February 21, 2016

Clarification of our policies on copyright and such

Hi…. This is a follow-up to my December 15 post, “A note on our copyright statements.” I want to follow up because there was a comment that was critical of our copyright policies, apparently reading a few things into what I said that weren’t true. I responded to the comment but I wanted to make the clarification here.

The basic point of the earlier post was that a simple copyright statement on the copyright page of a book, e.g. “Copyright 2017 Wayne Bivens-Tatum,” or “Copyright 2015 respective authors” can be misleading about who actually has the publication rights. That’s because a publishing agreement often gives an exclusive right to the publisher, usually for a limited time. I wrote that post in a style that was maybe a little bit officious and legalistic, but copyright is about rules that can be a bit technical. It was this tone, I think, that gave the commenter the impression that we are highly proprietary about rights and not friendly enough to open access publishing. She asked why we don’t use a Creative Commons license, why the prices are so high for our books, why aren’t our books open access after an embargo period, and why don’t we use a contract that allows authors to use their work for whatever purposes they want. I addressed her questions in a response to her comment. I’ll put my answers here and say a bit more as well.

First, I want to say a bit about what is typically in our contracts with authors. The contracts differ between the authors or editors of a book and contributors of chapters to an edited volume. Contributors of chapters to an edited volume have always had an immediate right to put their work in an institutional repository, which qualifies us as open access to an extent. In addition, for the past few years our contracts with contributors have been “non-exclusive,” which means that in fact they can do whatever they want with their chapters right away and forever. They can put them on a website or whatever they want. We’re not too worried about this competing with book sales, since it distributes access to the contents through all of the different contributors and the different methods they want to use. The way we look at it, it would not be easy or necessarily possible to pull together the whole book for free, even though authors could get together to do that if they wanted (though that we not be very fair to us).

Authors of books or editors of collections get a different kind of contract that gives them less rights at first. They don’t sign over their copyright, but they give us a temporary exclusive right to publish their work, whether it’s a whole book or the editor’s contribution to a collection (introduction, arrangement, etc.). After maybe five years, our exclusive right automatically renews unless the authors ask for it not to. At that point they can have the right to renegotiate, to take it to another publisher, to make it freely available on a website, or whatever they want to do.

Since our rights are always limited, we don’t have the right to make someone else’s work open access or put it on a Creative Commons license, nor would it make sense financially. First, about not having the rights to do it. That is something that could theoretically be negotiated with an author, meaning that if it was okay with them we could write a contract that did that. I just want to point out that since we are not the owners of the copyright, we don’t have the right to make somebody else’s work open access. That would be on them, and they could still give us a non-exclusive right to publish it and hope to break even. But break even we at least hope to do, and contrary to what you may have read, making a book free does not increase sales. And we have to sell books to break even, and also to pay authors royalties, which they are interested in. Book authors and editors typically get 15% of sales. (Contributors of chapters get a free copy of the book, in addition to maintaining the rights to their work.)

So if open access publishing is not feasible for us as a book publisher, how can it exist? It does exist – there are plenty of open access publishers out there. Most of them are journal publishers, but some university presses are beginning to experiment with open access book publishing. What you may not know about this kind of thing is that it’s financed by charging authors to publish their work. The author of a journal article is typically charged $500 to $1000 to have her article published, even in a highly reputable journal. A book can cost an author easily $7500 for a university press to publish it open access. We don’t want to do that. Sometimes there is grant funding to pay these fees, and sometimes it comes out of a scholar’s own pockets. We really don’t want to do that, so open access publishing or Creative Commons publishing is not an option for us, not as long as we hope to break even.

Finally, a note about our book pricing. The commenter said our prices are high, and I responded that they are typically about half of what other LIS publishers charge. We have a philosophy of trying to make our books affordable so that people and not just libraries can buy them. But given the small quantities published, there’s no way we can compete with the low pricing of the giant trade publishers. It is all about breaking even. (Click the book covers on the right to see what our prices are like.) So I am confident that our prices are good given the overall market for LIS books.

In a typical year, we do just a little better than break even from selling books. And that is without paying us a salary, so in a sense it is all subsidized with our labor. Our online classes are more profitable, but I think that is not so much of an issue.

I hope that our policies, and our transparency, show that we are still an ethical publisher.

1 Comment »

  1. This is a good reply to that comment, which I hadn’t seen until today. Considering how inexpensive your books are compared to ALA Editions or Libraries Unlimited, I didn’t understand the criticism about your prices. If people still can’t afford them, then there are copies available in libraries. The only things ‘everyone can afford” are free, but publishing books costs money. I’m all for OA publishing, but portraying small book presses as villains of the publishing world for not pouring their labor into books and then giving them away for free is choosing the wrong target.

    I’m also glad you pointed out the distinction between copyright and the right to publish. I know technically I could pull out of the publishing contract in a couple of years, but I wouldn’t. It’s *my* book, but without all your press’s effort—from soliciting to editing to typesetting to distribution—I wouldn’t have had a book in the first place and it would have had a harder time finding what audience it has. I suspect that’s true of most of your books. The complaint also leaves out the bargaining power of the authors. Nobody forced us to publish with you. I understood what the contract entailed and freely signed it. I liked the terms and the relatively low prices of the books, because I wanted people and not just libraries to be able to afford them.

    In my book I speculated that a universal library available to all would be the culmination of the Enlightenment in the domain of information. We’re nowhere near that, but it’s not because small book publishers are holding us back.

    Comment by Wayne Bivens-Tatum — February 21, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

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