Open Access versus traditional publishing model

Creative Commons Screenshot(screenshot of cc licence)

A personal opinion by Andrew follows. (Though I suspect Emma feels something similar!).

I’ve had a few comments about how great it is that ‘Only Connect …’ is available for free online and has a good Creative Commons licence, so I’ve been reflecting on how different that is to the books I’ve published under more traditional models.

My previous books have sold a few hundred copies each. They are very expensive (to my mind!) to buy – in the UK they are between £40 & £50 (ish!). It is possible to pay (a lot of money) to buy them as ebooks for institutions, but not for individual use. The introductory chapter of each is available as a free taster after I asked for permission to upload them to my institutional repository, but that is all (and those chapters are “my” versions, not the typeset versions with proper page numbers, etc.). I suspect almost all the copies have been bought by university and college libraries (mainly in the UK & USA) and if I’m lucky they’ve been read by a couple of people at each place. At a rough guess, that means that well under 1,000 people have seen the inside of each book or directly benefited from the content. I’ve received a small income from them, but not a large amount of money – a few hundred pounds. I no longer own (the copyright on) the work that took me a MASSIVE amount of time and effort to create.

This book is very different.

Writing this one week after publishing the print and electronic version we’ve only sold 16 print copies (though it hasn’t percolated through to most of the ‘library’ type ordering databases yet). However, about 160 people have downloaded it from at least 14 different countries, and about 250 unique visitors went to the website to read it. By my reckoning that is roughly the same amount (or slightly more) than bought either of my print books in the first year. Add another week or so (being generous!) to allow for the fact that print copies  of other books may have been read by multiple people (as I suspect they are in libraries), then by the end of the first month I suspect more people will have read ‘Only Connect …’ than my other two books put together.

The content is free for as many people as possible to benefit from and this confirms we can expect many more people will be able to access that content than either of my other books. For anyone who wants a hardcopy they can buy it for roughly a third of the cost of either of my other books, so hopefully “real” people as well as libraries can afford to buy it! We’ve also put it at a minimal cost on device specific stores like Amazon for Kindle if anyone wants to buy it directly to their eReader for convenience. Instead of a small income, I start off with a small loss – a few hundred pounds to sort out ISBNs, distribution agreements, design of a book cover, legal deposit copies, etc. We need to sell about 80 print copies (which should be do-able if people recommend it to their library – HINT!) to roughly cover costs (the eReader stores are unlikely to sell enough copies to pay out!). If we sell around 100 copies it will pay for the contributing authors to have a complimentary print copy each as well. Any more and we make a small profit. Not much, but then that is the case for the traditional routes to publishing either. All the contributors retain their copyright and can re-mix and re-use the material and ideas however they want in future.

So for me, so far, this book has been a publishing success. Instead of a (pretty much guaranteed) small income I may make a small loss (but I may also make a small income!), but there isn’t a lot in it either way beyond a little up front risk. The big difference is that instead of the content being as innaccessible as possible and only viewable by the privileged few (normally in academic type libraries), it is available for free or at low costs in many formats and is as widely available as we can make it. Both now and in future guises as the copyright stays with the authors. The information is as free as possible to disseminate in the minds of others … isn’t that what writing and publishing should be about?