Thesis vs book

13 May 2013

In my previous post, I asserted that ‘a thesis is not a book’ without offering any grounds for this claim. In this post I shall substantiate my claim by describing and commenting on the main differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. Obviously, some theses are more book-like than others while a fair few academic books are not particularly good in their scholarship and/or in their authorship.

start-bridge

Purpose

Thesis: To test the student’s competence and establish academic credentials.

Book: To communicate ideas/research results.

Comment: The difference in purpose, as in author and readership (below), means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

 Form

Thesis: Often book-like but usually amateur in appearance.

Book: It is a book and normally is produced to professional publishing standards.

Comment: Producing a book-like thesis is risky but may be unavoidable. My previous post explores this issue.

 Length

Thesis: Often a lower limit, but not always an upper limit (sometimes the assumption being that the greater length, the greater the scholarship).

Book: Limited by market forces (printing cost, shipping weight, retail price, reader expectations, etc.)

Comment: The whole issue of book length (and word count) is explored here.

 Author

Thesis: Student (writing to pass scrutiny and assert academic credibility).

Book: Writer (aiming to communicate but with obligations to readers).

Comment: Arguably, the student is an involuntary author whereas the writer has choice (but that is to deny the enduring power of the old adage ‘publish or perish’; teachers have other obligations but researchers especially are chained to a publication treadmill).

Readership

Thesis: Panel of examiners tasked to evaluate the student.

Book: Colleagues and anyone else interested in the subject and in learning.

Comment: The difference in readership (between a group that is known and self-contained and one that is amorphous, undefinable and largely anonymous) is subtle but means that the thesis and monograph are profoundly different.

Focus on

Thesis: Author (the student, who is being examined).

Book: Reader.

Comment: Again, the difference in orientation creates a subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Scholarship

Thesis: Exposition required (to demonstrate knowledge).

Book: Absorbed and built on (to frame discourse).

Comment: Theoretical framework is not the only issue here but it is a major one that I explore in greater detail here.

Approach

Thesis: Defensive exposition (to panel of examiners).

Book: Open disclosure (‘selling’ an argument/research results to often unknown and possibly sceptical peers).

Comment: Another reason for the subtle but profound difference between thesis and book.

Treatment of subject

Thesis: Often highly technical and very detailed.

Book: Avoids unnecessary technical detail.

Comment: Many factors are at play here, not only length and approach (as above) but also things like how experienced the author is as a writer. That said, remember that we are comparing the typical thesis and a good scholarly book; there are plenty of experienced authors with an obsession with detail.

Language

Thesis: Often obscure, abstract and heavy on jargon.

Book: Clear with judicious use of technical terms where needed.

Comment: As per treatment of subject (above) but substitute ‘impenetrable prose’ for ‘an obsession with detail’.

Structure

Thesis: Often progressive recitation (along a preordained railway track).

Book: Organic unity, with narrative thread drawing the disparate elements together.

Comment: Arguably, the difference is more about the author’s skills and experience as a writer than any inherent distinction between thesis and book.

Narrative flow

Thesis: Orderly exposition but argument not built; often excessive signposting.

Book: Builds argument, linking chapters with subtlety; has pace and momentum.

Comment: As per structure (above), i.e. more about the writing skills and experience (less likely among new authors).

Ending

Thesis: Often ends quite abruptly.

Book: Wrapped by conclusions.

Comment: Structure and narrative flow (above), hence writing skills and experience, are usually at work here.

Methodology

Thesis: Detailed description required.

Book: Description only if and when relevant.

Comment: Methodology has much the same role as theory – see scholarship (above).

Referencing

Thesis: Often far more than strictly necessary.

Book: Only what is necessary.

Comment: Excessive referencing is typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality found in many theses but is not unknown among experienced authors. Unfortunately, every citation is a ‘speed bump’, reducing the readability of a text.

Quotations

Thesis: Necessary, often extensive.

Book: Limited use.

Comment: Also typical of the ‘exam bunker’ mentality is excessive quoting of the work of other scholars (both in length and frequency). Usually, students can get away with this in a thesis but the same excess in a published work (whether a book or article) could provoke accusations of breach of copyright and ‘fair use’.

Evaluation before completion

Thesis: Feedback from supervisor; final assessment by panel of examiners.

Book: Publisher’s commercial assessment, peer-review process and editorial input.

Comment: The difference in part relates to readership (above) but never assume that the commercial interests of a publisher and the academic needs of an author are completely aligned (far from it). A detailed description of editorial input begins here.

Evaluation afterwards

Thesis: Formal defence.

Book: Reviews published in journals and other external forums.

Comment: As per evaluation beforehand (above), readership plays a part but ultimately purpose (above) is especially important here.

footbridge

Where now?

As you can see, there are differences between a typical thesis and a good scholarly book. However, every thesis is different, likewise every monograph. The question is, then, where does your thesis fit in this matrix and what do you need to do to transform it into a career-building book?

Time to put on your analyst’s hat and start planning. In a subsequent post, I shall follow this process.


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.


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.

Responses

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!


Making the cover design

19 January 2010

The soul of a book should ideally be seen (or sensed) in its cover. Illuminating the soul is not a simple or easy thing to do. As such, creating the cover is not something done in a moment, even if the final design may result from a brief spark of creativity.

Design brief

As with the page design, the first step towards designing a cover may be to prepare a design brief. This depends on how formalized the design process is. At NIAS Press, for instance, cover ideas are discussed and tried out in consultation with different Press staff and (especially) the author. Because it is a small press at which many publishing functions are undertaken in-house, both initiating and producing the cover is done by one person, and he knows what is required. The design process, then, is quite informal and any design brief largely internalized; any extra considerations are simply handled informally.

At larger (or richer) presses, the design process is likely to be more formalized. Usually a professional designer will produce the cover but it is the production editor (ideally with the author’s input) who will provide a design brief to sketch out ideas and elements to be included in the design.

Cover elements

As I intimated above, some of the elements of the design brief are given. As can be seen in the the following overview, only a few of the items normally found on a cover or jacket are mandatory. On the front cover:

  • Book title, subtitle (if any) and name of author/editor(s)
  • Illustration (optional)
  • Series identification (optional)

On the spine:

  • Author/editor name(s) and book title
  • Publisher’s logo (normal)
  • Series logo/identifying design (optional)

On the back cover:

  • Series identification (optional)
  • Author/editor name(s) and book title (optional)
  • Book description/blurb, if possible with endorsement(s) (normal)
  • Publisher’s logo and/or other identification (normal)
  • Bar code

On the jacket flaps (all items optional):

  • Author details
  • Short blurb
  • Publisher details
  • Place printed

Design considerations

Over and above the inclusion of cover elements, decisions need to be made on some other issues, among them the following.

  • What design is appropriate? Readership matters. Some time ago, we published a book about feisty Muslim women in a certain Asian country. Though Asian in its subject, the book had a very nice, subdued, Nordic-looking cover. This ‘Nordic’ cover worked fine in Europe and the States but feedback I received from the Asian country was that there would have been far greater local interest in the book if its cover had been equally feisty, tinged with local flavours.
  • What is permitted? Taste and sensibilities can affect what is appropriate (as above) but legal issues can also impinge upon the cover design. For instance, I have heard that the face of Elvis Presley has been trademarked. And, closer to home, we are still scratching our heads about the best cover for a new study of democracy and the monarchy in Thailand (a highly sensitive subject as some of you will know). A collage of images tracing the life of the current Thai king was mooted but quickly dismissed; no picture of the king may be reproduced without royal approval. At the moment we are playing with a design using the head of a Thai elephant as a metaphor for the monarchy but not everyone is happy with this idea. (You can see this cover design at the above link.)
  • Full colour or not? Technically, there is no reason today to restrict the use of colour on your book cover. A decade ago, it was far cheaper to print two-colour covers but that is not the situation today with modern printing presses. The two-colour mentality still seems to persist with certain publishers today but I may be wrong here. It may be instead that branding reasons are behind the restriction on the range of colours used; that is a different matter.
  • And what colour? Some factors may limit what colours can be chosen, e.g. a series template or physical restrictions (for example, large areas of solid black on a cover is not favoured in Asia where the sweaty hands of browsing customers can quickly ruin the appearance of a book before it has even been sold). On the other hand, cultural considerations may encourage the use of certain colours (or colour ‘moods’) over others, as should have been the case with the above-mentioned book about feisty Muslim women.
  • Illustration or not? A good illustration can transform a cover and dramatically increase the appeal of a book; a bad one can cause the book to look amateurish and unappealing. It is amazing how awful the covers of some publishers are.
  • Cover text. It is not enough to produce text for the front and back cover, spine and (for jackets) the inside flaps. All of these text blocks need to be designed, shaped to fit the location.

Bringing it altogether

Good design is more than a matter of taste. Even so, it is amazing how different people’s tastes and perceptions are (as so clearly illustrated for me recently in the cover design for our above-mentioned book on the Thai monarchy), and how these can impact on a design – for better and for worse.

As such, there is likely to be a fair amount of consultation (and argument) over the design brief and any cover sketches. But at a certain point, however, eventually a draft cover (or several alternatives) will be created and passed round for comment.

I suspect it is extremely rare for a cover draft to be accepted as is. After all, covers are like bicycle sheds: something ordinary and about which everyone can safely express an opinion. Eventually, however, a decision will be made about the cover though this may be (as in the case of our Thai monarchy book) to go with a temporary cover until something better can be agreed on.

If it is only at this point that you, the author, become involved in the cover design, then you’ve got problems. But more about that in my next post.

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


Announcing your book

2 January 2010

Oops! Before launching into several posts dealing with design and typesetting (starting with the importance of design), it would be smart first to deal with another burning issue: the kick-starting of the marketing/promotion of your book.

Promoting your book is a huge endeavour that I’ll cover in a series of posts after we have finished discussing the production phase. However, at this point (at the end of the editorial thread) it’s probably a good idea to describe the beginning of that promotional process – the announcement of your book – because this is something that happens really early and demands your participation.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem a big deal to announce your book but in fact there’s a lot involved. Moreover, a proper announcement is crucial to a book’s subsequent success.

Why?

Essentially, the success of your book will depend on the interest and efforts of a few key actors in the book trade. They need early but accurate information about your book. These key actors are:

  • Your publisher’s sales and distribution network. Warehouses need to load details of your book on their system so that orders can be taken and shelf space planned for. Whereas warehouses care only for accuracy, sales representatives prefer their information in headlines and punch lines. Sales reps often only visit bookshops every six months hence early notice of new titles is imperative. The same imperative applies for your publisher’s distributors and agents around the globe but they need far more information and packaged in a specific way.
  • Bibliographic data providers. When you order a book from a bookshop, they will do this using information purchased from companies like the UK-based Nielsen BookData and US-based Bowker. If (like Amazon) they have an online catalogue that you can browse, this too is built using such externally provided data. Libraries rely on similar information. As such, if your book is to be visible to bookshops and libraries, then its details must be provided by your publisher to these bibliographic companies.
  • Booksellers. If a bookshop is to stock copies of your book at publication, then it must budget for this purchase (and perhaps plan on where these copies will be displayed). Typically, books are ordered at least three months ahead of publication. Bookshops thus need their information early, briefly, and in a highly standardized format.
  • Wholesalers. For bigger-selling titles, many bookshops are likely to order stock from wholesalers rather than individual publishers’ warehouses. This way they can consolidate orders and maybe command bigger discounts. The warehousing needs are the same, of course. The mega-sized warehouses of these wholesalers need to load details of your book on their system so that orders can be taken and shelf space planned for.
  • Library suppliers. Until recently, library suppliers sent out bibliographic information to their library customers on CD. This required a lead time of six months. The timeliness of data has greatly improved with its online provision but the library purchasing cycle still demands early advice of new titles. Because libraries generally work on an annual budget,  for library suppliers it is crucial that a book is received and paid for in the correct year.
  • Libraries. Not only do libraries want information early so they can plan their budgets, but also they want much greater detail. This is because often the purchasing decision is made by a specialist in the subject and, once made, is normally irreversible (libraries do not have the equivalent of the sale-or-return right enjoyed by bookshops).

As you can see, each of these key actors requires quite different sets of information. At the same time, however, a publisher’s marketing department has only so many minutes in the day. As such, it is likely that your book will be first announced by the following means:

  • An advance information sheet, sent to key customers as soon as possible.
  • An entry in your publisher’s next catalogue (and those of its international distributors and agents), though it may be months before these catalogues are produced and disseminated.
  • Brief details on your publisher’s website, loaded immediately (though not by all publishers – strangely, I feel, some publishers display no details on their website until the book is out).
  • Bibliographic data, sent individually and directly to Nielsen BookData, Bowker, etc. before any information goes out to potential customers.

Timeliness of the announcement is of essence here. More customized and targeted marketing of your book will follow (more about that in a few weeks time).

What is needed to produce this material are:

  • a book description
  • bibliographic details (format, price, extent, publication date, readership, etc.), and
  • a first draft of the cover

This, in turn, will require your input in the following ways, by:

  • completing and returning your author/marketing questionnaire
  • identifying and (ideally) approaching well-known and/or trusted figures in your field, asking them to write an endorsement of your book for inclusion on the (back) cover and in marketing material, and
  • being actively involved in the cover design (though not all publishers welcome this)

I’ll return to this material and your involvement in its production in a few weeks time after finishing the different threads on book production. Meantime, back to the posts on design and typesetting.

(Post #1 of the Marketing & Promotion section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


What do publishers want?

25 September 2009

Like everyone else (and especially like their authors), publishers want to be successful. Just how they get there is another matter, one that baffles some authors and leaves others enraged.

Perhaps the best way to approach this, then, is to understand where publishers are coming from and where they are going to.

Environment

I have described the woeful state of academic book publishing earlier (and no doubt shall do so again) and also pondered on the very survival of publishing but here are a few quick points:

  • There has been a dramatic decline in library sales, the bread and butter of academic publishing, in part due to rising periodical subscription charges and IT costs swallowing bigger chunks of libraries’ budgets.
  • Sales to individual scholars have also fallen, in part because too much is being published (thus hard for scholars to maintain comprehensive, personal libraries).
  • No significant new source of income has yet been tapped.
  • Falling sales have prompted publishers to raise prices causing further falls in sales.
  • The recent global recession has seen universities cutting back on their funding for their presses (indeed, some university presses have been closed or sold off in recent years).
  • New print-on-demand (POD) technology is allowing single-copy printing but, though this is excellent for reprints, it is not cost-effective for quantities over 300 copies (and for most books an initial printrun under this amount is not commercially viable).
  • The POD revolution may lead to on-demand ordering/printing for consumers (e.g. using the Book Expresso machine described here), leading to the death of the traditional bookshop and end of the current global book supply chain.
  • There is a proliferation of e-book readers, none of them particularly good yet in terms of reading for extended periods of time but the likelihood is high of an ‘iPod moment’ in e-publishing within the next five years.
  • Hopes of new income from electronic sales are driving massive investment in e-publishing but economic returns to date have been negligible (and, worse, this development undercuts the status of the printed book, currently the prime revenue earner).
  • Demands from funding agencies for Open Access is pushing publishers into offering free electronic content but a viable business model for this is not yet in place.
  • Copyright, the bedrock of the publishing business model, is under attack from several quarters, not least because it is seen as incompatible with the internet and e-publishing revolutions.

Some of these developments will have a huge impact on the future shape of publishing and already today they shape publishers’ perceptions and expectations.

Which publisher?

Another key point – but one that many people lose sight of – is that (unless you are dealing with a really small press) ‘the publisher’ is more than one person.* Each has their own personality, interests and agenda. Over and above that, an author will encounter at least three faces of a publishing house:

  • editorial (focused more on scholarly content)
  • production (focused on costs and deadlines), and
  • marketing (focused on financial returns).

These divergent interests interact, not always coherently, nor to the benefit, comprehension or sanity of the author.

(*Note: Actually, in any publishing house, the publisher is often one person but here we are taking about ‘publisher’ in another sense.)

Ramifications

OK, so these are some of the places where academic publishers are coming from but what effect has this environment (and recent changes to it) had on publishers’ expectations and behaviour? The main effect is that today academic publishers are taking a more hard-nosed, commercial approach to the books they publish than was the case a decade ago. In concrete terms, the key changes are:

  • Increased commercial behaviour.
  • Cost cutting, outsourcing of especially production work to outsiders, and increased workloads and stress for remaining in-house staff.
  • The rising power of marketing departments and corresponding decline in the power of editorial staff to decide what is published.
  • Editors must take the bottom line into consideration when signing up a new title.
  • Each new book project must stand or fall on its own merits (far less cross-subsidization).
  • Demands for author subventions are more common.
  • Greater aversion to financial risk, hence to taking on book projects that look commercially unpromising or expensive to produce.
  • A far greater proportion of book proposals and manuscripts are rejected.
  • A big increase in the number of ‘crossover’ titles (of interest beyond an academic readership) and interdisciplinary titles.
  • Greater willingness to publish purely commercial titles (aimed at the general public) with little or no scholarly value.
  • Reluctance to publish highly specialized studies.
  • Reluctance to publish edited or multi-author volumes (more about this in a latter post).
  • More ‘fad’ and ‘me-too’ publishing as publishers seek to emulate the successes of their competitors.

Hit list

Although these developments have wrought great changes in publishers’ expectations and behaviour, what publishers want from their authors is not all that different than before (though there may be far less flexibility and room for compromise than there was in the past). Here are some of these wants and desires:

  • Publishers want to publish only books that will succeed. This has important implications for what book projects are viable, and hence for how you formulate and develop your book project, find its ‘right’ publisher(s), and pitch it to them.
  • Once a book proposal *is* accepted, the publisher wants the book to succeed. This requires full commitment from publisher and author, and no half measures from either side.
  • Your publisher expects you to deliver the manuscript that was agreed upon (and contacted). If different, make sure that the manuscript is far better than promised (and accept that this is not something for you alone to judge).
  • Your publisher requires you to be a team player working your butt off to achieve the book’s final publication; tasks assigned will be finalized swiftly and efficiently (and without any comment or criticism of the publisher’s own delays and failures!)
  • At all time (not just after publication), the publisher wants you to tirelessly promote your book to its widest possible readership, especially by utilizing channels and contacts not available to the publisher.

All the rest is detail.

But coming later …

That said, a detailed ‘bitch list’ is something that I shall prepare one day soon, possibly together with my assistant, Samantha, who yesterday reeled off a screed of pet hates – top of the list: ‘Don’t inundate me with lots of tiny corrections. Why not instead just send me your manuscript when it’s finished.’


Making the self-publishing decision

9 September 2009

In most cases, self-publication is not simple, easy or cheap. For these reasons, in the past week or so, I have tried to explore the issues, present the options and offer you as much advice and information as possible to help you make an informed decision if this is the publication route for you.

But enough mythering on the matter. Now it’s decision time.

If it were up to me, I’d make a gut decision based on all the input I’d received. But let’s assume that you are more analytical, concerned to make an intelligent decision. If so, then it should involve answering these questions at least:

  • What are your aims and motives?
  • How will you measure if your publication is successful?
  • How suitable is your text?
  • What you can manage and afford?
  • What format do you want to self-publish in?

Understanding your aims and motives

Sorry but, if your sole reason for self-publishing is stubbornness – that you have already invested far too much time in writing your manuscript and are loath to admit that the effort has been a waste of time – then grief may be the end result. You need to have a positive reason to self-publish, one that gives you a reasonable expectation of success.

Such positive reasons could be that:

  • There is an interest in your research but only from a small audience.
  • You want to throw an intellectual grenade into your field, which is in the thrall of a small elite that even dominates what is published.
  • None of the literature for a course you are running meets your needs.
  • Professor X is retiring and a festschrift would be an ideal way to honour her achievements.
  • You love getting your hands dirty and want to learn more about how books are made.

There are many good and valid reasons for pressing on where no traditional publisher is willing to go. Just make sure that yours are sustainable.

Defining success

Your measures of success should be directly linked to your aims and motives. For instance, the course that you ran was so much easier (and popular, too) by using course material tailored to its contents, or the highlight of your professor’s retirement function was the look on her face when presented with the festschrift.

Assessing your text

Be stubborn in achieving your aims, in the pursuit of success, but please show a little flexibility and freshness in your judgement when reassessing your manuscript. Perhaps there is something useful to be gleaned from that abominable peer review report. Maybe you should ask the opinion of your colleague, even if he does wear the same shirt several times a week. Above all else, as urged in my earlier post, be ruthlessly honest with yourself.

Determining resources

Once your basic material is good, there is likely to be a clear correlation between the effort you put in and the impact your work achieves. However, only you can decide what is the right level of sophistication to aim for. In part, this determination depends on what is appropriate but equally (if not more) important is what you can manage and afford. Try to be realistic about estimating what investment of time and money it will cost to reach your target. Then double all your estimates, and for good measure double them again. Here, the ballpark costs detailed in my earlier post may be useful, likewise the discussion on doing it all yourself or employing others to do some of the work.

Deciding on format

Print or electronic or both formats? And if print, are we talking about laser printing, photocopying, single-copy digital printing or long-run lithographic printing? The electronic choices are equally difficult. Take inspiration from my post on these formats but above all else draw a straight mental line between what you aim to achieve and the best form(s) to achieve it.

Decision time

On this basis, you should be able to make a decision. If that is to go ahead with self-publication, then I am certain that your chances of success and self-satisfaction will be much higher because of the research and analysis you have put into making this decision.

And if you decide not to proceed with self-publication? No, your time and effort have not been wasted. You will have learned much about writing, about what readers and publishers want, and (not least) what is really involved in the entire publication process. This is precious knowledge (even wisdom) that will shape your future writing and generally be immensely useful for you in building a successful academic career.


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.


Readability

11 August 2009

Readability is a huge topic, something that I shall return to at a later date (soon, I hope). Today, however, I shall focus on the role that fonts and diacritical marks play in the readability of a work.

Layout important

Essentially, readability consists of two elements. Language and the other literary factors are the ones most often focused on by authors – and without doubt they are important. But almost equally important is the layout, especially the font used, characters per line and leading (line spacing), because readers are discouraged by something that confuses the eye or otherwise is difficult to read. Scholarship that is worn lightly combined with a reader-friendly layout can be crucial elements in the success of a book.

Fonts and readability

Fonts play an important role here. Some fonts are easier than others to read. Serif fonts (with ‘feet’) like Times are far easier to read in running text than sans-serif fonts (without ‘feet’) like Arial and Helvetica. Serif fonts are best for body text, while sans-serif are often used for headings because of the greater visual impact. As an author, you will have little control over the fonts chosen by your publisher (or their typesetter). But before you can get published, you have to ‘sell’ your manuscript to the publisher. Here its visual attractiveness is important, much more than you may think. Remember, then, that when preparing your manuscript, you choose font sizes that enhance its readability and acceptability. The standard is 12-point Times, boring perhaps but eminently usable.

Diacritical marks as ‘speed bumps’

A complication here is the need for (or use of) diacritical marks. Obviously, there are situations – many situations – where an author feels s/he must use diacritical marks (or non-Latin script, for that matter) to properly define a term or render an accurate description.

Unfortunately, like it or not, diacritical marks add clutter to a text (so too do italicized text and footnotes, while arguably end notes and cross-references – which draw the reader away to another page – are even worse). The heavy use of any or all of these slows down the reading speed (hence why I often call them ‘speed bumps’) and reduces the readability of a text.

Does it matter?

For a reference work, perhaps this doesn’t matter (as for example was the case with the Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts that we published a couple of years ago). But for a monograph reaching for a broader audience, readability is definitely an issue. By definition, not all of its readers will be specialists in the field(s) addressed by the book. They need to be encouraged to open the book and get absorbed by its contents. Encountering a thicket of italicized foreign terms garnished with diacriticals (often right from the beginning of the work) is no encouragement.

So what, you may ask, does it matter? Yes, it does, actually. Today, readability is not an issue that can be ignored. While it is true that some presses can – and still do – publish works solely for the 50 or so specialists in a field, such presses are in trouble today and besides actually they are not doing any favours to the author with such a limited approach.

But not the only issue

However, readability is not the only issue arising from the use of fonts and diacritical marks. In my next two posts I shall move on to explore the related issues of font compatibility and font licensing.


‘Market’ is a six-letter word

21 May 2009

As ‘everyone’ knows, there is no money in academic publishing, especially for authors. (True? Not always.) Indeed, a lot of authors find the whole issue of money rather distasteful (for them, it’s all about the scholarship, not money). Others have no objection to fame and fortune – and preferably great dollops of both – but the grubby mechanics of attaining these is something they’d rather leave to the creatures in Sales and Marketing; editorial staff are the publishing people with whom they feel most comfortable.

What success requires

But even if getting rich is not your purpose in getting published, almost certainly you are interested in seeing your book succeed. Unfortunately, this is your responsibility, too; achieving success cannot be totally delegated to others.

Why? Because in most cases, the ultimate success of any book is far less affected by its promotion before and after publication than people imagine. What has much greater effect is that the book’s inner qualities and its suitability, its attraction to readers – in other words, its market fundamentals (genre, readership, level, etc.) – are thought through and implemented right from the start. This is something that only authors (if they know their field and subject) can do successfully.

In short, there is a direct and vital link between the success of a book and thinking its market. And you (with all other authors) stand squarely in the middle.

(By the way, this is not to say that marketing, the active promotion of a book, doesn’t matter. It does, and this is something that authors should also concern themselves with. I’ll return to this in later posts.)

Failure to think market, think reader, can have unfortunate consequences, as was the case with Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld.

A cautionary tale

Alexander McCall Smith is famous for his series of books centred on Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. (If you haven’t read them, they are worth investigation.) However, far less well known is his trilogy of comic novels exploring the insane and rarefied world of Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld of the Institute of Romance Philology. Von Igelfeld’s greatest achievement is his beautifully leather-bound monograph, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which everyone in his field (all 100 of them) say is the definitive work on the subject. Needless to say, few if any buy the book and, in an effort to recoup some of their investment, Von Igelfeld’s publishers propose selling off the stock as shelf filler to a home decorating company. Sadly, it is also proposed that the book’s title as it appears on the spine be changed to Portuguese Irregular Herbs, thereby attracting customers with a gardening interest …

Why thinking about the market/readers is important

Von Igelfeld is not unique in the academic world for having a narrow interest – and few readers for his books. Nor, I suspect, would he (or the many others like him) easily be persuaded to broaden his offering. But what has changed in recent years is the willingness and ability of academic libraries to buy such specialized books. Library sales have been declining for years and one thing you can be certain of: the current economic recession/depression will not make things easier here.

Nor is it simply a matter of falling library sales. As Alan Thomas from the University of Chicago Press has noted, sales to individual scholars have also collapsed.

The collapse of the library market for monographs is easy to identify and explain. We have been less willing to explain the decline in the market for monographs among individual scholars. It is commonly observed in many fields [that] scholars do not buy the kind of books they write. Nor, incidentally, do they assign those books in courses.
– Alan Thomas, contribution to ‘Outlooks in University Press Publishing: The Crises, the Opportunities’, Asian Studies Newsletter, 2005.

The implication here is obvious, I think.

Nor is it simply a matter of authors finding that sales of their published books are disappointing; it may be that they cannot in fact get published at all. Certainly, academic publishers have reacted to the crisis by getting much more tough and ‘commercial’ in their decision-making. Today, their likely response to the assertion that ‘Market is a six-letter word’ would be to retort, ‘So is “author”.’

In other words, if you want to be a (published) author, then thinking about the market/readers is unavoidable. Just how you go about this will be explored in posts over the next few weeks.

Alternatively, you can jump to the head of the queue by reading our book. It’s available just about anywhere.