John Sherer: The Cost to Publish a Monograph Is Both Too Low and Too High

[This post was originally published at In the Open.]

Last Fall, consultants from Ithaka S&R visited the University of North Carolina Press to gather data they would use in writing a report on the costs of publishing a scholarly monograph. At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Press staff felt like they were being interviewed by the Bobs from “Office Space.” We were being asked how much time we spend on individual projects. How do we allocate our days? What work do we perform in-house versus outsourcing? And we were being told we would be given tools to measure our productivity and costs against our peers.

In February Ithaka released their study. No PC-Load Letter printers appear to have been harmed in the process.

Here’s what’s great about the report. It reveals in granular detail the amount of care and talent required to produce a high quality humanities monograph. And it isn’t cheap. The costs range from a baseline number of around $25,000 per book to figures three and four times that amount. By some estimates, American university presses produce upwards of several thousand monographs a year. A quick calculation suggests that UPs are covering a minimum of $50 million in expenses to make this scholarship available. I can make the argument it’s twice that amount.

But here’s what gives me pause about the report.

It’s not about the data itself, which is very illuminating; but it’s about how people might use it. There’s some speculation that this report was commissioned as a step toward developing a pre-funded or supply-side funded model for publishing humanities monographs in digital open access. I certainly support efforts to rethink the economic model for publishing, especially ones where more pre-funding can be paired with a mandate to make them more broadly accessible. The paywall model has been under duress for decades, and is now almost completely broken. But with a number like $25,000 being tossed around as the equivalent of a monograph processing charge, the conversation about open access for books may end before it begins.

I agree with the consensus forming around this report that these books cost more to publish than people generally think. But I disagree with the notion that per-book subventions to presses should be in amounts like this.

The danger with the numbers in this report is that they describe how much it costs presses to put a book into the marketplace using our conventional model. But in order to produce an edition that is openly available in digital format, our activities would look very different. Or they should look very different. Any new funding model for publishing humanities monographs in open access must be paired with markedly different workflow and dissemination models. Fully subsidizing existing practices will cement existing practices, and may well introduce moral hazards: if a press is made financially whole upon the arrival of a first draft of a manuscript, our incentives to improve quality and maximize dissemination are seriously eroded. It could lead to business practices where volume and haste replace the care and quality which currently characterizes much of the output of university presses.

The encouraging news is that a digital first, open access dissemination model should be much less expensive for presses to utilize than what they’re currently doing. I’m looking forward to an analysis that reveals those true costs, as well as the expenses of shifting university presses to such a model. But those numbers are outside the scope of the Ithaka report. So I encourage you to read it, but use it as a tool to begin a larger conversation about what it is the scholarly communications ecosystem wants from its university press partners. Once we’ve developed that understanding, we can start assigning price tags.

John Sherer is Spangler Family Director of UNC Press. Follow him on Twitter @jesherer.