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Last Modified: November 23, 2021
The Open Access logo (an unlocked lock) appears on a phone, which is sitting on a pile of books. The text reads "Unlocking Literature"

—by Peter Midgley

“We give away open access copies because as a press we do not want to get in the way of the free flow of ideas.”—Brian Scrivener, University of Calgary Press

The focus of the Canadian publishing industry often gravitates toward Ontario, so it remains a little-known fact that Alberta pioneered open access (OA) publishing in Canada. In 2007, Athabasca University Press became the first OA press in Canada; the University of Calgary Press followed in 2010. Open access publishing is premised on the philosophy that the knowledge produced at universities should not just be freely available, but available for free. It goes hand-in-hand with another contested premise, that universities are not businesses, but institutions for the public good, which means they have a responsibility to make research available to the taxpayers who fund those institutions. Understanding these philosophical positions is essential, for as the directors of both presses point out, open access is not a viable business model. Brian Scrivener, the director of the University of Calgary Press, explains the shift in mindset OA publishing requires: “With open access publishing, one switches from a product model of publishing, which is what most commercial presses are, to a service model.” In other words, OA publishers provide a service to the public by making research available—and it is right to do so, Brian says, because under a traditional model, research paid for by taxpayers is sold back to them through the sale of books. Megan Hall, the director of Athabasca University Press, confirms this, and adds, “It is liberating not to be bound by sales figures and bottom lines. It enables us to focus on publishing books that matter.” Both Alberta’s OA presses see the open access model as an opportunity to be bolder, allowing them to take risks that other presses may not be able to take.

Megan Hall, Director of AU Press, stands smiling in front of a bookshelf full of AU Press' suburb list
Megan Hall, Director of Athabasca University Press

Nice ideas, but what does all this mean to the average Canadian reader? It means, simply, that electronic versions of all AU Press’s books and most of the University of Calgary Press’s books are available for free on their website. All? Most? The distinction points to the approaches the presses have adopted to publishing creative writing. AU Press publishes research that has a broader appeal beyond academia and, as Megan Hall points out, for some scholars that research output is creative writing. AU Press publishes mainly creative works that develop from research—translations of stories written in Odia, a language spoken in the Odisha region of India, or in Punjabi. They also publish poetry—Naomi McIlwraith’s kiyâm is a book that seeks to understand the intersection between nêhiyawêwin, the Plains Cree language, and English, âkayâsîmowin. David Groulx’s From Turtle Island to Gaza weaves together the experiences of Indigenous peoples in settler Canada with those of the people of Palestine, revealing a shared understanding of colonial pasts and presents.

Headshot of Brian Scrivener, Director of University of Calgary Press, in front of window
Brian Scrivener, Director of University of Calgary Press

Like AU Press, Calgary publishes what Brian Scrivener designates as “nonfiction” (scholarship with a broader appeal) and creative writing, which appears in the Brave and Brilliant series edited by Aritha van Herk. The books in the Brave and Brilliant series are not open access. As Brian notes, “The majority of our nonfiction authors earn income from well-compensated jobs at universities; our creative authors do not have that support, so only our nonfiction titles are open access.” As the series title suggests, Brave and Brilliant books invite writers from across Canada to submit books that are, well, both brave and brilliant.

Making books available for free raises the question of copyright, and both AU Press and the University of Calgary Press take whatever steps they can to ensure authors’ copyright is protected. Both presses register their works under a Creative Commons Licence. This protects the author’s copyright by determining exactly how the works may be used and shared. As Megan Hall emphasizes, “Free to enjoy or reproduce does not mean free to alter at will. The Creative Commons helps to strengthen a writer’s copyright.” As creators in Canada know only too well from recent court rulings and legislation, copyright needs all the protection it can get.

It seems odd that both presses sell hard copies of their books and give them away. Surely that must affect sales? Brian Scrivener is quick to respond, “The University of Calgary Press still sells physical copies because people still love print, but we give away open access copies because as a press we do not want to get in the way of the free flow of ideas.” Megan Hall reminds me that open access publishing is not driven by sales, but that having the books available for free often encourages readers to buy the physical book. Both kiyâm and From Turtle Island to Gaza have been reprinted many times, and continue to sell hard copies. “There is a misconception that OA books are shoddily produced,” adds Brian, “but that is not so. Our e-books are digital twins of our print books. They are beautiful artifacts.”

While this may seem odd, it is difficult to give away free books, and open access publishers spend a great deal of time and money on marketing. Brian Scrivener notes that many problems with open access books not being readily available stems from trying to fit a “free” model into a commercial mould and to make the metadata available more widely: “Library purchases are driven by library wholesalers, and they have no incentive to make known the availability of a free copy of the book.” As Megan Hall points out, solid marketing is one of the things open access publishers excel at. “I’ve always felt really strongly that our material needs to be visible in all the places that closed material is found. I don’t ever want our material to only be found in open access databases. I don’t think that serves the reader. I don’t think that serves the author. I want our material to be found where all reading material can be found for purchase and for free.”

Both directors emphasize the importance of funding for the publishing industry. “It’s about how we value books,” says Brian. “Canadian culture is under constant threat of being overpowered by the monolith of American culture. Funding from the federal government allows publishers and writers to tell Canadian stories; funding from provincial governments allows us to publish Alberta stories. We can only do this with proper government support.”

“We tend to apologize for needing subsidies,” Megan notes, “and we don’t need to apologize. The oil industry is subsidized. The cultural activities we undertake in Canada, like publishing, are not of lesser value and that’s why they need to be subsidized. Publishers need help to make space for Canadian content in a really competitive market. Support for the publishing industry is support for Canadian culture.”

Open access publishing, as it has manifested in Alberta, is about taking a philosophical stance about the communality of writing and learning. Sharing stories and information is what makes us human and humane, in times of hardship. Alberta is lucky to have two publishers in AU Press and the University of Calgary Press that embody those values.

From Turtle Island to Gaza

David Groulx (CA)

Published: Apr 30, 2019 by Athabasca University Press
ISBN: 9781771992619
kiyâm: poems

Naomi McIlwraith (CA)

Published: Apr 01, 2012 by Athabasca University Press
ISBN: 9781926836690

From the Brave and Brilliant series:

Happy Sands

Barb Howard (CA)

Published: Sep 15, 2021 by University of Calgary Press
ISBN: 9781773852164

Amy LeBlanc (CA)

Published: Jun 15, 2021 by University of Calgary Press
ISBN: 9781773851396