Considering Publishers


We started with the following hunches about publishers in the scholarly monograph ecosystem, born largely of the experience from members of our team who have worked in digital publishing technologies:

  • Scholarly monographs have low unit sales, and sales are declining.
  • Scholarly monographs are nonetheless seen as important to the mission of university presses, even if their economics are increasingly difficult.
  • Libraries are the main buyers of scholarly monographs.
  • EPUB is the lingua franca of publishing digital versions of monographs.
  • Publishers are not willing to publish digital versions without DRM.
  • Working with university presses on new digital initiatives is difficult.

It is important to note that not all of these hunches are correct, as we discuss below, and as highlighted in the conclusions to this section.

We have synthesized the results of our interviews with academic publishers into the following themes.

The Challenges of Monographs

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first theme to emerge from our interviews was the current challenges in monograph publishing. While monographs continue to be important to the mission of the university press, the economics around them are increasingly difficult. As one publisher of a smaller press says:

“Monograph sales have been dropping my entire career. I’ve been in the business about 24 years, when I started the Chicken Little moment was, ‘Oh my God, monograph sales are falling below 2,000 copies a year, what are we going to do?’ Today we’re lucky if we sell 300.”

This has impacts across the press, both in economics of the whole publishing operation, but also on decisions about acquisitions:

“Books that … have not really done anything for us in terms of list, building a reputation and also we’re losing money, those are the ones that we’re thinking we should just not publish.”

Still, while sales numbers for monographs are declining, in aggregate, backlist sales can be important:

“A monograph will move onto the backlist after a couple of years, and will still continue to sell, in both print and ebook formats, albeit in relatively small numbers. But that long tail of the backlist contributes to a little bit of an annuity almost, that the press has every year, that they can depend on.”

This means that while any given monograph might have questionable economics, for some publishers, the overall collection backlist of monographs can contribute significantly to revenues. Given the tenuous nature of university press finances, any threats to existing revenue streams will be approached with caution.

Sales from monographs represent a relatively small portion of revenues for a university press, but they are still significant enough that some care has to be taken around any project that might disrupt revenues, small as they might be, from monograph sales.

Print vs. Digital

Print remains the primary revenue stream for monographs, with reports from our interviewees ranging from 70-90% revenues from print and 10-30% revenues from digital. This has an impact on where publishers can focus their innovation/development resources:

“If you look at individual book sales…the market is still very much interested in the print book and so, just the fact of where the money goes obviously has had an impact on what we invest in developing, right?”

While print remains a much larger revenue stream for university presses (often selling through brick-and-mortar and online bookstores), libraries drive digital acquisitions:

“The primary sales for the digital edition of a scholarly monograph are also to academic libraries. Those are generally done through third-party vendors also like ProQuest or EBSCO.”

Indeed, while print is a revenue driver for university presses, many libraries are moving to a digital-only acquisitions policy, which is shifting the terrain:

“There are a lot of libraries now who are on electronic-only, ebook-only approval models, where if it’s available as an ebook they won’t even source the print book.”

This poses a challenge for publishers, because while print remains the economic driver, many libraries require digital format, to the exclusion of print. And so, because scholars wish for their books to be purchased by libraries, they value digital publishing highly when selecting a press for publication:

“Total digital sales are well south of 10% of our total sales. Our cost for creating these are north of 10% of our total cost. So, the thing is, from a pure ROI investment, it’s not yet making a whole lot of sense to do everything in digital, but if we don’t, then there is a danger that that could even hurt the print sales, because we could be perceived as not really being engaged in the process, in the dissemination of scholarly research.”


One of the surprises in our discussions with university presses (as well as scholarly readers) is the importance of PDF as the digital format of choice. This is driven partly by cost.

“And frankly, because it costs more to convert to EPUB, there’s no reason to spend the extra cost to create, that I’ve discerned, to create an EPUB edition to sell that content to an academic library, because you’re not going to increase the sales numbers by having increased the production cost.”

While our research has been driven by particular interest is in developing a networked, web-based reading platform (with HTML as the base format), it is clear that PDF is currently the preferred digital format for many scholarly readers, largely because of two factors: portability and searchability.

“That’s why PDF is working better, maybe not ultimately, but is working better, because it’s searchable and digital has helped scholars because they can say, ‘Okay, I’m working, this is the next project I’m working on, I want to know if this book has something about this.’”

This is one of the challenges we are likely to face as we build out a digital reading platform — to build tools that will surface the value of content that is much more accessible and usable, in the form of web-based reading (or even EPUB), and demonstrate clearly the value — to readers, and to publishers — of moving beyond PDF.

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Another potential blocker for innovation is Digital Rights Management (DRM) or digital-locking technologies that limit what a reader can or cannot do with a given work, and further limit what a reading system can do.

Typically DRM might block a reader’s ability to download a work, so that research can be done at a later date; or to copy-paste from the work, for instance to support quotations that will go into a research paper.

Digital Rights Management continues to be contentious, but embrace of DRM was far from universal and many publishers see it as an unnecessary blocker to legitimate use. Still, for books that might make significant contributions to sales numbers, one publisher had this to say:

“I will never put front list into a DRM-free platform again.”

The reality, however, is that most monographs are not front list, and it’s very unclear that DRM has any impact on business numbers of monographs at all.

Our own interviews with readers and librarians suggest that DRM causes significant friction in acquiring and using digital content (more on this in the following sections), and one publisher admits,

“We’re not necessarily protecting a whole lot by slapping DRM on these titles.”

The conflicted views of DRM were prevalent, even among those publishers we spoke with who are generally supportive of DRM in at least parts of their business:

“I’m coming to the point where for the standard scholarly monograph, I’m less concerned about DRM and tightly controlling that, but I will admit, because that’s a genie that can’t get put back in the bottle, I am proceeding cautiously.”

One large press has taken a very pragmatic view about the actual (versus perceived) value of DRM in protecting content from unauthorized use:

“Pretty much anything that we publish is, for lack of a better word, pirated within a matter of weeks. And that’s just the reality of it, and so anything that we do has to take that into account. We also feel very strongly about in most cases, unless it’s a trade author or the author is concerned, we don’t pursue takedown actively. We’re moving away, pretty much across our platform except for textbooks… away from DRM altogether. “

In general the support for DRM was present, but lukewarm, and especially unconvinced when it comes to monographs. In some cases, there is direct evidence that content without DRM can be even more commercially valuable:

“To give you an example, our best-selling book of the past season is a textbook on deep learning, [that sold] multiple tens of thousands of copies. It’s an openly available book in HTML on the author’s site, which is great. But that’s the kind of experience that we want to be able to provide [for our readers].“

Our expectation is that as tools are built to show the real value of non-DRMed content — the ability to allow scholars to use their digital texts in new ways — support for DRM among publishers will continue to fall, driven largely by demands from readers.

We heard this antipathy to DRM reflected in the desires of librarians, and from those publishers who have the resources to be thinking more deeply about the digital future of monographs. The cost of the friction caused by DRM in acquisition and use of digital content by readers may, on balance, outweigh the benefits of “protection” of content, especially for publishers starting to think about selling collections, rather than individual units, to libraries:

“If you look at what libraries rightfully expect in terms of features and functionality of digital books: no DRM, unlimited multiple users, perpetual access, the line between those principles of ebooks, ebook subscriptions, and persistent access is really blurry.”

The Relationship With Libraries

Some presses, as they think about shifting thinking driven by digital access to books, are beginning to rethink the traditional supply chain and commercial arrangements. As established earlier, publishers give their content to aggregators, who in turn sell content into libraries. But again, this removes publishers from their true customers (libraries), and puts them even farther from the people actually using their books: the readers. So, for publishers considering their lists as digital collections, the need for an aggregator in the middle of the transaction with libraries starts to be questionable:

“We’re saying, ‘Yeah, you’re going to pay us a subscription to put this content pretty much in the wild.’ And so, that’s another reason why I feel very strongly about owning that relationship [with libraries]. And I have no problem whatsoever with the openness of [the content].”

Possibilities for the Future

The publishers were all given an opportunity to look at the Rebus open web-based reading prototype, and all of them expressed interest in engaging and exploring the potential increased value to readers, scholarship, and perhaps presses themselves:

“I think there’s a need to create these levels of research or tools, and it’s interesting, this is bringing some of the stuff that’s happening in open science into the discussion. There’s a lot of this kind of stuff that’s been happening in scientific publishing [that] hasn’t been happening in [Humanities and Social Sciences] publishing.”

In some cases the interest was tied specifically to the possibility that a system like the Rebus Reader prototype can help surface works (and open access works) by a particular press:

“So, this seems to give an option to actually show an institutional view of the books that were published by scholars at our institution, through the same platform, right? You could have a press-type view, then you have an institution view from multiple publishers. That’d be really cool.”

Further, the power of the reading system links directly with the possibility of increased innovation on the back of open access publishing, by giving readers and scholars new ways to interact with, and use, monographs:

“How would open access help push forward innovation? It’s only fairly recently, through things like [the Rebus Reader Prototype], that I’ve realized what the connection is.”

The range of publishers we spoke to includes those fighting for financial survival in the face of declining sales (partly related to the digital transition, partly related to other factors), to those whose whole mission is directly related to digital:

“I don’t worry about open access or digital gleaning away sales, because my purpose is the digital. My purpose is to say to authors ‘You are most likely in the 97% of scholarly authors who are not going to realize large amounts of personal income for writing your book. And therefore, your objective should be getting people to read your ideas, and that is what we can help you do.’”


We started off with a number of hunches about how university presses view the current, and future ecosystem for scholarly monographs. Some of these hunches were confirmed by our interviews, namely:

  1. Scholarly monographs have low unit sales, and these are declining.
  2. Scholarly monographs are nonetheless seen as important to the mission of university presses; even if their economics are increasingly difficult.

However, our findings suggest that things are more complicated. Monograph sales are indeed declining, but in aggregate, the “long tail” sales of monographs remain important to university presses. And, they are still seen as important to the mission of university presses, even if their increasingly perilous economics make publishing them harder.

Libraries are indeed the biggest buyers of digital monographs. However, according to our interviews, print sales make up a larger percent of revenues (70-90%), and most print sales are happening through brick-and-mortar and online stores.

In other areas, we were surprised to learn that PDF (not EPUB) is the lingua franca of publishing digital versions of monographs. EPUBs are produced by some presses, but not seen as necessary for digital publishing, and PDF is the baseline digital format for monographs. EPUB is seen as more of a luxury, and indeed comes with added costs for publishers to produce and distribute.

Finally, as a positive and encouraging surprise, we found that while there is still some nervousness about removals of Digital Rights Management (and the possibility of lost sales through pirating), there is an increasing openness to publish non-DRM versions of digital files into libraries. Aggregators including Project MUSE, JSTOR, and ACLS Humanities E-Book are now routinely offering their content with no DRM. One publisher reported a significant growth in library purchases and use once DRM was removed. Indeed, every university press we spoke to was interested in working together on new DRM-free digital initiatives, on projects such as the Rebus Reader system.

The overall impression from the interviews with university presses was very positive for new models and new experiments. In general, presses are cognizant that the existing business model for monographs (unit sales) will continue to be challenging, and increasingly so. They recognize that a new approach to digital could offer new value to readers, libraries, and indeed the presses themselves; and further that DRM may be hampering the ability to develop these approaches.

There is a willingness among university presses — indeed an excitement — to experiment with new digital models with the right partners.


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