Why my book is not open access

The short answer is: I was tired.

My first book published in the United States, Leviathans at the Gold Mineis now available from Duke University Press. Duke has asked me to tell you it is superb and to urge you to buy multiple copies since it will fundamentally alter the course of anthropology as we know it, etc. etc. Whatever: I’m willing to let you make your own minds up should you care to read it. The key point of this post is not that you should buy it, but that you must: the book is not open access.

Why not? After all, major presses are certainly willing to consider at open access. My friends and collaborators Biella Coleman and Chris Kelty have both released their books under creative commons licenses, and Coding Freedom (get it? Is “freedom” the noun or the direct object?) and Two Bits are both available for free. Furthermore, I’ve spend a decade arguing about the importance of open access and vociferously criticizing its opponents. What went wrong?

The answer — as Lowie and Sahlins always insist it is — is history. I wrote this book in a very difficult period of my life when I was juggling being a new father, applying for tenure, teaching, and of course writing for Savage Minds. The process of publishing a book, or doing any thing in life, really, is one of compromise: you never get around to adding that one section you want to add. You never get around to citing those people you think should be cited. You never revise that sentence that is written backwards. You try to make your work perfect, until you are exhausted, and then you decide its done enough. I think there’s a lot of truth in the old line “works of art are never finished, only abandoned”.

Early on in the process of writing Leviathans I was actually hesitant about pushing for an open access version. Although Duke seemed like it could be accommodating — they had published Two Bits, after all — my tenure application was filled with open access pieces and forms of ‘service’ (like this blog) that might not be intelligible to older scholars. I felt, in other words, like producing something old fashioned and locked down might be a good idea. By the time I got over that and just decided to do the right thing, the book was pretty far along in production. I sent an email to my editor, but didn’t hear back from him (when people are busy it sometimes takes more than one email). At that point I was just too tired to push anymore, and things rolled along down a very satisfactory, but closed, path.

A part of me feels like after over a decade of anthropology blogging and a career trying to publish in open access journals (or adding access to my author’s agreement) I am pretty well entitled to publish just one damn thing the normal way. But of course the goal is to make open the new normal. So to a certain extent, I just feel guilty.

Opponents of open access often assume that its advocates are not practical people. They feel like we have never seen the budget for a journal, or sat on the board of a book series, or worked with a copyeditor before. But our vision of a world where knowledge is free did not come about because of our isolation from actually existing publishing, it was born in the teeth of it. The steps we take towards that goal push boundaries and challenge expectations, but they are not made in ignorance. They are made, a lot of the time, in a state of exhaustion and a keen realization of the difficulties of keeping forward momentum. When I met with the managing editor of Cultural Anthropology in 2012 to talk about the process of going open access, I suggested that they charge readers to download the articles if that was what they needed to do to make the transition from Wiley to a pure gold OA solution.

I’m disappointed that my book won’t be (immediately) available to read free of charge, and the fault is really with me, not my publisher. But if there is one lesson to be learned from the grueling last stretches of actually pushing a book out into the world, it is that open access advocates are realistic people who do their best to have the courage of their convictions and think other people should do the same. Sometimes we succeed, at other times we fail. But at no time are we insulated from the realities of publishing and the hard work that it takes to make it happen.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on “Why my book is not open access

  1. It was interesting to hear about your experiences with Open Access. For the record, as a non-published recent college grad, I don’t mind having to sometimes purchase scholarly works. I appreciate if someone has some things available through Open Access, but then asks people to pay for other writings for out of a concern for financial sustainability. Not sure if that’s comforting, but it’s meant to be. 🙂

  2. Writing a book takes a lot of time and effort. The price of your book — only a tiny fraction of which will come to you as royalties — is certainly worth access to the results of your labors. If it were even possible to figure out how much money academic writers make per hour of work, it would be pennies. Here’s hoping your book sells many copies, that people find it worthwhile, and that students hang on to it and don’t sell it back to the bookstore, as authors make no royalties from used copies.

  3. A friend once gave a talk on the difference between writers and those of us who write for a living. Writers write something they hope will sell. Those who write for a living don’t write unless they are sure of being paid. How much we are paid varies, from pennies a word for grinding out technical prose to astronomical sums for successful screen plays or advertising copy. But we know we’ll be paid.

    Anthropologists are writers, yes, me, too, with my other hat on. But writing for a living provides the income that allows me to be a self-funded independent scholar who is free to write experimentally because, if what I write for myself doesn’t get published, it doesn’t affect my livelihood. Can everyone get away with this? I don’t know, I’ve been very lucky. But if you are smart enough to be an adjunct, you can probably find an easier, more lucrative way to make a living and, if you forego golf or other expensive hobbies, be able to pursue your dreams on your own dime. Could be worth thinking about.

  4. Don’t worry, it will eventually be “open access” through piracy. If a book is made available in ebook form, it doesn’t take very long before some Russian nabs a copy, strips the DRM encryption, and posts it to one of those huge ebook-sharing sites. Then “open access” is achieved, at least for people who are willing to browse in the more questionable corners of the Web.

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