Do commercial publishers have a place in the open textbooks ecosystem?

Suppose a textbook was used at more than 100 universities, with many websites advertising the book and showing off its numerous high-quality features. Suppose many experts in the subject have produce supporting materials: videos, worksheets, sample exams, sample syllabi, advice to the instructor, and suppose those materials were already available for free – making it very attractive for the textbook to be adopted by new institutions.

And suppose a commercial publisher was given the opportunity to produce and distribute the book. Would that be a good business opportunity? Of course it would! A textbook publisher should jump at the chance to bring out a new book with an already well-established market!

Except, it isn’t actually a new book. And unlike a traditionally published book, it isn’t the sole and exclusive property of the author, because the book has been released with a license that allows anyone to modify it and make their new version available. And everything in the printed book already exists on free websites, and for free as PDF, EPUB, or on a kindle. The printed book has to compete against itself in other formats.

Is the open nature of the book a deal-breaker for publishing commercially? I say No. Many open textbooks are already being published in print form. Students buy them: many want an inexpensive printed copy because the online versions are great in some ways but fall short in others. Many open textbook authors go to the effort to produce a print version; I speculate that many would be happy to hand that work off to a commercial publisher.

Issues, from the perspective of the author

We already mentioned an attraction for the author: they probably don’t want to do the work of preparing and distributing the print edition.

A commercial publisher would also provide effective advertising – another aspect of self-publishing where many authors fall short.

Also, it is still an unfortunate (and misguided!) fact that open/self-published textbooks are viewed with suspicion by textbook adoption committees. The stamp of approval from a commercial publisher carries a lot of weight.

Primary concerns for the author are price and availability.

The author may have been motivated by the seemingly high price of some commercial textbooks. If they have been self-publishing the print version, it probably sells for around $20. An excessively high price on the commercial print version could be a deal breaker.

The author probably has been making a high-quality HTML version available for free, and probably also a PDF version, and maybe also EPUB. It is unlikely the author would be willing to give up the free HTML version, hosted on a website that they control. It is unclear whether the author would have strong opinions about the EPUB and free online PDF.

There are other author issues, which do not seem specific to open textbooks, such as duration of the agreement with the publisher, what happens if the book goes out-of-print, expectations about subsequent editions, non-compete clauses about writing similar books, royalty rate, etc. As we will see below, some of those issues are in fact different for open textbooks.

Issues, from the perspective of the publisher

By far the biggest issue is dealing with an unfamiliar situation.

Until recently, there were not a lot of excellent open textbooks. Now there are. PreTeXt ( and Runestone deserve a lot of credit for facilitating authors to create high-quality books with many features that enhance teaching and learning.

So, it will take vision, and a tolerance for the unknown, for a commercial publisher to dip their foot in this pond.

For the sake of argument, consider the situation of an open textbook which is being used at several universities, with free HTML version available online (possibly at more than one website), with a print version from the author (or someone they designated) available for $20-25.

The publisher probably would like the author to stop publishing the print version. It is safe to assume the author would agree, provided that the price did not increase significantly.

The publisher would probably want the existing print version (which probably is print-on-demand) removed from the marketplaces where it appears. Again, the author should agree.

What does the publisher think about the author’s website hosting the HTML version? How does that relate to the home page of the book on the publisher’s website? Presumably those pages should link to each other, because both parties benefit from the success of the other.

How about the PDF version the author currently posts? Probably that is a non-issue, because for PreTeXt books you can print from the HTML, and for many purposes it does what one wanted from the PDF. If there is a reason the author would object to taking down the PDF, I would like to hear it.

EPUB is another issue. Many publishers make money by selling the EPUB: that revenue stream would be diminished if the author posted it for free. The EPUB version is recognized as a valuable resource for people in prison, because it does not require an Internet connection and it does not take up space. This is important to people involved with the Prison Education Project and related endeavors. Both sides should be aware of these issues during the negotiations.

If the above are the main concerns of the publisher, then they have missed some essential facts about the world of open textbooks.

Some realities which have to be discussed and understood

As was already mentioned, the book isn’t the sole and exclusive property of the author.

If the source is available with an open license, anyone can make a PDF version, or produce a print-on-demand version and sell it at whatever price they want.

Anyone can also add a new chapter or section and publish it however they want. Forbidding the author from using that book as the basis for a competing product, cannot stop someone else from doing the exact same thing. And the original author’s name is also on the new book! (How authorship is credited in these situations is untested waters. Open textbooks are touted for their ability to be modified and customized, but in practice this rarely happens and the community has not had to deal with complicated situations.)

The publisher has to accept that they do not have a monopoly on the book: they will be the only print publisher if the author agrees that it is better for the publisher to handle the print version, and nobody else decides that they can do it better (where “better” involves some combination of price, quality, and features).

A clause in a contract may forbid the author from taking certain actions, but if the book has an open license, that contract cannot prevent someone else from performing those exact same actions.

The general point has been made, but I’ll repeat it for this specific case: nobody can stop someone else from adding a small amount of material and publishing it as the “new edition” of the book.

Here is an issue which seems silly but is not: movie rights. The excellent open textbook APEX Calculus has a version with more than 600 videos by Sean Fitzpatrick (not the author of the book, and that version is not hosted by the author) with a cumulative duration of more than 75 hours, explaining concepts and working through numerous examples. Stacking those videos creates a multi-part epic movie version of the book. Whose rights are infringed by that cinematic extravaganza?

Most commercial publishers have a fundamentally misguided policy concerning Braille versions. Each institution which needs a Braille copy has to go to the effort, typically taking months and costing $20,000 or more, of having an expert Braille transcriber convert the book. They are not allowed to then share it with another university! Think about it: not only does the publisher not provide a Braille version, they make it as hard as possible for other people to do so. Textbooks written in PreTeXt automatically convert to Braille, at minimal marginal cost. That fact should have an impact on the publishing contract.

A modest proposal

One possible way to address some of these issues is for the publisher to commission a new edition of the book, and for the author to not release that edition with a fully open license. This would not change the fact that the previous edition was still available open source and with a permissive license. But the publisher’s concerns about competing products would be mitigated by the fact that the anyone other than the author would be several steps away from replicating the published book.

The “edition trick” is not a magic wand

The modest proposal would involve the author abandoning their previous vision for the open source ecosystem of their book. Would they release the new edition with a more restrictive open license, such as CC-Attribution-ShareAlike-Noncommercial, or would they keep the source private and reserve all rights? Would the restrictions apply only to print publishing, or would other online versions also be prohibited?

Is this modest proposal the author’s first step on the slippery slope of producing a commercial book that is exactly what they were trying to avoid when the decided to write an open textbook?

Keeping the fully-functional online HTML version available for free seems like an absolute requirement for the author. Is the author assigning the copyright to the publisher and the publisher granting rights for the online version, or is the author retaining copyright and granting the publisher the right to produce and sell a print version? Or does the book have an open license and the publisher has to accept the fact that keeping the author happy is their main protection against competing print versions?

If the book incorporates material under an open license from another author, putting a more restrictive license on the next edition might not even be an option.

Here’s an ironic fact. Suppose the author decides not to go with a commercial publisher and just releases the new edition with the same open license. Then the publisher can just produce and sell the print version anyway! And they won’t have to pay any royalties!

If I come out with a book that has 80% overlap with an existing book, I will be sued by the publisher, and I will lose. But for an open textbook, even with the “edition trick” I have been given the rights to produce such a similar book based on the previous edition. No agreement between the author and publisher can change that. And the author cannot remove the rights which I have previously been given.

Maybe all of these concerns are non-issues?

Perhaps, with or without the “edition trick”, the online versions of the new edition can function exactly like the previous edition, with the print version now coming from a commercial publisher who provides a modestly priced copy and still makes some money, and nobody is motivated to duplicate either the author’s or the publisher’s work?

There would be very little risk for an established publisher to produce and distribute the print version of an existing open textbook, on just a handshake agreement with the author. The author would agree to not publish a print edition, and would make a reasonable effort to promote the publisher’s print version and discourage others from making a competing print version. The publisher would agree to make their print version available at a price comparable to what the author could do on their own. The publisher would advertise the book in ways beyond what the author could do. Every free online view of the book would be an effective advertisement for the print version. The publisher makes money. The author probably makes a bit less per print copy, but they are spared the work of being their own print publisher and end up making more in the long run because more copies are sold.

The publisher’s lawyers might be unhappy with a handshake agreement, so a contract could codify the points in the previous paragraph. If the contract were for one year, renewable and properly synchronized with the academic year, then it could be workable for one party to handle the print version and traditional advertising, and the other party to manage the online versions and provide support and outreach to instructors using the book.

Are there commercial publishers who can appreciate this business opportunity? Do most open source textbook authors understand that they are not giving up anything if they enter the type of agreement I propose?

I await the publisher and the authors who fully understand the open source ecosystem and its relationship to commercial publishing, and see an opportunity for harmonious collaboration.