The HSS Monograph and Open Access in an Era of Falling Library Budgets

Catherine Cocks's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications


Recently, four pieces of news about publishing came to my attention. The conjuncture struck me as illuminating some of the key problems besetting the current scholarly publishing ecosystem.

The four were Researchers’ Perspectives on the Purpose and Value of the Monograph: Survey Results 2019, from Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press; MIT Press’s announcement that it had received a major grant from the Arcadia Fund to build a sustainable framework for open access monographs; David Crotty’s post “Roadblocks to Better Open Access” on the Scholarly Kitchen blog; and Lindsay Ellis’s article (behind a paywall) “The Future of Campus Libraries? ‘Sticky Interdependence,’ in the Chronicle of Higher Education on a new collaboration among Big Ten university libraries.

If you’re interested in the survival of the monograph, you should read all four pieces yourself. Here’s what stood out for me:

  • Researchers in the humanities and social sciences (especially the humanities, and most very especially historians) value the monograph highly and have trouble imagining their fields and their own intellectual enterprise without it.

  • Everyone thinks monographs are too expensive.

  • No one has yet figured out how to make open access economically feasible or sustainable for HSS fields, especially monographs.

  • Open access is nevertheless inevitable at this point, not least because of the pressures imposed by Plan S.

  • Academic libraries are continuing a decades-long retreat from buying monographs as their budgets decline or stay flat and journal subscription costs continue to rise. The Big Ten libraries’ decision to share more and buy less reinforces this long-term trend.

What does all of this mean for book publishing in the humanities and social sciences? Libraries are the biggest customers of university presses and other scholarly publishers. As libraries buy fewer books and shift to e-book databases (through which presses earn much less per title than for print volumes), presses print fewer copies. Digital printing has made so-called “short runs” (a few dozen to a few hundred copies) more affordable and the growing usability of e-books diminishes the need for print. But most of us prefer print for extended reading, and in addition printing is only a small part of the cost of producing a book. The result is that presses have to spread production costs over fewer units. If they hope to recoup the production costs—as they are largely expected to do by their parent institutions—they have to raise prices. Then individual scholars can’t afford to buy as many books, and libraries looking for ways to squeeze more out of their budgets (see above—flat or declining) find ways to buy fewer books.

Open access (typically a free e-book combined with a low-cost print-on-demand option) seems to many to be the answer to rising prices, but as Crotty shows, no one has solved the difficult financial and logistical problems blocking the road to sustainable OA, particularly in HSS book publishing and particularly in the United States. This is not for lack of trying through initiatives like the Open Library of Humanities, Knowledge Unlatched, the University of California Press’s Luminos, and the University of Michigan Press’s open access program, among others. Maybe MIT Press will figure it out.

In the meantime, the combination of scholars’ continuing—even increasing—need to publish monographs with a rapidly declining market for them puts enormous pressure on university presses, particularly the smaller ones or those without deep-pocketed universities or endowments sustaining them. (Even some with the former are threatened, as Stanford University Press’s predicament [paywall] shows.) As with open-access journals, the big publishers may find ways to use their scale to stay in the business of publishing monographs. But can a scholarly publishing ecosystem with only a few large presses meet the diverse and changing needs of diverse and changing scholarly communities? Is that what scholars and librarians want—fewer choices?

Monograph publishing has almost always been unprofitable, but it seems closer than ever to being unsustainable now. If we value the monograph because of the intellectual scope and longevity it offers, scholars, librarians, and publishers must all work together to build a new, more equitable, more sustainable model for publishing and circulating them.

The assertion that "presses earn much less per title [from e-book databases] than for print volumes" is interesting—and worth exploring. If library purchases continue to shift towards these databases, you would expect the per-title revenue to balance out a bit. (Note that we're talking about per-title, not per-sale, revenue.) . But per-title revenue from one format or another has to do not only with the number of customers buying in that format but also the retail price per unit for that format. Do presses not have any leverage to charge more for e-books available through databases? Is this because the database vendors limit their choice, or because presses know that the customers of these databases (libraries) will simply forego purchases if the price is raised much higher?

Good question! The answer is complicated and if we have any acquisitions librarians reading, I hope they will weigh in. E-books and e-book aggregating databases are so new that initially presses and aggregators had to guess what appropriate pricing would be. As we accumulated experience and e-book collections became increasingly important in library collections plans, it became clear that presses were losing print sales while e-book sales were not making up the difference. Meanwhile, aggregators and libraries had budgeted for the initial prices and resisted any increase, and individual presses do not have much leverage. We exist to serve the scholarly community and libraries are our primary customers. When libraries have flat or declining budgets, as they do now, and yet have to meet the tremendous demand for resources in digital formats, everyone else in scholarly communications feels the effects.
In addition, pricing via the aggregators isn't as straightforward as it is for a print volume; the value of a title is determined by its place in the various packages that aggregators offer to libraries. And then there's also the impact of DDA (demand-driven acquisitions, also called PDA or patron-driven acquisitions): for some titles in some packages, libraries do not pay until a certain number of users have clicked on the title and taken a certain number of page views or downloads (depending on the work). All this means that presses are producing books for which the markets are smaller, prices are lower, and both markets and prices are much less stable than they used to be. Our costs haven't changed much, but we can't count on prices or sales levels that would keep those costs sustainable.
That's the view from one university press editor, representing no one but herself. I hope others will give their perspectives.