Indie authors – unstoppable?

18 May 2014

As usual, I attended the London Book Fair in mid-April (the last time it will be held at Earls Court in west London due to the fair’s ballooning size). In part this was to meet with authors and talk business with our partners. However, in addition, with its excellent seminar programme and hundreds of exhibitors promoting new products (e.g. in ebook conversion), the LBF is an ideal venue to explore new trends in the world of publishing.

One phenomenon really starting to have an impact is self-publishing. In general publishing, the number of so-called ‘indie titles’ is growing in double digits annually with self-published authors likely to account for half of all books listed on Amazon within the next year or so.

This upsurge could be seen at the LBF where the seminars aimed at authors were packed tight with crowds of attendees listening outside as well.

LBF-author-seminar

So far, self-publishing has not really affected scholarly publishing because of the gatekeeper effect of the peer review process. Nonetheless, with more and more scholars working collaboratively and going down the Creative Commons route to produce course book material (for instance), that situation is likely to change.

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Making the most of social media

19 April 2013

Many authors I know wouldn’t touch Facebook with a bargepole. Indeed, some of our authors won’t even be photographed let alone appear in an interview on YouTube to promote their books. This is a nuisance in marketing terms but until now I haven’t thought this to be a real problem; shyness doesn’t effect the quality of their scholarship.

Now I am not so sure.

What made me think again was attending the recent London Book Fair, at which I attended what I thought it was a seminar for publishers (the session being called called ‘How to Build Social and Brand Equity on a Shoestring’). It wasn’t, not really; authors were the prime focus of the session. (This was in line with a huge increase in author-centred activity at the LBF and elsewhere, as discussed here and here, and – with regard to self-publishing – here. Self-publishing is also something this blog has explored before, in a series of posts starting here.)

author-seminar

At the seminar, a literary publisher from Cromer in Norfolk was joined by three of his authors to expound on why getting published requires that you ‘get’ social media. Of course, academic authors might argue that the worlds of literary fiction and scholarly discourse have little in common and they are right, to a point. That said, I suspect that authors of all types can learn much from what the panelists said.

Unfortunately, I didn’t record the session but here are some of the points made.

  • Like it or not, social media are unavoidable. Used intelligently, however, they offer the best means for authors to reach the widest possible readership. This is because branding and identification, not the hard sell, is what drives most people to follow an author.
  • There is no point being half-hearted; get your numbers up. For instance, Salt Press may be small but on Twitter it has 86,571 followers while one of the authors present reported that she was linked to over 1,000 (or was it 10,000?) people on Facebook.
  • How on earth do the panelists keep up with such a huge circle? They don’t, not necessarily; it is usually enough to tune into the conversation every so often. Time management is crucial.
  • When questioned if they really wished to expose themselves to a whole lot of strangers, it was clear the panelists were only showing their public persona to the world (or had, say, separate private Facebook accounts). As they also warned, don’t go public with something you would want to stay private.
  • Of course, the key requirement of social networking is that you participate but you would be wise to (mainly) only say things that matter. How many people care if you are waiting for a bus?
  • Social networking is not one-way. Show generosity, for instance by offering advice or pointing people to another author’s work.
  • One way to build such numbers of friends and followers is by searching for interest groups (Twitter’s search functions are especially powerful). However, you need to know what you are searching for.
  • Another way to build a following is to ensure that many of the people whom you meet in person become members of your social network; point them towards your online presence. Collecting other people’s business cards is no longer enough.
  • But to succeed in building a following and then benefit from it, you must understand why people are interested in you, why they follow you. It is unlikely to be your persona only (though this can play a role); more likely it is something that you are seen to be offering them. In short, social networks are all about belonging. People are drawn to you because they have a stake in you or your work.
  • The essence of what you are doing with your social networking is creating a brand. Part of your work here is not only to inform people what you are doing but also to communicate your persona, even the philosophy and principles guiding your work. It may also mean talking about experiences as well as end results. And, just like (say) Apple, your purpose is to build brand loyalty, create a little passion.
  • What is imperative here is brand consistency. Think about the ramifications of what you do and say, and be consistent. Here it is easiest if your public persona and your private self are much the same but as a result you can do much damage to your prospects if you are not true to yourself.
  • Learn, then, to handle mistakes; they are bound to happen and are unlikely to stay hidden for long.
  • Some of the panelists preferred Facebook, others a personal blog; the publisher seems to choose Twitter. What was clear with all of them, however, is that they used multiple channels to present themselves.
  • Social media have great reach but they are most effective when there is confluence between the different channels, when (say) tweets, a Facebook item and a blog post build on each other to promote an event.

Largely, that is what I am trying to do here – with this post on ‘Getting Published’, on related news items on my work website, with a tweet here and there and corresponding entries on a work Facebook page. Sorry but there’s no clip on YouTube.

Just how effective it all is … well, that is another matter. One thing to consider, however: even if there is a problem with the messenger, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the message.


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!


Substantive editing

27 December 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what is your situation?

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

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

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

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

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


Review of ‘Getting Published’ just received

9 December 2009

Today, I was gratified and embarrassed to read a lengthy review of our book recently published in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing.

There was much to be pleased about in this review by Steven E. Gump, not least this comment about our introduction:

The opening chapter offers a behind-the-scenes look at the various players in the publishing industry and a brief but particularly fascinating section on the state of the global academic book industry (15–9). This chapter should be required reading for all aspiring academic authors.

and this about the importance of (self-) promotion:

One way in which this book stands out from other academic writing guides is that it describes how academic authors can themselves add value by actively promoting their books (chapter 10): ‘you should not leave everything to the unseen multitudes in the [publisher’s] marketing department who are working hard to push your book to the market. As an author, you should get actively involved by creating a corresponding pull ’ (160, original emphases). True, such ideas are not new; but I am pleased to find them receiving such in-depth coverage and attention in a book for academic authors.

But Steven E. Gump is also known for being a stickler for consistency. Here, sadly, he detailed far too many instances in which a word was spelt this way here, that way elsewhere, commas wandered a bit, etc., etc. He’s right; these errors shouldn’t have slipped through. Like all authors, I wanted a perfect book and (as usual) we didn’t quite get there. The final comment, then, is probably fair:

Textual inconsistencies aside, though, I recommend this book for academic authors, especially those in the humanities or social sciences, wanting an insider’s view of academic book publishing in the early twenty-first century. For first-time authors, reading this book will clarify a complicated, lengthy process that is only beginning when the manuscript is finished. Authors will be reminded, too, that, despite hurdles encountered along the way, ‘everyone in the academic book industry … is there for the express purpose of making the most’ of their manuscripts–of making each book accepted for publication a success (19). Just be sure to do as the authors say, not necessarily as they do.

Quite. And I’m quite sure that – given how most of my posts seem to be written before dawn – Steven E. Gump would find many more errors strewn through this blog, too.


The death of community and consensus

18 September 2009

In a series of recent posts, I have explored the issue of self-publishing from many different angles. To recap these posts have been:

A wider issue

There is, however, a wider issue with self-publishing that troubled me as I began sketching out the series – its impact on the wider scholarly community and the often-unstated consensus that gives coherence to this community. Unfortunately, while this issue troubled me, its shape was – and still remains – unclear. Hence, what I write today may be reworked at a later stage.

Broad communities

Among the reasons why you might consider self-publishing your scholarly output are:

  • This is where the future is (the slow death of the publishing house in its present exclusive form and the gradual adoption of open, collaborative forms of authorship)
  • Altruism (the free exchange of information/research)

Certainly, these ideas and ideals are common among people engaged in such collaborative endeavours as Wikipedia, in the Creative Commons movement, and in open-source publishing more generally. These are indeed broad communities given coherence and energy by their mission.

So what’s my problem?

My problem is that these interest groups have many scholars among their members but they are neither scholarly groups per se, nor are scholarly concerns as such a central concern for them. Moreover, they may function as communities but they are not and do not represent the interests of the wider scholarly community in its entirety.

Elements of the scholarly community

Of course, I run the risk here of invoking an ideal – the scholarly community – that is not grounded very much in reality. That said, despite its fragmentation into fields, factions and fashions, I think that we can discern the outlines of a scholarly community found around the world (areas of it global, others firmly anchored in a local setting). In part, this is defined by:

  • The pursuit of knowledge
  • A spirit of questioning and exploration
  • Scientific inquiry framed by an intellectual discourse and grounded in the application of commonly accepted methodologies
  • (In most cases) collection, analysis and presentation of evidence that is observable, empirical and measurable (sometimes derived from experimentation)
  • Information exchange and debate
  • Scrutiny and validation by one’s peers
  • Advancement on the basis of merit
  • Collegial responsibility

The last two points are of course debatable. No doubt some people would add a few other defining characteristics as well: greed, envy, in-fighting, etc.

Where self-publication doesn’t measure up

But, if the above features are reasonably correct, where is the difficulty in placing self-publication firmly within this community?

Scholarly endeavour is not rewarded equally so let’s not get too starry-eyed here. Nonetheless, I guess that in one way or another my misgivings all relate to (lack of) scrutiny and validation by one’s peers and what this implies. A few points:

  • Some presses are less rigorous than others in enforcing scholarly standards but there is a general consensus among them on what the standards are. Realistically, can these standards be provided by the ‘wisdom of crowds’ instead?
  • If no common standards are applied to measure all scholarly output, can there be any coherence to the body of knowledge or confidence in its veracity?
  • Peer review has its faults but replacing it with a ranking system derived from social networking would have quality losing out to popularity as the main determinant of worth.
  • Peer review is a semi-altruistic activity; although a notional payment may be received, it is an important way for scholars to contribute to their field and thus build a ‘community of excellence’. Replacing it with social ranking would likely be divisive and encourage scholarship based more on activism than on the pursuit of knowledge.

In addition, there is the issue of value to consider. Publishers exist in part because they offer quality in return for payment (sales finance the editorial input). However, a tenet of open-source publishing (home of many self-publishers) is that information should be free. While there can be debate about the correlation between the price charged for a publication and its intrinsic scholarly value, it is undeniable that not charging for a work makes it far less likely that there will be any (impartial) editorial scrutiny of it beforehand.

As such, in my mind self-published works have a place in the scholarly world but not an important one. Certainly, they may be good for specific individual scholars but as a phenomenon they do not meet our collective needs; they do not measure up.


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.