Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Author of an OA/TA book recounts his experience to date

Christopher Kelty, Two Bits at Six Months, Savage Minds, January 24, 2009.  Excerpt:

Last June I announced that I had published my book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. It was released both as a book by Duke University Press and as an open access publication via a website that I created and maintain. For scholars in my fields óanthropology, history, science studies, media studiesó this is one of the first experiments, if not the first, of this kind. As such, Iíve been doing my best to keep some notes on the process, with a mind towards reporting on the results of going open access with a first book....

Google Analytics [shows]...the initial spike of interest,...the role of small communities in creating attention....

My book is in kind of a strange space. On the one hand, it is a conventional academic book, a first book by an assistant professor (now tenured, thank you very much Duke University Press); it is accessible, but not popular; it has a large potential audience beyond academics because of its subject matter; and it is beautifully designed and people tell me it is well written. So much for the pro column. In the con column: it is long, it contains complicated theory in the first chapter, including Habermas, which is fatal to any reader even in small amounts; it doesnít have any sound-bitable arguments and people tell me it is poorly written.

In short, itís a pretty standard academic book, and therefore a good candidate for this experiment. People always ask what I had to do to convince Duke to let me release the book. On the one hand the subject matter made it easy: I couldnít respect myself, or Duke, if a book about Free Software were not freely available. On the other hand, I think they were really eager to experiment, to see what would happen. I created the website, so they didnít have to; and they agreed to use a CC (By-NC-SA) license and to give me the pdf and a very clean HTML copy (thank you Achorn) for distribution. The designer, Cherie Westmorland, used an open source font and the Boston Public Library let me use the cover image....Duke is making as little or as much money on the book as they do on others of its ilk, and yet I am getting much more from it being open access than I might otherwise.

So what have I learned so far? A few things:

1) The Internet saturated with everything and everybody that it now feels more like normal life and less like some special place. This amounts to saying that things have returned to normal levels of hard work. To get a book to sell, one has to invest a lot of work in marketing it, promoting it and distributing it....All the spikes in traffic correlate precisely with mentions in major and minor media outlets, ranging from Savage Minds to the New Yorker....[T]he ratio of print sales to downloads has been 3 to 1. Not 1000 to 1 or even 100 to 1, but 3 to 1. Thatís kind of amazing. It means that neither my outsized expectations of hordes of geeks downloading the book, nor Dukeís fears of massive numbers of lost sales have come true.

2) I have tenure. Putting my book online did not ruin my career. Having Duke publish it, as opposed to, say, some online vanity press, contributed to my tenure case, but simply having it available for free is not career suicide. Quite the opposite, I would say. I have more requests now for talks, reviews, contributed papers, conferences, interviews and projects than I can accept....Lots of people are assigning the book in class, or bits of it, which I can only assume is facilitated by the ease of access....

3) Iíve had a pretty excellent amount of media attention....I have had mentions in The New Yorker Blog, The Times Higher Education Supplement, Technology Review, Inside Higher Ed, and others. Iíve had conversations with people from Korea, Argentina, Brazil, and India about the book. Iíve had excellent response from European scholars interested in the book. In short, I canít complain. According to Duke, the amount of marketing that went into my book was more intensive than most, and this may no doubt accounts for some of that attention. Frankly, itís more than enough. Iím not quite sure what I would do with more, but I do know that with a bit more marketing, the dynamics of attention might conceivably change much more dramatically than just ten years ago. For some books that university presses publish, this fact is worth mulling over.

PS:  Also see our past posts on Kelty.