“In 2015, my former boss and current Scholarly Kitchen Chef/PLOS CEO Alison Mudditt led a team at the University of California Press who launched our Luminos open access monograph publishing program. The program survives to this day largely unchanged. Briefly, the program starts with the assumption the baseline cost of publishing a monograph is roughly $15,000. In order to recover those costs, Luminos uses a cost-sharing model that involves direct contributions from the author’s institution, money from a library membership fund, direct subsidy from the Press, and sales of print copies of the book. The elevator pitch for the program was (and is) that these funds combined allow for the global digital distribution of an openly licensed edition of the monograph. When it was launched, the Luminos program was one of the very few initiatives that was really trying to tackle the whole issue of open access books. Since then, many others have now waded into the fray, including the TOME project, which was launched in 2017, and Luminos is far from the only initiative that allows for open access book publication.
At dinner one night in Charleston, another publisher leaned over to me and asked bluntly, “Is Luminos working?” My answer at the time was, yes. But this question forced me to reflect a bit more carefully about the economics of Luminos and of OA monograph publishing more generally and what the library’s role in facilitating open access for books can really be. Answering the question about Luminos’s success depends a lot on what the measures of success are and how publishers, particularly university presses, deal with the difficult problem of the relationship between the costs of open access and the revenue derived from sales, largely to individuals, of their lengthy backlist of previously published books. Looking at Luminos strictly as a financial proposition, I think the results are a mixed bag. However, looking at Luminos as a way to create a pathway to immediate, unembargoed open access for the monographs published in the program that enhances these books’ impact and usage, I think it’s hard not to argue that it has been a success.
A chief challenge of the business of open access book publishing for university presses, however, has been the tremendously high costs of publishing a book. These are well documented in the 2016 Ithaka S+R study on the costs of publishing monographs, which is still in my opinion a highly valid and very important study, although not everyone agrees with the conclusions. The $15,000 figure that Luminos has used since its launch in 2015 is on the very very low end of the spectrum that is documented in that report, and is likely not realistic. But while not dismissing the cost side of the equation, I think what a lot of folks are beginning to consider is the revenue side, which is how university presses actually recover their costs of operation since most of us receive a small amount of direct institutional support at best….”