Open textbooks may be free, but they are not without cost.
So what is the cost of developing an open textbook from scratch?
Answer: a minimum of $80,000, more likely around $130,000.
Here’s how I arrived at the figure, based on my own open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.
Context and ‘sponsors’
As always in education, the context is important. I wrote the book as an individual, without the very considerable ‘hidden’ support that working in a university or college often provides. However, working as an individual meant that I was able to track most of the costs.
Second, although I was working as an individual, I did have two very valuable external ‘sponsors':
- BCcampus: The BC Open Textbook project, that BCcampus manages on behalf of the provincial government, meant that I had a ready-made platform, based on BCcampus’s own version of PressBooks, on which to develop and host the book. Furthermore, I received essential technical support and help from the BCcampus team when developing the book;
- Contact North/Contact Nord: Contact North is a somewhat similar organization in Ontario to BCcampus in British Columbia. In particular, it provides professional learning opportunities in digital and online learning for faculty and instructors across the 22 colleges and 24 universities in Ontario. CN saw the book as a potentially valuable resource, and provided some financial support for the development of the book, as well as commissioning a French translation of the book (due later in the summer).
I also received a lot of support and feedback from the online learning ‘community of practice’ while writing the book. Without this support, it would have been very difficult for me to produce a high quality online textbook.
How much work for the author?
How much work is there in writing an open textbook? This is one of those ‘length of a piece of string’ questions, but while not clocking every minute, I did keep a track of how much time it took me.
Again, though, context is important. I am a very experienced writer, with 12 commercially published books behind me. I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to write about and quickly developed a structure and plan for the book. A lot of potential content already existed from many of the blog posts I had been writing. Others without such experience will almost certainly need more time.
Figure 1 below gives a breakdown of my time spent writing and editing:
I spent roughly 20 hours a week on writing and editing, over roughly 50 weeks, so 1,000 hours of my time is a pretty reasonable estimate. This works out at roughly six months work over one year.
In reality, of course, in my context this was done for free. However, this would be equal to a minimum of $50,000 in salary for someone working full-time in a college or university, and for a consultant it would be even higher. So I would estimate the opportunity cost of writing this book to be a minimum of $50,000, with probably $75,000 being a more realistic ‘average’ cost for most authors.
It should be noted that:
- I published first drafts as blog posts, in order to get feedback from the several thousand professionals who follow my blog;
- I ‘published when ready': in other words, once a chapter was ready after the above feedback had been incorporated, I published the chapter on the book web site. Thus the book slowly grew between June 2014 to February 2015, which also brought in more feedback;
- I spent nearly all March, 2015, on a major re-edit of the book, splitting up or re-integrating some chapters, removing redundancies, checking references, and copy editing.
I hired an independent instructional designer/editor to review and advise on the overall structure of the book, each draft chapter, the design of activities and other ‘pedagogical features’, and the actual writing. It was essential to have someone with instructional design experience responsible for providing a second opinion throughout the book. The Centre for Digital Learning at Ryerson University also provided regular and valuable feedback on drafts of chapters on a voluntary basis. These activities to some extent replaced the normal (and valuable) role of an editor from a commercial publisher.
The total cost of this support was $9,000. However, given that I also have a background in instructional design, the costs may be higher for another author, especially in the early stages of designing the book.
I hired a graphic designer, not to do actual graphics, but to advise on the design and layout of the book, and to do a cover for the book. I contracted the designer when the book was two-thirds finished. His input was valuable, but limited to designing frames for imported graphics, and to the design of the book cover. I mainly used graphics imported from other web publications, or designed graphics for the text myself, using Powerpoint. The cost of the graphic designer was in the range of $5,000 – $10,000 (he was on contract to Contact North).
Next time, I would do this differently. In another post I have described the problems of fitting graphics to different versions of the book. I really needed a graphics designer who was familiar with publishing for mobile devices. I should have hired the designer before I started writing the book, and then worked out a way of testing graphics for each version (html, pdf, mobi, etc.) as I wrote the book. In fact, designing for an open textbook requires specialist knowledge, and I’m not even sure that this knowledge or even appropriate software for fitting graphics into different versions exist yet, but it is really important. I suspect though that one would need a minimum of $10,000 to cover the graphics design, probably more, in order to work in the way that is needed.
Although recent changes in Canadian law and Supreme Court decisions on copyright have made it much easier to include third-party material without copyright clearance, it is essential in an open textbook to ensure that all materials can be freely reproduced and re-used. Thus while I may be willing to waive my rights, I cannot do it for material where other people own the rights. Thus I had to make sure that all third party material in my book, such as extracts from other written work, and particularly graphics, were:
- in the public domain, or
- covered by an appropriate Creative Commons license, or
- covered by a written permission for use in an open textbook by the copyright owner.
I therefore hired a graduate student from UBC’s School of Library and Information Sciences to trawl through the whole book and ensure that all material was cleared for open publishing. She produced a detailed spreadsheet for each case (about 120 in total), identifying the source of the material and whether rights were cleared or approved for open publishing. This often meant tracking down the original creator of material already freely available on the Web. In the end, we had two refusals (alternatives were found and used), and five cases (all web-based graphics) where the original creator could not be found, but the material was in widespread use on the Internet, and in these five cases I took the risk of reproduction. In all other cases I have cast-iron clearance.
A systematic approach to copyright clearance is really essential for open publication, and there is a real cost in doing this. In this project approximately $5,000 was spent but an average figure would probably be around $7,500. It is money though well spent.
As mentioned earlier, BCcampus provided the platform (their own version of Pressbooks, built on WordPress), advised me on how to get started, and provided essential technical support as I developed the book. They offered this service free, because basically I was a ‘marginal’ cost on their own major open textbook project.
There are though a number of alternative platforms, including Pressbooks, for open publishing that are available for free or at reasonably low cost, but someone working with such platforms would have to pay possibly somewhere in the region of $1,000-$2,000 annually for technical support, because things will always go wrong, and in particular hackers will try to corrupt the site.
I used the following for marketing the book:
- my own blog posts, Twitter feed and LinkedIn network
- the WCET Frontier’s newsletter
- Contact North’s worldwide media release
- book reviews in academic journals (to come).
Each of these helped (or should help) to boost the number of visits to the book web site, but the only real cost is the Contact North media release, at around $10,000, but again an essential cost in getting the book to the right market.
Summary of costs
Figure 2 collects together these costs:
I have provided both a minimal cost and a more realistic average cost. All these individual items can be contested, and some of these costs may be hidden or absorbed through clever accountancy, but to offer a high quality open textbook, there is no arguing that there are real and substantial costs.
If original texts are to be developed as open textbooks, we need sustainable business models. These can take several forms:
This was the model used for Teaching in a Digital Age, with the author offering his time free, BCcampus supporting the technical side, and Contact North funding the direct costs of instructional and graphic design, and marketing.
Universities or colleges could also act as sponsors in the same way (and for the same reasons) that they sponsor MOOCs or other open educational resources
2. Government funding
This is the model used to support the BC Open Textbook project. This would be a very practical way for governments to reduce direct costs to students and to provide a practical implementation of a policy for open education.
This may be a way for an author to recover costs. The book would be partly or even wholly published, and potential readers would be asked to donate towards the cost of the book. This however would require some means by which payment could be collected and audited, which would add to the overall cost. This might be a viable model though where there is strong demand for the product, with individual readers donating as little as $10 each, although it might sully the purity of the concept of open-ness, and is a high risk for the author if there is no demand for the book.
4. Other models
One possibility I am considering is using my textbook to raise money to support, for instance, African students wanting but unable to attend university, by having a link to a suitable charity and asking readers to donate $10 to the charity if they download the book.
There are many other possible models and I would like to hear from readers with suggestions.
However, at the end of the day, there are real and substantial costs to developing open textbooks and it is important to be not only aware of this but to be willing to find appropriate means to support open publishing in education.
In my next post, I will answer the question: was it worth it?