Author Archives: Tom Leonard

Books and the Valley of the Unassignable

Posted April 22, 2015

Authors Alliance Co-Founder Tom Leonard

In our day of networked information, scholars in North America need not worry about finding a book that bears on a crucial issue. Interlibrary loan has never been more efficient and Amazon and similar sites display single used books for sale. But here the good news ends, for there is often no way to assign this reading. A single volume cannot serve even the smallest seminar, because it cannot be shared in time for the day or week when it is the center of attention. Classes are planned months in advance and without the certainty of a book being available, it will not make the common reading list.

At Authors Alliance we had the impression that many important books in the humanities and qualitative social sciences were falling into the Valley of the Unassignable. But proceeding by anecdote would only take us so far, and so we ran a survey to see if older books that we knew were in demand, could be ordered from a publisher or otherwise were available as an e-book.

The University Library at Berkeley (which holds more than 12 million volumes and has 65,000 borrower cards) gave us a list of the 500 titles that were most frequently checked out in 2013-2014. Circulation figures of this type are imperfect, since some titles are on reserve and have to be checked out or renewed more frequently. But by looking at such a large number, we have corrected for this distortion. We cast a close eye on the nearly 200 titles that were heavily requested and fell into the humanities and qualitative social science.

Much credit should be given to publishers who have largely kept these valued titles in print and to others who have seen that there is at least a pdf of works published in the 20th century. But we could also see that Berkeley borrowers were checking out books that could not be assigned in a class. Market forces and rights issues limit what can be done for groups of readers. If we look at 20th century imprints and, rely on, many titles are out of reach. Consider for example:

Vladimir Putin Book Group

  • Paul W. Schroeder, Austria, Great Britain, and the Crimean War: the destruction of the European Concert (1973) [$110 on Kindle, $116 if Amazon restocks]
  • Winfried Baumgart, Imperialism: the idea and reality of British and French Colonial Expansion, 1880-1914 (1982)
  • Norman Rich, Why the Crimean War? A Cautionary Tale (1985)
  • David Wetzel, The Crimean War: A Diplomatic History (1985)
  • Rosemary Foot, The Wrong War: American Policy and the Dimensions of the Korean Conflict, 1950-1953 (1985)
  • James Cracraft, Major problems in the history of imperial Russia (1993-94) [some $100 paperbacks from Amazon]

Berkeley readers are checking these titles out, but Mr. Putin would struggle to put them on his reading list.

We can probably find a book group for you in our data, and that is unfortunate. Authors Alliance offers a way for many authors and their heirs to take works out of the Valley of the Unassignable. One path to higher ground was offered earlier this month, when we released a guide that helps authors regain rights to their books in order to make them more available.

Download Understanding Rights Reversions (PDF) from Authors Alliance
Download Understanding Rights Reversions from

Working with the Chimp

Posted January 7, 2015

By Authors Alliance Co-Founder Tom Leonard

Last year Authors Alliance turned to a cartoon monkey, MailChimp, to handle our email. The chimp had more to offer than we realized, and through them we gained an unexpected view of fame, ca 2015, and the hidden virtue of sharing stuff for free.

At year’s end MailChimp was celebrated with the breakthrough podcast it sponsored, Serial, true crime journalism from public radio. Both chimp and reporters were embedded in the online chatter of fans (more than 5 million listeners) and the Saturday Night Live parody (more than 12 million viewers).

The adage that “time, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success” could have been the New Year’s toast for both the writers and the software entrepreneurs. Serial built on more than a decade of skills developed on public radio, especially This American Life. If you search your email In box for “MailChimp,” you will find that institutions you trust have quietly turned to MailChimp in recent years.

This is stimulating history for Authors Alliance because it is another reminder that good writing and inspired ways of sharing work can be, in the long run, the way to standout. Serious writers deserve all that the market will provide as they reach their first audience, readers we may all hope will be renewed for years. But when that audience yields no real commercial benefit to author or publisher, it is time to embrace the MailChimp idea of “freemium.”

This new patois of software and media companies ought to be a word we all learn in 2015. One variety of “Freemium” offers free access, after the costs of producing the product have been recouped.

Serial is in the freemium family but its business plans, though very promising, are not settled yet. MailChimp seems to have written the book on how patient work (taking as long as an author might) produces a time to share. Ben Chestnut, MailChimp’s CEO, has posted this recollection:

For eight years, our company never thought about freemium. We didn’t even know the concept existed. For eight loooong years, we were focused on nothing but growing profits. If you had brought up the concept of “freemium” with us during those eight years, we probably would’ve looked at you like you were eff’ing insane, then went back to work. In fact, when we launched MailChimp in 2001, we didn’t even have a free trial option.

Sharing what you have produced for free is not a sign of inferior work, just the reverse. MailChimp produced such excellent software and services that the company was set up to reap the reputational advantages of offering significant content and tools to the public for free.

Chimps play tricks and Chestnut has been honest about his: “We don’t think of our free users as pesky, bandwidth-hogging ‘freeloaders’ that we have to monetize in some way. We love them just as much as the people who pay us money. Because we have the data that shows they will pay us money.”

The Authors Alliance translation is: the attention and stimulation you will get from readers are coin you will never see if your works live only on our library shelves.

UC Press Pioneers the Scholarly Monograph’s Open Access Future

Posted September 8, 2014

By Authors Alliance co-founder Tom Leonard, University Librarian at the University of California, Berkeley.

Image derived from one by Mike Fernwood, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Last Spring the view out the windows of the University of California Press was a glass-skinned energy lab dedicated to saving the planet. This fall, the Press’s move from Berkeley to Oakland completed, editors look out on a glass-skinned cathedral that is dedicated to saving souls. The Press now wants to use both technology and exaltation to save the book.

Not all books, but simply the good ones that scholars write to be read. These need saving. Today, most original scholarship, well written and edited, can expect book sales of only several hundred copies. A few score research libraries buy these books; they are not easily found by anyone. Their authors would like to see their contributions to knowledge discovered, explored, and discussed, but all too often traditional publication models don’t serve these ends.

Indeed, if they are not available as e-books that easily pop into view, they join the ranks of the great unread. We used to use that term for volumes that had slept quietly in the stacks for decades because they were off the reading lists of the academy. Shorter press runs and high prices needed to cover fixed costs commit more books to this fate than ever before.

Most university presses face this challenge. National organizations such as the Association of American Universities and the Association of Research Libraries have sketched ways to save the long arguments that are uniquely supported by books. Mellon and other foundations have worked with the Association of American University Presses to find solutions. As a veteran of many big think meetings on this problem, I have found the good will a sign of the health of higher education. But what we have not had until now is a first mover with a sustainable business plan. UC Press is now taking the lead (a judgment that I do not believe is biased by my service on their Board).

Alison Mudditt and her deputy director Rebekah Darksmith have stepped over the morass of platforms and ways to “capture reader eyeballs” for press output that has slowed other publishers. UC Press will find high-tech partners to produce e-books. The Press, however, will control the selection and editing, maintaining its stringent standards and removing any impression that the author’s vanity is the true driver. Books will be “free at launch” as an e-book. The open access (OA) book will display on the platform of the reader’s choosing. These titles will be marketed, supported for awards submission, and available in a print on demand (paper) copy at an attractive price.

UC Press figures that books it publishes in traditional editions cost $34,000 to produce, warehousing and distributing paper being a significant part. This will continue to be the path for many Press titles. The new OA approach for perhaps 15 titles in 2015, looks to be a $14,000 investment per title. That sum can be captured from the subsidies that are now going to produce these volumes with a paper edition only, the costs that Libraries would willingly contribute because they are now pointing readers to resources that are free and not always making purchases, and from the revenues that will flow from print on demand revenue. As is the case today, the author too will be tapped and so her dean or department will be asked to support the publication. UC Press will be building a fund to help authors, particularly important for independent scholars.

This will take some getting used to. But long arguments in the social sciences and humanities do not have bright futures if left to the business logic of scholarly book publishing. These books will not make the leap to an e-book reading culture. Today, after much hard work, most university presses gain no more than an eighth of their revenue from selling e-books. The market is not really telling them to find an alternative to high-priced traditional volumes with very low press runs; even though this approach disfavors the accessibility scholarly authors need in order to be read. There may have been gains in watchful waiting, but surely we have now banked all of these dividends. Today academic publishers need a first mover, as much to help these disciplines as to help themselves. A print-first/only model will, the Press has concluded, risk leaving these fields “out of the vibrant world of digital scholarship and debate.” Indeed, exaltation about scholarship is as important as the bottom line.