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.

Contributing to an edited volume

9 April 2012

What to do with that conference paper you presented recently? Chances are you are thinking to rework the text into a journal article. Sometimes, however, something else is on offer – you are invited to submit your paper for publication as a chapter in an edited volume arising out of that conference. Despite a prejudice against edited volumes, you would be wise to pause before rejecting this offer.

Why would you write such a chapter instead of an article? Why indeed, given that an article in an international refereed journal counts for a lot, and in some research evaluation systems a chapter in a book for almost nothing – always assuming any publisher takes the edited book, which is by no means a given.

There are good reasons. Like an article, a chapter can be a quick way for you to assert your ‘ownership’ of new ideas and research material. But what a chapter adds over and above a journal article is that it is published in a collection of such chapters on a common issue; the edited volume and its attendant marketing activities create a magnet for specialists working in your field (and related fields) to discover your work.

Moreover, this need not be an either-or choice. Given the differences between the two prose forms, you should be able to write chapters and articles so significantly different that they complement each other and build your publication list. Just make sure that the titles are different. There is no point giving the impression you are recycling your research (heaven forbid!)

How much theory?

19 January 2012

Recently, an author asked me for a bit of advice.

I am slaving away on the book, but I need a bit of advice. I have changed the style from thesis to book. That’s no problem, but I am concerned about the theoretical frame. I have a whole chapter on what you might call ‘Critical Strategies’, that is, the 3 or 4 major theoretical underpinnings. I am wondering if you normally ask authors to delete that sort of chapter. Some of the theories about discourse and so on are sprinkled throughout the text. That’s unavoidable, if it is to make sense. Do you recommend I take it out that chapter and simplify the argument, or leave it in and see what your reviewers think?

Personally, I’m not a great fan of theoretical arguments; I often joke and say, ‘Whenever I see a theory I reach for my knife!’

However – whether authors, readers, librarians or publishers – we are in the ‘business’ of academic communication. In so doing, we act within one or more scholarly discourses. Clearly, your own study belongs to a specific scholarly discourse and will be framed by this. Some theory, then, is pretty much unavoidable. As your intended readers are already familiar with this discourse, it is sufficient that you lightly refer to this and indicate how your work adds to the debate. Certainly, it is unlikely that a 100-page review of the theoretical literature to date will be of interest.

As such, I replied to my author as follows:

As you say, there will be some theoretical discussion sprinkled throughout the book. This needs to be put in context at the beginning. However, there is no place for the big cow-pat of theoretical recitation commonly found at the start of theses; you are not needing to prove to any examiners that you know the discourse.

So how much and how little?

May I suggest that you imagine just who your readers are – you could even identify specific, real people – and then consider what would be their interest in your book. More than likely they do not want to be served up with a regurgitation of theories they know backwards but they will appreciate seeing how your study fits (and builds on) the existing discourse.

That at least is my ‘theory’ on theory. The practical reality for each individual work will be different, of course. Some will need to be larded with a theoretical overlay, others will be so empirical they are theory-anorexic. As always, think of the needs of your book and its readers.

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?

Letting go

11 February 2010

Letting go is not easy, whether you are a parent or an author (or both). This is quite understandable. While it is human to hold tight to (and be protective of) your children, the critical (and often treacherous) nature of the academic world teaches us to be equally guarded with our research results. Fear turns many a scholar into a serial polisher of his text, forever hesitating to expose it to possible ridicule or theft.

Ultimately, however, you have to let go. No child can grow and thrive if still clamped in their parent’s embrace, nor a scholarly work shine if hidden in a dark, lonely drawer.

Separation may be a lengthy business. And the angst begins early, already during the writing process. For many authors, the hardest stage here is to

  • actually finish the manuscript
  • place the last full stop
  • recognize that this is as good as it is going to get and that any more fiddling about with the text will add only time without contributing quality
  • let go and send your final words out into the world to stand or fall on their own merits.

That can be very difficult indeed.

The ripping feeling intensifies during editing. This, you are told, is your last chance to make sure that the text is just as you want it. From this point onwards, any changes to your text will be met with the greatest reluctance by your editor. Slowly but irrevocably, the book – your baby – is slipping beyond your grasp.

It is at typesetting, however, that the separation becomes irrevocable. As noted earlier, it is at this stage that your material is converted to other formats. Text and image files are placed in the typesetting ‘container’; essentially, there is no longer any live link between these files and the text and images found in the typeset book. As such, any changes to (say) your original Word files and JPEG images are pointless. All changes to the book’s text or illustrations can only be made by the typesetter.

And, as we shall see in a forthcoming post on proofing, chances are that the typesetter will be reluctant to make ‘unnecessary’ changes without an extra (penalty) payment.

Time to let go, indeed.

(Post #20 of the Design & Typesetting section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

Design matters

5 January 2010

The Biblical observation that men do not hide their light under a bushel but raise it high to light the whole house applies equally to the work that already has been done on your manuscript and the work still to come that will transform it into a book.

The purpose of the editing, and indeed of the author revisions preceding it, should be to polish the text and ensure that it communicates its meaning. But thereafter the book design and subsequent typesetting become hugely important – if content is king, it should be dressed accordingly; the book design should illuminate the contents, not obscure them.

Time and again, publishers fail to heed this imperative and the result can be that a major work fails to gain the recognition it deserved.

What should have been a prize-winning study

I still regret one such instance in my career when, due to my failure to keep the author in check, her opus magnum ballooned to an alarming number of words and illustrations. I also designed the book and at first glance it was beautiful. Even so, it weighed in at over 500 pages, a hundred more than it was first announced at. The book went on to almost win an important book prize; arguably it should have won. For me, however, the moment of truth was feedback from Winnie, a trusted Singapore colleague, who complained that she had tried several times to read the book but ‘got tired’.

Was it the design? I believe so. The font size was too small; the number of characters per line was way over the 65 that is the golden mean (more like 89). The result will have been eye strain for many readers. In a nutshell, there was a readability issue. Probably, the book should have been 600 pages long – or edited more assertively.

This is just one way in which a bad book design can get in the way of readers fully appreciating an author’s argument. A layout that is ugly or boring is just as bad, likewise one whose text uses fonts that are unsuitable for extended reading. Also problematic is a book size that is unhandy (too big or too small, awkward or tiresome to hold, etc.).

Enter the queen

Many readers will struggle with a bad book design (often unconscious of what is bothering them) if they consider the contents important enough. Here, however, the presumption is that the work is to hand. But what actually ensures that a reader buys or borrows a copy of your book? Is it the contents? The marketing? Actually, in many cases, what sells a book is its appearance, its initial impact, something that briefly attracts the reader’s eye to that book and guides her hand to take it off the shelf.

Once a copy has been sold, it’s quite different; what you say becomes more important than appearances. But – for a brief moment – the look and feel of your book is paramount. Content may be king, but design is the queen who by appearance attracts the most initial attention.

The cover matters

The internal book design can be important in the purchase decision-making, but only after the book has been picked up. Initially, then, the most important design element is the book cover (or jacket), something that some publishers don’t seem to care about. In a recent post on H-ASIA, Peter Matanle of the University of Sheffield complained that:

… the cover is really important for a book yet some publishers do not pay sufficient attention to this aspect of book design, preferring simply to make it conform to a series or even publisher style. Often there is no information about the book anywhere on the front or back cover beyond printing the main title and author’s name. Often there are no unique graphics on the cover and no endorsements or short summaries on the back cover to entice a reader in.

His explanation for this (bad) behaviour was that:

… the publisher may be more interested in creating its own brand image than in taking care over the content of the volume, and that the publisher is actually not that interested in post publication marketing either …

Actually, I rather suspect that the publisher’s behaviour is largely shaped by the expectation that nearly all copies sold will be to libraries, and they tend to buy on the strength of the book description, the price, etc., not on the book’s appearance. However, with the continued collapse in library market sales, such a policy seems rather short-sighted.

Like it or not, bookshops and individual book buyers matter, and that means that the cover matters, indeed design matters.

Sounds like it time that you meet the designers.

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

Substantive editing

27 December 2009

Eventually, once you have satisfied the Style Nazi, editing of your manuscript can proceed.

Editing in fact is not one thing. Transformation of your manuscript calls on two very different types of editing: substantive editing of the initial (delivered) text focusing on its structure and argumentation, and copy-editing of the finalized (restructured) text focusing on its language and ensuring that it complies with the publisher’s house style

Substantive editing is the aristocrat of editing and, sadly, it is rare. For me, this has been epitomised by the editorial work of Joanne Sanstrom at Berkeley, now retired. As I understand it (though just how real this picture is, I don’t know), Joanne worked with each of her authors, line by line, ensuring that their text flowed logically, its argumentation structurally coherent, clear and consistent, all of this presented in language that was fresh and alive. In my mind, this is substantive editing (with a dash of copy-editing) at its greatest.

However, my understanding is also that Joanne only edited about four books a year and editing was pretty much all that she did. There is no way that this level of perfection makes economic sense in today’s publishing climate – indeed, I doubt that it ever did, even in the golden age of scholarly publishing a few decades ago. Each of these four books would have needed to sell tens of thousands of copies to cover Joanne’s salary and ancillary costs. Such levels of sales have rarely happened.

Any book will be the better for undergoing a mindful edit such as Joanne’s but sadly, in almost all cases today, it never happens. Because of the economic pressures on publishers, in recent years there has been a decline in the amount of structural revisions made to manuscripts after their final delivery. Instead, the tendency is for structure and content to receive feedback (not editing) before final delivery. Quite often publishers rely on any concerns regarding structure, argumentation and coherence being raised in the peer reviewers’ reports, and perhaps in additional comments from the commissioning editor (which may have been made after only a hasty skim-reading of the work). And that is about all the ‘substantive editing’ that a manuscript will get.

This degradation of the added value that publishers are supposed to offer their authors is one reason why some people argue the merits of self-publication and question if publishers have role to play in the dissemination of modern scholarship. (This is a complicated argument, one that I have explored elsewhere at great length.)

Mind you, I don’t hear too many authors complaining about this situation (though I dare say that’s because of ignorance not acceptance). Substantive editing is not what many authors think of when considering that their manuscript will be edited; rather, all that is in mind is a bit of ‘polishing’, the correction of the stray typo. After all, they are the ones that know their subject. (Unfortunately, knowing your subject and being about to communicate it effectively are quite different things.)

But what is your situation?

Hopefully, you received a detailed and coherent assessment of your text on such structural and content issues prior to final delivery but chances are you haven’t. If not, you might like to use this approach in the finalization of your manuscript.

Take the feedback that you have received from the readers’ reports and commissioning editor as your starting point, adding to this your own formal response to these evaluations. Thereafter, take the time to swiftly read through your manuscript one more time, briefly marking anything for follow-up but never really pausing. Doing this reading at speed reduces your unwillingness to read the wretched thing one more time. In fact, the faster you read, the easier it will be to keep a picture of the entire work in your head, and you will also notice anything that disturbs, distracts, bores or irritates you far more easily.

With all of this input, it should be fairly clear what revisions need to be done. Do them, but do not get bogged down with rewriting text that had nothing wrong with it in the first place. Speed is of the essence.

With luck, after delivering your final manuscript, your text may receive a minimum of substantive editing as part of the copy-edit. Just don’t count on it. As you will see in my next post, copy editors have enough to do already without straying into the byways of structure and argumentation.

(Post #3 of the Editorial section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)