Academics’ publishing options are an ever wilder west. Beware!

Academics rejected by university presses may turn to hybrid or self-publishers. But Harvey Graff’s experience suggests they should tread very carefully

June 24, 2022
A cowboy enters a Wild West town
Source: iStock

Young scholars desperate to publish ahead of a job interview or tenure review used to be able to rely on a university press to put out their work. But this is no longer true.

With less underwriting from their parent institutions and fewer guaranteed sales to equally cash-strapped libraries, university presses are more dependent than ever on sales revenue. Sometimes they even admit it. They are loath to address the consequences for soliciting, reviewing, decision-making, production and marketing, but it is clear that commercial considerations will lead them to pass on many works that they might once have published because it was a good thing to publish them.

Needless to say, they are not interested in the memoirs of a septuagenarian academic who, while successful in his own field, is not well known outside it. When I enquired about my own, which I have just finished, editors I know at major university presses quickly confirmed that they do not publish autobiographies – even when, like mine, those autobiographies are actually hybrid books, interrelating the personal, the political broadly defined, the academic, and the geographical.

Fair enough. But where did that leave me? I also checked with major trade houses, but they now require you to hire a literary agent for both conversation and manuscript submission. One small publisher in London even required a submission fee, a first in my 50-year history of book publishing.

Some smaller trade and (non-university) scholarly publishers did respond with preliminary interest – and one of them has now accepted the manuscript. But, partly out of curiosity and partly to assess reasonable opportunities, I also looked into self-publishers (whose revenue stream is authors’ fees) and hybrid publishers, who rely on a mix of author fees and sales revenue. The results were dizzying, instructive, and full of red flags.

The small number of major, full-service hybrid publishers that I contacted responded promptly and professionally, providing information and awaiting future communication. They offer a clearly stated and differentiated range of printing, publishing and marketing services. On the other extreme, though, is the Wild West of self-publishers. These range from small, local operations that much more closely resemble printers than publishers, to international hucksters who promote their products in full-page advertisements in the New York Times Book Review – albeit each one listed in tiny type, among many other titles.

Despite my making a single inquiry to one of the latter, the company continues to spam me by email and personal telephone eight months after I told them “no further contact” (and they immediately replied that they understood).

Apparently, the sales people, who fraudulently call themselves “publishing consultants”, are paid on commission, and don’t communicate with each other. Over the course of a few months, I was telephoned by three of them, all of whom contradicted each other and none of whom had a reliable grasp of grammar.

The most expensive of their “publishing packages” came with a sticker price not far short of $20,000. But, four and a half months into my involuntary correspondence with the firm, consultant number three, “Jose”, simultaneously telephoned and emailed to invite me to “Avail today [April 21] until APRIL 23… with up to 50% MAXIMUM DISCOUNT on our VIP PROGRAMS” This came with six attachments of confusing and contradictory marketing materials.

I demanded a formal, written apology from a corporate executive, including a guarantee that they would never contact me again upon penalty. All I have received so far is a few muddled words from “Jose.” He says he is “sorry”. I do not believe him.

Then there was the publisher founded and managed by a retired professor, whose “business model” is to market very highly priced, hardcover books for sale only to research libraries. He immediately responded to my inquiry by asking me to telephone him. Curious, I made my second mistake.

The call was strained. He announced that he was hard of hearing, so I followed up by repeating in an email my concerns about the firm’s incomprehensible list of books and its apparent lack of interest in readership numbers. He responded with sarcasm and snarkiness, alternatively offering to help me and criticising me without cause. He answered none of my questions.

In a subsequent exchange, after I again rebuffed his attempts to ingratiate himself with me, he claimed that my sending him my manuscript was “just an excuse to insult” him. However, he added that “you are a complex and interesting person [and] our scholarly interests are so closely related that I wish I could have published some of your books.” And in a further email he promised (for unspecified reasons) to send me “”several autobiographies” and said he wanted my advice on “a magazine or podcast”. He never followed up.

The bewildering fragmentation of publishing options makes me fear not so much for established writers like myself but for both scholars and other writers who, for many reasons, are rushed, strained and without collegial or other counsel. We say so often to readers, caveat lector. I want to say loudly and clearly: writers beware, too.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history and Ohio Eminent Scholar at the Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. His Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is forthcoming at the end of July.

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