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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I keep trying to write about the economics of open access to academic books via Book Processing Charges (BPCs) in a clear way. So there’s nothing really new in this post but I think I did stumble today upon a way of putting things that I’ve said before in a different and more concise fashion.

  1. If the academic “book market” was a fixed size, we could just about do a transition to open access books in the UK at some of the lower prices. But it isn’t. And we’d need total international immediate solidarity in a switch. Which won’t happen. So there’s an initial issue of scalability even in a theoretical, fixed-size market.

  2. Because the books market is not a fixed size, though, if you pay a Book Processing Charge (BPC) for open access, publishers can just use this to offset the risk in the production of… more books. The book market then expands, which will subsequently cut back into your library’s acquisition budget. This is a bit like the nebulous term “double dipping” for journals, but it’s even less fixed in terms of a market pivot point for books. There is no “flip” to open-access books unless libraries remove the demand for non-OA books.

Now, I’m not someone who usually advocates for publishing less. I’ve seen good work that struggled to get published. But as long as there can be expansion in the purchasing market, and as long as this is where library budgets are prioritising, BPCs will only ever be an additional expenditure that will, in the long run, create additional pressure on the purchasing budget. You won’t, therefore, see a transition and open access will be blamed for increasing costs. I don’t have an answer yet, other than that it’s to an extent the same problem with hybrid journal publishers and we need pure OA book publishers (where print is sold to individuals or institutions on a cost basis), but this is the challenge as I see it.