Peer review and academic credibility – barriers to self-publishing

31 August 2009

The fly in the ointment

For aspiring novelists, self-publishing is a smart new way to get the attention of agents and ultimately publishers – it’s a great calling card. In reality, then, quite often a self-published novel is not the end product of literary effort but rather a means to achieving the ‘real’ end, which is to be accepted by a publisher.

The situation is different for scholars. Generally speaking, if the publication route chosen is self-publication, then this is the end destination, the final act.

Given that there are lots of good reasons to self-publish and the prospects for conventional publishing don’t look too good anyway, why aren’t academic authors in their droves rushing off and self-publishing their work? Unfortunately, there is a fly in the ointment: academic credibility. How to guarantee the quality of this published scholarship and hence receive the stamp of quality and approval that a scholarly press or journal confers on its books/articles?

In my next post, I shall look at self-publication as a riposte to rejection by a publisher. But first I wish to explore the mechanism most likely to lead to such a rejection – peer review – and understand the effect it has as a measure of academic credibility and what this means for the self-publisher.

A lousy system, but …

Peer review is the process by which a book publisher or journal subjects a scholarly work intended for publication to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field. The process has a value in itself but what is crucial is that a kind of certification of quality is conferred.

Despite persistent criticism of peer review for being elitist, prone to bias, overly slow, etc., and calls for new forms of ‘soft’ peer review, to date the system holds sway in the academic world. What Churchill said about democracy applies equally to peer review: it is a lousy system, but to date all the alternatives have been even worse.

(Peer review is much more than this and the issues are much wider – as can be seen in a separate post –  but this is all that we need concern ourselves with here.)

A problem for the self-publisher

But if peer review is the only show in town, where does this leave the self-publisher? With a problem. Because the effect of peer review is to put a stamp of quality and approval on a work, the result is that publications not peer reviewed are usually seen as being of inferior quality (and even regarded with suspicion) by scholars and professionals in their field. Moreover, such works are more likely to be excluded/disregarded when:

  • The author’s publications list is assessed;
  • Selection boards and tenure committees make their hiring decisions;
  • Research councils and other funding bodies decide on funding applications;
  • Assessors carry out the research evaluations on which institutional funding is often based; and
  • Citation indexes decide on which works to include.

Does this matter?

Does this discrimination matter? Only if such exclusion/disregard is of little importance to you should you consider self-publishing. That in turn depends on what your aim is in self-publishing the work and what your measures of its success are (the subject of a later post).

Meantime, let us move on to consider rejection – normally a result of the peer review and a common reason prompting authors to choose the self-publication route – and why this should be thought through carefully when self-publishing.

Peer review and its alternatives

30 August 2009

Waiting, waiting …

You delivered your manuscript for peer review five months ago and nothing seems to be happening. The commissioning editor you originally dealt with has passed you on to an editorial assistant who is apologetic but no review reports have materialized. So, should you just sit there and take it, simply fretting? Start thumping the publisher’s table? Cut your losses and approach another publisher? Indeed, can you avoid this tiresome business altogether?

Unfortunately, as we shall see, peer review is a stage of the academic publication process that is hard to avoid (unless you are looking to self-publish your work, but that’s another story). Let’s take a stroll through this subject and find out why.

Peer review – the basics

Peer review is used in various areas outside publishing (e.g. by funding authorities to assess applications for research grants) but as far as academic publishing is concerned it performs a gatekeeper function – i.e. it is the process by which a book publisher or journal subjects a scholarly work intended for publication to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field.

In addition, peer review is supposed to encourage authors to meet the high standards of scholarship and conduct that are accepted in their disciplines.

Most publishers recruit two or more experts in the field to undertake this review (journals more commonly one). Among other things, these reviewers will be asked to make an evaluation of the text’s theoretical, methodological and empirical merits and a judgement of its literary style and readability. In addition to a general assessment of the text, they may also be requested to answer specific questions.

Normally, referees undertake the review on the basis of anonymity, but they may choose to sign their reports and even subsequently engage in a dialogue with the author. This can this lead to a far better book or article, and just as importantly in the former case can result in an endorsement from a well-known scholar that can be used to promote the book.

The peer review occurs at an awkward moment when the author is relatively powerless and hasn’t yet had a chance to build the sort of relationship with an editor that could protect the author from a reviewer in a rotten mood. But it is also a vitally significant moment. Perhaps the best way to look at the peer-review process is to liken it to the tempering of steel rather than as an ordeal by fire. Authors whose texts survive this process (and, in the case of books, most do) usually find that working closely with a good editor to incorporate reviewers’ advice and other editorial feedback into their text can be one of the most positive and productive aspects of creating a scholarly book/article.

Problems with peer review

While there is a lot going for peer review, it has its critics. Some scholars criticize it for being elitist, prone to bias, and overly slow. Certainly, there is a likelihood for elite scientists to be sought out as referees than less established ones, and for the process to support the dominant discourse, smother innovation and suppress politically incorrect arguments. And delays are common (though horror stories of journals taking five years to review an article probably attract such attention because the delay is so extraordinary).

Moreover, although peer review is generally considered essential to academic quality, it does not reliably prevent plagiarism or fraud, and indeed often fails to detect errors. On rare occasions, scandals involving outright fraud have struck even publications with the highest peer-review credentials.

The anonymity of reviewers is blamed for many of the problems of peer review. From the author’s point of view, an anonymous reviewer is in a position of great and unquestionable power while the author is utterly dependent on a good review. It is not unknown for reviewers to behave badly and quite common for them – by a process of ‘criticism creep’ – ending up becoming virtual co-authors of a work without having to reveal their identity (though in fairness this means they also don’t get any recognition for this input).

Alternatives to peer review

Some scholars (and journals) see the answer to these problems with peer review in open peer review, where the reviewer’s identity is made known to the author (and perhaps to eventual readers). Others argue for applying the ‘wisdom of crowds’ concept to peer review, arguing that the system could be radically improved by the adoption of ‘soft peer review’, i.e. using the new ‘Web 2.0’ social networking tools – commenting, collaborative annotation and using tagging, bookmarking and hits – to measure popularity. Not everyone is convinced (some authors have a very understandable fear of losing ownership of their material, for instance), but new experiments are regularly launched in this area. One high-profile experiment by the journal Nature involved submitted articles being put up on the journal’s website and comments invited from readers. With less feedback received than expected and some authors unhappy at such exposure to public criticism/ridicule, the initiative was terminated. By no means has this been the only experiment but to date no credible alternative to peer review has emerged. In short, what Churchill said about democracy applies equally to peer review: it is a lousy system, but to date all the alternatives have been even worse.

If you are the author of a book, you are unlikely to be affected by these developments in the near future, but it is a different matter if you are also writing journal articles. Journals publishing is very often far ahead of book publishing in testing and adopting new ideas, techniques and technologies.

Surviving peer review

It is of course all very well to explore peer review and its alternatives in such a general discussion. But what of your own situation? How best can you survive this uncomfortable process? This I shall follow up in a later post (and if you are impatient you might like to take a look at our book, which devotes a whole chapter to this issue).

Have publishers any role or purpose today?

28 August 2009

The rise of an intermediary

As related in an earlier post, today’s publishers have their origins in the printers who sprung up in the wake of the Gutenberg revolution. While they may have been hired by gentleman authors to produce, print and publish the latter’s works, it is clear that these printers were not servants; rather they were entrepreneurs at the forefront of developments leading to the industrial revolution and rise of capitalism.

In retrospect, the subsequent rise of publishers to become the gatekeepers of literary and scholarly merit was not unexpected. Theirs was an intermediary role that developed with the expansion of the modern, capitalist economy in a manner much like it did for lawyers, bankers, accountants and many other professions occupying such an intermediary position. As such, by leveraging their position, they enhanced their power and wealth (indeed, one might argue, they functioned and flourished as parasites). Moreover, with the democratization/impoverishment of authorship, increasingly it was publishers who took on the financial (and sometimes political) risk in publishing a work, and who therefore earned the right and power to say ‘no’ to works offered to them. Their authority increased accordingly.

Today, however, we see a decline in the power, status and authority of publishers, not least due to challenges from the internet and printing revolutions. (More about that below and in later posts.)

The classical role

Parasitical or not, academic publishers cannot be simply regarded as leeches on the body academic, drawing off vital fluids to feed their shareholders and rejecting good honest scholarship in the process. Publishers actually add value to the academic books they publish over and above the value of the work. Not only do they act as gatekeepers to select the best texts (as discussed earlier) but also they improve these texts through their own editorial efforts (and those of freelancers), dress them up in a form acceptable to readers (whether as printed books or electronic content), provide them with a voice and a route to market, and handle all the practicalities of matching supply to demand.

Many would argue that the most important service publishers offer to the academic community is through arranging peer reviews (a function is explored in my next post). I’m not sure I agree. Even though an editorial person myself, I rather think that I agree more with Mike Shatzkin, someone with four decades of experience in all aspects of the U.S. publishing industry: ‘the publisher’s main job (and “service” to the writer!) is that the publisher makes the user aware of the work’. (Link)

Current challenges to the classical model

Looking at the situation coldly and clearly, I cannot but conclude that publishers are a threatened species, at least in their classical form. (Perversely, it is another matter for me to transform such rational pessimism into actual belief, however, let alone emotional despair.) This is because our role is challenged from almost every quarter.

  • Times are hard. The terminal decline of the library market has led to a collapse in sales of the traditional monograph in recent decades. Independent bookstores (and now even the chains) are in deep financial trouble, unable to compete with the discounted prices offered by supermarkets and the online behemoth, Amazon. There are too many books chasing too few readers. And, last but not least, university presses are hurting badly as their host universities slash financial support in reaction to the global economic crisis.
  • The business model is eroding. Copyright – which has been the basis of publishing in that it assigns exclusive ownership to a work but allows for dissemination under licence – is under attack from all sides. Alternatives like Creative Commons licensing certainly free up the dissemination of knowledge but don’t seem to provide an economic return on authorship. Indeed, the growth of e-publishing and push for adoption of Open Access make it harder for the traditional publisher to survive and thrive (to consumers, e-content equals free content).
  • The product is at risk. The book and its sibling, the journal, have long been academic publishing’s basic product. The book especially is under attack, its death continually predicted. It is not merely that the printed book or journal may be supplanted by the e-book and e-journal whose e-content is difficult to earn money on. But also with the internet revolution we see a move towards bite-sized scholarship that deconstructs the book while new forms of authorship are developing that are inimical to anyone (except maybe the author) making any money from their output.
  • Publishers are losing authority. As recounted in my earlier post, stories are emerging in public of cronyism, arrogance, blunders, short-sightedness, poor judgement, and much more in the publishing world. Worse, perhaps, is the growing disconnection between author and publisher. How this is causing problems in quality control is discussed here but the rift is wider than that and risking greater damage. This is especially so in general trade publishing where the only link between publisher and author is via an agent (and today even that tenuous link is weakened by the rise of ‘author’ websites whose sole purpose is to more easily identify the talent and filter out all other authors, all 99.9% of them). It would not be surprising, then, if there were a gradual erosion of trust, respect and even liking for publishers by authors.
  • Old measures of quality are being questioned. One of the main arguments in favour of the traditional model of academic publishing is that it entails a reasonably impartial assessment of scholarship and confers academic legitimacy on those works published. However, as will be seen in my next post, new forms of peer review are emerging that challenge the established model. The publisher as gatekeeper is at risk of getting the sack.
  • Publishers face new rivals. Librarians are often seen as fusty creatures wearing cardigans and concerned to keep the noise level down. In fact, however, librarians have responded far more quickly and creatively to the information revolution by offering access to the explosion of gray literature (unpublished and semi-public material), often via specialist portals and other internet-based tools. And with Library 2.0, they are beginning to publish such material in their own right. The dividing line between publishers and librarians has blurred. Now even bookstores and printers are getting into the act by offering tools and services to authors that make self-publication much easier.
  • The self-publishing rebellion is growing. Although the numbers of self-published authors are small and they are mainly found writing fiction, not scholarly works, the rebellion has impetus. Worse, the type of author attracted to self-publishing is often secure in their tenured position and more experienced as an author – in other words, the best and most profitable type of author as far as many publishers are concerned. Self-publishing thus poses a real threat to the future viability of academic publishing as it exists today.

What future for publishers?

Given such serious challenges, one would have to admit that the prospects are bleak for the traditional academic press (and all other publishers, in fact). What responses can be made to this situation?

  • More of the same. This seems the response of some publishers who, by price rises and cost-cutting, seem to have entered an endless spiral of declining value for money. It will be interesting to see just when this devaluation actually becomes plainly visible and publicly discussed by academics.
  • Cover the decline at home by expanding into adjacent markets. This was the response of NIAS Press, a small but significant European publisher in the field of Southeast Asian studies but whose sales focused on the European and North American markets were sluggish. The press improved its financial position (and global visibility) by starting to sell locally in the Southeast Asian academic market, which otherwise is largely ignored or underrated by Western publishers.
  • Diversify from print into electronic products. Every publisher is doing this. The problem is that digitization is not cheap and (as far as we can gather, given that publishers are coy about giving out real hard data) the income earned to date from e-sales has been negligible. Moreover, it is still unclear if this e-content is boosting or cannibalizing the crucial print sales.
  • Publish in electronic form only (or in combination with print on demand). A few presses have taken this route but there may be questions about motivation. For instance, Rice University Press was brought back from the dead but one may wonder if this isn’t to showcase the open-source e-publishing platform, Connexions, which is owned by the university. After the failure of its traditionally organized Pandanus Press, the Australian Nation University has launched ANU e-Press, but only with a hefty government grant. And the recent decision of the University of Michigan Press to go digital (and we should note in partnership with the University of Michigan Libraries) may well be a response to the effects of the current global economic recession; as noted above, other presses at least are suffering severe budgetary cutbacks from their host universities. On the other hand, the launching of Bloomsbury Academic as an Open Access publisher was born out of hopes for profit, not as a response to economic hardship. Flush with the riches of being the originating publisher of the Harry Potter series, Bloomsbury launched its academic list by buying up a few small quality publishers like Berg in Oxford.
  • Offer free e-content and aim to make money elsewhere. This strategy is being tried in many ways, from selling printed books on demand like Bloomsbury, Rice, etc. to selling adverts or even services. It is unclear, however, how much people are willing to pay for something ancillary to the product that they have already got for free. (The same conundrum is starting to bankrupt many newspapers, and perhaps it is significant that Rupert Murdock now talks of the need to move away from the suicidal provision of free content and back to a new form of paid-for content.)
  • Change from ‘horizontal’ to ‘vertical’ publishing. This is the argument of the aforementioned Mike Shatzkin (whose blog makes interesting reading. Essentially, this is niche publishing ‘plus’. Rather than publishing a range of books (or journals) for a broad range of readers, vertical publishing involves meeting the interests and needs of a narrow spectrum of readers and authors. Moreover, different products and services (some of them free) can be offered from the same base material. A crucial requirement here, however, is that the target audience trusts and identifies with the publisher. Shatzkin discusses the U.S. publisher Politico as a case in point, saying:

They are narrow and deep.

They have established a brand that trumps, or soon will trump, the formerly established brands in their niche.

They built an “Internet-first” model, but they have a “spinoff” print product that is a major contributor to their revenue.

They’re (apparently) profitable.

And if you publish a book on politics. I guarantee you’ll be knocking at their virtual door. (Link)

  • Change job from gatekeeper to facilitator. Taking on the role of a committed participant instead of a neutral umpire might be irresistible in certain types of advocacy publishing. Whether it is feasible in academic publishing is another matter. Personally, I hanker after the authority and self-respect that goes with my self-vision of being a publisher.


In short, the situation of publishers today is not a comfortable one and their future isn’t exactly rosey. As a result, some scholars at least may well judge that self-publishing offers them a better means to advance their career than does the old, conventional, publisher-based route.

The mechanics of self-publishing are relatively simple today, as shall be seen in a follow-up post, but there remains one tricky issue for academic authors still to be resolved: how to guarantee the quality of published scholarship and hence receive the stamp of quality and approval that a scholarly press confers on its books. This shall be explored in my next post.

When is it OK to use diacritics?

27 August 2009

This is my last (and somewhat delayed) post in a series examining issues behind the use of (special) fonts and diacritical marks. The posts up to this point have tended to focus on the challenges, namely:

After such a long litany of bitching about diacritical marks, it would be reasonable to conclude that I (and most publishers) am opposed to their use in all instances. Not at all, but everything has its place.

So when is it OK to use diacritical marks? The short answer is, that depends. The long answer? Here is my take on the issue – but first a personal comment. In this blog, my idea has been to make general observations applicable to all authors working in the humanities and social sciences (and hopefully to many others, too). Unconsciously, though, I am carrying a lot of ‘baggage’. For instance, my experience is largely limited to English-language publishing (though located in a non-English country) and my comments on diacritical marks are framed by this. Sorry if my assumptions come across as grossly ethnocentric.

Language and common usage

The English language does not include diacritics (though it does have a few accents and other marks). Hence words and names determined to be English (and therefore included in an English dictionary) should not have diacritical marks. The result is that name describing the body of Muslim legal scholars that once was rendered in text as ulamā now appears plainly as the English word ‘ulema’. Similarly, although orthographically it may be more correct to render Japan’s capital city as Tōkyō, the correct name in English is Tokyo; this is what copy-editors will demand that is used.

The main argument in favour of this approach is not so much that the English word is more correct (though there are a lot of purse-lipped editors who would take this line) but rather that keeping to common usage promotes quicker comprehension. Common usage is one of the three C’s of all good writing discussed in our book.

Nor does this mean that foreign words and names cannot appear in English-language text, of course, or that they should drop their diacritical marks if they do. For instance, it would be plainly wrong and ridiculous to render ulamā as ulema in a block of transliterated Arabic text. Likewise, if a Japanese book title rendered in rōmaji includes the city name Tokyo, obviously the diacritics should be retained (i.e. Tōkyō should be used).

Of course it is another matter how many such foreign words and names should appear in your text, hence my earlier comments on clutter and other readability issues.


As is implied from the above discussion on language, location matters; the latitude in content and usage granted by editors for text set off from the main running text (in notes, references, block quotes, etc.) is far wider than what is acceptable in the main text itself. Again, this is influenced by considerations of readability (and the perception of many editors that notes and references, especially, are less important; they are often distractions ignored by the wiser reader). But ultimately here there can be no hard and fast rules; other factors like context and common sense should come into play here (see below).


Many scholars will argue (often vehemently) that diacritics are integral to scholarly accuracy. For instance, Jacqueline Stone of Princeton University states:

‘For all but the most common words, failure to use proper diacritics is in effect equivalent to misspelling, and like other kinds of misspelling, can create unnecessary difficulties in understanding or looking up names and terms and can even change the meaning of words.’ [link]

Returning to the above example, then, Tokyo may be a universally recognized place (and hence its name spelt in this plain form) but thousands of other places in Japan are unknown elsewhere; many have similar names. As Allan Grapard observes, ‘without diacritics, nobody could figure what place I am talking about’. [link]

In a similar way, the correct understanding of foreign terms often needs diacritics to be present.

Common sense

That said, meeting such needs can be handled intelligently. For instance, it is often possible to properly present a foreign word or name on its first appearance (with diacritics, non-Latin script or whatever) but thereafter use it in simplified form or even adopt an English equivalent. Readability is thus enhanced without loss of meaning. This approach may not always be possible but the key thing is to be aware of – and treat wisely – the divergent demands of scholarship and audience. Here, as is often the case, a pinch of common sense makes all the difference.

Readership/type of publication

It should almost go without saying that what you are looking to publish and for whom it is intended are important considerations. John Whalen-Bridge of the National University of Singapore suggests that we definitely think about this context.

When the discourse is among specialists, it is not necessary to jettison diacritics.  [But] a word that can appear without diacritics in a non-specialist article would look funny, kind of naked, if it appeared among its linguistic peers and relatives sans diacritical underwear. [link]


Just where you are looking to be published – by which press/journal – is another important factor. Like it or not, some presses stick rigidly to conventions that made sense fifty years ago in the age of hot-metal type but today look simply hidebound and conservative. If using diacritics is imperative for you and it is simply impossible to get round a publisher’s hostility to these, then I suggest you find a more suitable press. No press is irreplaceable.


Nonetheless, authors can win arguments with their publisher – and they need not necessarily be ‘big shots’ to do so. Assertiveness and a convincing argument from authors can often work wonders, as Jacqueline Stone recounts:

I’ve co-edited three volumes of scholarly essays on Buddhism, all published in the last three years with reputable university presses. In two cases, my co-editors and I relied on the JIABS list of Buddhist terms appearing in Webster’s Third International Dictionary and did not italicize these, but we did include full diacritics. This required some educating of both our copy-editor and the press editor (for example, we included the JIABS list with the ms. when we submitted it for copy-editing and explained why we were following it). In the third case — a volume intended as an undergraduate textbook — my co-editor and I italicized all Buddhist terms with the first usage and provided full diacritics for all names and terms with each occurrence. For all three volumes, although it may not have been their preference, the press editors agreed to full diacritics when we made clear that this was standard usage and expected in our field. So I’m cautiously optimistic that it may still be possible to hold the line on diacritics in academic publishing. [link]


In many of the points discussed above, the actual context can have an overriding influence. Rather than labour the point here, I would simply observe that hard and fast rules are nice to have but the actual situation needs to be considered on each occasion (and a healthy dose of common sense added to the analysis).

A final word

Ultimately, then, the use of diacritics is a difficult issue and one that calls for a skillful balancing act – how to stay perfectly true to one’s scholarship without unduly limiting one’s audience … or running out of publishers. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the next issue I am tackling is that of self-publishing. That discussion has in fact already started.

Why self-publish?

21 August 2009

There are many good and valid reasons for pressing on where no traditional publisher is willing to go. Here are some of them.

Because it’s relatively easy

It is only about 25 years ago that desktop publishing burst upon the scene, only 14 years ago that from small beginnings the World Wide Web started to transform our world, only in the last decade that digital printing has become a viable alternative to traditional lithographic printing, and only in the last year or so that e-books have finally begun to show real promise as a new publishing platform.

All of these developments (and others) have had a major impact on publishing. More to the point, their effect has been to bring the tools of publication out from behind the closed doors of practitioners where they were and put them into the public arena where rank amateurs can use them. And do. This transformation has been bad for the old craftsmen and other publishing professionals (and arguably bad for standards) but it has been good for the democratization of publishing itself.

Before then, self-publishing was not really practicable; today, the electronic and printing revolutions, especially, have opened up the real possibility of self-publishing for those with the energy and technical ability – it is in fact relatively easy (but only relatively, as shall be seen in a later post).

But is relative ease a good enough reason to self-publish? Perhaps not.

This is where the buzz is

Where is all the media attention today? It is not on boring publishers in suits, let alone their back-room minions with ink on their fingers. No, the focus and adulation is on savvy authors who bypass the system and connect directly with their readers, often selling impressive quantities of their book in the process. In short, it has never been a ‘sexier’ time to self-publish.

It’s also where the future is

Actually, the future is an open question, one attracting a multitude of contradictory answers. (In the same way, a rock is a rock, but how it is perceived can vary greatly depending on where the observer is.) That said, it is possible to discern trends in publishing and from these predict likely outcomes. A common vision of the publishing future is the slow death of the publishing house in its present exclusive form and the gradual adoption of open, collaborative forms of authorship. These lend themselves quite naturally to a self-publishing approach.

Speed of publication

Speed of publication is another major consideration, especially in the life sciences where pre-prints are used to establish ownership of an idea or discovery often years ahead of formal, peer-reviewed publication. Even in the humanities and social sciences this is becoming a factor. One of the attractions of Open Access publication is the early archiving of soon-to-be-published manuscripts in institutional repositories at a time long before actual publication takes place.

Freedom from control

Not always unreasonably, there are authors today who see publishers not as skilled but disinterested guardians of intellectual standards but as obstacles, parasites and even as ill-informed spoilers. Some go further and reject the current peer-review system which publishers/editors control as outmoded and bankrupt. The urge to be free of all such parasitic, meddling gate-keepers is a key reason why people consider self-publishing.

Freedom of expression

In few years ago, an eminent university press became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed it had withdrawn publication of a monograph that had upset the Greek government. The accuracy or otherwise of the study was not the issue; rather the Greeks had threatened to take their lucrative ELT (English language teaching) business to another publisher.

On an everyday basis, there is far less lurid interference in what an author may say but publishers do shape what is said in three ways:

  • They are the ones deciding if a work is ‘suitable’.
  • A low-level hum of political correctness is prevalent among many editors.
  • Author contracts make it very clear to authors that they are the ones who will bear the brunt of again legal action against their book.

By self-publishing, authors avoid these restrictions on what they say (though this will not make them immune to legal attack – on the contrary).


Author contracts typically sign over the author’s publishing rights in a work to the publisher, often for a paltry payment or none at all. By self-publishing, the author’s rights are preserved; nothing is alienated to an outsider.

Overcoming rejection

Rejection of one’s manuscript by a publisher often prompts an author to contemplate self-publication. This is a quite reasonable response but, that said, the author should ask her/himself a few hard questions before setting out on such a course.

Avoiding waste

If your work has been rejected, a common motivation to self-publish the work instead is because you have already invested a great deal of time in writing the manuscript and are loath to admit that this effort has been a waste of time. Arguably, this is not a valid reason; you need to have a positive reason to self-publish, one that gives you a reasonable expectation of success.

Resuscitating a cherished work

In time, almost every study reaches its ‘sell-by’ date. New copies of the work cease to be circulated or even held in stock. The work becomes out of print, after which all rights in the work revert to its author. In such a situation, you are free to take your out-of-print book to another, keener publisher – or indeed to take it on as a self-publishing project to keep the book alive.

Need and demand

An important, positive reason for self-publishing could be that you know there is a readership eager for your book, but one that is too small to attract a publisher to the project. If your readers are indeed keen to read your book, then self-publication may be the only means by which to reach them.


An unintended effect of the digital revolution has been the rise of a radically different kind of scholarship based more on community effort (often collaborative authorship) than on individual achievement. Often – as with the Creative Commons movement and open-source publishing – there is an altruistic motivation behind these efforts. Rather than the trading of ‘intellectual property’, publishing is seen as the free exchange of information/research (with even free adaptation often allowed). Such an approach is generally anathema to publishers, hence why typically it takes the form of self-publication.


Conversely, self-publication has the potential for authors to earn more from the sale of their book than they might otherwise earn in royalties from a publisher. However, as shall be covered in a later post, it is easy to spend a lot of money producing and promoting one’s own publication.


Whatever the effort and costs involved in self-publishing a study, there is also great pleasure and satisfaction to be had from knowing that the final product is yours and yours alone.

No alternative

If you have had your manuscript rejected by every single publisher in your field (whether because they all believe it is not commercially viable or that it is bad), then – if you are determined to get your study out to its potential readers – self-publication is probably your only alternative.

It is clear, then, that there are many good reasons to self-publish. However, there are also a few negatives plus other issues to consider. These shall be considered in the posts that follow, namely:

The rise of self-publishing

17 August 2009

Not something that is new

Self-publishing is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, arguably the earliest form of publishing was self-publishing. In earlier times, it was common for gentlemen scholars (especially) to pay a printer to produce and publish their works; for a long period, then, printers and publishers were virtually synonymous.

This anarchy was not something necessarily approved of. The mass printing of bibles by Gutenberg and his successors broke Rome’s monopoly on biblical interpretation and fuelled the Reformation. A century later, John Milton expressed great unease with just anyone self-publishing their ideas; the safeguard of the Protestant revolution, he argued, lay in the tight control of ideas. Church and state state should guard who and what might be published.

The rise (and declining fortunes) of the publisher

It is, then, interesting that – despite the increased freedom of expression achieved in the three centuries after the Milton’s time – in this period publishers evolved to become something like the guardians whom Milton sought; they became the gatekeepers of literary and scholarly merit. Indeed, at their high point a few decades ago, publishers could almost have been likened to a brahminical caste dictating what the bulk of the population should read.

Undoubtedly, the status of publishers has declined since this golden age as the old gentlemen publishers have been displaced by lower forms of life with a crude, commercial disposition. However, it is only in recent years that has there arisen such a contempt for publishers in some quarters. In part this is of publishers’ own making, a reaction to public revelations of cronyism, arrogance, blunders, short-sightedness, poor judgement, and much more. Worse, publishers as a breed (but trade publishers in particular) have shown themselves to be focused on selling ‘product’ (which could as easily be buttons as books) not literary or scholarly works.

But the advent of the Internet and printing revolutions in the past decade has wrought the greatest damage. These developments have enabled (some) authors to bypass the gatekeepers and in a relatively cheap and simple way to self-publish their work – and, in so doing, to reach out and make direct contact with their readers.

This blog is a good example of such self-publishing but even in such traditional forms as the printed monograph there is a significant increase in self-publishing.

Exploring this further

Accordingly, in the next few days I shall be writing the following series of blog posts that explore this issue as it affects the world of scholarly publishing:

Problems with the author-publisher disconnect

13 August 2009

Another issue with the use of diacritical marks in books, as raised in recent posts, has nothing to do with their use per se. The issue is wider and impacts on the use of all kinds of special material. That issue is the disconnect between the specialist knowledge of the author and the quite different specialist knowledge of the people involved in publishing the author’s book.

What on earth has this got to do with diacritics? A lot, actually.

Ideal vs real editors

In an ideal world, a press will have commissioning editors who know quite intimately the field(s) in which they are publishing. They will be familiar with the literature, the key people in the field, and have a good sense where each discourse is developing.

Maybe. It’s a nice ideal, anyway.

It is just as likely (and probably normal) that a commissioning editor is stressed, has a work load far greater than she can efficiently cope with (‘she’ because most editors are women), and must commission in more fields than she can possibly be truly familiar with. On the other hand, as a general rule, editors are well educated, read widely and have a breadth of vision that many authors lack, so focused are they in their particular field. As such, a good symbiotic relationship between author and editor can produce a great book. Sadly, all too often both are far to busy for this to be perfectly achieved.

In earlier days, it was common for commissioning editors to undertake the substantive editing of a work (i.e. editing of content for structure, meaning, etc). At the same time they would copyedit the text (correct the spelling, grammar, logic, factual errors, etc.). However, it is rare these days for a commissioning editor to actually ‘get her hands dirty’ at all with the manuscript and, except in small publishing houses, she is most unlikely to typeset the work. Instead, presses rely on the peer review process and the conscientiousness of the author to fix any scholarly concerns. As for the process of transforming the raw, delivered manuscript into a printed book, all stages are carried out by people with publishing skills and knowledge. Almost certainly they do not have any of the specialist knowledge of the author, nor are they likely to be interested in acquiring this.

Outsourcing publishing work

Add globalization to this author-publisher disconnect. Pressure for cost cutting and quite a bit of fashionable hype has encouraged more and more European publishers to shift their production work, including typesetting, offshore. India is the hot destination. American publishers are slightly more parochial here though for decades I know that in my own area – Asian Studies – many US presses have outsourced typesetting of books involving Chinese script to Hong Kong.

(Such global outsourcing is not new. I remember back in the early 1990s hearing how – in the days before authors delivered their manuscripts on disk – the keying in of the manuscript text was commonly done by thousands of low-paid women in Mauritania. Why Mauritania? I don’t know, maybe because the labour was not only cheap but also of a high quality. And, then, an even cheaper source of skilled labour was found: Greater Los Angeles! In the same way, the hi-tech development of Silicon Valley was made possible by the proximity of cheap labour next door in San Jose.)

The results have been mixed, one might say. It doesn’t help here that Indian outsourcers have been too successful. There are only so many skilled staff available (and the Indian job market is notoriously volatile; a better job offer is always of interest). As a result, one hears rumours and scuttlebutt of uncles and cousins with no skills (but lots of loyalty to the firm) being hired to help out. No one, of course, knows the true situation. Time and again I read about the triumph of this publisher’s outsourcing strategy but, let’s face it, there is little likelihood of any production manager admitting that his firing of most of his local staff and relocating all production work to India was a disastrous mistake.

It was no surprise, then when recently a colleague of mine working with Chinese script (not diacritics, but the moral of the story is the same) had a few problems getting his book typeset. It went through eight proofs before the eminent university press publishing his book hired a Chinese expert to stand over the Indian typesetter and ensure that the correct text was being keyed (rather than any old Chinese-looking character inserted, as before). The problem here was that the typesetter had problems with the font and – not understanding a word of Chinese – was unable to make an informed decision. Bad guesses were made instead. This isn’t all that unusual.

And the result is …

This is where the author-publisher disconnect starts to bite. OK, so the typesetter may make mistakes but surely these will be picked up in the proofing? Well, not necessarily. Normal errors should be discovered (though one hears all the time of photos being reproduced upside down or inverted – something any attentive author should have picked up). Last-minute discoveries of spelling mistakes are commonplace at proofing. But errors in special material? No, it is unlikely that the publisher’s proof reader will be able to pick up a missing dot under that ‘s’, an accented hat over that ‘o’, or whatever. The onus is on the author, a situation not always with a happy ending.

I raise an issue here, something for authors to be aware of. I am not suggesting that the only solution to problems in the proofing and correction of typesetting errors for diacritical marks, non-Latin text and other special material is that these should be excluded from books – not at all.

But there is an issue, and it’s one that needs addressing.