Want a secret sauce to increase the readership for your next book by a factor of at least 10? Here it is.

Finding myself having a repeat conversation with a number of different colleagues is usually a sign that a blogpost is warranted. In recent months I have had a series of chats with people either planning or already well into writing a book. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: have you thought about Open Access?

Them: Gimme a break – I need to write the book first, I’m still wrestling with the ideas and trying to find a narrative. Publishing details will have to wait.

Me: If you wait then it’s too late.

The case for Open Access. My last two books, From Poverty to Power (2012) and How Change Happens (2016) were both OA, and the stats were convincing. I haven’t done the numbers for HCH this year (there’s a limit even to my narcissism), but in the first four years (to October 2020) the ratio of hard copies to free pdf downloads to online reads was 1:5:15. In real numbers, the book sold 10,000 copies, 50,000 people downloaded the pdf, and 150,000 read anything from a paragraph to the whole thing online.

Not only that, but OA ensures a long tail – hard copy sales tail off after a couple of years, but downloads and online reads just keep rising.

Listen to your inner narcissist – go Open Access

Convinced? That’s just one book of course, but it’s consistent with the findings of research on much larger numbers of OA books, which found that ‘Downloads of OA books were on average 10 times higher than those of non-OA books, and citations of OA books were 2.4 times higher on average’. And it’s probably even more true if, like me, you are trying to reach readers in low and lower-middle-income countries, where the paper book trade is often pretty rudimentary.

I recently had a comradely spat on twitter with friends at the Institute of Development Studies on this topic.

IDS: In this episode of #IDSbetweenthelines @ptaylor_ottawa interviews @dannyburns2 @johoward_ch and Sonia M. Ospina editors of the book: The SAGE Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry Listen here.

Me: Perhaps something a little contradictory in a £265 book on participation? Isn’t it time we (research funders and academics) all took #openaccess for books a lot more seriously?

IDS: Yes, we fully recognise that the cost of the handbook, and the more affordable e-book option, are a substantial investment. With 71 chapters from 150 authors, it aims to be the resource on participatory methods for years to come. The editors have worked with the publishers SAGE to make the first chapter available for free (via link) and authors are able to share their chapters for teaching purposes. IDS is highly committed to open access publishing and we aim to achieve that wherever we possibly can.

Now I love IDS dearly, which after all was one of the first development institutes to set up an open access programme for its own publications. Since 2013 it has had over 7 million downloads – not views. And the podcast is great – they even did one on How Change Happens. But in this case, giving away 1/71 chapters for free and allowing authors to send chapters to their mates is pretty feeble IMO (but see editor Danny Burns’ spirited response in comments and come to your own view).

What all this suggests is that the discussion on OA in books is maybe a decade behind that on academic journals, but it is following similar lines, according to an excellent recent piece on the LSE Impact blog,:

  • Publishers are introducing ‘Book Processing Charges’ for authors to cover the lost revenue. BPCs are typically £5,000 to £12,500 per book.
  • Research funders are starting to insist on Open Access for books, as they have long done for academic journal papers
  • A bunch of new academic presses have appeared that are dedicated to OA publishing

It’s not just Open Access though. Lots of authors seem blissfully uninterested in the price attached to their books, then complain when it appears in some £80-a-copy,  libraries-only academic list. Why didn’t you ask? I was too busy writing the book.

Let me repeat: if you end up writing an £80, non Open Access book, you’re basically saying this is just for universities, and you’re happy with selling 400 copies. That’s both elitist and needlessly minimises your readership (and your impact – remember the REF!). It looks like you don’t care whether civil society organizations or activists read your book.

If you are outside the walls of the universities, it’s not just about the money, but also the hassle factor of paying online, reclaiming expenses if you can be bothered etc – you’re much more likely to go elsewhere for info, or just read the reviews.

If you care about the impact of your work – i.e. making sure that someone beyond the magisterium actually reads the result of all your pain and suffering – then you have to think about OA (and pricing) from the start, and negotiate with the publishers upfront. If you sign a contract and then say years later ‘oh by the way, would you mind doing this Open Access?’, your leverage is roughly zero.

And if you’re not thinking of writing a book, you probably have friends who are – please spread the word. And you might want to check out Open Access week, which is going on right now.

End of rant.

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5 Responses to “Want a secret sauce to increase the readership for your next book by a factor of at least 10? Here it is.”
  1. You raise some important points, Duncan, but I have the feeling that a few points a lumped together. First of all: Yes, more open access would be great-but then it’s getting more complicated.
    I agree that every author’s aim should be to publish in an accessible & affordable way-supporting great independent publishers such as Pluto, Verso, Polity, Zed (now part of Bloomsbury so not sure) etc. is one avenue to ensure a broader readership at affordable prices and making sure great publishers stay in business.
    Another important strategy beyond open access is to build a platform (like you) or really launch a professional marketing campaign with an agent (e.g. Severine Autessere’s Frontlines of Peace) because your book won’t sell itself and most commercial publishers do not care about sales if it’s just another book in the autumn catalogue.
    I also wouldn’t dismiss the digital lives of academic books. Yes, a 100 pound print book will essentially be a ‘write only’ affair with sales probably closer to 300 than 400, but many academics and students will have digital access (the usual global inequalities apply…) and can use it in the classroom and can strike a good balance between putting OUP/CUP on their CVs and making knowledge accessible. Handbooks are a different animal altogether. The 2 volume Handbook for 265 pounds is definitely at the lower end of the handbook spectrum and digital options are more affordable-but that doesn’t help small organizations/researchers on various peripheries (although companies like SAGE have a history of publishing cheaper versions for the South Asian market for example). And of course there is also a discussion to be had that social science books tend to be much cheaper than, say, law or medicine textbooks so there are all sorts of academic hierarchies, traditions and metrics involved.
    None of this should prevent any author from publishing open access, of course, but authors, especially in our field, need to be very clear about how to tailor affordable publishing to their target audience. I *hate* it when a book claims to be of interest to undergrad, postgrad students, policy-makers & the interested public-such books basically don’t exist. Can you publish your PhD thesis with a traditional academic publisher to secure post-doc funding and distill key findings into a ‘manifesto’-type book for Pluto?
    So yes to more open access by default, of course, and also a reminder to think about audience, platforms and strategies almost as much as content. I have a somewhat privileged position as a Swedish academic with actual work time dedicated to readings and even I have trouble keeping up with new book-but also with a growing pdf graveyard that includes many open access articles and books that I may never be able to engage with beyond the download…

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Tobias, useful thoughts. But you are inside the hallowed walls of academia – the issue looks very different if you are on the outside, e.g. in an NGO. This on twitter from Jay Goulden ‘100% this! As someone working on knowledge and learning in an international NGO, I’ll download and read an Open Access book (sometimes only part of, tbf), but never buy a hard copy book (let alone one costing £265!), nor a paywalled article.’

  2. Duncan, with respect, I am surprised that your only reference to the most comprehensive publication on participatory research in the last 20 years, is to criticise the publication strategy. You make no reference to the content at all.

    We have tried over many years to encourage colleagues within our sector to write how-to guides on participatory research methods, that could be put on the web for free, because we had identified that type of knowledge as a critical gap nearly 10 years ago. In the following 10 years not a single one was written. This is because people are stressed and overworked. Writing for a landmark publication published by the worlds most recognised methods publisher offered an incentive which worked. It resulted in 71 amazing chapters which otherwise would not exist in the world.
    We don’t like the price of the books either, but we have tried to engage constructively with the publication world that we face. In addition to the two free chapters we would like to point out the following:

    (1) The hardback is obviously mainly for libraries. This will enable the book to get out to a lot of people across the world. We like libraries. We believe in libraries.
    (2) the e-book works out at less than £2 per chapter for 71 of the most cutting edge material produced in our field . This is good value for participatory practitioners. I am sure that all of those (in the NGO’s that you speak of) who are able to afford professional development courses (for anywhere between £600 or £1500) would not be the subject of your criticism, yet the level of knowledge imparted through this book is likely to be considerably more.
    (3) there will still of course be many people who cannot afford the e-version, and we have taken steps to ensure that they can access the material:

    a) authors may distribute their individual chapters to participatory researchers and others that request them one-to-one. This means that people can get the chapters they need.
    b) we have bulk bought copies to ensure that centres of participatory practise and participatory practitioners across the world can have access to the whole book
    c) further, we have committed to ensuring that all royalties will go to buying more of these books and distributing them.
    d) we are revamping the participatory methods website and authors will be able to place chapter summaries, power points, complimentary material etc there, which will make more of it available. https://www.participatorymethods.org/

    The book is published at a time when it is vital to challenge the linear thinking of mainstream positivist methods such as Randomised Control Trials. It provides a critical mass of knowledge clearly demonstrating the maturity of the field, and the methods and methodology, that has been developed within it over the past 20 years. Having the legitimacy of a mainstream methods publisher helps us to make that collective challenge. A self published open access book would be too easily dismissed.

    Finally, if we had self published from IDS we might have reached the international development community, but this book is designed for all sectors, from health care, to management, to urban planning, to the environment. We could have never have reached all of those sectors following the path that you suggest.

    Of course open access is an aspiration that we would aspire too. But faced with a complex reality, we chose to navigate a path through it, engage with the contradictions, and do something constructive (isn’t that what you espouse in your book?). Everyone involved in this book put in months and or years of their own free time. None of us have our time covered by our work. We did this in our weekends and evenings. We did it because we think that it is important.
The detailed contributions to participatory research methods contained in this handbook are extraordinary in their breadth and depth. Perhaps you might like to engage with what is in the book, and what it is trying to do.

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Danny, I won’t respond on individual points, but I think you capture well the dilemmas authors face in trying to make their work as accessible as possible. I’ll leave it to individual readers to chart their own paths through the labyrinth.

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