UK United Kingdom

The death of the academic book and the path to Open Access

Is publishing academic books a dying trade? And if so, are free e-books from universities likely to deal the final blow? The future of book publishing in general is hotly contested, but particularly so…

Some say the academic book is dead, or at least, dying. But is that true? And is there anything to be done about it? Book image from

Is publishing academic books a dying trade? And if so, are free e-books from universities likely to deal the final blow?

The future of book publishing in general is hotly contested, but particularly so for university presses. Louise Adler, the head of Melbourne University Publishing recently suggested that the book industry is failing and university presses publishing “Open Access” – or free, reproducible – books are second rate publications which threaten intellectual property rights.

Her analysis is pointed, but ultimately flawed.

Is the scholarly book industry dying?

It is true that print scholarly book sales have declined. Recent research published in the Journal of Electronic Publishing finds that sales now average 200 for each title, as opposed to 2000 in 1980.

Downloads from relatively new university E Presses tell a different story however. Titles published by ANU E Press had an average of over 1,000 downloads this year alone. Studies such as Indigenous expert Adam Shoemaker’s Black Words White Page, the first comprehensive treatment of the nature and significance of Indigenous Australian literature, has been downloaded over 18,800 times so far this year, reaching a wide audience around the world.

The Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) also argues that Open Access e-book publishing brings new and international readers to works by Australian authors.

But new business models are required – crowdsourcing is being used by some academics and other writers. And they are having some success, receiving small contributions from many supporters. Crowdsourcing service Kickstarter, for example, helped author Ryan North raise more than $500,000 from over 15,000 contributors in just a few weeks to publish his latest book.

Libraries, too, are working together to develop new models to fund publications. One example is Knowledge Unlatched where library subscriptions fund access for all to scholarly works.

Open Access as the new mode of production

Copyright is a critical issue for writers. The claim that Open Access publishing undermines copyright is simply untrue. Publishing Open Access works in fact increases intellectual property protection for authors because their works are highly visible, clearly identifying their scholarly writing.

Dr Nathan Hollier, Director, Monash University Publishing, has quite rightly commented that “The existence of open access publishers in no way coerces authors into publishing with them or into not publishing with a commercial publisher. There is also no evidence that Open Access publishing is incompatible with commercial publishing, and growing evidence that they can easily coexist.”

Australian university presses have an important role of providing access to scholarly works for non-academic readers. And Open Access publishing by Australian universities has also contributed to the high international access of this nation’s research (over 65% of downloads of open access Australian university press books are from overseas).

Studies have also shown that the return on investment for works published via Open Access funded by the Australian government is up to 10 times greater than for works that are not open access.

Not second class citizens

There is also the criticism that university ePresses are only for academics whose research is too limited or specialised to attract commercial attention.

But is this valid?

Books published by university presses run by libraries have won national and international awards. Peter Fitzpatrick’s book The Two Frank Thrings published by Monash University Press, for example, won the National Biography Award 2013. Jill Matthew’s chapter “Modern nomads and national film history: the multi-continental career of J. D. Williams” in Ann Curthoys and Marilyn Lake’s Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective won the the Film and History Association of Australia and New Zealand’s “Best Book Chapter” award.

These university presses provide great value to scholarly communication. Their low costs deliver a very effective solution for publishing, and include the possibility to adapt to new technologies and mobile devices.

With over a million downloads a year and over 1000 titles, university presses operating under libraries significantly contribute to Australian book publishing and reading. Their publishing list is diverse and strong academically, maintaining the rigour of peer review.

New directions needed

In 2013, Australian book publishing is part of an international industry. We must participate in developments that are on a world scale.

Australian Open Access university presses operating under libraries have been great innovators. New technologies are also at the core of our e-book production. Books are produced in formats that can be read on Kindles and iPads. Multimedia has also been incorporated into such works. Just take the audio visual material included in Sounds in Translation: Intersections of music, technology and society from ANU E Press as an example.

E-Publishing is an emerging business model and will continue to develop. And after all, as CAUL has commented “it’s not just one big book” – there will be many different types of e-published scholarly works.

Open Access publishing is critical to the Australian economy and to ongoing research. But new thinking, new research, new technologies, new delivery mechanisms and major projects need investment beyond current levels.

Debate needs to continue on the future of the scholarly book and open access publication. Government should not subsidise the book industry, but invest wisely to ensure the continued development of an innovative industry that oversees the distribution of Australian knowledge, as a vital part of an overall research agenda.

The scholarly book is not dead. But if university presses continue on the path to Open Access, they could save themselves and Australian research from this fate.

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. Antony Eagle

    Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Adelaide

    Like it or not, the willingness of a traditional scholarly publisher (whether a university press or a for-profit publisher) to put up the money to produce, market, and distribute a volume is a proxy for quality. Since reading books is time-consuming, while reading their spines is not, there isn't much chance that we'll get rid of such proxies. And since the ERA or some descendent of it looks likely to stay, such proxies will remain important.

    We can wish and hope that open-access book publishing will take off. But it will be a very long time before we have an online-only full open access publisher with the reputation of Oxford University Press or Wiley-Blackwell, and without that reputation, what is the incentive for anyone to publish with a new e-press? A journal article takes a lot less time to write, and one can take a chance with a new venue. But a book? The more prestigious the press, the better, and no one will take a chance with an upstart unless they have to.

    1. John Emerson

      Director, University of Adelaide Press

      In reply to Antony Eagle

      Why would anyone publish with a new press? Why would anyone search with Google? Maybe they would like more than 200 readers, and have more impact. As Roxanne Missingham pointed out, the open access books average 1000 readers. In fact, ANU ePress has scholarly titles reaching 10s of 1000s.

      Speaking from my own experience at Adelaide, our top title now has over 30,000 readers. Each of these appeared to have taken a chance with a new press. The book was rejected by Oxford for commercial reasons, not quality reasons, as will be increasingly the fate for specialised works.

      The new open access university presses are rigorous in their selection, editing and peer-reviewing, equal to any commercial 'prestige' press. ERA recognises these quality practices, so why would anyone publish with a traditional press given their increasing failure to find readers.

      It's the content that counts, not the badge.

  2. Daniel Faith

    logged in via Facebook

    Sadly, but this is awful truth. There are some people who do not really care if they are reading an electronic book or a paper one, but I am not one of them and it is sad to see digital devices implemented everywhere. You know it still seems to me that information is better accepted through a paper book, but I can be wrong of course. I wish we manage to preserve books. Let’s publish book! Let our kids read real books. You know reading helps a lot: you learn to write better ( order coursework writing here: ) without even putting any efforts. Isn’t it nice?

    1. Ray Hughes

      IT Worker

      In reply to Daniel Faith

      We're still getting the "but only paper is real" argument, and it still fails to convince.

      The words and ideas are the book, whether they are electronically displayed or stamped onto wood pulp. You might see a difference, and as someone who works with older people who need to print out emails because they can't comprehend a message while it's written on a screen I can understand your point, but it's up there with the people who "just don't get" the metric system or decimal "funny money".

      It isn't sad to see digital devices everywhere, it's great! I used to be able to carry one or two books around with me, now I can carry a (comparatively - only a couple of hundred books) small but growing library. Which is more than I can say for my "paper" library - it's already the largest room in the house and any new books now require "a sacrifice".

      And when it comes to promoting reading, nothing paper-based matches an ebook reader app and Project Gutenberg.

    2. Tim Pitman

      Senior Lecturer at Curtin University

      In reply to Ray Hughes

      I love the tactile nature of paper books, but I agree with Ray. Furthermore, e-books have greater potential to democratize education due to their ubiquity. But there is still a role for paper books in a post-climate change world. Lock up carbon in a tree and it is sequestered only until the next bushfire. Lock up carbon in a Terry Pratchett classic and is remains locked up forever.

    3. Ann Caufield


      In reply to Daniel Faith

      Well, as for me i don't think that it matters what type of book you have because the main thing is the knowledge. And you can get the same piece of knowledge from paper and ebook.But i think that digital books are more convenient today, because you don't need to have 100 books with you all the time, you can upload it on your tab and have it wherever you be. For example I have many business meetings in different countries and cities, I spend a lot of time travelling and i read a lot, but it's hard for me to take a lot of books with me every time , so I use my tab with thousands of books. Besides I can surf the net concerning the most interesting facts with my tab.Recently I was reading instructions concerning paper writing and there was a lot of information about <a href="
      ">bestocean essay writing service reviews</a> so I typed the name of the company and found everything I need.

  3. Ann Cunningham

    Commissioning Editor

    There are serious problems in sustaining scholarly publishing in Australia and unquestionably open access/ free e publishing by Universities addresses this in part. The Australian market size doesn't sustain most scholarly publishing as a commercial venture and many publishers of scholarly books, including Oxford UP and Cambridge UP have made the decision to only publish textbooks in many of the disciplines on their list and highly commercial textbooks at that. This has to have a deleterious effect…

    Read more
    1. Ann Cunningham

      Commissioning Editor

      In reply to Ann Cunningham

      Para four, line 6 should read ' most of my peers I earn less than average weekly earnings..."

  4. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    I agree with John Emerson. I also think that 1 of Ann Cunningham's points is well made: some traditional presses, including Melbourne University Press, seem to be debasing their mark by publishing pot boilers to cover the very high costs of publishing their more serious works.

    I don't know how the sums work out, but university e-presses may build a higher reputation than the traditional presses by being able to place more importance on referees' reports than commercial interests in their publishing decisions.

    Incidentally Daniel Faith, at least some modern university presses cater for the many like you. They offer ebooks for download for free but charge what seem to me normal commercial prices for books printed on dead trees. However, I have preferred to read everything on screen for the last 5 years.

    1. Nathan Hollier

      Director, Monash University Publishing at Monash University

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Speaking as Director of one of those presses Gavin refers to, that ‘offer ebooks for download for free but charge what seem to me normal commercial prices for books printed on dead trees’, I think there is room for print and ebooks, not just now but into the future; that these are separate and distinct things performing different functions and, often, reaching different markets.

      By and large, where a reader is after content alone, the convenience of electronic access and searchability will win…

      Read more
    2. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Nathan Hollier

      Thus far I have read only ebooks produced commercially and published on Kindle. 2 annoyances with them remain for me. Most important, I haven't found a way of copying passages I want to cite: I find my self transcribing from 1 screen to another.

      Secondly, having spent $114 on a book I found that I didn't get access to the illustrations cos the publisher didn't get the electronic rights to the book's illustrations. This turned out to be a significant loss for Pettegree (2010) because some of the author's argument was based on title pages and typography he reproduced, altho that was a more reasonable $15.71.

      Pettegree, Andrew (2010) The book in the Renaissance, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

  5. David Sanford

    logged in via Twitter

    Thanks for your article! After more than 300 book deals, including deals for stacks of award-winners and best-sellers, I have turned in my 'literary agent' badge. What a freeing experience. I am not abandoning the publishing world. Instead, I am enjoying all of its best forms more than ever. I've presented a 'no fear' 2-part workshop on today's best book publishing options at a growing number of colleges, grad schools, universities, conferences, etc. I'll be glad to send a copy of the handouts to any of your readers. Just drop a quick line to me at You can check out my bio at

  6. Ian Austin

    Lecturer in International Business

    The obvious benefit to e-publishing is that for those of us interested in incorporating video, photography or straight audio into our work, then it opens up positive options. Rather than arguing over the format of research I would prefer to see far more questioning of the administrative decisions taking place in universities that are prioritising certain formats of research over others without any substantive research or evidence to show why. The current absurdity of our research environment in Australia is something to behold.

  7. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Printed ebooks. There's a way to get a book on paper via a photocopying shop- downloading an e version and printing and binding it. The cover and back could be on stout paper and in colour. On A5 size paper there's no wastage.
    This strategy cuts out the trucks and bookshop and perhaps the gst. It also cuts out predicting how many copies to print.
    It's probably being done somewhere already.

    1. hadiya macie


      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      'The essence of manifest path publishers in no avenue makes sources toward publishing accompanying them or toward nay publishing accompanying <a href=""; rel="nofollow"></a>a trade publisher. There is similarly no clue that Commence Entree publishing is uncongenial beside trade publishing, besides growing sign that they can readily coexist.'

  8. ann dela cruz


    as an online writer at, I am not surprised with the decline in publishing academic books. We are in the information age, every information we want is at the tips of our fingers. This brings convenience and accessibility to a higher level. As long as the downloadable academic books contain the same information in the actual academic book, then there's nothing wrong. I mean, the reason we are reading a book is learning information so there's no difference whether reading it in an iPad or the actual book.

    We have to learn to adapt.

  9. hadiya macie


    It is true that impression educated fiction markets hold declined. New experiment published in the Memoir of Electronic Publishing unearths that transfers present common 200 for apiece name, as averse to 2000 in 1980. Gets from comparatively unused school E Presses <a href="">proofreading services</a> distinguish a heterogeneous rumor nevertheless. Ownerships published by ANU E Compress had an so-so of past 1,000 gets this year desolate. Studies such as Indigenous specialist Adam Cobbler’s Jetty Utterances Candescent Attendant