Why is my book late, and why does it take so long to publish?

22 December 2009

A grumpy publisher might reply:

It’s probably late because you delivered the darn thing several years late with several vital bits still missing, and now you expect your publisher to bring the book out, all squeaky clean and beautiful, in a matter of days or (let’s be generous) weeks. Sorry, it can’t be done.

Now that is a grumpy response and, for most (but not all) authors, completely unfair. Now to a more considered reply, one that will take several weeks of posts to complete.

Not science, and involving more than a handful of tasks

Let’s be honest: publishing isn’t science, let alone exact science. Any publisher worth her salt will thus add a bit of fudge to the timings of each of her book projects. And yet time and again it all goes wrong: delays happen despite the best-laid plans and added fudge.

What is it, then, that makes so many publication dates just wishful thinking? Is it the publisher, unable to organize his way out of a paper bag, or what?

Well, ‘what’ mainly (though some publishers have a fearsome record of super efficiency, others a dismal reputation for blundering chaos). The thing is that publishing a book is incredibly complicated, involving something like 100 different processes. Many of these are interdependent, meaning that if something slips here, then delays happen there and there and there as well. At the bottom of this post is a rough picture of this process.

Tracking the process

In the series of posts that follow, I aim to offer a blow-by-blow account of the publishing process. This should cover the following areas (which I’ll update with hyperlinks as posts are completed):

  • Editorial (starting here in the editorial department but proceeding to discuss types of editing and your role in it)
  • Announcement (how books are first made known to their potential readers)
  • Design (of book pages and cover, initially looking at why this is important)
  • Typesetting (looking at what it is then exploring issues related to the typesetting)
  • Proofing
  • Indexing
  • Printing
  • Shipping
  • Sales and distribution
  • Marketing and promotion (especially your role as the author)

Hopefully, this will give you an appreciation of what is happening (or about to happen) to your book and the role that you are expected to play in the process.

So hold onto your hats: our first port of call is editorial.

Production timeline given to new NIAS authors. (Note that right-hand times relate to typesetting only, left-hand to other tasks.)

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Why do publishers hate edited volumes?

2 October 2009

Not all publishers hate edited volumes; I don’t. But there are compelling reasons why publishers are reluctant to consider accepting an edited volume when offered it.

Number 1 reason: the conference proceedings.

In the ‘good old days’, it was common to produce a proceedings volume as a tangible result of a conference (otherwise an ephemeral event) but generally the number of copies were limited, often only going to the participants. As part of the hyping up of the academic world that we have witnessed these last few decades, there has been a push to give these proceedings (and their conferences) more weight by their publication as ‘real books’.

For a while publishers were happy to produce and libraries to buy almost anything that moved. But then came the collapse of the library market (described elsewhere), a growing global rash of conferences and a glut of often incoherent volumes edited by hapless conference organizers with few clues about editing books.

And the result? There are a few publishers whole entire raison d’être seems to be to publish tarted-up conference proceedings, and they look to do well in this line of business. But, today, many publishers will not touch edited volumes even with a barge pole, while a lot of others are deeply mistrustful of any multi-author volumes offered and will run a mile if mention is made of an originating conference.

Which is a great pity, actually, because there are also compelling reasons why publishers should consider accepting an edited volume when offered it.

All too often – because the barriers to getting a journal article or monograph published are much higher (and usually it takes longer, too) – an edited volume is the first publication in which new, innovative research from young scholars arriving in their field is make known. From hearsay, I understand that some often mediocre volumes sell well because of the attractions of maybe only two or three of their chapters. (With the increased possibility of buying e-chapters, however, I would expect such a halo effect to diminish and the decline in sales of edited volumes to worsen.)

Moreover, edited volumes can offer cross-disciplinary insights that a single author would struggle to find. There are, indeed, examples of excellent collections where the collaboration of many minds on a single subject, perhaps from different disciplines, brings about real breakthroughs. Such outstanding works often suffer, though, from the general taint attached to edited volumes.

In other words, do not despair if you are being pressured by the departmental mandarins to edit a ‘book of the conference’ in order to justify their funding priorities and events programme. The experience need not be bad. Indeed, there may be very good reasons to offer yourself as editor. Editing a book could be a way for you to build your academic network and gain name recognition in a wider circle. You might feel that your field needs a collaborative volume on a particular subject, and that there is nobody else who can make it happen, or happen well. Perhaps you have to offer a route to publication in order to attract good contributions to a workshop or conference you are convening. Or maybe it is just simply your turn.

But, if your editing experience is to be positive (even an outstanding success), then you do need to approach the task in certain ways to maximize such success. How? That is the subject of a later post (or read these pointers now in Chapter 4 of our book).

Happy editing!


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.’


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.


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.


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.


‘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.