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.’

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Making the self-publishing decision

9 September 2009

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

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

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

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

Understanding your aims and motives

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

Such positive reasons could be that:

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

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

Defining success

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

Assessing your text

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

Determining resources

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

Deciding on format

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

Decision time

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

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


Requirements and costs of self-publication

6 September 2009

Not easy, nor cheap

Due to technological developments in the last 25 years, it is far easier today for private authors to prepare, typeset, produce (in printed and/or electronic form) and promote their own work – in other words, to dispense with the services of a publisher altogether. Easier, but not easy.

Self-publishing is not something done in five minutes nor is it about saving money (though an attraction for some authors is the potential to earn more by getting a bigger cut in sales). If you are venturing down the self-publishing route, be aware that you can face a lot of work and considerable costs achieving your goal.

That said, what you face here are different trade-offs: between doing the work yourself and hiring someone else (the subject of my next post), and between producing a high-quality product and turning out something that is (and can look to be) done on the cheap. Obviously, the publication format (discussed in my previous post) also has a huge effect on effort, costs and which skills are required.

In the costs stated below, $ = U.S. dollars. These rates are approximate and based on charges I have encountered for hiring freelancers. But they may also be close to the fees charged by the author-pays presses discussed in my next post.

Editing

Whichever format you settle on, there is editorial work to be done first of all. Anything that you put effort, money and your name into demands respectful treatment. This means that the work you eventually publish – whether in printed or in electronic form – is a coherent piece of scholarship, written tautly and without typos (though in my experience completely avoiding typos is probably impossible).

Therefore, once you have finished revising the text to your satisfaction, it needs to be scrutinized, to be sweated in an editorial purgatory, so that what actually is published is to the satisfaction of your readers as well. This is vital to the success of your work.

There are two kinds of editing involved: substantive editing of your text, focusing on its structure and argumentation, and copy-editing of your finalized (maybe restructured) text, focusing on its language – e.g. finding any typos and inconsistencies – and ensuring that it complies with accepted conventions. (You may find it useful consulting a publisher’s house style; many – like that for NIAS Press – are freely available on the publisher’s website).

Doing this editing yourself requires superhuman detachment from your text; most of us lack this. As a substitute for substantive editing, revisit the readers reports commissioned by the publisher(s) who rejected your work, if you have them, and seek feedback from colleagues capable of commenting fairly and fearlessly on your work (they are often hard to find). And, as for copy-editing, try to recruit your life partner or best friend – or, better still, one of those special people (often your departmental secretary or a maiden aunt) with the uncanny gift of spotting other people’s errors at fifty paces; sadly, all too often, such geniuses only spot these errors after publication.

Doing it yourself is free, though you will be wise to reward the help of Auntie Mame with serious chocolate or other forms of sincere appreciation. A freelance editor will cost you $1,500-$5,000 depending on rigour and how much substantive editing is included in the copy-editing. (I have not heard of any freelancers only offering substantive editing.)

Layout/typesetting

Most scholars using Microsoft Word or another word processor think that this is all that is required to lay out the final pages for printing. This work is definitely something they can do themselves. Think again. The design (or layout) of your book and the typesetting of the actual pages is skilled work that only really succeeds if it is invisible.

Laying out a book using a word processor is a particularly vicious form of torture. Word, for instance, may be full of features but things like the subtle adjustment of line and letter spacing are beyond its abilities.

Laying out the book yourself might cost you nothing but you would be wise to have the following things:

  • a reasonably powerful computer with a large monitor
  • a scanner (if there are illustrations to be digitized)
  • a laser printer (printing hundreds of pages on an ink-jet printer invites bankruptcy)
  • desktop publishing software including a typesetting program like InDesign, an image processor like Photoshop, and a PDF generator
  • manuals/courses on how to use this
  • fonts that you are licensed to embed in high-resolution PDF files

In addition, you will need to:

  • ensure that all of the elements of a book are present and organized correctly (e.g. the copyright page is on page iv).
  • ensure that these include all mandatory information (e.g. an ISBN)
  • adopt a standard book size (anything else is horribly expensive)
  • determine the likely extent of your book (so as to avoid unpleasant surprises – see my later post for a detailed explanation and instructions on how to calculate book length).
  • use a layout and graphical format that is printable (e.g. nothing too close to spine or edges, any images at high resolution, any colour in CMYK format)
  • carefully consider if colour is to be used (and if so where)

Alternatively, you can hire a freelance typesetter to worry about all of these and many other issues. It is common to pay either a flat fee for the entire job or on a  per-page basis (typically $6-$10 per page but inclusion of illustrations, colour, non-Latin text and other potential hassles will undoubtedly drive the price up).

Proofing

Text corruptions can happen when a Word file is converted for typesetting, without this being picked up by the typesetter. For example, recently I converted a Word file to plain text, then brought it into a web page that I was making. Only at the last moment did I discover that all of the superscript ‘th’ letters (in usages like ‘19th century’, which Word automatically converts to superscripts) had vanished.

Here, sharp eyes are needed. Yours are free but have they already looked at the text far too often to notice all the errors and last remaining typos? A proof-reader will cost you $2-$5 per page.

Indexing

No scholarly book expecting to be taken seriously (and bought by libraries) can omit an index (though it is another matter how ambitious your index is).

Good indexes are tricky to prepare. Please feel free to consult our indexing guidelines on the NIAS Press website.

The rates quoted to me by professional indexers have varied wildly – $2-$20 per typeset page.

Cover

Many publishers won’t let their authors get anywhere near the cover design, so crucial is it regarded to a book’s commercial success. Now you are responsible for producing something that doesn’t immediately scream ‘amateur’ to every bookshop you approach; what is needed is a cover that whispers ‘pick me up’. It must also meet certain technical and legal requirements (e.g. meet printers specifications and include a bar code).

The problem is that you can get a cover designer to do a proper job for about $500. But, if your book is to overcome its self-published origins in the nasty book world out there, then your cover needs to be inspired.

Printing

This is not something that you can do yourself; you are going to have to pay someone else to print your book.

Printing used to be the big barrier to self-publishing because with lithographic printing a minimum of about 1,000 copies of a book had to be printed. This required a huge investment (and a lot of spare space to store the books). Nowadays, however, the digital printing revolution has brought numbers down to single-copy printing at acceptable prices (and of an acceptable quality); self-publication of printed books is now within the reach of most budgets.

If you use an internet-based POD printer like Lightning Source, then you will be guided through the complexities of printing but will need to rigidly conform to their specifications. Set-up charges may be $75 and then you must pay for each printing order, each page printed and shipping (with a 300-page book costing you about $7 per copy), and often an annual file storage charge of $10-$20 charged.

If printing quality is an issue (because of the importance of your illustrations, for instance) and you have the belief and budget to print a minimum of 400 copies, then you are likely to get a better deal, better quality and much more human treatment by approaching a short-run printer. But be warned. ‘Real’ printers can be funny blokes; theirs is an utterly different world than yours. Many of the things that you find crucially important, they will find incomprehensible – and vice versa.

E-Book

You can of course avoid the perils (and costs) of printed publication by going down the e-route. (This option was discussed in my previous post.) However, I would suggest that you will still need to typeset your e-book and, while you avoid dealing with printers marks, bleeds and all such arcane stuff, instead you will need to meet the requirements of e-books (introducing hyperlinks, for instance). Be aware that PDF is not the only game in town (there are over 20 competing and incompatible e-book formats) nor is a computer screen necessarily the only display medium (the Amazon Kindle and iPhone being two other major destinations for e-books).

If you would rather have a professional guide you through the e-jungle, the journey may cost you thousands and thousands of dollars.

Website

An alternative to a proper e-book is to self-publish your work on a website (or even as a blog, wiki or via another Web 2.0 channel like Twitter). Though feasible, the divergence in form of a ‘proper book’ is now so wide that increasingly you will find it hard to gain any recognition for this work.

If you can do all the work yourself and have free access to/use of your institutional website, then web publishing can be almost cost free. If you set up your own website, of course, then you will have to pay small but ongoing charges for the URL registration/maintenance and for a web hosting service. Bare-bones blogs like this one are free to set up and run.

Marketing and promotion

It is not enough to produce your book; you also need to bring it to the attention of its potential readers. Many books have been written on this subject and this blog post is already much too long. Suffice to say, you will need to draw upon all of your hustling skills to bear. By all means produce a flyer, issue a press release, buy advertising space in and send review copies to appropriate journals, and cold-call different bookshops – all the sorts of things that publishers do. But the best use of your time will be to exploit your own connections, to reach out directly to other scholars in your field – via notices to mailing lists and attendance at conferences, for instance.

None of this is easy and I seriously doubt you can afford the services of a publicist.

Sales and distribution

Traditionally, getting copies of your book into the hands of readers and getting them to pay for it has been a huge problem with self-published books. This remains so if you are only looking at the old sales channels – bookshops, library suppliers, etc. – who remain suspicious of book trade outsiders. Likewise, it is difficult to sell directly to libraries as these prefer to order and pay in bulk via a library supplier and try to avoid dealing with individual publishers.

But the internet revolution has opened up whole new possibilities to reach the individual reader, your prime target. Today, it is possible to sell your book directly via Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Abe Books, etc. or indirectly via one of the above-mentioned author-pays presses. And, while it is still not cost-efficient to accept credit card payments directly from individual customers, nowadays internet-based financial services like PayPal make this relatively easy. Amazon, PayPal and the others will charge you for their services but the commission is not a lot.

Note that all of these companies help you process any sales but the actual sending of copies sold to the customer is still something that you will have to do unless your book is being printed and shipped on demand by an author-pays press. (While the business of book trade warehouses is to hold stock and process and orders, I cannot imagine that it would ever make financial sense you to use such a warehouse or for them to take you on.)

It is even possible for you to handle all aspects of sales, not just the dispatching of orders. This would be by having a website with an inbuilt retail module (shopping cart, payment processing, etc.). However, such an advanced website would not be cheap to develop; it would also be a bit of an overkill for the sake of a single book.

Legal requirements

Be aware that as a (self-) publisher selling to a public audience, you will be obliged to comply with various commercial regulations. These vary from country to country but you should expect to:

  • register an ISBN for your book (normally, a small charge)
  • deliver gratis copies of your book to your local legal deposit office(s)
  • register for sales tax

For many countries, this list is much longer.

And there’s more

This has been a very long post to write and yet the above points are not the only ones you need to consider. Moreover, space requirements – and a crass desire to sell more copies of our book (which includes perhaps twenty times as much information as found here) – have limited how much detail is included in the information presented here.

But now, decision time is looming. There is just one more thing to ponder, just who is to do all this work: you, a freelancer or a author-pays press? This is the subject of my next post.


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).


Why self-publish?

21 August 2009

There are many good and valid reasons for pressing on where no traditional publisher is willing to go. Here are some of them.

Because it’s relatively easy

It is only about 25 years ago that desktop publishing burst upon the scene, only 14 years ago that from small beginnings the World Wide Web started to transform our world, only in the last decade that digital printing has become a viable alternative to traditional lithographic printing, and only in the last year or so that e-books have finally begun to show real promise as a new publishing platform.

All of these developments (and others) have had a major impact on publishing. More to the point, their effect has been to bring the tools of publication out from behind the closed doors of practitioners where they were and put them into the public arena where rank amateurs can use them. And do. This transformation has been bad for the old craftsmen and other publishing professionals (and arguably bad for standards) but it has been good for the democratization of publishing itself.

Before then, self-publishing was not really practicable; today, the electronic and printing revolutions, especially, have opened up the real possibility of self-publishing for those with the energy and technical ability – it is in fact relatively easy (but only relatively, as shall be seen in a later post).

But is relative ease a good enough reason to self-publish? Perhaps not.

This is where the buzz is

Where is all the media attention today? It is not on boring publishers in suits, let alone their back-room minions with ink on their fingers. No, the focus and adulation is on savvy authors who bypass the system and connect directly with their readers, often selling impressive quantities of their book in the process. In short, it has never been a ‘sexier’ time to self-publish.

It’s also where the future is

Actually, the future is an open question, one attracting a multitude of contradictory answers. (In the same way, a rock is a rock, but how it is perceived can vary greatly depending on where the observer is.) That said, it is possible to discern trends in publishing and from these predict likely outcomes. A common vision of the publishing future is the slow death of the publishing house in its present exclusive form and the gradual adoption of open, collaborative forms of authorship. These lend themselves quite naturally to a self-publishing approach.

Speed of publication

Speed of publication is another major consideration, especially in the life sciences where pre-prints are used to establish ownership of an idea or discovery often years ahead of formal, peer-reviewed publication. Even in the humanities and social sciences this is becoming a factor. One of the attractions of Open Access publication is the early archiving of soon-to-be-published manuscripts in institutional repositories at a time long before actual publication takes place.

Freedom from control

Not always unreasonably, there are authors today who see publishers not as skilled but disinterested guardians of intellectual standards but as obstacles, parasites and even as ill-informed spoilers. Some go further and reject the current peer-review system which publishers/editors control as outmoded and bankrupt. The urge to be free of all such parasitic, meddling gate-keepers is a key reason why people consider self-publishing.

Freedom of expression

In few years ago, an eminent university press became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed it had withdrawn publication of a monograph that had upset the Greek government. The accuracy or otherwise of the study was not the issue; rather the Greeks had threatened to take their lucrative ELT (English language teaching) business to another publisher.

On an everyday basis, there is far less lurid interference in what an author may say but publishers do shape what is said in three ways:

  • They are the ones deciding if a work is ‘suitable’.
  • A low-level hum of political correctness is prevalent among many editors.
  • Author contracts make it very clear to authors that they are the ones who will bear the brunt of again legal action against their book.

By self-publishing, authors avoid these restrictions on what they say (though this will not make them immune to legal attack – on the contrary).

Ownership

Author contracts typically sign over the author’s publishing rights in a work to the publisher, often for a paltry payment or none at all. By self-publishing, the author’s rights are preserved; nothing is alienated to an outsider.

Overcoming rejection

Rejection of one’s manuscript by a publisher often prompts an author to contemplate self-publication. This is a quite reasonable response but, that said, the author should ask her/himself a few hard questions before setting out on such a course.

Avoiding waste

If your work has been rejected, a common motivation to self-publish the work instead is because you have already invested a great deal of time in writing the manuscript and are loath to admit that this effort has been a waste of time. Arguably, this is not a valid reason; you need to have a positive reason to self-publish, one that gives you a reasonable expectation of success.

Resuscitating a cherished work

In time, almost every study reaches its ‘sell-by’ date. New copies of the work cease to be circulated or even held in stock. The work becomes out of print, after which all rights in the work revert to its author. In such a situation, you are free to take your out-of-print book to another, keener publisher – or indeed to take it on as a self-publishing project to keep the book alive.

Need and demand

An important, positive reason for self-publishing could be that you know there is a readership eager for your book, but one that is too small to attract a publisher to the project. If your readers are indeed keen to read your book, then self-publication may be the only means by which to reach them.

Altruism

An unintended effect of the digital revolution has been the rise of a radically different kind of scholarship based more on community effort (often collaborative authorship) than on individual achievement. Often – as with the Creative Commons movement and open-source publishing – there is an altruistic motivation behind these efforts. Rather than the trading of ‘intellectual property’, publishing is seen as the free exchange of information/research (with even free adaptation often allowed). Such an approach is generally anathema to publishers, hence why typically it takes the form of self-publication.

Money

Conversely, self-publication has the potential for authors to earn more from the sale of their book than they might otherwise earn in royalties from a publisher. However, as shall be covered in a later post, it is easy to spend a lot of money producing and promoting one’s own publication.

Satisfaction

Whatever the effort and costs involved in self-publishing a study, there is also great pleasure and satisfaction to be had from knowing that the final product is yours and yours alone.

No alternative

If you have had your manuscript rejected by every single publisher in your field (whether because they all believe it is not commercially viable or that it is bad), then – if you are determined to get your study out to its potential readers – self-publication is probably your only alternative.

It is clear, then, that there are many good reasons to self-publish. However, there are also a few negatives plus other issues to consider. These shall be considered in the posts that follow, namely:


The rise of self-publishing

17 August 2009

Not something that is new

Self-publishing is hardly a new phenomenon. Indeed, arguably the earliest form of publishing was self-publishing. In earlier times, it was common for gentlemen scholars (especially) to pay a printer to produce and publish their works; for a long period, then, printers and publishers were virtually synonymous.

This anarchy was not something necessarily approved of. The mass printing of bibles by Gutenberg and his successors broke Rome’s monopoly on biblical interpretation and fuelled the Reformation. A century later, John Milton expressed great unease with just anyone self-publishing their ideas; the safeguard of the Protestant revolution, he argued, lay in the tight control of ideas. Church and state state should guard who and what might be published.

The rise (and declining fortunes) of the publisher

It is, then, interesting that – despite the increased freedom of expression achieved in the three centuries after the Milton’s time – in this period publishers evolved to become something like the guardians whom Milton sought; they became the gatekeepers of literary and scholarly merit. Indeed, at their high point a few decades ago, publishers could almost have been likened to a brahminical caste dictating what the bulk of the population should read.

Undoubtedly, the status of publishers has declined since this golden age as the old gentlemen publishers have been displaced by lower forms of life with a crude, commercial disposition. However, it is only in recent years that has there arisen such a contempt for publishers in some quarters. In part this is of publishers’ own making, a reaction to public revelations of cronyism, arrogance, blunders, short-sightedness, poor judgement, and much more. Worse, publishers as a breed (but trade publishers in particular) have shown themselves to be focused on selling ‘product’ (which could as easily be buttons as books) not literary or scholarly works.

But the advent of the Internet and printing revolutions in the past decade has wrought the greatest damage. These developments have enabled (some) authors to bypass the gatekeepers and in a relatively cheap and simple way to self-publish their work – and, in so doing, to reach out and make direct contact with their readers.

This blog is a good example of such self-publishing but even in such traditional forms as the printed monograph there is a significant increase in self-publishing.

Exploring this further

Accordingly, in the next few days I shall be writing the following series of blog posts that explore this issue as it affects the world of scholarly publishing: