By John Sherer

Project MUSE announced over the summer a $938,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to integrate OA university press (UP) monographs into their platform. *

Digital aggregations of UP books are becoming a key discoverability mechanism. The possibility of using linked data tools to discover content within a much larger body of humanities and social science scholarship is one of the few very clear and bright developments for UPs. After years of our printed books being relegated to the ever-dustier library stacks, our digital content is now feeding a significant corpus of highly usable humanities research and being made available in a growing number of library collections. With this grant, MUSE wants to ensure that OA content is seamlessly discoverable within these collections, rather than isolated in some segregated position.

MUSE may also be hoping to (or at least I’m hoping they will) create a low friction ingestion tool so that peer-reviewed, copyedited and ready-for-composition manuscripts can be ingested into their collections. If they, or any other OA platform achieves this, it means that a publisher who also wants print editions will need to continue with their traditional workflow of preparing those formats for the marketplace. But I’m imagining there may be some publishers who declare that for some segments of their publishing lists, simply getting a high quality digital edition into wide dissemination is a legitimate and perhaps even superior method of publication. Since it’s debate season, I would very much enjoy a debate about which dissemination method yields higher accessibility and use: digital-only OA versus traditional pay-walled print.

This notion of print-as-optional raises a provocative question. Is a print copy a definitional requirement of publication? I share the common belief that even in digital OA environments, there is almost certainly a market for print. But any publisher will tell you that the steps required to go from a copyedited manuscript to successfully manufacturing, marketing, and selling print versions of it are a significant portion of what presses do and require significant costs. A further twist is that while publishers directly oversee acquisitions and peer review, much of the work required to create print is actually done by freelancers. Printing (always) and warehousing (usually) are outsourced to common vendors. In other words, a lot of these later stage (post-editing) activities aren’t even done by employees of the Press

As print sales for monographs continue their asymptotic decline (and I’m not aware of anyone who is predicting a rebound in these trends) what is the point at which sales are so small, that the unit costs of creating print are prohibitive? We’ve probably already arrived at that number in some disciplines. Many worthy books simply don’t get published because the print economics don’t work. The arrival of a program like MUSE Open offers an open path out of this spiral. It wouldn’t be one-size-fits-all, but I can imagine a segment of a university press’s list being published more effectively in digital-only editions. It’s an easy argument to make that a press may be making a more valuable contribution to the world of scholarly communications if it is allocating more and more of its limited resources on developing, editing, and disseminating digital content rather than participating in the charade of a market-based cost recovery system.


*Disclosure: I am a member of the Project MUSE advisory board and wrote a letter of support for the grant, although I was not involved in its crafting. Nor am I privy to the details of its implementation.

Comments (1)

  1. There is no need to make this an either/or proposition. The pioneer in open access among AAUP members was the National Academies Press, and it very successfully made its books avilable OA while selling enhanced PDFs and POD editions. At Penn Stater, in our monograph series in Romance Studies launched in 2005, we modeled our series after NAP’s approach, except that we offered only PODs, not enhanced PDFs. Authors wanted a physical copy for their P&T committees (as well as parents and grandparents!), and I don’t see this need disappearing anytime soon. I think it’s unquestionable that an OA book will reach far more people around the world than 200 print copies in libraries, mostly in the US, so long as the right discovery tools are in place. As for minimum print run/sales, Herbert Bailey many years ago wrote an article for the Journal of Scholarly Publishing in which he figured this out. As I recall, the figure he came up with was around 150 to 200 copies. Of course, theoretically, you could break even with the sale of a single copy if it were priced so high as to cover all the publication costs.

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