More and more philosophers are calling for open access philosophy journals, but just like academics can move away from proprietary publishers when it comes to journal articles, I think they can do the same thing when it comes to entire books.
Consider a site like lulu.com. You don’t have to pay any money up front to publish your book. Here’s how it works. You upload your book, and lulu.com prints them on demand for anyone who would like to order them. They tell you the base cost of the book. You set how much revenue you would like to make per book. They add 25% to that number for their commission. You get 80% of the profit. So if you wanted to practically give your book away and make say $1 per book, you could sell a philosophy book on lulu for about $8 that would cost about $30 from OUP. These books get their own ISBN number and can even be sold on Amazon.
Right now publishers make a lion’s share of the earnings on an academic book. Reviewers of the books often get some kind of minimal financial incentive, but apart from the royalties for the author (which I assume are small for most philosophy books), very little revenue comes back to the philosophical community for all of that work.
Notice too that the philosophical community does much of the work (copy editing, proofing, etc…). The publisher lays out the text, distributes it, and advertises the text – but these are services that may well be obsolete in a digital age. At a minimum, they surely don’t warrant the old publishing model mark up.
What if philosophers self-published books on a site like lulu.com? Authors could give their books away for free, but their is some minimal value. You get the nice, neat book format for people who like to have a physical copy of the book. You get digital ebook formats created for you. I’d love to see authors give away their books on their websites, but I would gladly pay $8 (rather than $30) for a high quality philosophy book when I knew the author was getting 80% of the profits.
The Major Problem
The major problem is that we’re dealing with vanity presses, and these have absolutely no quality control. If philosophy self-publishing became the norm we would see a glut of books on the vanity presses. How would philosophers get the kind of research credit that publishing with OUP gets them? One of the main benefits of a reputable publishing firm is that they function as a kind of quality control. You know when you get something from OUP there is some reasonably good chance that you’re getting a good work of philosophy. As an author, you can go before your tenure and promotion committee and say, “I’ve got an OUP book”
However, this function could easily be met by the philosophical community. We, the philosophers, review the manuscripts anyway. An organization could be set-up with a few big name philosophers in charge of different areas. After writing your book, you submit a proposal to the organization. The editor in charge of an area reads over the proposal and decides if it’s the sort of book that seems worthy of a closer look. He requests a copy of the book and sends it to a couple of reviewers on his/her list of referees. They come back with a verdict. If the verdict is positive the referee gets a book review on the accrediting body’s website and formal announcements are made.
This organization could put out a catalogue of the books they select each month. Professional philosophers and non-philosophers should have as much confidence in the quality of a self-published book that was vetted through this process as they would in a book that had gone through the normal publishing channels.
In fact, I envision that having your self-published book vetted through this process could garner more prestige than even an OUP book. I’m told that book publishers actually have higher acceptance rates than some of the top journals in our field. There are various explanations for this, but one of them is that their is more money in philosophy books for the publishers – so they’ll take risks on more books.
Whatever the acceptance rate is for the best presses, the accrediting board could set their bar higher. If OUPs is 15%, the accrediting board could set theirs at 8%. If your book was passed their quality test, that would be a HUGE acheivement.
The books are WAY cheaper via this method (particularly academic books)
The author can control the price of the book. And even give away digital copies on his/her website. Buying the book on lulu.com could be philosophers’ way of rewarding a philosopher if the book is really good (or used widely).
The author can make 80% of the profit per book.
As soon as the author has typeset the book and uploaded the PDF, the book is available for ordering.
Response: That’s what this accrediting body is supposed to solve. The only reason that OUP is prestigious is because they have a reputation of having high quality referees that attempt to select the best quality work. They could have a stamp that authors would be permitted to put on the cover of the book. In terms of promotion and tenure the norm would be to not count a self-published book as a proper book unless it had passed this kind of vetting process.
It really wouldn’t be more work than the philosophical community already puts into the current business model for publishing books.
Lulu has basic templates for their books. The tech-savvy philosophers could help the other philosophers with free tutorials, additional templates etc…
This seems completely do-able…right now. I’m not sure how to get it started, but it would be awesome if it got started. Dear Famous Philosopher with clout, do something to start this.