Self-publishing options

Apples and oranges

An important decision that you’ll need to make is whether you wish to publish your work in printed or electronic format (or both). There is a popular idea that it is easy to publish research on the web, but that is far from true, as shall be seen.

Indeed, people assume that creating an e-book is a lot less hassle than manufacturing a printed book, and it’s cheaper. Maybe. Certainly, if you can do all the work yourself and have free access to/use of your institutional website, then web publishing can be almost cost free. However, the new POD printing technology available today allows tiny print runs (as low as a single copy) at acceptable prices, so physical books are now within the reach of most printing budgets.

The first thing to realize is that the two formats may seem quite different but they have much in common, not least their base scholarship. Briefly put, printed and electronic editions of a work can be a bit like apples and oranges. Both are fruit but they taste differently and require quite different methods of cultivation.

Some of the real differences between the two formats can be seen in the following case study.

An outstanding work, a production nightmare

The following story is about a published (not self-published) book and its published electronic successor. However, much that happened here is directly relevant to your situation of choosing between publication formats.

A decade ago, when NIAS published much of its output via the British publisher, Curzon Press (i.e. before the launching of NIAS Press in 2002), I worked on the publication of an outstanding scholarly work, Robert Cribb’s Historical Atlas of Indonesia. It was a big-format book with colour maps (more than 300 of them) on almost every page. The atlas took an age to produce as the maps needed to be reformatted, and typesetting 327 maps onto 266 pages (some maps spreading across double-page spreads) was tricky work. Nor did Indonesian history stand still (the long, slow fall of President Suharto was in progress) so the odd new map suddenly appeared. Not surprisingly, the printing bill for 3,000 copies was astronomical. However, the atlas was a critical and commercial success, receiving rave reviews and selling out in all its editions.

Currently, we are in the final stages of producing a follow-up work, the Digital Atlas of Indonesian History. This is delivered on DVD together with an 80-page user manual but there is a companion website, too. Each of the 483 maps comes in 5 versions depending on the purpose, and they need to be integrated into text that – if printed – would fill more than 100 pages. Users of the atlas should be able to register their copy, log on to the online edition to access premium content (so, yes, there are two parallel versions of the online atlas operating, one free, the other user-only), zoom in and out of maps, download or print them, delve into their source material, search for them in multiple ways, almost – it seems – eat their breakfast off them. The complexity of the production compared to a printed book is mind-boggling.

Note the differences. On the one hand, we have a static but stable work capable of lasting a hundred years or more if stored properly. It is irrelevant that Curzon Press was bought up in 2001 and merged into Routledge soon after. On the other hand, we have an evolving and interactive work with huge potential for development. However, its initial manifestation is on DVD – a medium with a poor life expectancy and a format likely to be superseded in the future – and its ongoing survival will be online, requiring that NIAS Press (or a successor publisher) continues to exist, pays the bills for the domain name, keeps the website alive and its underlying system software up to date, continues to respond to users queries and feedback, etc., etc. Two radically different platforms.

And yet what we are starting with is an historian who has a passion and ability to communicate his scholarship visually as well as with text, but who still crosses his t’s and dots his i’s as a professional historian. The base material is the same, its presentation radically different.

Now imagine self-publishing such a digital work. People do, but it this not an adventure to be entered into lightly.

Points to consider

More than likely you already have a vision for how you wish your work to be published and, if so, I suggest that you stick to this. If for instance your work was conceived as a printed book, it will be easiest (and the result probably better) to continue down that route.

That said, if in doubt, you will find it useful to consider these issues (expanded on in our book):

  • What format would your readers find most useful?
  • How will your work gain the greatest circulation?
  • Which format has the greatest value to you, personally?
  • What format would best meet your aims and vision for the work?
  • What is the expected ‘shelf life’ of your work, its ‘use-by date’?
  • How important is it to you that your work is freely available in libraries?
  • How technically competent are you to produce the work in either format?
  • Do you need to learn new software?
  • Do you have that time to invest, and would you enjoy the learning process?
  • How much money can you afford to invest?

Now is the time to think very hard.

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One Response to Self-publishing options

  1. There is plain a lot for me to ascertain outside of my books. Thanks for the fantastic read,

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