Publishing the book

One thing academics in the arts and humanities are supposed to do is to write and publish books or, as we tend to call them, ‘monographs’, which distinguishes them from co-written books or collections of essays. In the REF culture, one book can count as a ‘double-weighted output’, meaning that if you have a book out then it could count as two articles when you’re putting together your submission; or, as these things are increasingly managed by people other than academics, when your university’s REF people put together the university’s submission. Don’t start me on that one.

Academic failures

When I was a junior research fellow at Cambridge (1983-1986), I remember an occasion when two people, whose positions in Classics were much more secure than mine was, were in conversation (well, let’s be honest, gossip) about some other people in UK Classics.

‘There are two sorts of failures,’ one said with authority, ‘those who never publish their PhD and those who publish it with xxxxxxxxx’. Much laughter. The name of the publisher mocked here was not, of course, Oxford University Press, nor was it Cambridge University Press. I have now nearly finished my own book-writing career – just one more to go, and that’s under contract with Bloomsbury, who hadn’t been invented back in 1984 when I think that conversation happened. So, did I ‘publish’ my PhD? Not really; not as a book, because it was written as three separate studies which interleaved with each other, although most of it has since become articles. So I’m a failure. Ah well!

I’ve also managed to survive pretty effectively without ever publishing a monograph with either OUP or CUP, although I’ve been part of some of their larger projects like the Oxford Classical Dictionary. I did have some discussions with OUP about my first book, but they didn’t seem that interested, so on the suggestion of a colleague I had lunch at the home of the amazing and controversial ‘gentleman-publisher’ Colin Haycraft of Duckworth and discussed it with him, while dealing as discreetly as I could with the snail which crawled out of the freshly-picked salad accompanying the omelette his wife had cooked for me. In the end I went with Routledge because I liked the editor for my subject and he was really enthusiastic and supportive about the topic. Routledge was taken over by Taylor & Francis, and that in turn absorbed Ashgate, another publisher with which I’ve worked, so it’s all one big company now.

Routledge had a clause by which you had to offer them the next book you wrote, and they liked the plans for that one too, so I was in that supposedly fatal situation of Two Books And No Sign of a Proper University Press. But the books came out in a timely fashion and are still providing me with satisfying royalties payments, so I’m not bothered, just surprised that anyone at conferences would speak to someone like me!

How do you decide on a publisher?

In examining the possible options, it would be good to be able to avoid the ones which charge the earth (except there seem to be more of these than of the reasonably-priced ones), and to go with those with effective international distribution networks who can get the book published before it’s become out-of-date. There’s still prestige associated with OUP (world’s largest university press, founded 1586, run by senior academics of that university known as ‘delegates’ who meet every two weeks in term-time) and CUP (founded 1534, first University Press book published in 1584, run by senior academics of that university known as ‘syndics’), but there are also plenty of academic horror stories about them. Actually, I suspect there are such stories associated with all presses; I had some very dodgy experiences with a publisher which outsourced the final stages to workers in another country, where for example they kept correcting ‘Wellcome’ to ‘welcome’. In the era of the REF, getting the book out before the cut-off date looms large in finding a publisher, and I’ve been particularly delighted with Ashgate’s ability to keep their promises here.

There’s an important distinction between ‘trade’ publishers and ‘academic’ publishers, usefully explored here in an extract from William Germano’s Getting It Published (2008), but while I find helpful the comment “Trade publishing thrives on precisely what scholarly publishing does not: the one depends upon reaching the greatest number of people quickly, while the other depends upon reaching enough of the right people over time” I’m less convinced by anything which mentions, even in jest, sending a free copy to “Betty who typed the manuscript”. Are there really any academics now who use a typist?

And that brings me to another question. The thing is, I’m not sure what publishers really do these days. When I first started writing, ‘camera-ready copy’ was the new thing, and academic authors regarded this with horror, but now it’s the norm for you to format your own work according to the publisher’s guidelines on everything from fonts to footnoting. Those guidelines can be very complicated. You also write your own list of journals to which review copies should be said. You negotiate, and pay for, the illustrations you would like to use. You write the blurb for the back of your book. You suggest to the publisher how your book should be marketed. I think the most arguments I’ve had around publishing books have been about the best title under which to publish the work, and I acknowledge that publishers have given me some good advice here.

Why publish books?

So why do we go on publishing books? Because, as advice to PhD students stresses, so much still depends on it; getting a job, being promoted, being in the REF. I suppose that the process of surviving readers’ reports on the book proposal and on the final manuscript should give some credibility to a book, although having read some reports on my own work which show that the writer really doesn’t know the subject, I do wonder. One of the many results of the pressures in higher education is that people are less willing than ever to write such reports. I just did one myself where I was required to read a proposal of over 50 pages, answer a lot of detailed questions, and all for a fee of £100 worth of the potential publisher’s books. So it’s not surprising that, when casting around for a third reader, an editor may end up picking someone who isn’t that familiar with the material. Reports on the proposal can be excellent, seeing things which will give the book even more focus or suggesting an extra chapter which you can immediately see is what was lacking, or can simply say that it’s all lovely and the book should go ahead. Reports on the final manuscript can be very picky indeed, and as the readers probably disagree you need to be very strong about explaining why some suggestions are worth hearing, and others frankly not.

For the next REF, open access publishing will be required for all journal articles entered. Next stop, apparently, open access for monographs too. A lot of what we write now is open access without our permission; with many books available at least in part on google books from their publication date, we already have the student phenomenon of the ‘google books essay’ where there’s no sense of the overall argument of the book used, merely a selection of quotations from it which fit the student’s essay.

My  husband, not in the academic game, couldn’t work out why we don’t just self-publish books, but now understands the role of peer review and of the name of the publisher in giving the work more credibility. In 2010-2012 I was involved in an acrimonious debate with someone who had published his claims about eighteenth-century men-midwives murdering patients to order as a self-published e-book. It was a complete nightmare trying to pin down his claims when the e-book kept changing; I could criticise something, and it would then disappear in the next version! This experience gave me a new appreciation of books – at least the damn things stay still for a few years, allowing readers to engage and comment. So maybe there’s life in them yet.



2 thoughts on “Publishing the book

  1. The specific publisher chosen (provided it’s a “real” one) isn’t as important in the sciences — because books aren’t as important. If it’s not a journal paper, it’s practically invisible.


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