Menu Close

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

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.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 178,900 academics and researchers from 4,895 institutions.

Register now