15 Years of Open Book Publishers: An Interview with Alessandra Tosi and Rupert Gatti

Open Book Publishers Sep 27, 2023

Open Book Publishers, established in 2008, marks its 15th year in operation this year. What prompted the founding of OBP initially?

The inception of OBP can be traced back to a deep dissatisfaction with our personal experiences as authors of scholarly works - particularly Alessandra's frustration with the exorbitant pricing of her own books despite minimal publisher involvement. This pricing model hindered access for readers, especially those in Russia, for whom the work was directly relevant. This situation seemed unjust to us, and it did not promote the circulation of research effectively. Open access, i.e. the free, immediate, online availability of research outputs such as journal articles or books, combined with the rights to use these outputs fully in the digital environment, offered a natural solution Although the OA landscape in 2008 was relatively sparse with only one such book publisher in the UK, Open Humanities Press as most of the initiatives concerned scientific journal publishing, we believed that the OA model had the potential to revolutionize book publishing in the humanities and the social sciences both in the UK and globally.

As we set out to establish OBP we tackled different aspects of the initiative - Rupert focussing on creating a business plan and establishing the digital infrastructure, whilst Alessandra focussed on the nuts and bolts of publishing, peer-reviewing and commissioning. Initially, we tried to join forces with learned societies but soon understood that the proof of concept had to be provided by the independent publication of the OA manuscript under strict quality control. Our break was represented by  William St. Clair, a research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, who agreed to republish one of his works with us: OBP was born. As William's vision perfectly aligned with ours, he soon became a co-director of the press, a position he maintained until his death in 2021.

What were the early obstacles and challenges, and how did you overcome them?

The initial hurdles primarily revolved around skeptical attitudes from publishing gatekeepers who deemed our ambitions unrealistic. Many believed that publishing monographs without extensive experience in the industry was impossible, given the complexities involved. However, creating a publishing house in the digital age required new infrastructures and workflows, and starting a new and nimble initiative proved to have its own advantages.

We also focused our attention on building author confidence and attracting reader attention as in the academic publishing sphere "brand awareness" and prestige play a significant role and can represent a barrier for newcomers. Our strategy involved approaching established authors who might be enticed by the idea of reaching a broader audience beyond academia. Some authors, like St. Clair, were approached through our university networks, while others were selected based on their potential interest in open access and from further afield. A number of US scholars interested in a more democratic way of communicating academic research accepted our invitation with enthusiasm. Among them was Princeton Professor Lionel Gossman, who was to become one of our most prolific and distinguished authors, followed by some of the most prominent thinkers of our time, such as Amartya Sen and Noam Chomsky.

In terms of governance, we adopted a social enterprise model to align with our ethos to signal our not-for-profit credentials to authors, funders, and readers. Financially, we initially relied on grants and a zero-interest development loan from the Progress Foundation, as well as on the sale of printed editions.  As humanities scholars only occasionally had access to publication grants for fees OBP was committed to avoiding charging authors for publications, a pledge that prompted us to explore innovative funding models to expand our revenue sources and in 2015 we introduced a Library Membership Programme. Membership provided libraries with an alternative to individual book purchases whilst securing a revenue stream for our initiative.

Open Book Publishers embraced open access when many established academic publishers resisted or opposed it. Why is open access crucial, and how has the landscape evolved since 2008?

Open access to research is now widely recognized as essential for the dissemination of research results and the advancement of scholarly investigation. From an ideal whose feasibility needed demonstrating, OA is now a proven concept and an expected feature of scholarly communication in many settings. Much of the momentum is due to national and international mandates that have pushed OA publishing forward, a development we did not foresee in 2008.

Scholarly publishing's role in sharing knowledge beyond privileged groups or those who could afford subscriptions has since become a priority for funders, universities, scholarly societies, and society at large. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated this trend, initially focusing on journals but increasingly including books.

The landscape has evolved with more funder mandates supporting OA books, a rise in new OA publishers in the UK, traditional publishers transitioning to OA, and increased support for OA infrastructure projects.

How do you define success in reshaping the concept of academic books? Is it based on the number of published books, downloads, or other metrics?

Once a book is published in OA, it becomes accessible to a diverse audience for various purposes, including teaching, research, policymaking, artistic practice, or personal knowledge. Open access ensures that scholarly research is available to all, which is vital in a world where immediately accessible information is relevant.  In this context, open-access books, not just journal articles in STEM subjects, play a crucial role in demonstrating the relevance of humanities and social sciences fields. Open Book Publishers' books are accessed by over 80,000 readers monthly worldwide, reflecting significant interest and demand.

However, success for us encompasses several factors. While metrics are important, they do not solely define success. We prioritize publishing innovative books that explore new digital formats and better ways of presenting research. These projects are resource-intensive but align with our vision.

Positive feedback from authors holds great significance, and ensuring authors have a positive experience, from peer review to book availability, is crucial.

Our Library Membership program's growth and the continued support of over 250 libraries reflect success. It demonstrates that libraries choose to support our work, indicating confidence in our mission.

However, our work extends beyond publishing, as we actively contribute to OA book infrastructure projects, share publishing tools, and engage in advocacy and community-building efforts. These endeavours aim to promote smaller, scholar-led OA book publishing on a broader scale.

Can you briefly describe your business model and how Open Book Publishers remains sustainable?

Open Book Publishers operates as a non-profit press, ensuring that incoming and outgoing finances balance. Our publishing activities are funded primarily through three sources: sales of paperback, hardback, and some e-book formats, our Library Membership program, and grants. We encourage authors to seek grants to cover publishing costs, but we publish books based on peer review, with or without attached funding. The income from our Library Membership program has grown as we attracted more members and introduced tiered pricing so that the fees that libraries pay are more aligned with their budgets.

We try to streamline processes to keep our costs manageable without compromising quality. A reliable digital infrastructure is vital for this. For example, we created an Open Dissemination System called Thoth, which enables presses to manage the metadata for their open-access books and to export it in a number of different formats to various platforms, catalogues and other dissemination channels. Thoth was tested with Open Book titles as proof of concept. Our collaborative work with projects like COPIM to develop an open, community-owned and community-governed software to support the publication of open-access books helps improve our own publishing processes, as well as assisting other presses.

Open Book Publishers has expanded into advocacy and technology, particularly open-source software. What drove this expansion, and what projects are you currently involved in?

Our expansion into advocacy and technology stems from our belief that a publisher should be closely involved in the entire book-making process. We recognized the challenges faced by smaller presses, especially regarding distribution in the OA landscape, and the need for cost-effective solutions. We sought collaborative approaches to address these issues.

We initiated the ScholarLed group, comprised of non-profit, academic-led presses, to work together on shared challenges. The COPIM project emerged from this group, where we have been actively involved in developing Thoth too. We also launched the Open Book Collective to promote library membership programs like ours among other presses.

Additionally, we coordinate the Open Access Books Network, a community platform for knowledge-sharing and support in OA book publishing. We engage in various initiatives to strengthen networks and promote scholar-led OA book publishing.

What are your predictions for the future of Open Book Publishers and open access over the next 5 to 10 years?

Open access book publishing is gradually becoming mainstream, driven by funder mandates. However, it is essential to avoid the inequalities and challenges associated with the APC (Author Processing Charges) funding model. Alternative ways of funding monograph publishing need wider recognition and support from grant-giving bodies to ensure the sustainability of OA book publishing.

The interoperability of open source and community-led solutions for OA book publishing platforms will be crucial to prevent platform capture by commercial entities.

Another interesting area is the likely expansion of digital  books to include interactive and computational elements and better integration with underlying data and resources will likely continue.

OA textbooks and Open Educational Resources (OER) also hold promise for development, particularly in conjunction with the growing OER initiatives at universities.

Furthermore, the role of AI in the production processes will be an area to watch closely.

Any additional insights or thoughts you'd like to share?

I think it is vital to recognize that Western scholarly publishing practices may not be suitable for all contexts as OA book publishing develops globally. In non-Western societies and communities, concepts like authorial ownership of knowledge and copyright laws can pose challenges. We must be cautious not to impose Western practices and be sensitive to diverse publishing solutions. Collaboration, rather than competition, and fostering a variety of publishing models are key to the creation of a more inclusive and sustainable OA publishing landscape.

This post was a collaboration between

Alessandra Tosi, Rupert Gatti

  • Alessandra Tosi

    Alessandra Tosi

    Dr Alessandra Tosi is a co-founder and the Managing Director of OBP. Alessandra is a specialist in nineteenth-century Russian fiction, reception and gender studies.

    More posts by Alessandra Tosi.

    Alessandra Tosi
  • Rupert Gatti

    Rupert Gatti

    Dr Rupert Gatti is a co-founder of Open Book Publishers. He is also a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he is Director of Studies in Economics.

    More posts by Rupert Gatti.

    Rupert Gatti