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OA book web publishing increases readership twentyfold

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Government is GoodWriting recently about his Adventures in Web Publishing at the Inside Higher Ed website, professor Douglas J. Amy described his problem as one typical for many academics: although previously an author of three scholarly books, he wrote a manuscript for a wider audience which failed to attract any suitable publisher. So, he turned it into a website in 2007. Here’s what he says about the result:

“I had over 75,000 visitors to the site. Only half of those stayed long enough to read some of the material […]  I can safely say that more people have read this online material than have read my other three books combined. Two of these books were published by university presses and were considered successful. But for these publishers, good sales are often measured in the hundreds – numbers which now seem very modest in comparison to the tens of thousands of readers who have visited my Web site. […] I’ve had readers from over 50 countries.  This kind of broad geographical readership would clearly not have happened with a conventionally published book.”

If the print version would have sold 700 copies, and each of them was partly read by a single reader, while only a quarter of unique web visitor were partial web book readers, it still leaves us with 18750:700, or 26:1 ratio in favour of the web book edition.

He warns that his established career and a tenure made it possible to do this, while those seeking tenure or promotion might not be in a position to do so.  I disagree on that point. Risk taking is  one of the key driving aspect of anything in life. In a comparison between two academics seeking promotion, both with published academic books with similar quality, one with a more known publisher and few hundred copies sold (didn’t risk with OA), and another one with similar sales but with a web edition which becomes  read and commented widely on academics blogs and websites (OA book contract), it is the second one who, if the academic impact of the web edition is well presented, has the advantage. I could be entirely mistaken on this, given my total lack of insight into the subject of promotions and tenures.

However, it stands that academic books sell most often in hundreds, while 37.500 visitors stayed on the web edition of Government is Good long enough to qualify as potential readers. In a conservative estimate of the web self-publishing impact, let’s say that printed copy would have sold 700 copies. That is seven hundred potential, not actual readers – large parts of academic book sales is sales to libraries. When it comes to hardbacks with usual 40-50 dollar/euro/pound price , vast majority of sales goes to libraries. And many books never make it to the softback, since expensive hardbacks are a way for publishers to recoup the cost of publishing and make profits even on small sales numbers driven by institutional purchasing power.  Unless they’re part of a course reading list, significantly large number of books in libraries have less then five readers in years, often in a decade.  In addition, it’s rare that students read most of the books they borrow.  Large number, i would even risk saying majority, is not read at all – only a part of borrowed books get any reading at all. Let’s not even go into the actual number of pages that get read on average in those books that end up being read – it’s a depressing figure. That’s my experience of students and four not so small libraries in London (Goldsmiths, LSE, Senat House, Queen Mary) in the past five years.

This short detour was required to establish that print sales numbers of academic books can not be equated with number of readers.  Yet, when it comes to web sites unique visits, which in this case are around 37.500, dismissive claims are often made that those website visitors have little relation with number of website readers. Again, speaking from personal experience, those anti-web prejudices are mistaken. Open access on-line books of the kind that one likes to read are a precious resource. How much extra non-reading time does it take you to get to the library, find the book, checkout the book,  return it, and how long it takes of such extra non-reading time do you require for an on-line book? Yes, finding books on-line too takes time, but the multiplicity and quality of search engines and protocols for searching on-line content has exploded last few years. Students that i studies with last five years (under and postgrad courses) have drastically less time that you, current academics who write and publish books, ever had to study. Number of students who have to work long hours weekly rocketed in the last decades in UK, US and few other European countries whose situation i follow. Evidence for this phenomena is so plentiful, that Bousquet’s paper and his extreme work-study blog post will suffice.  In those new conditions of time scarcity and communication overdrive, electronic resources are today students’ and young researchers’ best friends.

Finally, although I think that for all the above reasons we can consider the thought that perhaps the percentage of unique website visitors relates far closer to the actual number of readers of the visited pages, than is the case with academic print books sales and readers ratio, let’s be conservative again, for the sake of all those who still swear by print objects, and discriminate in the calculation web readers once more.

Half of the 75000 unique visitors stayed long enough to read some of the material. Let’s say half of that half i.e. one quarter of 75000 can qualify as readers, in the same loose way like as define the print sales readers too (they’re all potential readers, we can never tell for sure).

This still leaves us with 18750:700, or 26:1 ratio in favour of the web book edition.

Which leaves us with the twentyfold increase from the post title still being a conservative one.

I transformed (cut & paste) entire website into a book. Here’s the PDF, and the Open Office source of the book. You can read Amy’s full article here.

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Written by KontraMraku

10 August 2009 at 20:41

Posted in Analysis

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