The University of Pittsburgh Press has just made an extraordinary announcement. The Press plans to make its entire backlist available for free online two years after formal, print publication. Here is what the AAUP newsletter has to say about this:
Recently, the University of Pittsburgh Press has announced that it is working to make its entire back catalog available online, free of charge, through Pitt’s University Library System (ULS). New titles will be added to UPP Digital Editions, part of ULS’s D-Scribe program, after the books have been in print for two years.
The reason this is extraordinary is that it violates the basic economic principle of book publishing, namely, you lose money on frontlist and make money (sometimes) on the backlist. Pittsburgh’s program will over time (it won’t happen overnight) erode backlist sales, reduce the Press’s income, and thus make it more difficult for the Press to underwrite new books. (I don’t know the specifics of the Press’s financial situation, but if it is like most other university presses, part of its operations are subsidized by its parent institution. Having said that, revenue from book sales, especially of the backlist, is surely part of its overall economic picture.)
Backlist sales are the bedrock of book publishing economics, and they are tied to an important corollary: Good books backlist, bad books disappear. (Yes, the term “backlist” is a verb as well as a noun. Publishers are not always the most zealous guardians of the language.) It may be that Pittsburgh is not concerned about the erosion of backlist sales because they don’t have any. If so, then what appears on the surface to be an open access initiative may in fact be the outcome of undistinguished editorial judgment.
There is a fundamental difference between book sales and the subscription sales of academic journals. Most revenue for journals are for current issues. Thus many journal publishers now make their backlists or backfiles, as they are called, open access after six months or one year; sometimes this form of open access is mandated by funding agencies. The revenue loss to such journal publishers is likely to be negligible. The economics of book publishing and journal publishing are precisely the reverse of one another. It would make more sense for a book publisher to post new books for free online for six months and then charge for them thereafter. (The ratio of frontlist to backlist sales varies by publisher, subject category, author, and publishing segment.)
This is not to say that open access cannot be used to help to sell books. One of the real innovators in this regard is a contributor to the Publishing Frontier blog, Michael Jensen of National Academies Press. NAP has done extensive testing of the relationship between open access material and the sale of books, whether in print or digital form. Shrewd publishers can and should learn from NAP. I advise all my clients to test various forms of open access as a form of product sampling. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Pittsburgh has put into place the various marketing techniques that have enabled NAP to experiment with open access and still manage its operation responsibly.
The AAUP uses the word “innovation” in its story about Pittsburgh. Wrong word, I believe. Somewhat paradoxically, the Press’s initiative is a bet that digital media don’t matter. I believe the opposite, that digital media matter very much and that the flirtation with hybrid models that marry print to electronics is a useful but transitory phase; in the end (I won’t predict when that will be) all publishing will be digital. Pittsburgh is counting on print and electronics occupying parallel universes forever, where one medium does not effect the other (except, perhaps, positively, but this is wishful thinking). This is myopia, not innovation.
The University of Pittsburgh Press has started down the slippery slope. While it may receive some support from its parent now, over time that support will grow until all the costs for the Press must be covered by the parent. The parent may then decide, as many universities have already determined, that the support for the Press is too great. Support gets cut back, the number of books published then drops, and scholars everywhere lament the fact that there are fewer and fewer outlets for their work. No one should be surprised when commercial publishers increase their presence in academic publishing, picking off the most profitable programs. This is not a way to build a university press, nor is it a harbinger of a bright future for scholarly communications. Open access is not an innovation but one aspect of a complex marketing program. I wish the University of Pittsburgh Press had such a program in place.