The business model of Open Book Publishers. Last updated February 2022.
Open Book Publishers (OBP) is an independent, scholar-led, non-profit press publishing peer-reviewed academic books in all disciplines. It was founded in 2008, by academics who were frustrated by the expensive closed-access publishing system, and the restrictions this system places on the wide circulation of high-quality academic books. Initially the press was a small operation, run by the founders alone, but as our catalogue of books grew (and crucially thanks to the introduction of our Library Membership Programme, discussed below) the press was able to expand and take on staff. OBP is now the largest independent OA publisher of scholarly monographs in the UK. We publish books across all subject areas, but mainly in the humanities and social sciences. All our books are OA and available in multiple formats, including PDF, HMTL and EPUB, as well as paperback, hardback and other digital formats. At the time of writing (February 2022) we have published 243 titles, at a current rate of around 40 books per year.
The press is divided into two operating arms: there is a publishing division, dealing solely with book publication processes, and a software division, which currently works closely with the COPIM project and creates open source systems and tools to support OA book publishing. Our software arm is currently funded entirely by grants. This aspect of OBP is important to us; a press cannot operate without technical systems and infrastructures, and we believe these should be open, and owned and governed by the communities that rely on them. In Geoffrey Bilder, Jennifer Lin, and Cameron Neylon’s often-cited phrase, ‘Everything we have gained by opening content and data will be under threat if we allow the enclosure of scholarly infrastructures.’1
Our founders are Dr Alessandra Tosi and Dr Rupert Gatti, and Dr William St Clair became our Chairman shortly after the founding of the press until his death in 2021.
OBP is a UK-registered Social Enterprise, non-profit (Community Interest Company). Its assets must be reinvested into company mission’s development. It cannot be sold or its assets transferred to anybody except a non-profit organization.
OBP employs four and 1/3 full-time equivalent people in its publishing division and three people in its software division.
OBP is governed by three Directors, which form a Board. Directors have shares, not equally distributed among them, but divided in such a way that two people are required for a majority. Acquisition and publishing decisions are made by the three directors. There are also Editorial Boards at a series level.
As stated above, OBP has published (as of February 2022) 243 titles, at a current rate of around 40 books per year. We have also produced open source tools and software to address several aspects of OA book publishing, including the creation of XML editions and the gathering of reliable usage metrics.
Below we lay out our peer review and publishing workflow, as well as awards and prizes we have received and our relationships and work within the broader OA books community.
When it comes to acquisitions, OBP relies primarily on proposals directly submitted to the press by authors. Series editors assume a more active position in acquiring new titles. All books are peer-reviewed: first internally, by our directors and our editorial board, and then, if a project is of interest after this first stage, the whole manuscript is sent usually to two, in some cases to three experts for peer review.
Production is done in-house, including editing, typesetting, and indexing. The quality of our work is often commended by authors and compared favourably to more prestigious presses! Print copies are produced by Lightning Source via print-on-demand. Electronic editions are generated in-house. OBP believes that cost efficiency achieved in our production processes is the most important component of our business model. Bringing first-title costs to around £5k stands in stark contrast to many ‘legacy’ publishers, and means that it is significantly easier to raise the revenue required to break even.
OBP uses multiple distribution channels: our books are available through our website, 9 metadata aggregators, and 11 ebook retail/distribution platforms. Print copies distribution is provided by two partners: Lightning Source and GOBI. OBP’s books are also available on 4 Open Education Resources platforms.2
OBP’s metadata is available in multiple formats: ONIX, KBART, and MARC.
All OBP books undergo a targeted marketing campaign: review copies are sent to leading and subject-specific journals. At the time of publication, each book is promoted through email notices to libraries and personalized messages to academics. Every new title is featured on our website and marketed via social media channels. OBP encourages authors to actively engage in promotion of their books: they have an opportunity to write a blog post about their books and to post podcasts and videos. OBP also prepares, promotes and hosts collaborative events and online book launches with authors (open for everyone).
OBP has gone through a series of transformations when it comes to deciding on our preservation procedures. We used to partner with Portico (since OBP is no longer uploading our books to JSTOR, the Portico link, depending on JSTOR, has been lost). OBP provides digital editions of our books to the British Library. We use the Internet Archive for archiving our HTML editions, as well as links included in them and all the sites they link to.
We have received a number of awards as a press, and several of our titles have also been recognised with prizes. The usage figures of our titles are available on each book’s landing page, and as of February 2022 we have tracked over 4 million interactions with our books (this figure is a mix of downloads and other types of usage).
We are part of a large number of collaborations and partnerships, both at the book series level and as a press. Particularly worth noting are our collaborations with other academic-led, non-profit OA book presses as part of the ScholarLed consortium and as part of the COPIM project, and our role as a coordinator of the Open Access Books Network (OABN). We believe that the problems that are preventing greater takeup of OA book publishing are best solved in collaboration with other good-faith actors who share our values, rather than in competition.
All of our books are Open Access. The HTML, PDF and XML editions of every book are all freely available, and we sell our paperback, hardback and other digital editions for a reasonable price. As discussed in more detail below, we do not charge authors to publish with us, as we believe it is both more sustainable and more equitable to develop other income streams, which we have been successful in doing. We chose this model because we want the research we publish to be freely available all over the world, with no cost barriers to reading or to publishing with us.
OBP uses a mixed model, with diversified streams of revenue. We do not charge Book Processing Charges (BPCs); instead the press uses what can be described as an OA diamond model. One of the revenue streams comes from grants: authors are asked if they are able to receive funding to support publications of their books, but a lack of such funds does not prevent author from publishing with OBP.
OBP also runs a Library Membership Programme (introduced in 2014), geared towards libraries wishing to support OBP’s activity. In return for a membership fee, libraries receive some of the eBooks normally offered for a fee, discounts on print copies and other benefits (e.g., talks by OBP’s employees at institutions participating in the Membership Programme).
OBP also receives revenue from the sale of printed editions and some digital editions. Our paperbacks are typically priced at around £15, our hardbacks around £30, and digital editions (e.g. EPUB, MOBI) around £5, as well as the freely available PDF, HTML and XML editions.
Total annual revenue associated with the publishing division of OBP for 1 October 2019-30 September 2020 (which counts as a financial year for OBP) was 229,000 GBP.3
38% of the revenue comes from print sales, 34% from grants and donations, 25% from the Library Membership Programme and 3% from Title Services Revenue (e.g., charged additional services for authors). The largest revenue stream associated with sales can be further broken down into direct sales through OBP’s website (print and ebook) accounting for 35%, print sales through traditional retail channels (UK, US, and Australian retail) accounting respectively for 25%, 33%, 1% and ebook sales retail at 4% and ebook sales through library distributors at 2%.
Publication costs for a year 2019-2020 for OBP amounted to 222,000 GBP. The largest cost component is associated with staff’s salaries (61%), followed by printing costs and royalties (23%), overheads (12%), and title production expenses (4%). First copy costs, defined as total costs less printing and royalty costs, amount to 4,874 GBP per title (Open Book Publishers. Author’s Guide, n.d.).4
It is difficult for OBP to give costs for particular titles, as the biggest cost is staff time and we do not track time spent on particular projects on a systematic basis. However, a book with no images and a straightforward editorial workflow – i.e. a monograph, rather than an edited collection – will be a simpler and speedier (and therefore necessarily cheaper) book to produce than a book with many images or a complex workflow. With more challenging projects, we make a decision as a press whether we want to invest the extra time and resources needed, and we also ask the author(s), if possible, to source grant funding to support publication and defray some of the costs involved.
The most significant change to our business model was the introduction of our Library Membership Programme, discussed above. OBP has been breaking even for the past years, or even making profit (reinvested in the company). The model is perceived as sustainable, although one of the OBP directors insists on a certain irrelevance of this term applied to small companies and poses a question: Who needs a sustainable business model in the long run? It needs to be sustainable for as long as you want it to exist (R. Gatti, personal communication, 15.04.2021).
OBP is certain that our model will evolve and be transformed over time, especially in the light of work performed by the COPIM project and OBP’s engagement in it. Our library package will be revised in the coming 12 months.
We see certain dangers on the revenue side of our operations: as grants form a significant part of our revenues there is a risk that a large number of transformative agreements might result in a decrease in funds available outside of them. Therefore, it would be challenging for authors wishing to publish with OBP to obtain institutional grants. A rise in collective funding models competing with each other could also potentially cause a threat to OBP’s survival.
Looking into the future, we stress the strategic importance of our software division. OBP has made a conscious decision that, rather than scaling as a company ourselves, we are investing into facilitating the initiation and/or growth of other OA book projects. The software division’s mission is to create an open infrastructure that would enable other publishers to publish OA books. This approach is in line with the ‘scaling small’ approach that underlies the COPIM project.