Three-D Issue 19: Experiments in open content

Caroline Wintersgill
Bloomsbury Academic

With debates raging on whether Gold Open Access or a mandated form of Green Open Access is a preferable model for future research dissemination , and against a related backdrop of hostility to academic publishers (George Monbiot calls us ‘knowledge monopoly racketeers’)  developments in access to scholarly books, as opposed to journal articles,  have largely been sidelined.   The 140 page Finch report contains only a page on the prospects for open access monographs.  Yet monograph publishing remains immensely important – arguably more important than journal publishing in the humanities and equally important in the social sciences.  And it is clear that this has been for many years now a real difficulty with existing models. Library budgets are eaten up by journal subscriptions, the average scholarly monograph sells only 200 – 300 copies, which is disappointing for both authors and publishers, but doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of demand for the research.  University librarians are immensely careful about which books they buy, and publisher metadata has radically improved but it remains difficult to judge precisely which books will be significant, and which will languish on the shelves unborrowed. Neither Gold nor Green Open Access offers a viable model to address such problems.  New thinking on and experimental models for widening access to scholarly books are underway. These include the EU -funded OAPEN project and the AHRC and JISC collaborative project: OAPEN-UK, but they also includes initiatives made by publishers, both not-for-profit and commercial companies, passionate about fulfilling their broad societal remit as publishers – to make things public.

Since it first entered the academic book market in 2008, Bloomsbury (with something of a ‘new kid on the block’ sense of curiosity) has been developing such a model. We think that our particular route remains distinctive, though it is related to the ‘dual edition’ model offered companies including Open Book Publishers or Monash University Press. Some have described the Bloomsbury Academic model as ‘tiered open access’. At Bloomsbury it is sometimes referred to as the ‘ice-cream model’. We use Creative Commons licences to make the full text of scholarly books available for online access, via our own website (though many of our authors have links to the book on their own sites too). What we offer for free is the basic ‘vanilla ice cream’ version of the book. It is the final, peer-reviewed, copy-edited text in an html format. We have not insisted on an embargo period. Bloomsbury Open editions have generally been released within a week of first publication. The html is eminently browsable and we have taken some trouble to make the presentation clean and attractive. The ‘ice cream cone’, or ‘ice cream sundae’ versions of the book are, respectively, the print copies and the enhanced ebook versions – with extra functionality, extra metadata and where appropriate additional content, and these are charged for. The nature of the experiment was in testing whether we could subsidise the production of the free online version through sales of the enhanced versions.   We were also fascinated by the relationship between sales and digital access. Are sales enhanced when a book is widely read online, or are they diminished?

We have now published over 60 books under Bloomsbury Open, and we have more than 70 planned for the next two years.  They range across Media Studies, Sociology, Politics, Literary Studies and Education. They are mostly monographs, but there have also experimented with a sprinkling of ‘trade crossover’ books with which we hoped to reach an audience beyond academia, some edited collections and a handful of supplementary course texts. We deliberately commissioned books with international appeal, including several on global policy issues in order to test the markets we could reach. The list includes books by some very distinguished scholars (Ann Oakley, Jonathan Bate, Meghnad Desai, Jeff Alexander) and books by first time authors.  60 books, especially as many of them have been out less than a year, is not a large enough sample on which to base firm conclusions, but some interesting patterns are emerging:

  • Sales do not appear to be adversely affected by the release of a free online version in html  format – indeed there is some evidence that they may be slightly enhanced.
  • It was more difficult to cover initial costs with an Open edition released in PDF format (something we did for the first half dozen books on the programme).
  • Those books most frequently accessed online are also those that have sold the greatest number of physical copies.
  • The most successful book on our programme has had over 50,000 hits to date. Around 10% of the programme has had in excess of 20,000 hits. One of these  is also our top print seller among books on the programme (4000 copies in 18 months).
  • Our platform has been accessed by browsers in 110 countries, including some in which print sales are very low.
  • Citations of the most frequently accessed books seem to be high – it is hard to measure the precise effect, but we do suspect that having the complete text available to search engines (in front of, rather than behind a pay wall) is a factor. Levels of citation are enhanced where the author has used new and distinctive terminology in the book.
  • Most widely accessed are books on digital innovation, reflecting the significant coverage of our model in Open Access blogs. Social science books have done better than humanities titles to date.
  • The social media activities of the author appear to be a very significant factor.
  • We are experiencing a rise in translation rights queries for the most frequently accessed books on the programme.


Our experiences with Bloomsbury Open have given us and our authors a glimpse of the range of possibilities offered by digital dissemination coupled with new forms of licensing. There are opportunities to attract new readers, including those outside the range of university libraries, to broaden student reading with materials outside the range of most textbooks, to publish books of more varied length than traditional print outputs would allow and to experiment with more interdisciplinary publishing given the opening of marketing avenues outside the straitjacket of the publishing catalogue. The question of the most efficient and fair way to cover the initial, and not inconsiderable expenses of covering the ‘first copy’ costs of a scholarly monograph – the editorial work of peer review and structural and stylistic editing, the production work of set up for both print and digital systems, and the marketing task of putting the book on the radar of the global book trade – remains unresolved.

There is a continuing need for creative and strategic thought. One current project is Knowledge Unlatched, a global consortium set up by former Bloomsbury publisher Frances Pinter to develop the idea of collaborative underwriting of monographs by scholarly libraries.

It is only through collaboration between academics, publishers, universities and funding bodies that we can achieve solutions that work for everyone –enabling academic writers and thinkers to make a broad contribution to global cultural and intellectual life.

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