Sunday, July 03, 2011

Open access, books and the royalty argument: a research proposal

The original focus of the open access movement has been the scholarly journal article, which authors have traditionally given away, while books were at first set aside, in part because authors do receive royalties from publishing books. It may be timely to reconsider this argument; for further detail, see below. Here are two potential research methods for exploring the reality behind the perception that academics earn royalties from book publishing, developed for the Research Questions section of the Open Access Directory.

Method 1: author return on investment of time

Hypothesis: the vast majority of academic authors would advance their financial situations faster by moonlighting at a second job, even at minimum wage, than by writing academic books.
  • estimate or calculate author time spent on writing academic books
  • estimate or add royalties over years book is likely to continue selling
  • divide royalties by author hours
  • compare with local minimum wage
Method 2: publisher royalties to academic authors
  • collect publisher records for royalties on a per-author / per-book basis
  • calculate range, average and mode
  • paint a qualitative picture of likely financial rewards for academic authors for book publishing
Note: I do not have time to conduct this research at present, but would be interested in participating in a research team or acting as a consultant if someone else would like to take this on.

Anecdotal evidence (and inspiration) from an expert

Sandy Thatcher, formerly publisher at Penn State University Press and former President of the American Association of University Presses, points out today on the scholcomm list: the fact that a significant number of authors published by university presses earn no royalties at all, it is also true that the number of authors who earn really significant royalties on academic books is very small. For them, the greatest incentive to publish a book by far lies in the indirect rewards to come in the form of tenure and promotion, whose pecuniary benefits usually far outweigh any monies actually received from book royalties. I therefore think a much stronger case for OA book publishing can be made than Peter seems ready to admit yet. And it is important to press on this point because the longer book publishing remains TA while journal publishing goes OA, the wider the "digital divide" will grow between book and journal content, which is intellectually indefensible.