Ten Years of OBP: An Interview with Alessandra Tosi and Rupert Gatti (Part One)

Academic Publishing Sep 24, 2018

Ten years ago today Open Book Publishers was born. Non-profit, scholar-led and now the leading UK Open Access publisher in the Humanities and Social Sciences, OBP began as a small-scale experiment, a passion project for co-directors Alessandra Tosi and Rupert Gatti. They were frustrated with the existing academic publishing landscape and convinced that Open Access could offer something different.

After a torrid experience producing a camera-ready manuscript for her first book – “it was horrendous” – Tosi was outraged when she realised that she had effectively locked her research behind a paywall. “We put in all this work and then that book was so expensive . . . the final straw was when Russian colleagues asked me to send them copies of the book and I had to buy them myself; it was complete madness.” The idea for OBP was born.

“If academics don’t do anything, who else is going to do it for them?”

While Gatti worked on a business plan for the nascent press, Tosi took a short course in publishing at the end of the academic year “just to know the basics, so I had a feel for what was involved. But as an academic author you already know quite a bit.”

The Open Access landscape in 2008 was quite bare.“There was Open Humanities Press, which was a great inspiration to us. They were properly Open Access, academic-led. Apart from that I remember very little. But there were lots of things going on in the sciences, in journal publishing, so we thought, why don’t we do something in the humanities, why are we lagging behind all the time?”

Rather than take another academic job, Tosi decided to devote all her energies to the newly christened Open Book Publishers. “Our approach was very much: we’ll try, we’ll see if it works.” After struggling to drum up interest for their project from learned societies, they spoke to William St. Clair, a research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Gatti was also a fellow. St. Clair agreed to republish his book That Greece Might Still Be Free with OBP as a pilot project. They were in business.

Getting started: using existing networks

With St. Clair’s book underway, Tosi approached the MML library in Cambridge and asked them for a list of their most frequently borrowed books. “We started by saying, we’ll ask some key authors to reprint their work in an Open Access format. I wrote personally to maybe twenty authors, and Lionel Gossman and Robert Phillip Kolker were enthusiastic about it.” Kolker was keen to republish his film studies classic The Altering Eye, and Gossman offered OBP his new manuscript, which became Brownshirt Princess. Meanwhile, William St. Clair agreed to come on board as OBP’s third director.

“These three authors were really key to us,” says Tosi;  “having these really well-known scholars saying, ‘oh yes I’ll publish my book with you,’ that was the start, and then other authors could see that.” “Roger Paulin signed up early and let us use his name as well,” adds Gatti. “I think people were interested in Open Access and thought, ‘what you’re doing is a good project, I’ll put my name on it.’”

In those early stages Gatti was doing the typesetting and Tosi took care of editorial, marketing and author liason, with one or two volunteers who helped with tasks like cover design. But soon OBP grew.

Growing pains: “We had to change the model.”

Initially people thought Gatti and Tosi were too ambitious. “People kept saying, ‘it’s impossible to publish monographs without having been in the business of publishing for 300 years or so,’” jokes Tosi. “It was a very closed industry,” Gatti agrees. “There was definitely a belief that you couldn’t possibly get into publishing unless you’d done your time, because it was so complicated.” But as Tosi explains, flexibility was key to OBP’s approach.

“There was this idea that you had to have lots of money to set up, and a big organisation; they didn’t believe you could do it nimbly, but we wanted to demonstrate that you could be very flexible and innovate and do all sorts of things, and it didn’t have to be this huge amount of money.”

At first OBP operated on a shoestring, financed by grants and a loan. “I think for a long time it was touch and go. Initially we didn’t have to pay salaries because I was working for free and Rupert didn’t have to be paid but as soon as you start hiring people then you think, ‘this actually has to work financially.’” As OBP expanded and took on permanent staff, Gatti and Tosi realised that sales of physical copies and grant income weren’t enough: “we had to change the model.” They were committed never to charge authors, so the money had to come from elsewhere.

Then Gatti had a brainwave: OBP’s Library Membership Scheme, in which libraries pay an annual sum for access to all OBP’s digital editions, as well as receiving discounts on physical copies.[1] The programme has gone from strength to strength with almost 130 members worldwide. “It’s worked really well and it now covers a third of our expenses,” Tosi says.

The scheme is also a ‘proof of concept’ – a model showing how library budgets can support sustainable Open Access publishing rather than being drained by the expensive subscriptions charged by for-profit publishers.

With this steady income stream OBP has flourished. It now employs five permanent staff and a number of freelance workers, and Gatti and Tosi underline the importance of the people – both staff and dedicated volunteers – who have worked for OBP throughout its ten years. “Without passionate people working to promote democratic access to knowledge, we would never have grown as we have done.”

With this dedicated team, the press has published 130 books to date, written by authors including Noam Chomsky, Amartya Sen and Ruth Finnegan. “This is another crucial aspect,” emphasises Gatti, “the quality of the authors we have published, their enthusiasm for Open Access and their willingness to embrace the possibilities of digital publication – the type of innovative books that we’re publishing, that’s what keeps pushing us forwards, so one can show people that as an academic author you can fully embrace the possibilities of  the digital; it’s not just text and images now.” “And of course we have a very good board and their expertise, and that of our peer reviewers, helps us to keep the quality of our books very high,” adds Tosi.

OBP is on target to reach 2 million views before the end of this year, and their books are read in every inhabited region of the world. “This is the sort of impact Open Access can achieve,” observes Gatti.

The next ten years: “We need to show this can be different.” To read the second and final part of this interview, click here.

[1] All OBPs books are freely available to read online in HTML and XML editions and to download as a PDF, but other digital editions (epub and mobi) and physical copies are affordably priced. Book sales are a crucial revenue stream and anyone buying an OBP book is helping to support Open Access for everyone.

Lucy Barnes

Lucy Barnes is Senior Editor and Outreach Coordinator at Open Book Publishers.