DIY or working with partners

6 September 2009

The refuge of the poor and miserly is to do it yourself. There are limits, however; none of us would contemplate a DIY approach to brain surgery. Self-publishing is a lot simpler – and has less lethal consequences than brain surgery if you get it wrong – but here too some people will decide that the DIY approach is not for them.

So what hired help is available for self-published authors?

Freelancers

To some people, the publishing world may seem to be run from an office suite on Fifth Avenue (it isn’t) but the work is done elsewhere, much of it by freelancers. Hence, one approach to outsourcing (some of) your self-publishing work is to hire the appropriate skilled practitioner to do a specific job – a copyeditor to clean up the text, for instance.

The problem with this approach is that, unless you already know the person and the quality of their work or take the time to do a thorough investigation of potential candidates, you could as easily hire a substandard copyeditor, typesetter, etc. as an exceptional one. On the other hand, if you get it right, the results can be out of this world. One small problem: the cost of using such freelancers can also be out of this world.

Author-pays presses

The alternative approach is to go to a single provider. In this respect, authors are particularly well served these days; a whole new industry catering to their needs and dreams has been spawned by the internet. There are several companies that offer assistance to self-publishers, usually employing print-on-demand (POD) technology to do so. Among them are Lulu.com, mentioned in an earlier post.

It varies what such author-pays presses (or ‘POD publishers’) offer and what they specialize in. Some offer a standard package of services whereas others allow you to pick and choose services from an à la carte menu. All typically offer to print and sell your book for you, charging a flat fee for printing plus a commission on any sales that they facilitate. Quite a few companies also offer editorial and typesetting services. Their prices are not necessarily lower than those of freelancers but convenience is one of the attractions of such presses.

As with freelancers, standards vary between companies so you need to enter into such arrangements with your eyes open.

Vanity publishers

Is there a difference between such author-pays presses and the vanity presses of ill repute? Yes, but you need to watch out for the differences. Essentially, author-pays presses offer services to self-publishers in return for payment; the author stays owner of his/her work. If you want ten copies of your book, you will pay this much for the printing and shipping. If someone else orders your book, you will be paid the difference between the sale price (including shipping) and the printing cost minus a sales commission.

Contrast this with vanity presses, who usually masquerade as orthodox presses and expect the author to hand over their manuscript for ‘normal’ treatment except that it is the author who pays (indeed, pays a premium price for any work to be done). Moreover, a vanity press usually takes ownership of the author’s work in exchange for the false prospect of eventual royalties.

Doing it yourself

For many self-publishers, however, actually doing everything themselves is an essential (and existential) part of their role. There can be painful financial outlays, much work, and huge frustrations involved in designing and producing your own book. But also the project brings excitement, the work taps previously unknown wells of drive and creativity inside you, and there is much pleasure and satisfaction to be had from knowing that the final product is yours and yours alone.

As detailed in my previous post, however, there are also costs in doing it yourself – real costs in time, effort, equipment, software and training.

Many would argue that these are worth it.

Decision time

But enough digging, let there be no more comparing of apples and oranges. Now, finally, the time has come to make a decision, the subject of my next post.

Advertisements

Requirements and costs of self-publication

6 September 2009

Not easy, nor cheap

Due to technological developments in the last 25 years, it is far easier today for private authors to prepare, typeset, produce (in printed and/or electronic form) and promote their own work – in other words, to dispense with the services of a publisher altogether. Easier, but not easy.

Self-publishing is not something done in five minutes nor is it about saving money (though an attraction for some authors is the potential to earn more by getting a bigger cut in sales). If you are venturing down the self-publishing route, be aware that you can face a lot of work and considerable costs achieving your goal.

That said, what you face here are different trade-offs: between doing the work yourself and hiring someone else (the subject of my next post), and between producing a high-quality product and turning out something that is (and can look to be) done on the cheap. Obviously, the publication format (discussed in my previous post) also has a huge effect on effort, costs and which skills are required.

In the costs stated below, $ = U.S. dollars. These rates are approximate and based on charges I have encountered for hiring freelancers. But they may also be close to the fees charged by the author-pays presses discussed in my next post.

Editing

Whichever format you settle on, there is editorial work to be done first of all. Anything that you put effort, money and your name into demands respectful treatment. This means that the work you eventually publish – whether in printed or in electronic form – is a coherent piece of scholarship, written tautly and without typos (though in my experience completely avoiding typos is probably impossible).

Therefore, once you have finished revising the text to your satisfaction, it needs to be scrutinized, to be sweated in an editorial purgatory, so that what actually is published is to the satisfaction of your readers as well. This is vital to the success of your work.

There are two kinds of editing involved: substantive editing of your text, focusing on its structure and argumentation, and copy-editing of your finalized (maybe restructured) text, focusing on its language – e.g. finding any typos and inconsistencies – and ensuring that it complies with accepted conventions. (You may find it useful consulting a publisher’s house style; many – like that for NIAS Press – are freely available on the publisher’s website).

Doing this editing yourself requires superhuman detachment from your text; most of us lack this. As a substitute for substantive editing, revisit the readers reports commissioned by the publisher(s) who rejected your work, if you have them, and seek feedback from colleagues capable of commenting fairly and fearlessly on your work (they are often hard to find). And, as for copy-editing, try to recruit your life partner or best friend – or, better still, one of those special people (often your departmental secretary or a maiden aunt) with the uncanny gift of spotting other people’s errors at fifty paces; sadly, all too often, such geniuses only spot these errors after publication.

Doing it yourself is free, though you will be wise to reward the help of Auntie Mame with serious chocolate or other forms of sincere appreciation. A freelance editor will cost you $1,500-$5,000 depending on rigour and how much substantive editing is included in the copy-editing. (I have not heard of any freelancers only offering substantive editing.)

Layout/typesetting

Most scholars using Microsoft Word or another word processor think that this is all that is required to lay out the final pages for printing. This work is definitely something they can do themselves. Think again. The design (or layout) of your book and the typesetting of the actual pages is skilled work that only really succeeds if it is invisible.

Laying out a book using a word processor is a particularly vicious form of torture. Word, for instance, may be full of features but things like the subtle adjustment of line and letter spacing are beyond its abilities.

Laying out the book yourself might cost you nothing but you would be wise to have the following things:

  • a reasonably powerful computer with a large monitor
  • a scanner (if there are illustrations to be digitized)
  • a laser printer (printing hundreds of pages on an ink-jet printer invites bankruptcy)
  • desktop publishing software including a typesetting program like InDesign, an image processor like Photoshop, and a PDF generator
  • manuals/courses on how to use this
  • fonts that you are licensed to embed in high-resolution PDF files

In addition, you will need to:

  • ensure that all of the elements of a book are present and organized correctly (e.g. the copyright page is on page iv).
  • ensure that these include all mandatory information (e.g. an ISBN)
  • adopt a standard book size (anything else is horribly expensive)
  • determine the likely extent of your book (so as to avoid unpleasant surprises – see my later post for a detailed explanation and instructions on how to calculate book length).
  • use a layout and graphical format that is printable (e.g. nothing too close to spine or edges, any images at high resolution, any colour in CMYK format)
  • carefully consider if colour is to be used (and if so where)

Alternatively, you can hire a freelance typesetter to worry about all of these and many other issues. It is common to pay either a flat fee for the entire job or on a  per-page basis (typically $6-$10 per page but inclusion of illustrations, colour, non-Latin text and other potential hassles will undoubtedly drive the price up).

Proofing

Text corruptions can happen when a Word file is converted for typesetting, without this being picked up by the typesetter. For example, recently I converted a Word file to plain text, then brought it into a web page that I was making. Only at the last moment did I discover that all of the superscript ‘th’ letters (in usages like ‘19th century’, which Word automatically converts to superscripts) had vanished.

Here, sharp eyes are needed. Yours are free but have they already looked at the text far too often to notice all the errors and last remaining typos? A proof-reader will cost you $2-$5 per page.

Indexing

No scholarly book expecting to be taken seriously (and bought by libraries) can omit an index (though it is another matter how ambitious your index is).

Good indexes are tricky to prepare. Please feel free to consult our indexing guidelines on the NIAS Press website.

The rates quoted to me by professional indexers have varied wildly – $2-$20 per typeset page.

Cover

Many publishers won’t let their authors get anywhere near the cover design, so crucial is it regarded to a book’s commercial success. Now you are responsible for producing something that doesn’t immediately scream ‘amateur’ to every bookshop you approach; what is needed is a cover that whispers ‘pick me up’. It must also meet certain technical and legal requirements (e.g. meet printers specifications and include a bar code).

The problem is that you can get a cover designer to do a proper job for about $500. But, if your book is to overcome its self-published origins in the nasty book world out there, then your cover needs to be inspired.

Printing

This is not something that you can do yourself; you are going to have to pay someone else to print your book.

Printing used to be the big barrier to self-publishing because with lithographic printing a minimum of about 1,000 copies of a book had to be printed. This required a huge investment (and a lot of spare space to store the books). Nowadays, however, the digital printing revolution has brought numbers down to single-copy printing at acceptable prices (and of an acceptable quality); self-publication of printed books is now within the reach of most budgets.

If you use an internet-based POD printer like Lightning Source, then you will be guided through the complexities of printing but will need to rigidly conform to their specifications. Set-up charges may be $75 and then you must pay for each printing order, each page printed and shipping (with a 300-page book costing you about $7 per copy), and often an annual file storage charge of $10-$20 charged.

If printing quality is an issue (because of the importance of your illustrations, for instance) and you have the belief and budget to print a minimum of 400 copies, then you are likely to get a better deal, better quality and much more human treatment by approaching a short-run printer. But be warned. ‘Real’ printers can be funny blokes; theirs is an utterly different world than yours. Many of the things that you find crucially important, they will find incomprehensible – and vice versa.

E-Book

You can of course avoid the perils (and costs) of printed publication by going down the e-route. (This option was discussed in my previous post.) However, I would suggest that you will still need to typeset your e-book and, while you avoid dealing with printers marks, bleeds and all such arcane stuff, instead you will need to meet the requirements of e-books (introducing hyperlinks, for instance). Be aware that PDF is not the only game in town (there are over 20 competing and incompatible e-book formats) nor is a computer screen necessarily the only display medium (the Amazon Kindle and iPhone being two other major destinations for e-books).

If you would rather have a professional guide you through the e-jungle, the journey may cost you thousands and thousands of dollars.

Website

An alternative to a proper e-book is to self-publish your work on a website (or even as a blog, wiki or via another Web 2.0 channel like Twitter). Though feasible, the divergence in form of a ‘proper book’ is now so wide that increasingly you will find it hard to gain any recognition for this work.

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. If you set up your own website, of course, then you will have to pay small but ongoing charges for the URL registration/maintenance and for a web hosting service. Bare-bones blogs like this one are free to set up and run.

Marketing and promotion

It is not enough to produce your book; you also need to bring it to the attention of its potential readers. Many books have been written on this subject and this blog post is already much too long. Suffice to say, you will need to draw upon all of your hustling skills to bear. By all means produce a flyer, issue a press release, buy advertising space in and send review copies to appropriate journals, and cold-call different bookshops – all the sorts of things that publishers do. But the best use of your time will be to exploit your own connections, to reach out directly to other scholars in your field – via notices to mailing lists and attendance at conferences, for instance.

None of this is easy and I seriously doubt you can afford the services of a publicist.

Sales and distribution

Traditionally, getting copies of your book into the hands of readers and getting them to pay for it has been a huge problem with self-published books. This remains so if you are only looking at the old sales channels – bookshops, library suppliers, etc. – who remain suspicious of book trade outsiders. Likewise, it is difficult to sell directly to libraries as these prefer to order and pay in bulk via a library supplier and try to avoid dealing with individual publishers.

But the internet revolution has opened up whole new possibilities to reach the individual reader, your prime target. Today, it is possible to sell your book directly via Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Abe Books, etc. or indirectly via one of the above-mentioned author-pays presses. And, while it is still not cost-efficient to accept credit card payments directly from individual customers, nowadays internet-based financial services like PayPal make this relatively easy. Amazon, PayPal and the others will charge you for their services but the commission is not a lot.

Note that all of these companies help you process any sales but the actual sending of copies sold to the customer is still something that you will have to do unless your book is being printed and shipped on demand by an author-pays press. (While the business of book trade warehouses is to hold stock and process and orders, I cannot imagine that it would ever make financial sense you to use such a warehouse or for them to take you on.)

It is even possible for you to handle all aspects of sales, not just the dispatching of orders. This would be by having a website with an inbuilt retail module (shopping cart, payment processing, etc.). However, such an advanced website would not be cheap to develop; it would also be a bit of an overkill for the sake of a single book.

Legal requirements

Be aware that as a (self-) publisher selling to a public audience, you will be obliged to comply with various commercial regulations. These vary from country to country but you should expect to:

  • register an ISBN for your book (normally, a small charge)
  • deliver gratis copies of your book to your local legal deposit office(s)
  • register for sales tax

For many countries, this list is much longer.

And there’s more

This has been a very long post to write and yet the above points are not the only ones you need to consider. Moreover, space requirements – and a crass desire to sell more copies of our book (which includes perhaps twenty times as much information as found here) – have limited how much detail is included in the information presented here.

But now, decision time is looming. There is just one more thing to ponder, just who is to do all this work: you, a freelancer or a author-pays press? This is the subject of my next post.


Self-publishing options

3 September 2009

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.


Answering rejection with self-publication

2 September 2009

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.


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.


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.

Consequences

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.


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).

Ownership

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.

Altruism

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.

Money

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.

Satisfaction

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: