By John Sherer

Last month university presses came together for their annual convention in Philadelphia. This was only my fifth meeting so I lack the deep perspective that many of my colleagues in the UP world have, but I perceived signs of a shift in the center of gravity around conversations of open access. It’s a somewhat wobbly, but directionally clear migration toward engaging deeply with how OA might apply toward monographs.

We can point to a number of causes for this shift.
• More and more presses are becoming structurally affiliated with their libraries. In most of these cases, that concurrently brings a very high level of appreciation (or at least curiosity) for OA.
• As with any group this size, there has been churn in some of the leaders at presses. Many of these new leaders see OA as an issue that simply must be addressed—whether it is to endorse, criticize, optimize, or investigate. These leaders frequently posses a growing awareness that within much of scholarly publishing, funding models are shifting from ones of selling content to selling services.
• The maturation of analytical usage data for electronic editions held in institutional library collections is giving new insight into how our books are being discovered and used by scholars. Some of this data suggest that the discoverability afforded by OA may be leading to increased usage.
• Very much related to that, we are hearing about case studies where titles that are published in digital OA still have significant print revenue potential.
• Finally, while the sales pattern for print monographs continues its asymptotic decline approaching unsustainability, digital revenue has hit the hockey stick and essentially flattened. When we experienced triple digit growth in electronic formats just a few years ago, we had to be cautious about shifting to a model that would jeopardize that revenue. What it looks like we’re seeing now is a stabilizing of sales patterns, which allows us to consider new long-term revenue models. For me, now that digital sales have stagnated, I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s still worth protecting these digital revenue streams. The expenses for creating DRM, limiting distribution, and managing cost recovery might be close to equaling the revenue we’re seeing from digital formats. The next question becomes, what does long-term print revenue look like when digital is free?

While the conversation is shifting slowly from defensiveness, to curiosity and even inquisitiveness about how OA could and should look (and especially how within an OA environment university presses must retain value for we’re uniquely good at—identifying, enhancing, and disseminating high quality humanities texts) there’s still a wide range of opinions within the university press world about OA. That might stop us from being able to present a unified perspective, but I believe the diversity is a positive thing. We’ve seen what happened in the OA marketplace for journals when a few monolithic publishers wrote most of the rules. It may take the UP world more time to embrace OA, but you can rest assured that if we’re given the space and institutional support to work it out, the outcome should be one that our partners (authors, librarians, scholars, and students) will vigorously embrace.

Comments (1)

  1. Serious interest in OA monograph publishing among university presses goes back at least to the early 1990s when the presses of the CIC (Big Ten plus Chicago) joined with the CIC libraries to explore the possibilities. See my history of this initiative here: It could be argued that the discussion went back even further. But John is right that for a long time it existed at the margins for most members of the AAUP and has only gotten mor3 widespread attention in recent years. To old timers like me, Tom Bacher, and Phil Pochoda , that’s encouraging because it makes us feel that our efforts were not in vain. We welcome the new energy that the current generation of press directors bring to wrestling with the challenges and opportunities of OA.

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