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!

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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.’


Multiple submissions

6 May 2009

An author has just asked me:

I know from your most helpful website that you suggest authors do NOT make multiple submissions.  [A certain commissioning editor] at [a well-known press] has asked to see my book proposal, and I just need to confirm to her that you would not be amenable to this.

What can I say? Well, this in part is how I replied:

Of course, publishers aren’t wild about multiple submissions because of the threat to the time and energy they invest in a project. However, until an actual ms is submitted for peer review, the financial investment is not that big; thereafter, when we start paying money for peer reviews, we resent seeing this wasted.

As such, I’m not wild about [the rival editor] getting her hands on your proposal but there’s nothing I can really complain about, especially since you are so up front about this issue. There are risks in taking this course of action, of course. For instance, I might well put your project on hold until its status is clarified. On the other hand, there are potential benefits.

I then invited the author to read this blog post. Here are my fuller thoughts.

Let’s face it, all too often authors are left dangling, waiting on a publisher to respond to a book proposal. It is thus tempting to submit your proposal to several publishers at once in the hope that one (at least) is interested enough to want to go further and review the ms. Unfortunately, there are certain pitfalls here, especially if not all of the publishers contacted are of equal interest to you:

  • Should you be honest and tell all these publishers that you have submitted multiple proposals? Their reaction may be to treat your approach as a form of spam and ignore it.
  • What will you do if the least-interesting publisher likes your proposal and quickly asks for a full manuscript to assess? In this situation, doors will slam whichever way you jump.
  • If in fact two or more publishers respond and (very properly) you choose one of them, there is a danger that the chosen publisher may not be gratified but rather feels ‘just another publisher’ and loses enthusiasm for your project.

Whatever you do, do not submit multiple manuscripts for peer review. Remember that there are only so many good external reviewers in a given field and that the same reviewers may well be approached by different publishers. The danger is, then, that you’ll get caught out and, if not, you’ll be faced with informing one publisher that you are withdrawing your manuscript. This will get all publishers affected seriously annoyed. The net result could see you being blacklisted.

As such, while I appreciate the attractions of multiple submissions, I suggest you think things through very carefully here. My own advice would be to do the following:

  • Make a short list of your preferred publishers.
  • Rank these publishers in order of preference.
  • Contact the first publisher with a short query, asking if they would be interested to receive a book proposal on XYZ.
  • If yes, send them the proposal and gently press for a fairly quick response (say, chasing if you haven’t had an acknowledgement within a week and a response within a month).
  • If not, move on to the next preferred publisher.

Here, identifying and ranking your preferred publishers is crucial. More about that in another post soon – or, to read it all in detail, you could wander down to your local bookstore or visit Amazon and buy our book.


Publish or perish – #1

23 April 2009

This blog is all about authors getting published. So it is in my daytime job, where the authors I work with are scholars in various fields of Asian Studies. And yet, and yet … there are times when I feel confronted by the subversive thought that there is a certain futility to all of this ‘busyness’.

Such a time was this morning after I read a fascinating (and somewhat dismal) piece by Mark Bauerlein, ‘Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own’, downloadable from here. Bauerlein’s main argument is that professors are under so much pressure to publish that increasingly they are failing to do their job as teachers.

Unfortunately, continues Bauerlein, that is not the only problem. In addition, the massive surge in publications means that fewer and fewer books are being sold and – even worse – the sheer number of books published means that few authors can be sure that their books will even be looked at by their peers. This is not surprising.

… professors simply can’t read all of the works published each year in their fields, as the numbers cited above make clear. An expert in Herman Melville can’t cover the 11 books (2,684 pages in total), 56 articles, and 12 dissertations devoted all or in part to the novelist that appeared in 2007. And underlying those explanations lurks a disturbing possibility, that is, that literature professors feel no urge or need to monitor publications in the discipline in order to keep up with research in the area. In vibrant fields, researchers follow everyone’s work because if they don’t they fall behind and can’t participate. In literary studies, though, scholars now pick and choose, keeping current through piecemeal browsing in tables of contents and press catalogs. If they overlook much of it, they don’t suffer. Meanwhile, throngs of scholarly compositions appear each year only to sit in distribution warehouses unread and unnoticed. The fields and subfields proceed without them, and the grand vision of a community of experts advancing knowledge, broadening understanding, and closing holes in the historical record fades to black.

Bauerlein concentrates on the dire state of literary studies and seems to think that this may be the worst affected field. Maybe. From my own experience, I suspect that there are other fields in a similar state, or nearly so.

What does this mean to you, someone looking to get published? Perhaps not a heck of a lot. Personally, I’d recommend that you read Bauerlein’s essay as it does much to question many of the assumptions and values on which the academic and publishing worlds are based. On the other hand, you might find such hand-wringing a bit of a waste of moisturizer. As Bauerlein points out:

Ask a younger scholar or advanced graduate student, “Why are you working so hard to complete a manuscript and submit it to a press?” and the answer is blunt. She doesn’t say, “I’ve developed an idea about Keats’s odes that I must share with fellow Romanticists,” or “T. S. Eliot’s critical essays haven’t been appreciated for their implicit religious doctrine, and they should.” Instead, looking at you with a snort, she mutters, “So I can get a job.” Or, “To get tenure.”

Quite.

Thanks to Paul Kratoska over at NUS Press for the link to Bauerlein’s paper. Paul also pointed me to another paper, on the role and future of the monograph in Arts and Humanities research, which is equally interesting.