New entry tries new publishing model

Share this on social media:

Topic tags: 

Bloomsbury is launching an open-access monograph imprint, writes John Murphy

Bloomsbury is well-known for being the publisher that took a risk on an unknown children’s author, JK Rowling. The risk, of course, paid off, as the Harry Potter books went on to be a huge success. Now the publisher is taking a new risk in an entirely different area. The fact that an established fiction publisher has launched a new academic book and monograph imprint is news in itself. But Bloomsbury Academic is making its mark in another way, too. It has opted for an openaccess business model.

There are already a few open-access publishers of journals, although nowhere near as many as traditional subscription publishers, but the idea of making monographs free to read online is fairly unchartered territory.

Bloomsbury Academic’s idea is to publish books that can be freely downloaded from the internet under a Creative Commons licence, for non-commercial use. Separately, the same titles will be sold, using publish-on-demand (POD) technology to create small print runs. Income will also be generated from royalties on commercial usage, such as in ‘student packs’.

The thinking behind this model is that free academic and student usage will promote the title, reaching an audience which would otherwise not have access to it. This in turn will generate enough actual book sales and royalties from commercial usage to finance the project. Although the books will still have to cover their editorial costs, they will not have to cover the costs of a full print run that will sit in the inventory for many years.

Reaching a wider audience

Bloomsbury Academic will be run by publishing director Frances Pinter. She wants to build a list of 50 titles by the end of 2009, concentrating on the humanities. Pinter said: ‘My thesis is simple; you may lose a few sales because you are publishing free online, but then you gain sales because more people have heard of the book as they can read the content online. Most librarians know that when an academic wants to read the whole book, printing out 300 A4 pages, taking them to their office, reading them and then putting them on their shelf to never look at again is not a very economic or eco-friendly way of distributing knowledge. The most reasonablypriced vessel of the content is the book.

‘Having talked to librarians, we believe there will be enough library sales of these highpriced monograph books that they will cover the costs of the publishing added-value that we bring. Most of the titles will sell enough to make a reasonable profit. There will be the odd book that takes off and the odd book that falls flat. We expect to sell the same number of units as we would under a traditional model.

But importantly, we will not have the stock in the warehouse because we are using POD, so we have lowered the risk if a book flops. ‘We think that there will be a lot of goodwill towards the model and it will attract some really good authors who are writing material of interest globally,’ predicted Pinter. ‘We hope to be publishing a lot of material of interest to the developing world, and that is one of our objectives. We believe this will be part of our competitive edge in getting good authors.

Academics do not make a lot of money from publishing monographs. Mostly what they are interested in is the dissemination of their research, and that is what we are offering.’

What to charge for

The Creative Commons licence allows free download, but does not allow commercial usage – for example, reselling the printout. The company will charge for materials in course packs that are sold to students, and sell e-book bundles and work with copyright agencies to handle royalties for library photocopying.

Bloomsbury is also offering the CC+ service to make it easier to buy commercial rights. Pinter said: ‘If anyone wants to commercialise the content, we hope they will come back to us and enter into a contract and use their own POD. The CC+ service adds metadata on permissions, including a URL to contact us. Our objective is to have ‘click-through licensing’, so that people who want to make multiple copies can do so legally.’

Despite the differences in its publishing model, Pinter made it clear that Bloomsbury Academic is not going to be doing ‘vanity publishing’. Each book will have to pass muster academically as much as any other title, with rigorous selection and peer review.

Pinter said that she had expected some hostility from sections of the publishing industry that feel threatened by new business models, but in fact the feedback she has received so far has been overwhelmingly positive. She said: ‘Most publishers know that the models have got to change. Publishers have undersold themselves by not understanding that they have a role in digital publishing. Most people are wishing me well because it shows the way for new models. This places Bloomsbury at the forefront of digital academic publishing, but of course, more new models will come along.’

Bloomsbury Academic is not Bloomsbury’s only venture into non-fiction and scholarly publishing. The company had already acquired A&C Black, publisher of Who’s Who and Whittaker’s Almanac. And, more recently, Bloomsbury has also bought Berg Publishing, an academic publishing company with a particular focus on books and journals in the fields of fashion, design and culture studies.

Meanwhile, the plans with the new academic imprint do not necessarily stop at humanities. Pinter does not rule out taking  the model into other areas of academic publishing where Bloomsbury thinks it would work. And if Bloomsbury’s experience of risktaking in children’s fiction is anything to go by, then this imprint will be one to watch.