Open Access Textbooks

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Sustaining a Reliable Revenue Stream

A reliable revenue stream is needed to invest in reviewing, marketing, possibly developing open textbooks, and to conduct/create any training needed to customize open textbooks. The non-profit organizations that takes on the responsibilities of continuing the processes and maintaining the systems of the publisher, the repository, and the printing function incur ongoing costs, including servers and other hardware, Internet access fees, repository software and associated maintenance fees, costs to place the texts on a print-on-demand server, cost of ISBNs, payments to reviewers, training, marketing and communication costs, and personnel to manage and maintain the systems.

The generation of a reliable revenue stream presents a considerable challenge when the product is available for download free of charge. Current funding approaches rely on revenues generated from students who purchase a print copy of a textbook, endowments, grant funds, donations, and philanthropists. For an overview of various open text resources, their features, and their operational and financial models, see Appendix L. Other potential sources could include student fees for courses in which open textbooks are used, fees paid by institutions, state funding, and support from student government associations and grant donors.

Potential Funding Sources

Sale of Print Books and Ancillaries
Several organizations support the editorial, reviewing, and myriad other costs of making open textbooks available by adding an extra charge onto the costs of on-demand printing, audio versions, ancillaries such as digital flash cards and study guides, teaching materials, and shipping.

One company, Textbook Media, offers textbooks with “ads placed in natural breaks in the subject matter” and with limited printing ability without charge or for a low charge. Students who prefer an “adfree” version pay a higher price (Textbook Media, 2009) for a downloadable or printed version.

Federal Grant Funding
Federal legislation has been introduced that would make funds available for developing open textbooks. Senator Durbin introduced S.1714, Open College Textbook Act of 2009, on September 24, 2009. The bill has been read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. A companion House bill, H.R. 4575, Open College Textbook Act of 2010, was introduced by Representative Wu on February 23, 2010. These bills would substantially help to increase the number of open textbooks available and would include “a nonprofit or for-profit organization that produces open textbooks” eligible for funding (Sec. 4(b)(3)) as well as institutions and professors, but the funds would be available for only one year (Sec. 4 (c)).

State Funding
The 2010 Florida legislature authorized the Florida Distance Learning Consortium to “Develop, in consultation with the Florida College System and the State University System, a plan for promoting and increasing the use of open access textbooks as a method for reducing textbook costs” (F.S.1004.091(2)(d)2.), but to date has not made funds available for implementing such a plan.

Philanthropic Funding
Several organizations dedicated to the production and distribution have received funds from philanthropic organizations. For example, Rice University’s Connexions is supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The Maxfield Foundation, as well as by private individuals ( In another example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation matched the Washington state legislature's support of the Open Course Library with a $750,000 contribution. If positive returns on these investments accrue as expected, more philanthropic funding can be expected.

Institutions Pay a Fee
In principle, public postsecondary institutions associated with an organization like the partnership of Florida Distance Learning Consortium and University Press of Florida, which produces the OGT+ open textbooks, could be supported by a minimal fee paid by each institution that used open textbooks from that source.

Student Fee (by Course) When an Open Textbook is Used
As another model, minimal student fees could be assessed when a course adopts an open textbook that is available through a collaborative such as OGT+. The Florida Student Textbook Survey of over 13,500 students showed strong support for such a fee (between $5 and $10) to maintain the currency and also develop new textbooks for use by students

Donations Made from a Website
Some organizations solicit donations as a supplementary funding source such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseware initiative and the Public Knowledge Project, a partnership involving Simon Frasier University in Canada and Stanford University in the U.S.

Student Government
If students were sufficiently aware of the potential savings to them from open textbooks, they might be motivated to raise funds to support the production of them. The Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) have been ardent supporters of open textbooks for several years.

University Press Economics

University presses face great challenges in making the publishing of open access textbooks financially viable. As Sanford G. Thatcher, retired Director of Penn State University Press, said in a session of the 2010 University of North Texas Open Access Symposium:

On the one hand, and above all, a university press’s mission is defined by the imperative that drives academe as a whole: create new knowledge and communicate it to the next generation of students and scholars. On the other hand, every university press must make enough money to stay viable as a commercial enterprise operating in the same business environment as any other publisher. A few can do so without the help of their parent universities; the vast majority cannot and need to be subsidized at some level (on average, 10% of their operating budget) (Thatcher, 2010, p. 1).

Although the university press’s aim of providing academia with knowledge is consistent with the open access that many would like to provide, thus far government agencies have been unwilling, and universities in the U.S. have been unable, to support them sufficiently to cover the costs of making open access texts available. Thus, Thatcher (2010) laments:

In principle, open access is a good thing: every press would love to be supported in such a way as to feel no need to grovel in the marketplace for every last penny but instead be liberated to share the wealth of knowledge we produce in our books and journals with the entire world at no cost to the end-user. In practice, no university in the U.S. yet has shown any inclination to provide the level of support to make that laudable goal feasible economically (p. 3).

However, as Thatcher points out, university presses in Canada and Europe have received such support, and, as he failed to note, University Press of Florida has adopted a model of offering downloads of open textbooks free to the entire world while subsidizing the associated expenses with print-ondemand revenue. Athabasca University Press in Alberta, Canada is “dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge and research through open access digital journals and monographs, as well as through new electronic media” (Athabasca University Press, 2008). It sells printed bound versions of its books as well. The Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN, n.d.) works on a different model, charging authors a fee starting at around €700 for distributing electronic versions of their works openly. Both of these presses provide the peer reviews, copy editing, and other services that sets the price of open access for American university press texts beyond that provided by their universities. As Thatcher (2010) puts it:

Thus presses are left to fend for themselves, with about one-tenth of their costs covered, and must look to every source of revenue they can find, including from e-reserves and course-management systems where journal articles and book chapters are reproduced in great quantities, to remain in business (p. 3).

In each of these financial models at least two shortcomings are relevant: (a) funding is disproportionately obtained from a particular source, and (b) an element of uncertainty exists as to the model’s sustainability. As examples of the former shortcoming, OAPEN charges a fee to the author, the very benefactor who contributes his or her intellectual property to the world, while the beneficiaries of the gift pay nothing for the downloaded work. In the University Press of Florida model, print-on-demand purchasers pay not only for the printing expenses, but they also subsidize the developmental editing, copy editing, and other associated expenses for the free downloads. These inequities in funding sources must either be tolerated or modified.

Regarding the latter shortcoming, the uncertainty about sustainability of the model, the survival of the enterprise depends on the robustness and the flexibility of the financial model. Those models that draw fees from the author might have to compete with enterprises that charge no such fees. Those that subsidize costs associated with producing books downloaded for free with revenue from print-on-demand books might have to face the eventuality of insufficient sales of print-on-demand books. Perhaps all business models have some elements of uncertainty. So the viability of the financial model might pivot on having multiple sources of revenue to draw from and the flexibility to adjust the proportions those sources contribute to the changes in the marketplace.

Funded by Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE)