Knowledge Unlatched

Presented by: Frances Pinter (Publisher, Social Entrepreneur)


I’ve been asked to talk about Knowledge Unlatched, which is the not-for-profit company that I set up recently. Its aim is to make a very small sector of book publishing function better and serve scholarly communications more effectively. All book publishing – print publishing – is going through great upheavals. But I’m going to restrict my comments to what Knowledge Unlatched is doing in the world of monograph publishing, which is probably the least sexy part of publishing.

Thirty years ago publishers could sell 3000 copies of these books, now they can sell less than 300. This is not good for scholarly communications.

The monograph, whether it’s long or short, is still considered to be the gold standard for many fields, particularly the humanities and social sciences in communicating new knowledge. However, it’s really become a broken market. Thirty years ago publishers could sell 3000 copies of these books, now they can sell less than 300. This is not good for scholarly communications. And this when we have the opportunity, the wonderful affordances, of digital. So, who pays for the monographs now? That’s the question I asked myself before setting up Knowledge Unlatched. Well, it’s actually the libraries, the academic libraries, who don’t have stacks of money to pay for these books which are now selling between £50 and £100 each. So, that’s the context.

Now turning to how Knowledge Unlatched works. It really is, in many ways, something like a freemium model. What we’re doing is, creating an international library consortium that will pay for the fixed costs of getting a manuscript from the author into the hands of the reader, online, on a Creative Commons non-commercial licence. So, just think – fixed costs, paid for, at the point of publication. Fixed costs include everything up to generating the first digital file. The publishers’ market stays the same and may even expand as the open version promotes the charged for versions. Publishers will be selling through the normal channels, and they will be able to make additional money through the sale of the print, the various digital versions, for tablets, for collections with extra functionality and more.

Now, the way to summarise this is to use a metaphor. Just think about ice-cream. The free content, which goes up online in HTML or flat PDF is the equivalent of a plain vanilla scoop. Then, think of ice cream in a cone, and that’s the metaphor for the printed book, the bespoke digital version which publishers will be selling, as they sell them now. Then the last one, think of the ice-cream sundae – that’s the construct with chocolate sauce, strawberry sauce, whipped cream, nuts, whatever, and that’s what I see coming down the line. The monograph is changing it’s format, digital humanities is exciting, lots of things are happening, and their publishers are thinking about how to add value, and of course, if they do participate in the co-creation process then they should be appropriately remunerated.
I hope that the basic model is clear, the reaction to it so far has been tremendous. We have had wonderful support from a number of major institutions, and major publishers, and the launch of the first list of titles to be unlatched will occur towards the end of this year.

So, the benefits, briefly. The creation of these monographs will be paid for at an earlier stage in the value chain, there will be open access, everybody in the world will have access to the content, this will be great for authors, for readers. It reduces the risk for publishers, who become more of a service provider than in the past, and libraries also will be using their funds more selectively because once they’ve bought into the program and either just pay for unlatching the book, or, if they wish, they can also buy the premium version for their collections at a discount that reflects the original contribution to the fixed cost. It’s a win-win solution for all.

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