Innovation Expert Eric von Hippel Walks the Walk — Offering His Books Open Access

Eric von Hippel is T Wilson Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT. He specializes in research related to the nature and economics of distributed and open innovation. Recently he spoke with Ellen Finnie Duranceau, Scholarly Publishing and Licensing Consultant in the MIT Libraries, about his own innovation in publishing. He made two of his books available openly on his website at no cost to the reader: Democratizing Innovation, published in 2005 by the MIT Press, and Sources of Innovation, published in 1988 by Oxford University Press.

democratizing innovation cover

Sources of Innovation

Libraries: What motivated you to make your books openly available, and to what extent was your motivation a direct result of the subject of your research?

EVH: My whole purpose – doing all of my research – is not to get money from book royalties. That’s not my goal. I’m trying to diffuse my work and ideas, much the way MIT does with OpenCourseWare. Society is already paying me for my work via my research funding.

Libraries: So your motivation to make the book openly available was not so much directly related to your work in open innovation?

EVH: Only in the sense that I probably knew more about how to make a free downloading option work because of my research – I knew about Creative Commons licensing, for example, while many people are not aware of that option.Libraries: What was involved in making the arrangements with the two publishers?

EVH: For Sources of Innovation, Oxford University Press made a special deal with me. I approached them about 15 years after my book was initially published. Oxford agreed I could post the book for downloading, but they required that I make some compensation to them for any significant decline in sales. If the sales remained stable, we’d be even. I did not end up having to pay them any money.

In the case of Democratizing Innovation, I worked with MIT Press from the start to be sure I would have the right to offer my book on my website. In that case, I kept copyright to the book, and gave MIT Press the right to publish the printed version. This is why I was able to post the book under the CreativeCommons license.

Libraries: What has the impact been, both in terms of downloads from the site, and on sales of hard copies of the books?

EVH: There have been 12,700 downloads of Sources of Innovation since I put it on the web last year, running about 20 per day. Sales before posting in 2005 (the book was published in 1988) were about 325 per year. In the year after posting, they were about 575.

Democratizing Innovation has been downloaded 55,000 times so far, with downloads from my MIT website running about 50 per day. I don’t think this has hurt hard copy sales – and it actually may have helped. MIT Press told me that hardcopy sales are higher than their pre-pub estimate of what they would have been without the option of free downloads.

Libraries: So by your estimates, sales of Sources of Innovation went up well over 70% after you made the book openly downloadable, and you believe at least some of the sales of Democratizing Innovation were the result of the open access version. It would seem these numbers would please MIT Press and Oxford University Press. What have the publishers’ reactions been?

EVH: It’s counterintuitive for publishers that they will sell more books if copies can be downloaded for free. So Oxford thought the result was really great. I’m not sure they’ve altered their business model based on the results, but they were pleased. In the case of MIT Press, my book was their first real experiment with this model. Because sales were higher than otherwise expected, they have begun to experiment with offering this option to other authors.

Libraries: The MIT Press confirms that the experiment was very successful. Here’s what Ellen Faran, Director of MIT Press, shared with me about your book: “In order to establish a benchmark for the experiment, we projected the number of copies we would expect to sell in the traditional paid environment during the first year of publication: 3,000 copies, and let me assure you, in our world that’s a big number representing a successful book. The results [in the first] 10 months after publication: excellent reviews and publicity attention, hardcover sales of over 4,800 copies, and more than 31,000 visitors to the web sites where downloads are available. The reception for this book dramatically exceeded our initial expectations.”

Ellen Faran also points out that “we will never know if, without the free PDF, we might have sold 7-8,000 copies” but that “the experiment shows indisputably that, for this one title, open text and paid print may happily co-exist.”

So MIT Press’ expectations have been exceeded. What have your colleagues and readers’ reactions been?

EVH: The colleagues and readers I have heard from thank me. They appreciate having free access. But I think for many people the physical book is still very important. And some people have told me that they liked the book so much after downloading it, they felt they owed it to me to buy a copy, so they did. Others just liked the book so much, they wanted a bound copy.

I have found that my readers appreciate that I not only talk the talk, but walk the walk with respect to encouraging the growth of the information commons. That’s really important to me.

Libraries: What do you think keeps authors from trying what you’ve tried?

EVH: Most authors don’t know that this is possible. They don’t have a model in mind for how they might offer their book openly this way. And for young authors, they are not willing to fight with publishers to make this kind of arrangement – they are so eager to be published.

Libraries: You make some of your working papers available on your web site and in MIT’s research repository, DSpace. Have you made systematic efforts to post articles you’ve authored?

EVH: I’d like to put more of my papers on my website and in DSpace, but I haven’t gotten around to it lately. Thanks for the gentle suggestion 🙂 .

Libraries: Democratizing Innovation is dedicated to “all who are building the information commons.” Do you have any closing words of wisdom for those who are hoping to support this vision here at MIT?

EVH: There is good reason to think that information placed in the information commons enhances both social and private welfare. Specifically in the case of academia, studies indicate that freely-downloadable academic papers get significantly increased diffusion and citations, other things being equal.

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Download Eric von Hippel’s books from his web page.
Borrow Democratizing Innovation from the MIT Libraries.
Borrow Sources of Innovation from the MIT Libraries.
Review purchase options for Democratizing Innovation.
Review purchase options for Sources of Innovation.