Tortoise and hare

1 May 2013

While this may be blindingly obvious, there is quite a difference in sales of a typical history book (slow but steady) and of one focused on current affairs (“up like a rocket, down like a stick”). If you are writing such books, to avoid disappointment, you need to take this difference in sales behaviour in mind – and work to avoid this pattern.

For instance, sales of a recent NIAS Press book on the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster in Japan – and timed to appear on the second anniversary of the disaster – have shot off like a hare. In contrast, a history of women and power in Cambodia had less dramatic initial sales when published five years ago but it continues to sell, week after week. (I hardly need say that the study is not a tortoise – far from it; this is a bravura work – but the image is suggestive of the sales figures.)


Why should this be?

In part it is an issue of relevance and topicality. As we said in my youth, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. Even two years after the triple disaster and with a change in government, the consequent issues facing Japan still remain as do most policy responses. However, in five years time, the disaster won’t be topical anymore (the horror will have lost its potency) and new events will make the book’s analysis less relevant. As such, sales will decline, maybe quite steeply.

In contrast, the issue of women and power in Cambodian history is not exactly a great talking point in the world’s cafes and bars today (except perhaps in Phnom Penh). Why then does the book continue to sell, even to be adopted for various undergraduate courses? Here, relevance and scholarship are at play. As one reviewer said about Lost Goddesses, “this is an exceptional book of considerable merit that will be of interest to a wide range of academics working in history, anthropology, gender studies, politics, religion and Southeast Asian studies”.

In a similar vein, every now and then a copy is sold of a history of economic decision-making in Vietnam, published by us in 1998. Aimed at Vietnam specialists, it never sold many copies but still it plods along. On the other hand, back in about 2001 there was a rash of books published in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis but nowadays I doubt that anyone is buying (or even consulting) these – unless, that is, readers are looking for parallels to today’s global economic woes.

This does not mean that you are condemned by your subject to play the role of the long-lived tortoise or ephemeral hare. Right now you can be sure that many authors are working to complete bright, new studies of the First World War, aimed for release on the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. Their publishers will be planning on massive sales that hopefully continue at a lower but profitable level in the years thereafter (unlikely unless the authors have indeed something new to say).

Likewise, in The Making of the President, political journalist Theodore White told the story of the 1960 US presidential campaign and election of John F. Kennedy. This national bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winning account revolutionized the way US presidential campaigns are reported and remains to this day (claims Amazon) the most influential publication about the election of John F. Kennedy.

Here, we have it, three factors are at work: topicality, relevance and scholarship/quality. Just remember that no subject is condemned to focus on a sub-set of these three contributors to writing success (history can be topical and current affairs relevant long after the use-by date). Remember, too, that topicality, relevance and scholarship are not the only winning factors – readability and (self-) promotion are equally important.

Coping with rejection

22 March 2011

It’s been months since you submitted your book proposal and the mail you received today is almost a relief after all the silence. No. The press to which you offered your book (and in which you invested hopes and dreams) says ‘no’; they do not want to publish your book. No solid reasons given. You are not sure they even looked properly at the darn thing (but they do say ‘sorry’ in a nice way).

It takes more than time to write a book. It also takes courage, stamina and self-belief, all of which may leach away in the face of (constant) rejection. And, let’s be clear, rejection is the norm. The spurn rate is much higher with journal articles (many journals rejecting as many as 95% of the articles submitted) but the norm is rejection for a book manuscript, too. Luckily, there is (or should be) more than one press or journal to offer your work to.

How then to react to rejection, and to move on positively?

Is it actually ‘no’?

Of course, ‘no’ can come in different shades of black. Sometimes the rejection will not be outright; you may be invited to ‘revise and resubmit’. If so, you may enter a process of ‘acceptance creep’, a period of dialogue during which you revise your work to meet the publisher’s requirements. In essence, you have a tiny toe in the door and over time you can work and wiggle to get first a foot in the door, then a leg and finally all of you – of your book – through to the sunny side of publishing.

However, if you have received a blunt ‘no’, then you need to move on; there is little point arguing with the publisher. Rather, be pleased if the publisher chooses to tell you in any detail why your book has been rejected; such feedback is invaluable. On the basis of the knowledge of the industry, some publishers also helpfully suggest alternative presses which they think might be interested in your work.

Where now?

If that publisher’s rejection is final, pause a moment. Do not immediately rush off and submit your manuscript to the next publisher on your list. Reflect on the likely reasons that your proposal was rejected.

  • Was this publisher indeed the right one for your book?
  • Was your approach to them handled correctly? If not, what can you learn from this?
  • Was there a problem with the peer review process? It is not unknown that a scholar’s work ends up being judged by a bitter enemy, for instance, or one approaching the topic from an entirely different standpoint than the author’s. Knowing this won’t improve that reader’s report but it will help you face others in the future.
  • Is there something wrong with your text itself? On a sliding scale of fixability, common problems are shoddy presentation/spelling, bad writing and poor scholarship.
  • Is the big problem financial rather than content? For instance, is the readership/market judged to be too small or will your book be too expensive to produce?
  • Or is it (simply, sadly) that you personally are the problem, your authorship isn’t believed in?

Only if you take this time to ask the cruel questions – asking exactly what went wrong – can you move on and do something effective about it. Otherwise in all likelihood you are condemning yourself to another round of rejection.


How ever much the rejection hurts (and you may want to shrug the whole thing off as a bad dream), for the sake of your writing career you need to be decisive in response. You have several choices, depending in part on what the original problem was.

  • You can abandon the whole thing. This is clean and simple but a drastic, wasteful decision if you have spent months or years working on the book. At the very least, salvage something from the wreckage (the makings of a couple of journal articles, for instance).
  • You can simply resubmit/argue the merits of your proposal to the same publisher. People have succeeded here but personally I think it is a waste of your time and of your creative/emotional energies.
  • More productive instead is to find/approach another publisher. If so, however, then you need to find out in what ways the new publisher is different from the first. What effect will these differences have on your revised proposal? In other words, will you ‘sell’ your proposal to the new publisher any differently? At the same time, you should ask yourself how generally might your proposal be improved, no matter which press you approach?
  • But a quick response may not be possible; you may need to rework the book (or at least rewrite the book concept). In this work, any critical feedback you receive from earlier rejections (e.g. from readers reports) can be worth gold.
  • Improving the economic prospects for the book might be all that is required, of course. Publishers invariably say that subventions don’t affect their decision-making but that is nonsense; of course they do – at least in instances where there is no issue with the scholarship but rather the likely production costs are too high (say, with a book full of colour pictures) or expected sales are too low (the market is too small). In such instances, a publication grant can make all the difference. Indeed, let’s be clear: there are some publishers whose entire business plan depends on such funding (and here I don’t mean vanity presses, either).
  • Finally, you may decide to self-publish. Received wisdom denies any place for self-published academic works (let alone recognition in job and funding applications) because of the lack of peer review. However, the ground is shifting here; we are seeing experiments with ‘soft peer review’, the rise of collaborative writing based on the Creative Commons approach, and other developments resulting from the rise of the internet. That said, self-publishing is not something to venture into lightly. There are many issues and considerable costs or extra work involved, as can be seen in my series of posts dealing with this issue.

In short, you need to gather as much hard information as possible and then do some hard thinking. But, hey, you are a researcher. Isn’t that precisely what you have been trained to do?

Good luck!

Printer’s proofs

26 June 2010

Now your book is really at the starting line. The PDF book files delivered from your publisher have been transformed into a print-ready format in the printer’s pre-press department; printing is just minutes away. Ready, set, … .

Well, no, wait a moment. As mentioned in my last post, specimen proofs must first be printed off and sent to your publisher for approval. These allow publishing staff to check that text pages are ordered correctly, cover colours match, etc. Only after the approval of these printer’s proofs can the actual printing of your book proceed.

No author involvement

This proofing process is one that you will not be involved in – unless, that is, yours is an art book or similar highly illustrated work where fidelity of reproduction is paramount; here it might be appropriate for authors with their superior knowledge of the subject to be consulted.


Just what these printer’s proofs look like depends on the type of printing intended and the type of equipment the printer uses. If it is a digital, print-on-demand job, then what the publisher is likely to receive is a printed copy of the book, i.e. looking exactly like all subsequent copies would look like.

However, if it is a traditional lithographic printing job, then – unless these proofs are machine proofs (more about them below) – the printer’s proofs received will be quite different and look nothing like the final printed book. The book pages may be in loose-leaf form or – more likely – gathered in signatures (in which case the proofs take the form of a bundle of booklets). Such page proofs may be called blues/blueprints, diazos, ozalids and Vandykes, depending on the technology that produced them.

In all cases, however, because these proofs are printed on something like an ink-jet printer (with all sorts of compromises being made with regard to colour, resolution, etc.), the proof print is only indicative – something to check that nothing has been imposed upside down or out of sequence, for instance. Even the cover proof tends to be printed using an ink-jet printer or similar but usually the quality is good enough to flag up any major problems.

Machine proofs

Although none of these conventional printer’s proofs match exactly what the final printed copies will look like, a ‘perfect’ proof is possible but not cheap; to get this requires a machine proof, i.e. a proof printed off the actual printing press that later the book will be printed on (and not just printed off; the press needs to be set up first – quite a rigmarole for a single proof copy). As you might guess, then, this printing of a single copy is an expensive proposition that few publishers contemplate investing in. (Again, it is the high-quality art book that may need this sort of proofing.)

Publisher feedback

If it’s anything like usual, the printer’s proofs for your book will arrive by courier at the door of your production editor and s/he will have only a short time to check these. The printing presses are not actually throbbing there, waiting to start on your book (no, there’s dozens of other jobs to be done, with presses often running 24 hours a day). But there is an air of urgency and no doubt your production editor will be praying for a clean sheet, no errors.

In your case, everything is fine; the proofs are approved and the printer gets the go-ahead to print. Now, finally, all systems are ‘go’. Time to descend into Hell’s Kitchen.

(Post #6 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Printing revolutions

7 June 2010

Most of us have a secret vice, something we don’t usually brag about. Mine is that I balance all the serious, academic material I read on the job by consuming more trashy literature in my spare time – thrillers, historical fiction and (especially) crime. And in a word, that’s what I do: consume – borrow what I can via the Danish library system (quite a lot) and for the rest buy via an internet bookseller. Once I’ve read a book, I pass it on to another or even (and this enrages my wife) throw it away.

This may be a vice but it’s a darn sight cheaper than going to the movies.

You may be wondering, what’s this got to with printing? Quite a bit, as we shall see.

e-This, e-That

Nowadays we hear a lot about the internet revolution and how this is ushering in a new era of e-books, ‘green publishing’, greater consumer choice, etc., etc. Gone will be the days of that dinosaur, the printed book. Gone, too (though this is hardly talked about) will be the bookshop and that creaking edifice, the book trade, which sustains it.

Indeed, it is said, the printed book has only ten five two years of viable life left in it. Game over, enter the Kindle, the iPad or something that will prompt us all to go digital – and go digital all the way, 100%.

There is, however, a wee fly in the digital ointment. Another revolution is also in full swing: a printing revolution.


p-This, p-That

The computer and advent of digital communication have brought us the internet but they have not been the only technological developments happening. Globally, there has been a general shift from electro-mechanical to electronic technology. This has had an impact on all areas of life and all types of consumer product (think about modern cars, washing machines and telephones, for instance).

It has also had a major effect on the whole production process in publishing. In an earlier post, I described the changes in typesetting technologies and practices in recent years. Fundamental changes have also affected the printing world but here the transformation is incomplete and indeed several different developments are happening at once. Some of these are:

  • Printing presses are becoming faster, more sophisticated and can print fewer copies than before at an economic price.
  • Introduction of new print-on-demand (POD) technology has made single-copy printing feasible.
  • Some big booksellers are thus experimenting with in-store printing of stock.
  • The globalization of bookselling and entry of non-traditional retailers like supermarkets have driven down book prices dramatically. This is forcing publishers to cut costs, hence they are squeezing printers and other suppliers.
  • Printing prices are falling, not least because publishers have become willing to go offshore to find the best printing deal. In academic publishing especially, there has been a major shift of production and printing to India and China.

Let’s explore some of these points in greater detail.

Traditional book printing

Traditionally, books have been printed using offset lithographic presses in a lengthy process that essentially has three phases:

  • Pre-print: converting the material for printing to a print-ready state. (Once upon a time, typesetting was carried out at the printing works and was part of this phase.)
  • Physical printing of the book pages and cover material.
  • Gathering and binding of the printed sheets and covers into finished books.

Here, the presses must be set up for each new print job. This is time-consuming and expensive but, once done, copies can be printed off at very little additional cost. That means there is a high initial cost to be distributed over the number of copies printed at low individual cost. The more books are printed, the lower the share of initial costs applied to each copy.

Offset printing is thus good value for print quantities of hundreds or thousands of copies. As such, it is still the dominant form of printing carried out today. However, it is ruinously expensive if you only want dozens of copies, or even just a single one.

Enter POD

Major hassles for publishers are reprints (when, say, only a few copies are needed), overstocks and warehouse storage in general. The advent of new, digital print-on-demand technology in the 1990s promised a solution to these problems. Well, the solution isn’t there yet (especially in the early days, the print quality of POD copies was far inferior) but the prospect of a solution is still there.

With POD, publishers do not print books for their warehouse shelves, but only print as and when orders are received. Printing digitally means that there are few set-up costs, so the unit cost is the same whether you print one book or 1,000. Many printers now offer such a digital service but in addition warehouses are now offering such POD services.

The trouble is, though, that – while the unit cost of printing small quantities or even single copies is much lower than for offset printing – it is still too high to be profitable for the initial printrun for most publishers. In practice, POD is therefore mainly used as a service to authors, keeping their books in print indefinitely. But the hope is that in the near future unit prices can come down to a level where POD-only publication becomes a real option.

Printing inside the bookstore

Print-on-demand technology has developed to the point where proponents now talk of placing POD printing equipment in every bookshop. Instead of carrying stock in the form of books, then, bookshops could become ‘content kiosks’ where customers browse through files before placing print orders for immediate execution, a little like today when ordering ‘instant’ passport photos from a camera shop. By the time you have had a latte in the bookstore’s in-house cafe, the book you ordered is ready for collection.

The aptly named Book Expresso machine offers such a service. I described it in operation in an earlier post.

Currently, the initial investment in equipment is huge and beyond the reach of smaller bookshops. It is also quite likely that shops would continue to carry a certain amount of stock for impulse purchases, so we would be surprised if bookshop fronts became as small as passport photo booths. But it could happen, and POD systems are already being trialled in a few major bookshops (at Blackwells on Charing Cross Road in London, for instance) and at least one large library.

The question is, of course, unless that latte is exceptionally good, why people should continue bothering to visit bookshops if the browsing experience becomes limited to looking up a print catalogue? That could be done at home over the net.

The p-book isn’t dead yet

As a result of these printing revolutions and the associated bookselling price war, all of those thrillers, ‘krimis’ and historical novels which I buy are getting relatively cheaper to buy. Indeed – morality and the fate of our planet aside – I can afford to consume and discard them.

Yes, I’m taking away Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to read on our iPod Touch this summer. I also look forward to buying an iPad sometime soon. But for my serious reading, for the meantime at least, I’ll be sticking to physical books. I am not alone here – and that has major implications for publishing and bookselling, whatever the hoopla is about e-books.

More specifically, the knock-on effect is it’s likely your book will be more than just an ethereal digital being. It will be printed, become a physical object, something to fondle and show to your mum.

So, after this long digression, let’s follow that process of physical creation. This starts with the publisher doing a final check before sending the print files.

(Post #2 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

New review in Learned Publishing

4 June 2010

Our book gets the thumbs up from Anna Marie Roos (University of Oxford) in the latest issue of Learned Publishing (vol. 23-2, April 2010). Dr Roos begins by referring to the dire state of academic publishing:

‘Publish or perish’ is the mantra for academics wishing to get a job, to get tenured, to get promoted, or to secure that plum grant or university position. As competition for academic posts becomes increasingly stiff, growing numbers of new PhDs and DPhils are submitting modified versions of their doctoral dissertations to academic publishers, who themselves are facing market recession and competition from electronic media.

However, all is not doom and gloom; she continues:

But all is not lost. Editor-in-Chief Gerald Jackson and his colleague Marie Lenstrup, who directs ASBS Netherlands, a book publishing consultancy, have written a clear and accessible new guide to getting published for the academic author in the humanities and social sciences. What makes this volume different from comparable titles on the market is that it is written by industry insiders, who are familiar with guiding academic authors through the publication process.

Their guide, designed for ready reference, covers the practicalities of academic publishing in a clear and accessible manner. Jackson and Lenstrup begin with a description of the roles of the staff behind the scenes at the publishing house, going on to discuss the interplay between the expectations of author, publisher, and reader for different types of academic books, ranging from monographs to successful cross-over books for the general market. They also cover one of the most important, yet usually overlooked, topics in academic publishing: how to choose a great title.

There is much more that Dr Roos likes about the book (and nothing she dislikes), for instance singling out something that took me quite some time to prepare:

The authors’ chart covering the main differences between a thesis and a monograph is one of the best I have seen; it should be a large-scale poster put on every new faculty member’s door.

Thereafter, Dr Roos picks up on a point made by several people reviewing our book, its rarely heard advice to authors to get out there and promote their book (and offering tools to do so):

There follows a very well-considered chapter on promoting one’s own book – something that introverted academic authors often neglect. As publishers quickly lose interest in new titles after they have been out for six months, the authors remind us that it is really up to the author to get his or her book out there.

Dr Roos concludes by writing ‘Getting Published is well organized, clearly written, and reasonably priced; it should be on the academic author’s bookshelf.’ I’d have liked her to write ‘it should be on every academic author’s bookshelf’ but we cannot have everything now, can we?

Meet the Style Nazi

26 December 2009

So, you have delivered your manuscript. If you have had inklings from my previous post that editing involves more than a quick polish, you would be right.

Indeed, your manuscript might not even be ready for editing. Huh? Sorry, but there’s one person from editorial whom I failed to introduce you to in my last post. Meet the Style Nazi.

Any academic press that is at all serious will ensure that the books it publishes conform to scholarly conventions. In addition, most publishers have a house style that encapsulates these conventions and gives them a unique flavour. Such a house style might be only a page long (like the Notes for Authors you see in the back of scholarly journals) or so detailed that it requires a booklet to elaborate all the requirements. (The latter may seem excessive but this is nothing, of course, in comparison with the mother of all style guides, the Chicago Manual of Style whose latest edition weighs in at over 950 pages and in the hands of a crazed copy editor might well be a deadly weapon.)

Not all presses have a Style Nazi but, if they don’t, they are foolish. Editing costs are a significant post in publishers’ budgets. Anything that streamlines editorial work reduces costs and coincidentally results in a superior end product.

Essentially, then, before any copy-editing is undertaken, what the Style Nazi does is check your manuscript for conformity and completeness. Both are equally important because each in their different way have a big effect on how much work is involved in editing your manuscript and hence in how much it ends up costing.

If you take a look at the style guide for NIAS Press or most scholarly presses, some things are pretty obvious. For instance, your copy editor can hardly do a proper job if:

  • The font size is so small as to make reading difficult.
  • The margins around the text are too narrow to fit marginal comments and corrections.
  • The line spacing is too close to accommodate in-line corrections.
  • No page number is printed (meaning total chaos if the bundle of paper is dropped).

A manuscript with such obvious faults will be rejected immediately by any Style Nazi.

However, don’t expect her to restrict herself to the obvious only. Also coming under her scrutiny will be your conformity with the house style for things like:

  • spelling
  • italicization of foreign words
  • punctuation
  • numbering
  • date format
  • treatment of quotations, and
  • citation format.

Here, too, there is plenty of content issues for your manuscript to be rejected out of hand.

Nor is that all; just as important as conformity is the matter of completeness. This could be a subject all to itself but, briefly, the problem with most academic works is that they are complicated, multi-part entities. Version control is crucial (for instance, your publisher will not want to pay for a whole lot of editing only to hear that ‘Sorry, I wasn’t happy with Chapter 3 and have rewritten it’). As such, if everything isn’t delivered together, how can work on your book proceed without the project degenerating into chaos as ‘little extra things’ are delivered at later dates?

No, I am not exaggerating. Indeed, authors are notorious for wanting to make ‘little corrections’ right up to the point of printing (more about that later). But right now I am reminded of one of our authors who some years ago was pleased to announce that finally she was delivering her long-overdue manuscript. On the list of minor things still outstanding, however, was Chapter 7, which still needed to be revised.

In short, if you promised but fail to deliver a preface and four photos (the first not yet written and the latter so grainy they are unusable), then expect your publisher’s Style Nazi to land on you like a ton of bricks.

So, here’s a thought: why not ruin the Style Nazi’s day and make yours one of bliss – deliver a ‘proper’ manuscript, first time.

(Post #2 of the Editorial section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Review of ‘Getting Published’ just received

9 December 2009

Today, I was gratified and embarrassed to read a lengthy review of our book recently published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing.

There was much to be pleased about in this review by Steven E. Gump, not least this comment about our introduction:

The opening chapter offers a behind-the-scenes look at the various players in the publishing industry and a brief but particularly fascinating section on the state of the global academic book industry (15–9). This chapter should be required reading for all aspiring academic authors.

and this about the importance of (self-) promotion:

One way in which this book stands out from other academic writing guides is that it describes how academic authors can themselves add value by actively promoting their books (chapter 10): ‘you should not leave everything to the unseen multitudes in the [publisher’s] marketing department who are working hard to push your book to the market. As an author, you should get actively involved by creating a corresponding pull ’ (160, original emphases). True, such ideas are not new; but I am pleased to find them receiving such in-depth coverage and attention in a book for academic authors.

But Steven E. Gump is also known for being a stickler for consistency. Here, sadly, he detailed far too many instances in which a word was spelt this way here, that way elsewhere, commas wandered a bit, etc., etc. He’s right; these errors shouldn’t have slipped through. Like all authors, I wanted a perfect book and (as usual) we didn’t quite get there. The final comment, then, is probably fair:

Textual inconsistencies aside, though, I recommend this book for academic authors, especially those in the humanities or social sciences, wanting an insider’s view of academic book publishing in the early twenty-first century. For first-time authors, reading this book will clarify a complicated, lengthy process that is only beginning when the manuscript is finished. Authors will be reminded, too, that, despite hurdles encountered along the way, ‘everyone in the academic book industry … is there for the express purpose of making the most’ of their manuscripts–of making each book accepted for publication a success (19). Just be sure to do as the authors say, not necessarily as they do.

Quite. And I’m quite sure that – given how most of my posts seem to be written before dawn – Steven E. Gump would find many more errors strewn through this blog, too.