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Opinion & Commentary

[NB: This post was written by Professor Don Herzog, the Edson R. Sunderland Professor of Law at the University of Michigan. Professor Herzog's Household Politics: Conflict in Early Modern England was published by Yale University Press in 2013. Prior to publication, it was made freely available via Deep Blue, the University of Michigan's institutional repository.]

Let’s face it: most of us don’t write for derisory royalties. We write for readers, and we hope our work will find its way to them, however scattered they are, whether they’re colleagues or students or interested members of the general public.

And it’s the job of university presses to publish scholarship: not just to put it in print, but to make it available. Alas that’s getting harder and harder for them to do. Presses are still full of talented people. But costs are rising, library acquisition budgets cratering. So the prices of academic books are up, up, and away, as I ruefully observed in a recent stint as book review editor for Political Theory. Hardcovers priced over $100, with no promise of a paperback down the road, are now routine. Copyright fees for excerpts in coursepacks are exorbitant. Production values are often pretty shabby, too. Scant hundreds of copies of your book get printed, and you usually don’t see one until a year or more after you’ve submitted your final manuscript. They’re destined for university libraries and your doting mother; the book may well go out of print before the sluggish journals in your field get around to reviewing it. I once mordantly quipped that university presses might as well take your manuscript, lock it in a chest marked public, and say they’d published it. That’s not right. But I’m afraid it captures something.

Meanwhile, online publishing is less expensive. Quick, too. It doesn’t take a lot of work for interested people to download and read your work in whatever format they’d like: PDF, an e-book, you name it.

So when I was finishing my book, I decided I wanted it online for free. The University of Michigan’s library publishing shop arranged to have it converted to multiple e-book formats and to post a PDF of the manuscript, too. The folks at Michigan Publishing encouraged me to apply a Creative Commons license to the book, which allows readers to use and share it non-commercially without having to bother with getting my permission.

Publicity was minimal – I emailed a dozen or so friends, and said, “emphatically not homework, but here’s the link; pass it on if you like.” I get a monthly automated email from Deep Blue, the U-M institutional repository where it lives. In about a year, over 1,600 people have downloaded it.

Yale University Press decided they wanted to publish my book anyway. I won’t deny that I like having the hardcover on my shelf. I like the typesetting; I appreciate the meticulous copy-editing; my terrific editor actually read the damned thing and had helpful comments. And of course they put it through peer review. But I insisted that the final published version be available online for free, too: Deep Blue has it in ePub and PDF.

Would I have turned to Michigan Publishing if I didn’t have tenure? Probably not: tenure committees and their overseers can be bureaucratically mindless. But peer review and the other nice features of university presses can accompany free online publication. They already do for some important journals. My bet is that scholarly publication is heading for free online distribution, faster than you might think.

A good thing, too. Who needs derisory royalties when you can have readers?

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