Creative writing and Open Access

Academics Susan Greenberg [pictured] and Emma Venables say developments in Open Access may affect the draft novels produced on creative writing courses.  

Trade publishers may not realise it yet, but developments affecting higher education may soon affect their own world as well. At worst, there are changes in play that could shut down an important source of new work and present a new threat to profits. The time seems right, therefore, to start a conversation between writers, universities and publishers, to help future-proof the publishing industry.

What is this source of work, and why is it threatened? The link between trade publishers and the academy is found in pockets across the HE sector but in primarily via the discipline of creative writing. Across the UK, people are producing publishable writing for a general readership not only on taught degrees at BA and MA level, but also through work for PhDs. Such programmes have become an important space for practice, training, and experimentation in all forms of writing.

In most cases, the creative writing thesis is conceived as the draft of a future published book. This is not unusual; research students in many disciplines have the same ambition. The difference in this case, however, is that the thesis-turned-book is likely to go to a trade house rather than the academic press. And many other imponderables flow from that.

One issue concerns the readiness of publishers to respond to the latest challenges in higher education. The biggest at present is the push to make publicly funded research available on open access e-repositories. Universities have always held a printed copy of the completed thesis and now, in most cases, an electronic version as well. To date, most authors can impose an embargo on this version or even withhold the full text entirely. The National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) has recently drawn up guidelines for doctoral students and supervisors in the field, giving advice on how to make their work visible without losing control over intellectual property.

However, the terms of embargo vary from institution to institution, and given the direction of policy towards making publicly funded research fully accessible, such compromises may be more difficult in future.

The changes involve faculty as well as students. At the moment, only journal articles must hold OA status to be "REF-able"; that is, to count as fundable research, but this rule may be extended to books. If that happened all book publishing by academics, including the thriving market in "crossover" books, would find itself in radically different conditions.

The 2015 Crossick Report on Monographs and Open Access recommended that creative works be exempt from the open access rule but no final decision has been taken yet and there is still everything to play for. This is a familiar challenge for creative writing academics, who work in a relatively new discipline that has had to negotiate its way constantly through the academic system in order to be recognised.

Among academic publishers, there is a tradition of accepting the doctoral thesis as an early version of the book, as long as it goes through substantial revision. Until now, however, by and large trade publishers have refused to touch a manuscript that exists in any prior accessible version, revised or not.

The understandable concern here is to secure copyright, and hence markets. It is a concern shared by authors. After all, why go to the pains of publishing a novel or a story collection when it can be accessed by anyone with a university affiliation? Or even without one; at a meeting last May about creative writing doctorates, held by the British Library and NAWE, a participant noted her own experience of piracy when her novel became available as a free download within weeks of publication.

Another person at the meeting, held under the umbrella of the AHRC project The Academic Book of the Future, worried about losing control over earlier, less polished drafts: "I’d much rather people accessed the revised, published version than the legally available version in a repository."

The deepest fear for creative talent is that their work may become unpublishable. However the decision may not remain fully in our hands, either as authors, academics or publishers.

The alternative is to look together for creative ways of anticipating these future challenges. If the right balance is found between rights and access, it could help to strengthen the sustainability of publishing, authorship and research.

We invite those working in trade publishing to contact us, with the aim of sharing ideas, and – who knows – shaping policy.

Susan Greenberg is senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Roehampton, and a member of the HE committee of NAWE. Emma Venables recently finished her PhD in creative writing, and is a visiting lecturer in Royal Holloway’s Department of English.