Academic Publishing

Four or five years ago I had an unusually painful experience with one of my publishers, and decided to write about it for the THES. They eventually published the article, but only after it had been ‘lawyered’ almost to death. So, now that I have my own blogsite, I thought I’d recycle it in its original form. I doubt whether the publishers – Continuum – will bother to sue this very insignificant site; and in any case they no longer exist, having been taken over shortly afterwards by Bloomsbury, who are a different kettle of literary fish. So are the publishers I’ve had since then – mainly IB Tauris – whom I’m very happy with. My criticisms of Continuum don’t necessarily apply to them. So here it is. It may serve as a warning and a guide to young academics anxious to get into print.

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Here is my notion of the ideal academic publisher. He, or she – more likely the latter, these days – reads your book, or at least enough of it to be able to discuss it intelligently with you. She sends your proposal out to (paid) peer reviewers, and then, whether she accepts it or nor, feeds their comments back to you. She may give you advice of her own about the form the book should take, based on her knowledge of the academic market, as retailed to her by commissioning editors who have been out and about, scouring that market. She may also take you out for lunch. When you deliver the final manuscript (or file), she has it expertly read again, and passes more comments on to you. Academic authors need this; it’s often a lonely business writing books, and hard to be confident that you have yours right. You sign a contract, which you have had some input into first. You get an ‘advance’ on royalties – however small: for yours is only an academic book, after all. Then your publisher advises you about such matters as illustrations, if there are any, helping you to prepare them; and permissions and copyright, which of course she or her experts will be far more knowledgeable about than you. She will then get the book edited, either in-house or by independent editors: not only for spelling, grammar, consistency and ‘house style’, but also to spot inclarities and repetitions – always the most difficult things for an author to see – and, if you are lucky, to check facts. Obviously, the results of this – typically several pages of comments – are sent on to you.

The two of you discuss publicity, possibly with her marketing manager physically present, to which you, of course, will be able to contribute valuably, from your knowledge of the people, journals, societies and professional bodies who are most likely to take up the book: the key target audiences, in other words. The publisher, or her staff, will have contacts with general newspaper review editors and people in the non-print media, which will help. (‘I was talking with John Humphries the other day…’) During the long process of preparation and production she will keep in touch with you about developments, without your asking (because you won’t know what the developments are), and in general make you feel that the baby is still yours, even though you’ve passed it into nurse’s hands. If there’s to be a ‘launch’ (christening?), the publisher will suggest and arrange it. At the end of the day you can feel jointly proud of the bright young book that has emerged from this; and which it goes without saying she will have sent you the first copy of, hot from the press. She knows how you long to put it to your breast! That’s how academic book-birth ought to be.

I call it an ideal; but in fact this has been my experience of academic publishers for over forty years now, since my own first book came out under the Macmillan imprint in 1968. Publishing has changed in many ways since then: Macmillan no longer survives under that name, for example; but every publisher I have worked with since then (bar one) has closely conformed to this model. They are a wonderful species. But I’m now beginning to wonder whether they might not be an endangered one.

One hears alarming stories: of publishers struggling, even the entire print media’s struggling, in the face of electronic publishing, digital scanning, Kindle, and so on. Standards are falling. Advances are shrinking. One academic author of my acquaintance is being asked to pay A$ 4,000 to have her own book copy-edited. My own most recent experience of an academic publisher doesn’t quite mirror that. They didn’t have my book edited at all, in the sense described above. Nor did they send it out for peer review, either as a proposal or as a completed manuscript. Maybe they trusted to my reputation, which I suppose was flattering, but is not sufficient (another of my publishers has sent out a proposal for a fifth edition to readers); and took no account of the fact that this book was on a subject outside my normal area of expertise. They probably didn’t read it – showed no sign of it, in any case. They declined any help over illustrations, copyright, and ‘permissions’. When I requested a small advance to cover the unexpected cost of illustrations, they refused me – though that is the least of my complaints. They never wrote to keep me in touch about the progress of the book, even when they made substantial alterations to the form of it, and decided to change the publication date – with the result that I booked the wrong flight back to the UK. They took not a blind bit of notice of any of the valuable suggestions I made about review copies, publicity, and so on; and when I asked (after publication) what had become of the idea I had passed on to them earlier from the Foreign Office for a launch there (the book is about the building), calmly told me that this sort of thing was up to authors to arrange. They didn’t send me my first copy of the book until some time after they had stocked Amazon. It goes without saying that they never bought me lunch. Throughout the whole process I was made to feel that I no longer had any interest in the book. It was now theirs. Marx would have called this ‘capitalist alienation’.

Early on in our relationship I sensed that things were going wrong. The chap I was dealing with seemed only interested in ‘presentation’, to the extent of trying to force on me a title that bore no relation to the subject matter of the book, simply because he thought it might remind punters of another moderately successful work of mine: in the first draft of my contract, in fact, it goes under the name of The Absent-Minded Architects. He also didn’t reply to emails. As a result I asked if I could withdraw from our arrangement, repaying any expenses they might have incurred (they won’t have come to much); only to be told that if I did they wouldn’t allow me to publish the book with anyone else. I’m still not certain whether that has any legal basis; but I didn’t risk it, and it got me looking through our contract again, when I realized how very one-sided it was. In brief: they, the publisher, could cancel it if they didn’t like the book, but I had no corresponding right to cancel if I didn’t like them. My obligations were spelled out in detail; theirs, apart from some very material ones – a publication date, my royalties, copyright, and my ‘free copies’ – were not. Nothing, for example, about peer-reviewing, or editing, or marketing. I probably didn’t notice this at the time because these were part of my understanding of what academic publishers basically did. Other publishers I have spoken to agree. Most think the lack of peer-review, in particular, is ‘bizarre’.

After the book had been published I raised these specific questions with the publisher; only to be fobbed off with arrogant and anodyne responses: ‘we’re quite happy with our procedures; look at our list’ and the like. They also boasted of their success in winning an award recently, for ‘Best Independent Publisher of the Year’. (I looked up the citation. It was for turning the company around financially. Could that have been at the expense of the services they are supposed to provide?) What I wanted to know from them was whether my experiences with them were typical – whether they make a rule of not sending MSS to readers and editors, for example; of disregarding authors’ suggestions about marketing; and not keeping in touch generally – or whether I was simply unlucky. The fact that they refused to respond to these points, or to this article when I favoured them with a preview of it, should be borne in mind if they try to come back on it. They’ve had their chance. If they had deigned to engage with me I probably wouldn’t have gone into print in this way. So they only have themselves to blame.

I came to this publisher accidentally – they had just swallowed up the smaller firm I had originally approached – which was unfortunate. It was naïve of me not to have checked up on them. But herein lies a lesson for younger academics looking to publish their books: to take advice, and look around. You’ll find a number of publishers – I’m sure mine isn’t the only one – proudly advertising themselves as ‘academic’; which they are in the sense that they publish academic books. But they perform few of the other functions that most of us older academics have grown used to from academic publishers. So, young academic, be warned. If a no-frills type of publisher is what you want, like a no-frills airline – it gets you there, but in minimal comfort – then fair enough. (Of course, it would help if they pointed this out to you beforehand. At least you know what you’re likely to get from Ryanair.) But there are better, more helpful publishers out there, if your book is good enough; which will hopefully survive for some years to come. Secondly, you might try to get some reassurances about the services you expect them provide written into your contract. Otherwise you might be reduced to fuming impotently, in journals like this.

Bernard Shaw once famously dismissed all publishers as ‘rascals… without being either good businessmen or fine judges of literature. The one service they have done me is to teach me to do without them.’ I never up to now agreed with the first part of that, and still do not. But after my experience with Continuum, I’m coming round to the second. If publishers no longer have to get books type-set (we do that ourselves, on our computers), don’t get them peer-reviewed or properly edited, don’t help or advise on matters in which they must have more professional knowledge (like copyright), disregard authors’ usually pertinent advice about publicity, never consult about anything, and in general ignore us poor begetters of our books: what on earth is the use of them?

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One Response to Academic Publishing

  1. TJ says:

    One answer might be the revival of university publishing in the UK, on the American model although that market is huge. Some still exist, but they were once in a healthier state, and although they have to make a profit they need not be so market driven as modern commercial publishing and can even subsidise some titles. They could utilise the marketing and other resources of the university and enjoy scale economies unavailable to small commercial publishers.

    Liked by 1 person

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