In books, their major initiatives have been the development of large digital subject collections of SSH monographs. These two majors have “journalized” their books the most—collecting and presenting them as searchable digital content—bringing them one step closer to potentially going all-in on OA books.

Elsevier is the largest scientific, technical and medical (STM) publisher in the world and has fiercely defended its copyrights and paywall in the face of sharp criticism from open access advocates. Wolters Kluwer is a leader in medical publishing that also derives most of its revenue from traditional models. Both companies offer open access options on the journal side. However, SSH publishing is not a significant component of either company’s portfolio, which partly explains why they have not launched OA book programs.

John Wiley & Sons does feature a strong mix of STM and SSH publishing dating back to its acquisition of Blackwell Publishing, but it has not launched an OA book publishing program either.

Smaller Publishers Experiment Out of Necessity

Of course, revenue from OA books is very small and it promises to be for some time, so there is no rush for a publisher with a large profitable list to break off in this direction. But smaller publishers, which have seen monograph sales fall from the thousands to low hundreds over recent decades, are looking for the path forward—as are SSH scholars who have new research to publish and want to reach the widest possible audience.

The typical OA book publisher among the 160 listed in the Directory of Open Access Books is a scholarly European publisher. Some are ancient companies in need of a rebirth; others have been in existence less than 25 years. About one quarter of them are university presses.

Funding Options for Open Access Books

Funding for OA books come from a variety of sources. Open access book publishers employ author fees, known as article processing charge (APC) in the journal market, but to a greater extent they also tap into library budgets, advertising and direct subsidies. Newer models have emerged around crowdfunding.

Research funders extended their open access publishing mandates to books ten years after they started putting strings on their journal funding. The Wellcome Trust took the initiative in 2013 and quickly moved to demonstrate support for SSH. These mandates will help, but primarily in STM subjects, which traditionally have larger research budgets. Mandates will nudge even large STM publishers to publish at least a few OA books.

SSH OA books will go down a different path. It will not be driven by APCs, though that proportion will grow, particularly in multi-disciplinary subjects, which are some of the fastest growing fields of research funding. SSH OA will continue to rely on a mix of financial support including direct and indirect subsidies. Crowdfunding adds the benefit of bringing libraries into decision making and will be attractive in certain disciplines.

Simba forecasts strong growth in OA book revenue and title output over the next four years, albeit from a small base. For small publishers, the chance to establish a niche in a growth segment of an industry undergoing radical changes, with less threat of competition from academic publishing’s powerhouses, should prove attractive.■