So here you are, having just received the third publisher rejection of your manuscript – yes, the one that was going to get you tenure and make you famous to boot. (Does no one realize how significant your study is?) And someone comments, ‘Looks like you’re going to have to go out and do it yourself. That’ll show them. Have you heard of Lulu.com?’
No, you hadn’t heard of Lulu.com but, as you investigate this and the other internet-based services that help authors publish themselves, you start wondering, ‘why not?’
Hold it a moment! Before you commit to the self-publishing route, think very carefully about your options.
‘No’ need not be final
Most book proposals are rejected, especially those received in their thousands by the big and/or prestigious publishing houses. Likewise, the rejection rate among the top journals is 95% or higher. But while rejection rates can be high, a quality manuscript that is appropriate to that press/journal and presented in a viable and convincing proposal has a good chance of being accepted. No matter that you are a newcomer from an obscure institution, the prospects for publication need not be dismal. As we spend a whole chapter explaining in our book, acceptance depends to a large extent on how much forethought and effort that beforehand you have put into both your proposal and the actual work itself.
That said, in pure statistical terms, it is likely that the answer to your proposal is ‘no’. Nonetheless, there is more than one publisher or journal at play here; persistence and perception can dramatically improve your chances of publication.
Re-evaluate your situation
As such, now is not the time to throw yourself into a huge self-publication project – or impulsively into the unwary arms of the next publisher/journal on your list. So pause a moment. Reflect on the likely reasons that your proposal was rejected. You might ask yourself the following (substitute ‘journal’ for ‘publisher’ and ‘article’ for ‘book’ as appropriate):
- Was this publisher indeed the right one for your book?
- Was your approach to them handled correctly? (Pitching projects to publishers is an art form – more about that in a later post.)
- Is there something wrong with your text itself? (This need not be the content per se; it could just as well be that its length is wrong, its subject inappropriate, or the likely cost of producing it far too high.)
- If so, exactly what is wrong, and what can you do about it? (Sometimes, for instance, a subvention can make all the difference.)
- In what ways does the next publisher on your list differ from the first?
- What effect will this choice have on your revised proposal?
- How could your proposal be improved generally?
- Would you pitch this proposal to the new publisher any differently?
Look at the alternatives
Is the answer indeed to approach the next publisher/journal on your list? What other alternatives are there? Three that immediately spring to mind are:
- Rethinking and reworking your manuscript before approaching anyone.
- In the case of a rejected book manuscript, chopping it up into several journal articles.
- Bowing to the inevitable and abandoning all ideas of getting this work published.
Then there is the option of self-publishing, to which now you may want to start giving serious consideration.
If the work rejected is a journal article, then let’s not muck about. The quick and easy solution is to post it on your institutional website as a working paper. This is self-publishing, done and dusted, within a day. It isn’t going to win you any prizes but your scholarship is up there on display with little fuss.
But if we are talking about a book to be self-published, then a working paper isn’t really the answer; the work should merit more than that. The rest of this post focuses on the self-publishing of books (as do those posts following in this thread) though authors looking to self-publish an article will glean useful information, too.
Reassess your manuscript
Now is the time, then, to take another cool, hard look at your manuscript.
If your text has been rejected by publisher after publisher, there is a reason, and you need to identify it. Scholarly publishing is quite unlike fiction publishing where (rare) gems can go unrecognized by dozens of publishers. Stories abound of authors being discovered and achieving fame only after they have died, sad and unpublished. Academic publishing is quite different; it is more mechanical in its application of two sets of well-defined selection criteria: the peer review process to determine scholarly value, and the publisher’s experience to estimate commercial value.
Your text could have been rejected on the basis of either one, or of both, sets of criteria. It is very important that you are ruthlessly honest with yourself when you ask which situation is likely to apply in your case. If the work was rejected for both scholarly and commercial reasons, the best advice anyone can give you is to drop it and move on. If it was rejected for scholarly reasons but not for commercial ones, maybe you have been looking in the wrong place for a publisher; you might instead find it worthwhile investigating which serious trade presses to approach instead. But if, as is increasingly common, the work is fine from a scholarly point of view but was rejected as being not commercially viable, then it is a candidate for self-publishing.
Finally, you need to deepen this macro analysis into a micro one. Essentially, this is editorial work, which is described in a later post. If you have received copies of peer review reports from those publishers who have rejected your book, read the reports as advice on editorial changes. Otherwise (or additionally), ask respected colleagues to read and comment on your work. Let’s be clear: only the rare colleague will give you honest and useful feedback (and family members are even more reluctant to give a bad assessment), but getting such advice is still worth pursuing.
On the basis of outside assessments, friendly feedback and your own cool analysis of the text, you will have an idea what changes to the text need to be done.
The way ahead is getting clearer.
Working towards a decision
But the thinking and analysis is not over yet. First, you need to look at your self-publishing options (between printed and digital publication). Then you need to consider what you can manage and afford (there a shocking number of things you will need to do – or pay someone else to do it – if you are to self-publish your book). Finally, you need to clarify your motives (and consequential measures of success). Only then can you clearly judge if all the effort/costs involved are likely to be worth it.