I was reading this article by Peter Brantley of The Internet Archive on possible models for the future of scholarly publishing last week, and thought it was worth adding my thoughts to the debate.
Peter is right to diagnose problems within the monographs market. There are too many publishers and titles chasing a limited number of institutional buyers with shrinking budgets. He reports on a meeting he attended in which the development of a Global Library Consortium (GLC) was discussed. Proposed by Frances Pinter, the GLC idea is based loosely on the SCOAP3 experiment, which (to quote Peter's article):-
"[was] born out of the small, highly internetworked high-energy physics (HEP) community, which possesses only six key peer-reviewed journals. In SCOAP3, the funding agencies supporting HEP work joined together with the libraries that purchased its print journal editions to cover publication costs. In return, publishers made the electronic versions of their journals free to read online. Each SCOAP3 partner finances its contribution by canceling journal subscriptions."
While the principle of publishers, libraries and their funders coming together to fund the open access publication of monographs on a more collaborative basis (Peter compares it to Groupon) is attractive in principle I do worry that this is a utopian vision that would be too difficult to scale. SCOAP3 makes sense in the tightly networked world of High Energy Physics, and in journal publishing, where both your revenues, costs and addressable markets are broadly predictable. Plus, setting aside SCOAP3's honourable intentions for a moment, the venture has been in fundraising for more than five years and is still 20% away from its funding targets. This suggests that this new model is proving difficult to sell, even in a small and highly engaged market.
Scholarly book publishing is an entirely different proposition to journal publishing, however. This is an environment where it's much more difficult for publishers to predict the revenue that published content can achieve over its lifetime. And this difference highlights the central obstacle a GLC-type body would face in getting started. Namely, how will it be possible to set a price for content that would be acceptable to both libraries and publishers without the market and cost predictability that journals have? On one side, libraries won't want to be seen as overpaying for titles, many of which will only be niche interest. While on the other, publishers will be under immense commercial pressure not to 'give away' potentially strong selling content for the same price as niche interest titles.
Even if both sides were able to agree (without falling foul of antitrust legislation) on an acceptable cost for open access, there are also multiple uncertainties in the scholarly and monograph market that don't exist for journals. For example many institutions (certainly in the US) are not sure they want e-books over their print equivalents, and those they do hold are most often acquired through aggregators. In fact aggregators are conspicious by their absence in the GLC vision, despite the important role they play as principal intermediaries between scholarly publishers and librarians.
As with all utopian visions, the GLC is a wonderful idea in principle, but the purity of its aims flies in the face of an inescapable fact: the publishing paradigms for scholarly books and journals are fundamentally different. The journals market is broadly predictable, where the need for information on a topic is in direct proportion to the size and activity of its research community. Books, however, are a riskier business, where failure is common but the rewards of success are considerable. Even if we were to elide the two in search of a common source of income for publishers and greater control of costs for libraries, what else might we lose along the way?