Free?

So the big debate this week, with the release of Chris Anderson’s Free is whether publishers will be expected to provide their content for free, an argument that makes people very, very nervous in the circles in which I play.

Anderson uses the music industry as an example of an industry that has thrived since people starting sharing files. And I think that’s great. Although I usually fork out the ten bucks to buy albums on iTunes, it’s still better than twenty bucks for a CD and I have been known to find the odd track for free. Then I do all the things that people say I will do. I go to concerts, I buy the odd t-shirt, etc.

But how do we apply this to the book world? How many times do people read books? If we give the whole thing away will the book still sell?  Cory Doctorow, popular author of, among other things, last year’s Little Brother have proven that this model does work. But that’s fiction. People still seem to want to own fiction. My press publishes non-fiction for the academic market with some crossover to trade and some textbooks. The textbook market is definitely changing, with students trying to save money and preferring to access information in a mobile device, whether that be as large as a laptop or as small as a cell phone. If we give that away for free, why would anyone buy the book?

And who pays the author and the publishing professionals who acquired, edited, and marketed the book? It’s not that I am resistant to the idea of getting things free, I truly don’t know yet how it’s going to change our industry, and where that will leave academic publishing.

Last year at the annual AAUP meeting there was a lot of talk about a Green model and a Gold model. I haven’t completely grasped the difference so I’ll use a clip from another website, Ercim News.

Types of Open Access
OA can be delivered in two ways:

  • ‘green’: the author can self-archive at the time of submission of the publication (the ‘green’ route) whether the publication is grey literature (usually internal non-peer-reviewed), a peer-reviewed journal publication, a peer-reviewed conference proceedings paper or a monograph
  • ‘gold’: the author or author institution can pay a fee to the publisher at publication time, the publisher thereafter making the material available ‘free’ at the point of access (the ‘gold’ route). The two are not, of course, incompatible and can co-exist.

These models generally refer to the publication of scholarly articles such that you would find in journals and the call for open access here is in direct response to the astronomical fees charged by some of the bigger journal publishers. Stevan Harnad, who supports the green model, figures some new model will emerge after the current model collapses and the universities are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cancelled subscriptions that they can now use to finance publication.

This is all just musing. I have no idea what will actually happen, but I can see just in our business that the dramatic fall in the economy in the United States is already having an impact on purchasing decisions and anything we can do to give people more options is a good thing.

More to come.

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