Many authors do not intend to make much revenue from books (textbooks or research books) they contribute to, yet they don't make it open access. Why?

  • 33
    Because the publisher?
    – ff524
    Feb 24, 2016 at 20:04
  • 6
    @ff524 Why not choosing a publisher that allows the book to be open access? Feb 24, 2016 at 20:08
  • 11
    Probably because open access is relatively low in the list of considerations for choosing a publisher.
    – ff524
    Feb 24, 2016 at 20:09
  • 10
    To me the real question here is "what value is added by the publisher". Feb 25, 2016 at 6:44
  • 5
    Note that the publisher intends to make revenue from the book - or at least not make a massive loss - even if the authors don't. If you're planning to publish it entirely OA, you need a) to find some way of offsetting the publisher's production costs (which are very substantial); or b) publish it yourself. Which of these situations do you envisage? The answers are massively different. Feb 25, 2016 at 8:37

6 Answers 6


There are a number of reasons why not to, and they stem from the reasons one might want to publish a book, even if you aren't making much if any money:

  • The prestige of the publisher matters. For many tenure committees, professional organizations, etc. "A Book from BigDeal University Press" > "Some Markdown Files on Github" or what have you in terms of evaluation. In effect, you are getting paid, but in prestige and reputation rather than money.
  • Publishers take care of a number of things that, if you're self-publishing an open access book you have to do yourself, including copy-editing, layout, and most importantly, finding peer reviewers.
  • Seeing a book adopted widely (another part of the whole prestige aspect) will likely be more difficult for an open-access book, at least at present, where they are fairly common. Who is going to do the marketing? Has it actually been properly peer reviewed? Are there nice, hard-bound copies available (some of us like reading things on paper), etc.

That is not to say that there are not some very successful efforts in my field to do open access books. Hernan and Robins causal inference book, for example, has drafts and code available online: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/miguel-hernan/causal-inference-book/

But neither one of those authors is in the position to need much benefit from a book publication, and it's still being placed in a traditional press when it's finished.

  • 5
    In your first bullet, I would go so far as to replace > with >> (or \gg). Feb 24, 2016 at 21:04
  • 10
    For many tenure committees, professional organizations, etc. "A Book from BigDeal University Press" > "Some Markdown Files on Github" : where by "many" you mean "all".
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 25, 2016 at 0:45
  • 4
    Publishers, even "big-name" publishers no longer take care of copyediting or layout. They expect you to deliver camera-ready copy that they can put their copyright on and sell for a lot of money, giving you peanuts, if at all. I encourage you to self-publish, either by putting a PDF online, or through a self-publishing printers. We just have to educate the tenure committees that publishers are no longer academic, but money-making companies. Feb 25, 2016 at 20:19
  • 4
    Freely available books are not unheard of in mathematics, either: for example, Allen Hatcher has put up his algebraic topology textbook on his website, white David Fremlin published (under a copyleft license) the source code of his four-volume measure theory monograph.
    – tomasz
    Feb 26, 2016 at 3:49
  • 5
    @JeffE In fairness, my tenure committee's response would probably be "Why were you writing books at all?"
    – Fomite
    Jul 4, 2016 at 5:23

Many authors do not intend to make much revenue from books (textbooks or research books) they contribute to, yet they don't make it open access. Why?

First, while authors may not "intend" to make much revenue, that still does not mean that they will happily give up whatever revenue they are actually going to make (and keep in mind that the actual amount of revenue is impossible to predict with accuracy at the time an author needs to make this decision). So if an author feels that making their book open-access will lead to a loss of revenue, then unless that author is sufficiently generous, passionate about open-access, and/or financially well-off, not insisting on making the book available as open-access would be a completely rational decision, regardless of whether the publisher would give permission or not.

Second, and more importantly in my opinion, after you have spent a few years and a huge amount of labor and creative energy writing a book, the idea of giving it away for free is simply ... uncomfortable, even for purely psychological reasons. I decided to make my book open access and am quite happy with my decision, but I can completely understand and respect authors who have made the opposite decision, and don't think such a decision should be criticized by anyone who hasn't gone through a similar creative journey themselves.


As the entry level for self-publishing is now very low, there is a whole swamp of the low quality content. Once you join this swamp, it is very difficult to raise above it, as nobody can find you. A good quality content initially belonging to this swamp takes long time to be noticed, if ever.

It is critical to have the public reviewing system not for picking best of the best but first for discarding the really low quality junk. Automated search tools, even Google technologies, cannot do this properly, as the junkwriters are often much more experts in "search engine optimization". Hence they trash with lots of revenue generating ads around somehow always takes if not the first then at least a second place in the search results.

The only way known for me to mitigate this is to link (or publish in) the official website of the notable university. Web search will take this into consideration, but the option is not easily available for all potentially good publishers.

It is the lack of the serious public reviewing system that hinders publishing of the free content.


ff524 basically answered in the comment: publishers don't usually allow it. Just as with journal articles it might be possible to negotiate publishing under an open access license for a fee. Sometimes it is also possible to negotiate being allowed to publish a "preprint" version on your homepage or a preprint server such as the arXiv. Typically this is a version without the editing and layout work done by the publisher.

Of course authors can just decide to not publish with a publisher (or self-publish) and just upload the book to their homepage, as many people do. You will miss out on royalties (not a big deal, as noted in the question) and marketing efforts of the publisher.

  • 3
    "Of course authors can just decide to not publish with a publisher (or self-publish) and just upload the book to their homepage, but this has basically the same status as articles that are not peer reviewed." I must say that I disagree with this. On the one hand, part of the peer review process is the prestige of publishing in the most competitive journals. There is no "Annals of textbook publishing," and (at least) in many academic fields, publishing textbooks is viewed more like service than research... Feb 24, 2016 at 20:18
  • 2
    On the other hand, I don't think that textbooks are "peer reviewed" -- parts of them are looked over by people designated by the textbook company, but not in the same way. Moreover, textbooks are not published solely because their content is innovate or novel -- there is no way to explain the flood of nearly identical calculus textbooks in these terms. They are published because the publisher thinks they can make money.... Feb 24, 2016 at 20:20
  • 3
    In my opinion, a high-quality self-published textbook nowadays confers most of the rewards of traditional publishing. The main differences are: (i) the royalties, which are usually rather nominal but a few people (think Stewart of Stewart's calculus) can make real money. (ii) the marketing. Because the publisher wants to sell the text, they have resources available to promote it that most individual authors lack. Those with sufficient web-presence or social media savvy can compete with this, but most academics do not have the time or skills for this. Feb 24, 2016 at 20:22
  • By the way, in the above comments I had in mind mostly textbooks. I see now that the OP didn't specify. When it comes to a research monograph, prestige of the publishing company does play some role. Feb 24, 2016 at 20:24
  • 1
    With the textbook company I signed with, part of the agreement is that they publish it for say... 3 years, and afterwards I can do what I want with it as all rights revert back to me. That could be fairly common. Feb 25, 2016 at 1:46

There is a point about human nature - people tend to value things according to how much they have to pay to get them. An author might well feel that if people can download something for free from a website that it will not be valued. As a user of some excellent free software and the recipient of some excellent free advice here, I know that this is not always true, but other users and other authors might not agree with me.

There is also the obverse to this - that some people will ask, "If it's that good, why is she giving it away?" This meshes with the belief that anything which is valuable can be "monetized" and anything which cannot have a numeric value put on it, does not have value.

Again, I think that the internet is changing these perceptions, but not for everyone and not in every circumstance.


I'm surprised at all the answers given because they all seem to miss the point.

If you publish something open-access, you need to pay for it. An author publishing a non-OA book receives author royalties. The same author publishing an OA book has to pay the publisher. The price is not cheap. Check out Cambridge University Press's website on OA books.

How much are your Book Processing Charges? Our standard charge for a monograph of up to 120,000 words is £9,500/$14,500/€13,000 (excluding any applicable VAT or local sales tax), and £55/$84/€76 per additional thousand words. We are usually able to offer a discount of £2/$3/€2.5 per page for camera ready copy. We do, however, consider each book individually. Additional fees may apply depending upon the complexity of the work.

It's one thing to write a book and make little/no money. It's another to actually lose money writing the book. Yes, CUP's website also says you will continue to receive royalties, but OA means the content is available for free. How many people will pay for the book when they can already read for free?

tl; dr: authors don't make books OA because it doesn't make economic sense.

  • 1
    Good point. Going through a publisher is optional though. Jun 21, 2018 at 8:04
  • @FranckDernoncourt it might be just me reacting to the term 'open access', since it has a very specific meaning in my experience. If you're thinking of "why not just make the book freely available on the author's website without engaging a publisher", that would be a different question entirely.
    – Allure
    Jun 21, 2018 at 8:29
  • "you need to pay for it" if you go via a publisher. These book processing charges don't represent actual costs that you would incur if you just hosted your book online yourself (which costs ~nothing).
    – a3nm
    Jul 3, 2020 at 9:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .