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.


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.


Peer review and its alternatives

30 August 2009

Waiting, waiting …

You delivered your manuscript for peer review five months ago and nothing seems to be happening. The commissioning editor you originally dealt with has passed you on to an editorial assistant who is apologetic but no review reports have materialized. So, should you just sit there and take it, simply fretting? Start thumping the publisher’s table? Cut your losses and approach another publisher? Indeed, can you avoid this tiresome business altogether?

Unfortunately, as we shall see, peer review is a stage of the academic publication process that is hard to avoid (unless you are looking to self-publish your work, but that’s another story). Let’s take a stroll through this subject and find out why.

Peer review – the basics

Peer review is used in various areas outside publishing (e.g. by funding authorities to assess applications for research grants) but as far as academic publishing is concerned it performs a gatekeeper function – i.e. it is the process by which a book publisher or journal subjects a scholarly work intended for publication to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field.

In addition, peer review is supposed to encourage authors to meet the high standards of scholarship and conduct that are accepted in their disciplines.

Most publishers recruit two or more experts in the field to undertake this review (journals more commonly one). Among other things, these reviewers will be asked to make an evaluation of the text’s theoretical, methodological and empirical merits and a judgement of its literary style and readability. In addition to a general assessment of the text, they may also be requested to answer specific questions.

Normally, referees undertake the review on the basis of anonymity, but they may choose to sign their reports and even subsequently engage in a dialogue with the author. This can this lead to a far better book or article, and just as importantly in the former case can result in an endorsement from a well-known scholar that can be used to promote the book.

The peer review occurs at an awkward moment when the author is relatively powerless and hasn’t yet had a chance to build the sort of relationship with an editor that could protect the author from a reviewer in a rotten mood. But it is also a vitally significant moment. Perhaps the best way to look at the peer-review process is to liken it to the tempering of steel rather than as an ordeal by fire. Authors whose texts survive this process (and, in the case of books, most do) usually find that working closely with a good editor to incorporate reviewers’ advice and other editorial feedback into their text can be one of the most positive and productive aspects of creating a scholarly book/article.

Problems with peer review

While there is a lot going for peer review, it has its critics. Some scholars criticize it for being elitist, prone to bias, and overly slow. Certainly, there is a likelihood for elite scientists to be sought out as referees than less established ones, and for the process to support the dominant discourse, smother innovation and suppress politically incorrect arguments. And delays are common (though horror stories of journals taking five years to review an article probably attract such attention because the delay is so extraordinary).

Moreover, although peer review is generally considered essential to academic quality, it does not reliably prevent plagiarism or fraud, and indeed often fails to detect errors. On rare occasions, scandals involving outright fraud have struck even publications with the highest peer-review credentials.

The anonymity of reviewers is blamed for many of the problems of peer review. From the author’s point of view, an anonymous reviewer is in a position of great and unquestionable power while the author is utterly dependent on a good review. It is not unknown for reviewers to behave badly and quite common for them – by a process of ‘criticism creep’ – ending up becoming virtual co-authors of a work without having to reveal their identity (though in fairness this means they also don’t get any recognition for this input).

Alternatives to peer review

Some scholars (and journals) see the answer to these problems with peer review in open peer review, where the reviewer’s identity is made known to the author (and perhaps to eventual readers). Others argue for applying the ‘wisdom of crowds’ concept to peer review, arguing that the system could be radically improved by the adoption of ‘soft peer review’, i.e. using the new ‘Web 2.0’ social networking tools – commenting, collaborative annotation and using tagging, bookmarking and hits – to measure popularity. Not everyone is convinced (some authors have a very understandable fear of losing ownership of their material, for instance), but new experiments are regularly launched in this area. One high-profile experiment by the journal Nature involved submitted articles being put up on the journal’s website and comments invited from readers. With less feedback received than expected and some authors unhappy at such exposure to public criticism/ridicule, the initiative was terminated. By no means has this been the only experiment but to date no credible alternative to peer review has emerged. In short, what Churchill said about democracy applies equally to peer review: it is a lousy system, but to date all the alternatives have been even worse.

If you are the author of a book, you are unlikely to be affected by these developments in the near future, but it is a different matter if you are also writing journal articles. Journals publishing is very often far ahead of book publishing in testing and adopting new ideas, techniques and technologies.

Surviving peer review

It is of course all very well to explore peer review and its alternatives in such a general discussion. But what of your own situation? How best can you survive this uncomfortable process? This I shall follow up in a later post (and if you are impatient you might like to take a look at our book, which devotes a whole chapter to this issue).