Direct to Open post-launch: Market forces and publisher challenges with Choice Authority File

Part three of our deep dive into Direct to Open (D2O) with the Choice Authority File podcast

In March 2021, we announced the launch of Direct to Open (D2O), a sustainable framework for open access monographs. D2O moves professional and scholarly books from a solely market-based, purchase model where individuals and libraries buy single eBooks, to a collaborative, library-supported open access model. Since our launch last spring, 150 institutions have signed on to Direct to Open, enabling us to publish our spring 2022 catalog of monographs and edited collections open access.

Recently, Emily Farrell, former library partnerships and sales lead at the MIT Press, and Curtis Brundy, associate university librarian at Iowa State University, appeared on the Choice Authority File podcast to talk about the model and the opportunity it presents. Their conversation was distributed as a four-part podcast series; explore part one and part two here.

Listen to the third episode in the series and read along with an adapted transcript below.

Bill Mickey: I want to examine the market forces that are driving the adoption of open models for monographs, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. Emily, I’ll start with you—what are the key factors here?

Emily Farrell: Monographs broadly—and then monographs in the social sciences and humanities disciplines, where the monograph still remains so core to the research endeavor—have been much slower to move to open than journals for a lot of reasons. It’s interesting to see that these new models and this development is happening now. Why is that, in particular? I think it does link back to the discussion around the topics of knowledge sharing and fighting misinformation. The humanities and social sciences are so core to human knowledge and enhancement. It’s not just about the sciences, but it has to be a meeting of both these approaches to understanding.

MIT Press is particularly well-placed in that regard because we do publish so many interdisciplinary works that are at that intersection of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. But in terms of the market forces, we are at a point where—across the board in publishing—we’ve seen the print sales decline over time for monographs. It makes it more challenging to make the publishing of social sciences and humanities monographs financially sustainable. At the same time, we know that they still hold such core value for researchers in those disciplines. So, it’s imperative that we continue to publish high quality monographs in the social sciences and humanities, but we need to find ways to make that feasible (coupled with the drive to make the work more accessible). I think that in these models—and partnering more collaboratively with libraries and using a more distributed cost model—we do have the potential to do both of those things to increase access and increase sustainability.

Curtis Brundy: I pulled some statistics last week for an internal library meeting about print circulation at our library. Iowa State is a science and technology and agriculture campus primarily. So, social science and humanities are not our areas of strength, although we have a lot of that going on on campus. But our print circulation at the library has not plateaued yet. The 10-year drop has been massive. I’d be hesitant to quote numbers here, but it’s down over 50% over 10 years. So when we’re sitting here trying to figure out with our budget that is not growing (I’m not gonna say that it’s always shrinking, but it’s certainly not growing), where is the value and the impact for these investments? The print really isn’t there, but that’s not to say that we want to withhold support for monographs in social science and humanities. With the emergence of models like Direct to Open, there is a way for us to transition that spend to provide support for publishing this content open across those disciplines. 

There’s a lot of different pressure points here to get this content open; but I feel like for libraries—with the declining importance of print—it’s going to be really important that we have ways to transition that spending over to the open models so that funding doesn’t go away. I think that we should keep providing that funding. We just need mechanisms to do so. 

Emily Farrell: I think one exciting possibility to think about in terms of market forces, and in terms of thinking differently about monographs, is exactly what Curtis was saying: There’s a possibility to publish things that are just not working under a market model right now. 

Bill Mickey: One of the beauties of Direct to Open is that it’s not just a model for MIT Press to offer to institutions—it’s a model design for other publishers to use to sell and distribute their own catalogs. Yet as your recent white paper details, established or traditional university presses are notoriously difficult to pin down for a one-size-fits-all OA model. So Emily, I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the factors that complicate that participation—not in the sense that other publishers would not do it, but things such as institutional subsidies, operating costs, front and backlist sizes and so on. What are some of those mitigating factors that make it a challenge for publishers to conceptualize their participation in something like this?

Emily Farrell: One of the ideas of Direct to Open and publishing the model in the way that we did in the white paper is that it allows each press to look at their own revenue, look at how they operate, and make choices for themselves that work for their own programs. So, if you feel like it’s too much to make a whole step into making your full frontlist open, there is the possibility to do it in a more modular way: you choose a subject area and allow for a testing of the model that feels okay in terms of your general risk-aversion approach. 

I think that there is a real challenge when it comes to getting back to that direct relationship with libraries. So many university presses don’t manage their own ebook distribution and work through aggregators. That has worked well, the work that Project Muse has done—which is the result of collaboration of university presses; but it does make deciding to adopt a model like this on your own as a press more challenging. There is an opportunity to examine the role that an aggregation center like Muse could play in coordinating this between presses that don’t manage their own direct ebook distribution, or don’t have the internal capacity to have all of the conversations that we’ve been having with libraries. Those relationships have been absolutely key to getting us where we’ve gotten and it does take a tremendous amount of time and coordination. 

So I think those are really the central pieces. I think the great thing about our model being out there means that now there are more options. Presses can watch how these are developing, have conversations with all of us, and start to  think about it more concretely. We’re hoping that ours and other models can show other presses that there’s a model there that will work for what you are doing, what you want to do, or what you could be doing. I think that that’s the most important thing. 

Curtis Brundy: Sadly, I think you have presses that are stable and viable and have an attitude that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. So that excludes some people from wanting to move. Then you have some that are precarious and the risk of a bad decision could be existential. 

There needs to be some way to encourage them. Maybe it is like an aggregator approach, where there’s safety in numbers and there is some cushion for any particular press if they were not to meet their threshold in one year or another. There’s gotta be a way to get around this. I think there’s growing interest in libraries, more of a demonstration of the examples that we can actually move these folks to. So I think we’ll see more—and the sooner, the better as far as I’m concerned.

Bill Mickey: Emily, could you describe the difference between subscribe to open–which is sometimes used to explain collective models like D2O, and which is something Raym took care to sort of talk about in this in white paper—why doesn’t subscribe to open accurately represent what Direct to Open does?

Emily Farrell: There’s certainly a similar ethos in what we are doing, but there are some quite substantial differences. The major one is that we are not starting off with a subscription base that’s already supporting the program in the same way. We have, since 2019, sold book collections including our frontlist on our own platform direct—but it’s not a subscription approach, it’s an e-book collection purchasing approach. So while we did have a whole collection of institutions we knew we could approach because they had a history of purchasing our content, it wasn’t a ready-made set of subscribers that we could flip to an open model. It did take the groundwork of gathering people together, rather than convincing an existing set of subscribers to move their commitment. 

Learn more about D2O or sign-up to become a participating institution