There are two variables to watch when people talk about scholarly publishing: the cost of publishing a book, and who pays that cost. Plans to push the model in an open access direction, like the new AAU-ARL-AAUP initiative announced last month, focus entirely on the latter, as far as I can tell. That is, the cost of publication ($30-$40K per book, according to a major study from Ithaka last year) stays the same, but responsibility for the cost shifts. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with moving the cost around, and I commend the various parties involved for their willingness to experiment. But it’s important to spell out what’s being proposed in the interest of thinking through the implications. Simply changing who covers the $35K that a book costs isn’t by definition progressive, after all, and it may reinscribe or exacerbate inequalities.
In the current university press model, customers (libraries and, mostly, individuals) pay the bulk of the cost of publishing through the purchase of books, with a smaller chunk – the press’s subsidy – paid by the press’s host university. The new AAU-ARL-AAUP initiative shifts $15K of this cost (half, in other words) to the author’s university, presumably because her university is deemed to benefit from publication’s credentialing and promotion features. Since the primary edition of the book cannot be sold – that’s the point of open access, after all – the remainder of the cost would apparently continue to come from the press’s host institution. An author at Michigan publishing with NYU would have roughly half the cost covered by Michigan and half by NYU.
By shifting some costs from the customer to the author’s employer, the new model limits the author pool (at least for open access books) to faculty – presumably tenured or tenure track – at the twelve participating research universities, all of them some combination of large and prestigious. This shouldn’t be surprising; publication costs money and wealthy institutions have more to spend. But on its face it’s a dramatically less equitable system than spreading the cost of publication among the book’s customers (even if that total audience is only a couple-few hundred) and keeping the pool of potential authors open to essentially anyone. I’m surprised that people are comfortable with the sort of two-tiered system this new model establishes, or perhaps reinforces. Many of the most important books I’ve acquired have been by authors who weren’t, at the time, at prestigious universities or even on the tenure track, and that openness strikes me as a healthy feature of university press publishing.
Who are the winners in the new system? As far as I can tell it’s readers without access to university libraries and libraries themselves. In the latter case, however, it’s important to acknowledge that stretched budgets, while a real concern, are not driven by the acquisition of university press books. At the University of California only 7% of the library budget goes to books of any kind. With that in mind the more relevant battle, it would seem to me, is (a) freeing up library budget for the acquisition of books by tackling for-profit journals and (b) extending library privileges to interested parties outside the university. Access would then be a question for libraries (seemingly the issue’s more natural home) rather than publishers.
Conversations about shifting the model would take on a new cast if the actual cost of publishing books – virtually none of it printing, almost all of it overhead – got cheaper. But current plans to move to open access send out penumbras and emanations about expense without, as far as I know, taking many concrete steps to reduce costs. We’re sometimes told vaguely that some combination of technology and library expertise will address the cost side, and the fact that the AAU-ARL-AAUP plan covers only half the cost of publication certainly seems to imply that they believe it can be done more cheaply. But the biggest expenses in publishing tend to be in acquisitions and marketing, and I’m not sure most people involved in the system are really comfortable trimming significantly in those realms. To pick two examples from the same university, there are vast differences between a full-fledged publisher like the University of Nebraska Press and an essentially passive one like Zea.