Publishing an open access book?

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 4, 2011

For years I have been wanting to write an overview book on the capability approach and it looks like I may find some time to do that in the next 18 months (possibly quicker if I can buy myself out of some teaching). There are a few publishers interested, and one (a major commercial press of academic books) is actually quite persistent in reminding me that they are interested in this project.

But why publish with a publisher? Why not simply put the book open access on the web? I wonder whether an open access book would be (a) feasible, and (b) all things considered a good thing to do.

So what about (b) – is it all things considered a good thing to publish this online? I am very sympathetic to the general reasons for publishing open access – to create knowledge as a public good, rather than a commercial/private good. But I believe that this is not an overriding reason, and hence that each case should be judge on its own.

Here are a few relevant facts. The topic is the capability approach, which is a cross-discriplinary topic that’s widely studied in developing countries too (it provides the theoretical foundations of the Human Development Reports); so one (very important) advantage of having a book online is to make it available to all, independent of one’s financial means to buy books (of course one would still need access to the web etc, but those seem much smaller hurdles than buying from a bookpublisher). So it would be a good thing in terms of global fairness, so to say. In ecological terms, I am not sure what the best thing to do is – anyone knows? Is having individual people locally print or photocopy ecologically worse than having a book printed on book-paper?
Relevant facts about me are that I have a secure job, so I don’t need a monograph to secure tenure or gain promotion. Of course it has higher status to publish a book with a serious publisher, which implies that next time I apply for a big research grant I would better have a serious publisher on my CV than an open access book – but that’s a price I’d be willing to pay.
One advantage of signing a book-contract with a publisher, is that this is a strong form of commitment and self-binding; if one suffers a lot from procrastination or prioritizing of smaller projects (e.g. articles) over larger projects, then singing a contract may be the only way to actually secure the very existence of the book (this consideration unfortunately does apply to me, and from what I hear I am not the only one who would need this kind of self-binding).

I have no clue how to answer the (a) part of my query. I would be inclined to think that one should be able to simply create a large PDF, put it online, and that’s it (after getting an ISBN number). Or are there better ways that I do not know about?

The craziest thing to do, would be to form a collective of academics who have their own on-line open access publishing house, completely by-passing the current publishing houses. Something like ‘The Crooked Timber Press’.



Daniel Key 02.04.11 at 11:33 am

The options are not mutually exclusive, why not sign with a publisher to create the hard copy and also make it freely available on the web?


Ingrid Robeyns 02.04.11 at 11:38 am

Daniel, that would of course be the best, but if you sign a contract with a publisher that contract almost always stipulates that you can not put it on the web (at least, the contracts I’ve seen!). The few books that I know that were both published in hard copy and online were either experiments, or were published as one big webpage online, which I find unappealing as an alternative, e.g. this one:


Manta1976 02.04.11 at 12:06 pm

Have you tried asking the publisher himself about the option of having a free pdf online (mybe saying, e.g, that it’s a fundamental condition for you)?
See the following book: it is well-regarded and it’s published by Cambridge UP:


Mike Edwards 02.04.11 at 12:08 pm

“The craziest thing to do, would be to form a collective of academics who have their own on-line open access publishing house, completely by-passing the current publishing houses.”

I think Computers and Composition Digital Press might be something similar to what you’re talking about here. You’re likely already familiar with your fellow bloggers’ endeavors in this area.


JulesLt 02.04.11 at 12:24 pm

Short-run printing is almost certainly ecologically worse than printing larger runs – although the equation is complicated by the carbon-cost of delivering the final book from the printers to ‘end user’ vs delivering the paper.

On the other hand, eBooks will become a lot more ecologically friendly. (Right now, the savings in paper are mitigated by the huge industrial complex required to produce even a simple eReader).

In terms of format – the most recent eBook I purchased came in PDF, ePub, and mobi format.

The key difference between PDF and eBook formats, is that a PDF is very much like a printed book – i.e. the page layout is fixed, right down to how each word is hyphenated. A better metaphor would be that a PDF file is like a type-setters plate – it specifies exactly where all the text and images will go, but has no concept about things like paragraphs. The only thing you can really do with a PDF is display it at smaller or larger sizes.

ePub, on the other hand, is more like the manuscript (or HTML) – which makes it a lot easier for devices to layout text in a form that’s appropriate to the size of the screen, allow the user to change the font by preference, read via text-to-voice, etc.

Which makes it sound like the answer is obvious, but the problem with ePub is for any kind of book where design and layout are important.


Ingrid Robeyns 02.04.11 at 12:51 pm

thanks for all the thoughtful advise which is much appreciated!

Mike, thanks for reminding me of John’s work in this area – shame on me!! (of course I knew about this but somehow didn’t think of it when wondering about this particular project I’m pursuing).

Manta1976, thanks for the link to the Hatcher book – perhaps it’s a strategy I should pursue (though I am pessimistic to what extent this is possible for ordinary beings – surely publishers can’t do this for all books, otherwise they go out of business).


tomslee 02.04.11 at 1:18 pm

Most of the questions that come to mind are to do with reputation and profile.
– If you have a high reputation, you do not need the stamp of authority that being published by a reputable publishing house gives you, and publishing open access will let your disciples audience gain access to more pearls of wisdom from your brain with minimal work on your part (no editing cycles!), pushing your reputation to even higher altitudes.
– If you do not have a high reputation, an open access book will be viewed, if it is seen at all, as unvalidated ramblings that get you no credit and stir little interest.
– If you have a high profile, you have a read-made audience of thousands of people you can contact when the book comes out. Who needs a publisher?
– If you have a low profile, your open access book will be swamped by the flood of other material on the Internet.
I’d like to say that the benefit of going with a publisher, in addition to validation, is that a publisher can promote the book in such a way as to reach an audience you could not reach by yourself. But unfortunately it seems that publishers are looking for the same qualities that make an open access book viable (see here).

These considerations are void, of course, if the book is so obviously brilliant as to need no external validation or promotion.


tomslee 02.04.11 at 1:19 pm

There should be a separate paragraph starting at every dash. Silly CT formatter.


Matt 02.04.11 at 1:22 pm

My understanding is that both Yale University Press and the University of Michigan Press (and maybe MIT, too) have been experimenting to various degrees with open-access on-line publishing. I don’t know the details at all, and (literally) 30 seconds of googling just brought mentions of it more than details, but it might be worth contacting these presses. Given your status in the field and in the particular area it might be the sort of high-profile project that one or more of these presses would like to take on to promote this sort of work, if they are in fact doing it.


er 02.04.11 at 2:05 pm


Jacob T. Levy 02.04.11 at 2:45 pm

One thing publishers do that I don’t think any online/ self-published/ open-access option can replicate is to signal, to people who aren’t already in the know, that this is wheat not chaff.

Sure, to people who already follow the capabilities approach literature, your name alone will carry the relevant weight. But a student trying to figure things out, or even a scholar venturing into a new field of reading, needs something else in order to distinguish vetted works by people who know what they’re talking about from wikipedia articles, stolen term papers, and cranks.

And for my part, I still find that it’s hard to replace going to the stacks and looking through the books shelved together as one stage of figuring things out in an intellectual area I don’t know very well.

Academic presses aren’t, in principle, professional credentialing agencies; their purpose isn’t to bolster our CVs. That’s a side effect of their ability to vouch for quality *to the readers*, whether through peer review or through knowledgeable professional editing, etc.


Peter Macy 02.04.11 at 3:18 pm

Just to add to what Jacob said, I think one of the real advantages to an academic press is professional editing and copy-editing. Even if you’re already an excellent writer, a competent editor can make a huge difference.


Harriet Baber 02.04.11 at 4:21 pm

I published an online book as a textbook my classes. I just made each of the (eight) chapters into both pdf and html so students could choose and put up links to each of the chapters at the class website. I also gave them the option of buying it as a “real” book through–though only 1 out of 90 students did that. There really is no problem at all in online open-access publishing: the problem is as in #11 the vetting and credentialing issue. This is why we have hardcopy journals–when almost everyone is reading articles online and almost almost everyone puts their papers up at their own websites.


Harriet Baber 02.04.11 at 4:41 pm

Sorry, I should have said in #13 “there is really no TECHNICAL problem at all in online open-access publishing”


Randolph 02.04.11 at 5:19 pm

Generally, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do provided you have the time for, or can get someone to spend the time on, the publishing issues. Publishers do real work in producing a book: editing, design, and marketing take time and computing resources. If you can find people willing to do them for you, more power to you. If not, you will be doing them, and this will take away from your other work.

In terms of internet distribution, consider offering all of the following three formats: HTML (for online readability), PDF (for printing), and ePub (for mobile use.) (If this is starting to seem like too much work, well, this is part of the work of publishing.) Put out a tip jar: at least it might help defray costs. You will also have to consider hosting: as an academic, I suppose you get free web space so that is not a short-term issue, but the space will have to be maintained through your job and career changes, and again, this takes time, so it’s best if someone else does this. Finally, consider archiving; I would hope your book would end up in research libraries for the indefinite future, and this somehow has to be arranged.


P.D. 02.04.11 at 5:37 pm

Archiving open-licensed documents is easy, so hosting and availability aren’t the issue. I wrote an open access textbook, and it has been pretty successful. However, it is typically an instructor who picks a textbook – somebody who knows the subject fairly well and can assess the quality of the material. By adopting it, the instructor indicates to students that the book is OK. A book that isn’t a textbook wouldn’t benefit from that. (That said, I have been contacted by a number of people over the years who were just studying logic on their own and used my textbook.)

Regarding format: I also offer my book as a print-on-demand physical artifact. People occasionally buy it.


Don 02.04.11 at 5:56 pm

Ask Cory Doctorow how it’s been working out for him. Pretty well, by the look of his career.


tomslee 02.04.11 at 6:09 pm

Side question: libertarianism, utilitarianism, contractarianism, but “capability approach”. I can’t think of any other comparable thing described as the X approach. Why this? Is capabilityism just too ugly?


MyName 02.04.11 at 6:11 pm

Having worked for an academic publisher for several years, I would say the most important service they offer is proofreading and copy editing. Having someone who understands the rules of publishing and is reading the copy from scratch (so they are reading what it actually says and not what it’s supposed to say) is more important than having the press to print the book. As far as typesetting goes, the only thing that is particularly complicated about academic publishing is getting the tables and math right.

You can set a printable book using TeX, or using an editor that uses tech, and the process is relatively simple and looks okay. From what I understand, it also includes a digital version of the actual text (which means the PDFs would be parsed by Google or other search engines) and the system is already used by a large number of academics in math and computer science.


Ingrid Robeyns 02.04.11 at 6:28 pm

tomslee: interesting side question! In my view, it is purely a matter of how it emerged (that is, the words used by the first people writing explicitly about it). But I’m working on a paper with working title ‘Capabilitarianism’. Sounds ugly to those who work in the field known as ‘capability approach’, but I thought ‘utility -> utilitarianism’ hence ‘capability -> capabilitarianism’. If one starts to think about the capability approach as if it would be something similar in structure and characteristics as utilitarianism, interesting insights emerge (at least, I find so, some people believe that this whole approach amounts to more heat than light). Late August (when I started to work on the paper), though, the term ‘capabilitarianism’ resulted in exactly 0 (zero) hits in google. So, in a certain sense, one could say that “it doesn’t exist”.


Zora 02.04.11 at 6:29 pm

It is possible to get a publisher to agree to making a book available as a free ebook as well as commercial paper book. Cory Doctorow does it all the time. Several academics have taken this approach, with some success (Larry Lessig, Yochai Benkler). You can also adopt a scheme in which both paper and ebook are sold for the first year or so, after which the ebook is made available for free. Baen has taken this approach for many of its SF authors: newer ebooks are sold, older ones are moved to the free library.

Underline what everyone else has said re the advantages of ePub and mobi formats. They allow people to read books on screens of any size (smartphone to Kindle DX) and to choose the size of the font. All books can be large-print books.


blavag 02.04.11 at 6:56 pm

aside from readability issues–screens are still nowhere as easy as print–online books are much like academic repositories, or as librarians refer to them, roach motels: books check in but they don’t check out.


Book Editor 02.04.11 at 8:11 pm

An academic publisher reviews, edits, designs, copy edits, proofreads, typesets, manufactures, markets, publicizes, sells, fulfills, and inventories books. All of the above activities require staff and cost the publisher money before any books are sold. Every title must sell a certain number in order to get to a break-even point to cover costs. Publishing is not paper, print, and bind, which accounts for only 1/3rd of the unit cost of an average academic book.


en 02.05.11 at 12:06 pm

Go for it!

“In ecological terms, I am not sure what the best thing to do is – anyone knows? Is having individual people locally print or photocopy ecologically worse than having a book printed on book-paper?”

Who is to say that in 18 months time a lot of potential readers won’t be fine with reading on computer screens or on new, inexpensive e-ink reading devices? If the book has lasting qualities then the likelyhood for many such non-paper readers increases.

“One advantage of signing a book-contract with a publisher, is that this is a strong form of commitment and self-binding”

You could operationalize a commitment by taking small but symbolically important donations from various individuals as an advance investment in your book. When completed, those “investers” get a special limited edition printed and signed copy of the book, or an invitation to a release party, or some other extra thing. Accepting those small investment is like making a promise to many people and that will help you actually complete the project.

A good read on self-publishing and crowd-involvement in writing novels is

And a case that highlights some of the risks:

Some academic writers also publish chapters and sometimes entire book manuscripts online without anyone (i.e. the publisher) seeming to mind. Erik Olin Wright is a case in point


John Quiggin 02.05.11 at 8:30 pm

I’m married to an editor, so the copy-edit part of the publishers service wasn’t that important to me. But the editor and readers gave very good comments, Princeton’s publicity has been great and of course the cover is superb.

I put up a near-final draft at, but at $25 retail (and about half that for the Kindle edition), you would have to be fairly cash-constrained to prefer this to the book.

That I suppose is a relevant point – the big difference is between academic hardback and trade (especially paperback) or commercial quality e-book. If you can find a decent publisher who will put the book out cheaply, that beats an online version.


Emma in Sydney 02.05.11 at 8:42 pm

Some of the Australian university presses are moving to e-books with print on demand options, which makes a lot of sense in a small specialised market. There are no inventory costs, and at present they are providing the downloadable file for free. Readers who want a hard copy can order one at a reasonable price.

Given that the financial return from most Australian academic books does not go to the author (JQ being a blockbusting exception, I’m sure), it makes sense to get your book out as widely as possible. Many commercial or overseas publishers won’t touch academic books with Australian material, which is a big problem for Australian historians, literature specialists, geographers and the list goes on.

ANU e-Press is one that is doing this, but Sydney and Melbourne University presses are also going down this path.

I’ve bought a hardcopy of a book from ANU e-Press and it’s not bad quality. Certainly no striking differences from other Australian academic books.


Barbara Fister 02.06.11 at 3:21 am

Traditional publishing adds much value when done well – acquisition of books worth the trouble, editorial, arranging for peer review, copy editing, design, plus the mechanics of distribution and discovery. (And negotiating open access or a creative commons license is not as easy as it sounds.)

BUT – so many books these days sell what – a few hundred copies? That seems like a lot of effort lavished on precious few copies. And much as I appreciate good design, many readers seem not to miss it when they buy e-books. (There is no page design, or rather only a one-size-fits-all design, for a Kindle text.

To my mind, the future of academic monographs is for libraries to invest at the front end in collaboration with publishing professionals, to create open access books and stop trying to emulate the trade book industry, which is extremely full of fail. Make print-on-demand copies available at cost. Let discourse communities do the discovery and publicity.

And anyone who wants to just do it without going through some gatekeeping and value-adding – why not? You have nothing to lose but your time and effort. The ISBN will cost you $150 – but honestly, if you’re not trying to make the book part of a retail stream, do you need it? (I am not asking that rhetorically – I really don’t know. It’s nifty for inventory control, but apart from that – ??)


tomslee 02.06.11 at 1:29 pm

the term ‘capabilitarianism’ resulted in exactly 0 (zero) hits in google

That’s odd. I tried it and it returns one hit.


Amanda Pingel 02.06.11 at 5:55 pm

Ecologically speaking, you have to consider the possibility that some (maybe even many) readers will read it electronically, saving 100% of tree and ink expenses. I much prefer to read ebooks, especially for intellectual writing where the infinite margin space is valuable for my own notes.

Your format has to be dictated by what you believe your readers will do. If you expect them to print it off, make a PDF. ePub/mobi/Kindle formats are preferred for ereaders, for reasons explained above. Baen publishing, also mentioned above, releases their library in all available forms, and let’s the reader pick PDF vs ebook vs professionally published book.

I agree that editing and proofreading are among the most important services a publisher offers, but don’t let that consideration bind you to a publisher; most of their editors are part-time/freelance, and you could hire them directly for yourself.


Barbara Fister 02.06.11 at 7:56 pm

Just came across this event that might be of interest. (I haven’t actually watched it yet.)

As far as ecological benefits, that depends on how many books you read. Reading on devices has ecological costs too. See


thomas 02.07.11 at 2:24 am

I’ve been thinking of doing this too, for a biostatistics textbook. The plan would be to sell copies on squashed trees through one of the on-demand printing services such as Lulu, and e-books as PDF. The deadline issue is a real problem, though. For my previous book, deadline nagging was the most useful service that my publisher provided.

Some colleagues have published books through CRC Press for which the ebook is free online. These aren’t people with any particularly great celebrity status (even compared to other statisticians). I don’t know how well this worked from the publisher’s point of view.


Chris Armstrong 02.07.11 at 10:38 am

Hi Ingrid

I agree that the imperatives really pull in different directions here. Along with some colleagues here I’ve just published a co-authored book with Bloomsbury Academic. I think they now publish all their work simultaneously in print and on the web in an Open Access form. So some publishers are going down this line. On the other hand, although we can say we’ve got the same publisher as J.K. Rowling, none of us probably would have done this if our careers had depended on it. There’s a strong incentive for many people, at various stages in their careers, to go with ‘established’ journals and publishers, regardless of the fact that, in a very unequal world, this often means fewer people will read their work.

One thing it might be worth investigating is the policy of the established publishers you’ve been in contact with on you publishing your own drafts on the internet (maybe via a site like SSRN). Reading or citing from a draft can be more or less useful – and can actually be annoying – depending on how close to the printed version the draft actually is (given that in scholarly custom the printed version is king). One key issue is going to be pagination. If I have a web version of a book which has the correct (i.e. : print!) pagination noted, I don’t think I’m missing anything. I’m confident in citing it myself. This might just mean something as laborious as going through your own drafts before putting it online, and adding [END OF PAGE 71…etc] in the appropriate places. If the publisher will let you. So in other words, even if they won’t let you put their own formatted electronic files online, you MIGHT be able to post something which is just as good for readers around the world.


polyorchnid octopunch 02.09.11 at 7:29 am

One thing to keep in mind about books versus various digital formats is that a well made book that is properly taken care of has a demonstrative lifetime that measures into centuries. Hard drives last for five years and CDs may make it as far as 25. Publishing online has many advantages; the marginal cost of production being the biggest one. However, if you want the book to last, make sure there are some actual books about.


Rupert Gatti 02.10.11 at 10:46 am

Hi Ingrid
I’m an academic who has done the ‘crazy thing’ and with a collective of academics started up an open access academic publishing house – Open Book Publishers ( We are publishing academic monographs in the humanities and social sciences and ensure that a digital version can be read for free online. We also produce good quality paperback and hardback editions using print on demand technology – which we price as low as possible and retail from our site or through all the usual channels. We strongly believe that good quality research should be available to any interested reader, around the world, rather than restricted to the elite few with access to the best endowed libraries.
Given your interest in capabilities approach you may also be interested to know that we have a book edited by Amartya Sen presently in press.

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