A Lack of Product-Market Fit: Finding a Place for Open Access Monographs

Thanks to a three-year, $850,000 grant from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, the MIT Press is performing a broad-based monograph publishing cost analysis and will develop and openly disseminate a durable financial framework and business plan for open access (OA) monographs. The Press, a leader in OA publishing for almost 25 years, will also undertake a pilot program to implement the resulting framework for scholarly front and backlist titles.

Recently, Terry Ehling, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the MIT Press, and Raym Crow, a Senior Consultant at SPARC who is working with the Press on its OA publishing model initiative, appeared on the CHOICE Authority File podcast to talk about the project’s progress so far. Their conversation was distributed as a four-part podcast series.

A stream and edited transcript of the first episode in the series—“A Lack of Product-Market Fit: Finding a Place for Open Access Monographs”—can be found below.

Bill Mickey: Welcome to the Authority File. I’m Bill Mickey, your host and the editorial director at CHOICE. In the next four episodes of this podcast, we’re going to be talking about open access monographs. More specifically, I’ll be joined by two guests from MIT Press, which thanks to an $850,000 grant from the Arcadia Fund is embarking on a three-year project to develop a financial framework and sustainable business plan for publishing OA monographs--a business plan that virtually any university press can implement. If the university press mission is to distribute knowledge and research as broadly as possible, then many in the market are increasingly looking to open access as a way to support that mission to its fullest. Print monograph unit sales have plummeted in the last 20 years, clearly impeding that mission and causing prices to be more dependent on subsidies or other subventions as well as trade- and journal-based editorial strategies to remain viable. Joining me for the next four episodes, will be Terry Ehling, Director of Strategic Initiatives at MIT Press and Raym Crow, a Senior Consultant at SPARC who is working with MIT Press on its OA publishing model initiative. In this first episode, Terry and Raym provide an overview of the monograph publishing ecosystem, MIT Press’s place within that, and describe some of the OA monograph publishing already taking place. Alright, Raym and Terry, welcome to the program. We’re happy to have you.

Terry Ehling: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Raym Crow: Thank you.

Bill Mickey: Alright. I’d like to start with some setting-the-stage discussion, talking about the general monograph market, and the way monographs, in particular, are actually a thing. And then we’ll move into MIT Press’s particular experience and involvement in that aspect as well. So maybe to start, Terry and Raym, if you can give us an overview of what you see as the scholarly monograph publishing market ecosystem. I know you’ve said that, for example, back in the 90s, presses could count on sales of about 1,500 copies per title, and now that’s way down to more like 300 to 500 per title. Is that kind of where we’re at now?

Terry Ehling: Yeah, more or less. So, you know, about a generation ago now, a typical university press could expect to sell about 1500 copies of a typical humanities and social science monograph, and we could achieve break-even (i.e. revenues covering costs). Most university presses do a three-year profit and loss statement in advance of publication. And so, you know, out of the box, what your costs are going to be. What you don’t know is what your revenues will be. In the old days, you could feel fairly confident that your revenues and your costs would not be asymptotic. What we have right now, unfortunately, is, what a venture capitalist might call a lack of product/market fit. So, we’re experiencing a market failure—conventional market-based models are no longer adequate to support the value-added publication of a conventional scholarly monograph.

Terry Ehling: And by value-adds we usually mean things like copyediting, proofing, design, formatting, marketing. Those are all, human-intensive activities. It’s very hard to drive costs down along those vectors. W/r/t supply chain management and other production and manufacturing components, there have been concerted efforts over the last couple of decades to drive costs out of the system and that’s been fairly successful. The reasons for this market decline, which again, been underway for at least 50 years, are actually pretty complex: We can talk about the serials crisis, the increase in annual title output by university presses and other scholarly publishers, and in the number of novel scholarly products and databases that are competing for dollars. And that includes trends in how collection development budgets are allocated, and shifts in field-based scholarly output from within the academy.

Bill Mickey: Yeah. You mentioned a lack of, I think I’m getting this correct, a lack of product/market fit, to coin the venture capital term that you were talking about. What, what does that mean?

Terry Ehling: Well, it means that again, a generation ago, we had a product that actually had a fit in the marketplace, that the marketplace was responsive to the supply. The demand and supply sides were basically in sync. There was a sense of parity and that’s no longer true. When you need to spend $17,000 or $25,000 on what we call first-copy costs to produce a typical scholarly monograph and then you cannot recoup those costs through revenue and sales in the marketplace, then you no longer have “product/market fit”.

Bill Mickey: Okay. Gotcha . . .

Terry Ehling: And what we’re dealing with here, in the traditional scholarly publishing marketplace, as defined by monographs and journals, is a mature, no-growth industry. There’s probably no place that we can go. We can maintain a kind of tenuous steady state, but there is no growth to be had. And I don’t know, Raym, if you want to add to that in any way.

Raym Crow: Sure, I’ll just add that digital dissemination has really changed the market dynamic as well. Before institutions would purchase monographs, they were collecting in an area knowing that the title would go out of print. Once you start disseminating digitally, titles don’t go out of print. You can move to models like patron-driven acquisitions and other kinds of delayed demand models, which work really well for libraries and work far less well for the publishers themselves. So, that’s a dynamic that also affects the market.

Bill Mickey: Yeah. So, Terry, it was interesting to hear you say that the monograph market has kind of shifted into this mature, no-growth phase and then just hearing Raym talk about digital publishing having an impact on the model as well. You know, it’s not too hard to think, well, why didn’t digital provide some kind of new opportunity and sort of prevent or delay this new phase of being a no-growth industry right now for monograph publishers.

Terry Ehling: It did initially but the costs that don’t flatten very well are those that involve human effort and intervention, and those value-added costs cannot be, for lack of a better word, roboticized in any way.

Bill Mickey: Yeah . . .

Terry Ehling: Those costs don’t go away. Readers and authors still value copyediting. They still value good design and formatting even in a digital format. And there’s still a need for marketing. You still need to be able to talk about, promote and publicize new material when it’s published.

Bill Mickey: Right . . .

Terry Ehling: And it’s hard to control those costs and recover them. And you’re also replacing some of the non-print components with costs related to technology.

Bill Mickey: Yeah, right . . .

Terry Ehling: Yeah. Those costs are escalating on a number of fronts.

Bill Mickey: Right. And I imagine the with legacy production process publishers have pretty much squeezed out every cost they could at this point. I mean there’s only so far you can really take that.

Terry Ehling: I think that’s right. I’d like to think that there is more that could be done over the next 10 or 20 years as technology changes, as machine learning, artificial intelligence, other developments that are occurring around the edges may have more impact on the center of our business. But right now, no.

Bill Mickey: Yeah. Okay. So, wondering if we can just drill down a little bit and talk about MIT Press’s experience within this broader ecosystem that we just described. You know, are you having a similar experience, different experience? What’s been going on at your Press?

Terry Ehling: Well, the MIT Press is one of the largest U.S. university presses. The Association of University Presses has four groups based on annual revenues. Group 4 is largest group and Group 1 is the smallest. MIT is a group 4 press. There are, I believe six or seven of us in that tier. So, it’s a very short head and a very long tail (there are more than 140 members of the AUP). Our annual revenues are about $28 million a year. We currently publish between 90 and 100 “hardcore” scholarly monographs annually. And these monographs account for about a third of our total title output on an annual basis. But the MIT Press is somewhat unique among university presses in that we are STEM- or rather STEAM-inflected. By that I mean we publish in computer science, cognitive science, neuroscience, linguistics, economics and architecture. And although we do publish works in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, most of our acquisitions efforts are focused on domains that reflect MIT’s, the Institute’s, disciplinary strengths. So, we’re very technology-focused.

Bill Mickey: Okay. You mentioned annual revenues of about $28 million. Are you able to break that down a little bit for us? And you mentioned the 90 to 100 monographs that you produce a year is about a third of title output.

Terry Ehling: The MIT Press publishes close to 300 books a year, including reprints. And we currently publish over 40 journals. Half those journals are STEM fields. I can’t actually tell you what the breakdown is in terms revenue share. It’s probably two thirds books, one third journals in terms of attributable revenues.

Bill Mickey: Okay. Then just a small tangent. You mentioned that the MIT Press focuses on subject areas and disciplines that track with MIT’s core academic programs. I think this is where some presses may not be in line. They may think that their presses should be publishing more of their own subject-area expertise or their own faculty. And, and I think we’ve seen some recent friction in that area. Is there anything you’d like to comment on that?

Terry Ehling: Well, many of the smaller university presses and even some mid-size presses have always published in what we call regionalia and have very strong lists in those areas, and these books afford them a unique position in the marketplace. But for the most part, they’re also competing more broadly with each other, particularly in history. And in some sub-disciplines within literature, they are competing with each other for books as well as for journals. About a third of the university presses publish journals. Not every university press has that kind of heterogenous program. And, and traditionally, those university presses that do publish both books and journals are a little bit healthier financially, because of the ongoing revenue that you can count on from journal subscriptions.

Bill Mickey: Right. So, diversified.

Terry Ehling: Yes.

Bill Mickey: Um, okay. So, let’s dive into sort of the open monograph concept here. And, you know, there’s a lot that has been going on. There seem to be several major players already with platforms in the market. But I’m curious if we could talk about why this is even happening, I mean, what are some of the scholarly forces and market forces that are driving this interest and this push into OA monograph models to start with?

Terry Ehling: I think this is partly influenced by a decades-long trend toward OA on the journals side, and that’s now impacting scholarly book publishing. But the failure of the market model for monographs is also a significant factor. We need to pursue a different way of financing the publication of long-form works, especially first books by young scholars pursuing tenure-track careers. And I’ll ask Raym to also comment here because he’s been so deeply involved with OA modeling, for both books and journals, for decades.

Raym Crow: Well, certainly in Europe and with the UKRI in the UK, there’s an open mandate push for publishing monographs OA. So, it’s especially effective or impactful in the UK where, for the research assessment exercise, faculty are expected to publish their monographs OA, starting with the next exercise. And there’s some other policies in Europe and often these mandate policies precede any plan for the economic funding of the mandate, with predictable results. So, that’s certainly one of the drivers in Europe and it’s not clear the extent to which that’ll be the case in North America.

Bill Mickey: Do you think it will be the case in the U.S. or do you think there’s any kind of mandate ahead, is it just too early to tell, or is there really no indication just yet?

Raym Crow: Well, there’s really no indication just yet. It’s always more fragmented in North America in terms of these things. There may or may not be an executive order in terms of journals. It’s harder to see that kind of thing necessarily applying to monographs. Everything’s more centralized and federally funded in Europe and in the UK. It’s just kind of the natural order of things there. But again, even though the source of the policy and the sources of funding are the same in terms of timing, the mandate and the plan for funding aren’t always aligned.

Bill Mickey: Okay. So, I’m wondering we can talk a little bit about the current state of OA monograph publishing and the models that are out there already in practice. And then a little bit about what MIT Press is intending to do contribute to that in some way.

Raym Crow: I can speak to some of the models that are prevalent now, if that would help. The most prevalent model seems to be, at this point, book publishing charges, something that’s analogous for APCs for journals. In that kind of model, the university presses have had a longstanding practice of asking authors for a subsidy, if it’s available, but it wasn’t mandatory to publish in the journal. With some of the newer models, especially with commercial OA publishers, it’s not discretionary, in other words, it’s actually required. And to the extent that there aren’t waivers to cover those kinds of BPCs, that raises equity issues from an author access standpoint. And those kind of models are also really dependent on costs aligning with what the market will bear for BPC.

Raym Crow: So, you know, traditional North American university presses have an existing cost structure that may not make a low BPC possible, where born-digital publishers can offer a lower book publishing charge. Another model you see, and all these models, I should add, are typically used in combination—there are value-added additions. So, the sales from the book or a value-added electronic edition, a proprietary electronic edition, will provide supplemental revenue. Again, if the publisher’s costs go low enough, and that sometimes can be a regular full-on premium model, where the revenues from value-added sales are sufficient to fund the open version.

Raym Crow: But typically that’s not the case. And so there’s some other kind of a supplemental revenue stream. Then there are collective support models and are there are several different ones now and more coming along. Though we have additional provision models where titles are opened if there’s sufficient library financial support pledged and that you see that in Unglue.it and Knowledge Unlatched. And there are initiatives like Lever Press where willing Oberlin group institutions contribute to supporting the program, and then other publishers like Open Book Publishers in the UK and you see other presses, like Luminos; they also have a membership model, kind of a collective support model that supplements other revenue streams. In the case of UC Press, it’s a BPC. In the case of Open Book Publishers, it’s value-added editions. And you also see institutional subsidies, which is something that’s kind of baked into university presses, especially North American university presses. But then there’s Amherst College Press, for example, which is wholly funded by the college they set aside funds for that. Again, all of these kinds of models are mixed. You see them in various combinations.

Bill Mickey: You’ve just heard from Terry Ehling, Director of Strategic Initiatives at MIT Press, and Raym Crow, a Senior Consultant at SPARC who is working with MIT Press on its OA monograph publishing initiative. This four-part series is brought to you by MIT Press. Join us next week when we continue our conversation and talk about MIT Press’s first steps in its Arcadia-funded OA monograph publishing plan and what they’re discovering so far about the underlying economics of monograph publishing and distribution.

Terry Ehling: Some of the money is being used to offset direct and indirect costs of making approximately 50 titles—mostly frontlist titles available immediately on our platform. So, these are basically a “teaser program.” It makes it possible for us to be able to promote our activities and to alert the library community that we are working assiduously to try to come up with a model, a viable model, while Raym works essentially behind the scenes to come up with a suite of models that we can consider. And then eventually adopt.

Bill Mickey: If you like what you hear, rate us or give us a review on your podcast platform of choice. And if there’s a topic you’d like us to cover, drop me a line. I’m at bmickey@ala-choice.org. As always, sponsorship and advertising for the Authority File podcast are handled by CHOICE’s Advertising Manager, Pam Marino, and all of our episodes are produced by CHOICE’s Digital Media Specialist, Mark Derks, and Digital Media Assistant, Sabrina Cofer. That’s all for this week. Thanks for joining us.