Anthony Hayes has a lot of interesting thoughts and advice to offer on the world of publishing and books more generally but in particular this post in a series on book proposals is especially fine. Thanks Anthony.
As an academic publisher, I deal with all of our authors directly from the outset, often face to face (say, at a conference). There are no intermediaries (except for the occasional referral). As such, the world of literary agents and the mega-dollar book deals they are so often associated with are foreign territory for me.
Most scholarly books are aimed at a quite narrow academic market (though often with related professionals also in mind – journalists, policy makers, NGOs, businesses and the like). However, some scholars (but pitifully few) are interested in and capable of writing for, and reaching, a much broader audience (TV historians being a good example). Handled rightly, their books can sell in the tens of thousands, or more, instead in the low hundreds (as typical for many scholarly books).
If you have such a book in mind, there is probably little point in contacting me or indeed most academic publishers. You need to look elsewhere – and that is where literary agents are important.
Sure, there are exceptions (for instance, the massive bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty, was published in English by Harvard University Press). But in general such non-fiction bestsellers are not published by academic presses but by trade presses whose target audience is the general public rather than academics or professionals.
This is a glitzy, high-stakes world where the minimum acceptable print run may be 5,000 or 10,000 copies – a very different world from that of scholarly publishing. And in that world a vital role is performed by literary agents in finding and fostering new talent, in finding the right publisher, negotiating the best deal and (not least) supporting long-lasting and successful writing careers.
This is a dark art, little understood by outsiders.
Every so often I am asked by a writer about how to approach a literary agent. I shrug and point them in the direction of publications like the Literary Marketplace. Really, I have few clues if I am honest.
Today, I have learnt much more simply by reading a short post by Juliet Mushens in The Bookseller. Packed full of ideas and links to outside resources, it is an eye-opener.
I hope her business booms as a result.
Recently, I have been questioned by different young scholars who have been offered free publication of their recently completed PhD thesis. According to some commentators, this is at best vanity publishing, at worst a scam.
But what if the approach is legitimate? Should you then accept the offer?
Really, it depends on several things.
If you are looking to have an academic career, then the material in your thesis should not be wasted. There are years of work here that can be mined for articles and/or reworked into a monograph, thus giving your career a kick-start. Whatever you do, don’t shoot your chances in the foot by doing something that looks bad on your CV – like a vanity publication, for instance.
However, it may be that your thesis is of the unpublishable sort, so narrow in its scope that maybe only five readers around the world will be interested to go beyond page 2. If that is the case (and you have the time and money), then you might just enjoy seeing your thesis appear in book form.
Just two things to remember:
- It might look like a book but don’t be deluded; a thesis is not a book.
- Enjoy the ‘book’ on your shelf but keep it out of your CV.
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?
There are thousands of different fonts out there. By all means choose fonts that you like but be aware that a document with uncommon fonts when opened by someone else may be unreadable or convert to a common font with strange results. The safe move is to choose standard fonts like Times, Arial and Helvetica or those that are Unicode compliant.
When playing safe isn’t an option
Such an approach is sensible if all that you need to write is ‘plain vanilla’ text. Many authors, however, need to go beyond vanilla and insert symbols and other special characters into their text, examples being:
- Text with diacriticals or special accents (Vietnamese, for instance, uses multiple accents over a single Latin character).
- Non-Latin script (e.g. Cyrillic, Arabic and Chinese).
- Mathematical and scientific symbols (many based on Greek letters).
- Formulas (often a complex arrangement of super- and sub-scripted Greek letters and other symbols and markers that must be precisely placed but still run into the main text).
In their case, standard fonts cannot be used.
Mac vs Windows
Part of the problem here is due to incompatibilities between computer operating systems. Much of the publishing world is Mac based (because of the high quality results and stability possible in this environment) while most authors work in the Windows world. This can have consequences, as happened with a prize-winning study that we published some years ago.
One of my many nightmares with fonts and diacritics
On paper, the text was reasonably clean and the author wrote beautifully. Yes, the text was full of Vietnamese diacritical marks but – notwithstanding my earlier post dealing with readability – it read like a dream. However, when we began typesetting the book, the whole project turned into nightmare. Basically, the author had used two Windows-only fonts for the diacritics, one for capital letters, the other for lower case. When we converted the text over onto the Mac, much of it turned to junk. And unfortunately different garbage symbols (like the delta sign) had one value if the original letter was upper case and an entirely different one if lower case. It took 3-4 weeks to sort out the mess and even then a handful of errors slipped through the two rounds of proofing. Luckily, the author was a dream to work with and – as noted – the book went on to win a major prize in its field.
This is not the only such hassle with fonts and diacritical marks I have experienced. No, over the years, I have gone through quite a few – far too many – nightmares with font conversions. All have involved diacritics.
A brighter future?
Hopefully, I face fewer potential nightmares in the future as, in general, diacritics and non-Latin script are less of a problem today than previously. This is due to general acceptance of the Unicode standard for font mapping and the rise of Open Type fonts based on this standard. The common Unicode standard gives each character form its own unique identifier which allows easy swapping between fonts, so it is imperative that any font you use is Unicode compliant.
(That said, just because it is technically possible to splatter your text with, say, Arabic characters, this does not mean that you should do so. Consider the issues of readability and ‘speed bumps’ discussed in my previous post and ask yourself what is necessary, not what is possible.)
There are also wider issues with non-Latin script such as the input method and the direction of input, as will be discussed in a later post. In addition, unfortunately, not all fonts are compliant (to the best of my knowledge, for instance, no Unicode standard has been adopted yet for Lao script).
Publisher resistance to the use of diacritics
Notwithstanding these advances, many publishers still refuse to accept works with diacritics and non-Latin script due to the added production cost and general hassle, while others refuse to have non-Latin script in the main text but allow it to appear in a separate glossary that can be typeset separately from the bulk of the book. If it is necessary to include such special characters in your book, then the ability and willingness of a publisher to handle them must influence whom you approach with your script, and you may be asked to find significant sums of money to finance the extra typesetting costs that your choice causes.
Personally, I am quite open to the use of diacritics but there are limits. Essentially, the result of my bad experiences with non-standard fonts and psychotic diacritical marks is such that today I am only interested in working with fonts that are Unicode compliant and preferably Open Type fonts.
As far as I am concerned, then, it is not enough to say that “this font is standard in the [Microsoft] Office package, so what’s the problem?” If the font turns to garbage when the manuscript is converted on the typesetter’s machine, then to me and to most other publishers that’s what the font is, garbage.
Should such a problem happen with your text, then, if the text in question is a manuscript on offer to a publisher (rather than one already accepted), immediately you have an added barrier to getting accepted; your manuscript looks like it could be a hassle to produce – better, thinks the publisher, to flag this one away.
Time perhaps to rethink your use of fonts and/or diacritics?