A question often asked in the ongoing argument about Open Access and academic publishing is ‘what value do publishers add, exactly?’ I want to add one more element to the mix: academic publishers do a valuable service in protecting authors from the embarrassment of thinking and talking about money.
What do I mean by this? The business of researching and writing is an individual one, about as individual as they come. ‘I’ve got important things to say, that no-one else knows, and I’m really good at saying them’ we in effect say: ‘read my work’. And were academics not employed by universities, but were instead personal trainers, or management consultants, then day in, day out, they would be saying that very directly, to known individuals or organisations. ‘Hire me, and not the other guy; I’m really good. And these are my prices.’
But for scholars employed by universities, this relationship is diffused, and this direct transaction largely avoided. Although the ‘product’ is a unique one, it is produced for distribution to a larger group. Though one may know very well the small knot of readers who will most obviously want to read it (the people we’ve met at conferences), we assume that there is a larger reading public out there for our work, and it is for the publisher to manage that relationship for us.
Even those who have overcome the reticence about “blowing one’s own trumpet” on social media are shielded from the full knowledge of how their work is valued. Yes, tweets and posts are liked and shared, and replies and comments (good or bad) can come, but the medium does not force a translation of that attention into economic terms. If one publishes in a learned journal, as an author one receives no price feedback whatever, and in the case of books (and the royalty statements that come with them), it is often difficult to distinguish between library sales and sales to individuals. One would never know which individuals had bought a book unless they chose to tell us so.
And so I’m trying something new, something that feels both creative but also potentially very embarrassing. Over on the Patreon platform, it is now possible to sign up as a supporter of my work, at a princely sum of £2 per month. For this, supporters get advance access to some of the long-form writing that ends up on this blog (the length of time involved will vary from post to post). In time, I may well add more expensive tiers of membership that give access to work in progress, online events, competitions and the like.
But I hope to convince potential patrons that the main reason to sign up is to help support the provision of new writing to anyone and everyone, free of charge. The costs of the work are not vast, but they are not negligible either, and have to be covered somehow.
One of the strongest arguments for Open Access is that research that is funded from the public purse should be freely available to the public. I have never been in that position; not a word of my published work has been directly supported by the state. And so this experiment is one in an older way of funding creative work (and, yes, I would place humanities scholarship in that category). Rather than depending on a single aristocratic (or public) patron, artists and writers can now build dispersed communities of many patrons each making a small contribution. How such a community might shape the work itself remains to be seen. But first I’d like to see whether that community exists.