By John Sherer

Earlier this month the University of North Carolina Press (where I am director) received a nearly $1 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to lead an OA pilot among multiple university presses (UPs). During the three-year experiment we will utilize web-based digital workflows to publish up to 150 new monographs. We intend to transform how university presses might publish their most specialized books while validating the legitimacy of high quality scholarship delivered in digital-first formats.

I have argued that there are two interlocking reasons why OA hasn’t taken hold in university press monograph publishing. UPs are optimized for the creation of high quality print and so we are unprepared to publish in ways that maximize digital dissemination and use. And without a viable digital model with clear deliverables and accountability, there is no durable funding source for OA monographs.

But despite these obstacles, UPs must find a new way to publish their most specialized books. The current cost-recovery model, which works pretty well when sales are in the thousands, is falling apart when net sales number in the few hundred. We are incurring significant debt to create bespoke products available to a privileged few. And more and more books are fitting into the latter sales pattern. But these are vital volumes that are critical to the advancement of scholarship.

What we have proposed is a solution that requires a dramatic uncoupling and resequencing of our workflows. We need to take the book publishing process apart in order to ensure we’re focusing primarily on creating high quality digital editions that will be widely disseminated and used. A switch away from high-quality-print-with-trailing-digital and toward digital-first will have some disruptions, but it should also lead to lower costs. It requires that our surrounding ecosystem embrace digital—where the digital editions of record will be the ones getting reviewed, winning awards, and being considered in promotion and tenure packages. It is pay-walled print that will be a secondary format, available to those that require (and can afford) it.

Breaking the publishing process apart helps clarify what parts of publishing should be subsidized versus the parts where cost recovery can provide funding. I operate in a state university system where “accountability” is almost always required to secure new funding. Our new paradigm looks to do just that. With streamlined costs, high levels of access, and robust analytics, it aims to ensure the long-term viability of humanities monographs as well as the university presses that are key to their creation and dissemination.

There’s a lengthy post here with more detail about the rationale and details of the pilot.

John Sherer

John Sherer is the Spangler Family Director of the University of North Carolina Press. His career in publishing includes having been at Basic Books (where he was Publisher), Henry Holt, and the Brookings Institution.

Comments (3)

  1. How are intellectual freedom concerns being handled in this pilot or beyond? As in the case of Jewel of Medina, or Alms for Jihad – presses who have published material only in digital form could be pressured to withdraw monographs; without print the content can disappear forever. In the modern world, this seems even more likely than before

  2. It’s interesting that the Mellon Foundation is now funding such an OA monograph publishing project because it had an opportunity to do so for a joint project of the CIC (now called the Big Ten Academic Consortium) presses and libraries back in 1996, but declined to do so (partly, I suppose, because it had just agreed to fund Project Muse and JSTOR). The history of how the CIC project developed is told in this article of mine published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing: https://scholarsphere.psu.edu/concern/generic_works/x346dv41v This article also traces how the CIC project inspired us at Penn State Press and Libraries to launch the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing in 2005 and engage in digital-first publishing for a monograph series in Romance studies. Some supplementary income came from print-on-demand (POD) sales of individual titles, but the intent was to pursue a digital-first stratgy, which is what John seems to be championing here. It’s perhaps worth reviewing how this and other previous efforts along these lines fared as a way of avoiding mistakes and building on successes from the past.

  3. Firstly, congratulations on getting the funding and embarking on a digital transformation project. I thought you might like to have a couple of pointers from a team that’s now working on its third-generation digital transformation project (here endeth the first lesson – digital transformation is like painting the Forth Bridge, no sooner have you finished one round, you have to re-start because everything will have changed again!). We flipped to digital in 2000, putting our entire catalogue online as clunky PDFs. Took about five years for digital demand to outstrip print. Interestingly, demand for print declined at same rate as before so, second lesson, digital has no impact on print demand (either up or down). Second transformation was breaking all the books into downloadable chapters. Greater granularity boosts discoverability, but complicates workflow. Third lesson: digital doesn’t reduce costs, it increases them! We’re in the middle of transformation three now: trying to get our authors to submit standard files so we can easily convert to XML without conventional ‘typesetting’. This eliminates the need for proofing and cuts out author corrections – at least in theory. Fourth lesson: digital can reduce time to market (we can publish e-editions in a matter of days now), but getting authors to change their behaviour is really hard. Hope this helps. If you’d like to know more about our experience, do get in touch.

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