Bound for glory

Many academics feel anxious about approaching and working with a publisher. Katharine Reeve, who has been on both sides of the fence, dispels myths about the publishing process and offers advice on getting into the good books

August 5, 2010

There is a perception that publishers fleece academic writers. It is true that they sometimes may ever so slightly take advantage of an academic's salaried situation and professional need to publish. But over more than two decades, I've struggled with enough academic book costings to know how hard it is to make them work. Long, complex monographs are expensive to produce yet sell only 150 to 300 copies. This explains the £80 cover price and simple production values.

Academics have many misperceptions about publishing. The whole process seems to be cloaked in mystery, with powerful editors, dastardly secret reviewers and shady editorial committees deciding whether to accept or reject your work.

While fiction authors are surrounded by advice books, websites and degree courses designed to help them get published, academic authors are left to their own devices. How are you supposed to know what is and what is not a publishable text? An academic is generally a researcher first and a writer second: you may be an international authority on Viking headwear or poststructuralist theory, but you are unlikely to be as expert at writing full-length publishable books. Unless you have a savvy supervisor or have learned by trial and error, getting into print can be tough.

So why do it? Well, it's an integral part of a lecturer's job: to carry out new research and to disseminate it to others in the academic community. In the US, gaining tenure depends on having a successful publications record; in the UK, getting a first job and promotion depends on publications scoring highly in terms of the research excellence framework. There is also the intellectual satisfaction of carrying out research and the sustained deep thinking writing a book requires. This is the way academics can personally contribute to their subject. It makes them visible, earns respect and a reputation and ultimately legitimates them as academics. And perhaps more importantly, it gives their mothers something tangible to boast about.

But what of the sense of fear widespread among academics - and not just first-timers. Stage fright stymies many a book proposal and manuscript. Publishing a book does involve exposing oneself and one's work to the judgement of others. Learning how to take criticism on the chin, as well as dish it out responsibly, is an important part of academic life. Those fellow academics - whose reader's reports will assess a work's scope, approach, market and its author's credentials - should help make the proposal better. Most academic publishers have a few authors who have been knocking about the lower reaches of the publishing schedule for 10 years or so.

Academics need to satisfy departmental publishing demands, but they should not neglect developing their own personal long-term publishing strategy. After the PhD thesis has been reworked into a publishable research monograph (journals make good homes for some chapters), another research monograph will usually follow. But after that, experiment with some complementary book types that allow engagement with different aspects of the subject and audiences. At some point, academics will be faced with their "Big Book" - it will be especially important to ensure that this is edited and published well. A literary agent may be needed to take over at this point. An agent brokers deals and manages the finances in return for 15 per cent of income. However, agents are a hindrance for straightforward academic titles as they are focused on lucrative trade titles.

Some academics will seek to join the telly dons and break into the popular market with a trade book published by the likes of Faber and Faber, Profile or Penguin. This can be an exciting move, but compromises will have to be made. Text will be cut and pummelled into a sellable state wrapped in a lovely cover that may bear no relation to the content. A makeover will be required before that all-important author photo (don't try to Photoshop an old one).

For Simon Schama and Bettany Hughes, this move to the mainstream increases their ability to enthuse large numbers of viewers of all ages about their subject. In terms of "impact", it is huge. Mary Beard has done wonders for the promotion of Classics with her popular blog, many radio appearances, journalism and book publication - she has academic credibility and a public presence.

But back in the real world, how does one go about getting a contract? Academic editors need to commission 15 to 30 new titles a year, and most would rather see these land in their laptop than have to search for them by spending their weekends at conferences or trawling the corridors of gloomy 1970s university buildings in a form of academic speed-dating.

If for some unaccountable reason they have not come for you yet, it's time to make your own luck. You need to put yourself about a bit; I would often pick potential authors out of Times Higher Education's pages after enjoying a book review or article. It's wise to network like mad if you want to end up with influential friends and mentors: editors often work from recommendations made by existing authors.

Academic publishing consists of the big international university presses of Oxford and Cambridge and medium-sized presses with international reputations such as Princeton, Yale, Chicago, Manchester and Edinburgh. Large commercial academic houses include Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan and W.W. Norton. The smaller independents, Polity, SAGE and Ashgate, often focus on particular subjects. As with universities, there is a widespread perception that some academic publishers are more prestigious than others, and this will often depend on your discipline.

When drawing up a shortlist of suitable publishers to approach, publishers' stands at conferences are a good place to start. You may also wish to visit the subject section of a large bookshop to look for prominent publishers. Check their websites, find a commissioning editor for your subject and send a speculative email with a short proposal attached to see if there is any interest (see box right).

Commissioning editors are central to the reputation of a publisher. They're not as important as they used to be, now that sales and marketing, with their trump card of sales data, have a say in what is accepted. But away from the in-house meetings, editors still rule the roost: they, along with the peer reviewers, are the gatekeepers you need to win over.

Editors use their editorial vision and critical judgement to shape their list and to populate it with a range of interesting authors and subject matter. Some very proactive editors such as Susan Ferber (Oxford University Press) and Gillian Malpass (Yale University Press) are legendary for their editorial insight, commitment to their discipline and dedication to perfection.

Resist the temptation to make passes at your editor or to paperclip tenners to your proposal. But friendly courtesies never go amiss. One author knew the best way to curry favour with me was to offer me his pudding at lunch; another taught me about horror films.

Publishing is a waiting game. Authors complain a lot about the incredible length of time publishers make them wait: five months for a decision on a proposal and 18 months from delivery to publication.

Then there is the issue of contact time and information. The usual pattern of engagement for an editor is a flurry of bright-eyed activity at sign-up, occasional signs of life at contract stage, and then emails pleading for your manuscript as the deadline looms. Having been on both sides of the fence, I can say in defence of editors: they manage hundreds of titles at a time; they are (almost) as overworked as lecturers; they have to prioritise titles that need urgent decisions or work; and they have to endure endless meetings. Although it is not a good idea to harass your editor, it is worth sending them occasional emails to remind them that you exist. They will put a nice red flag next to it only to discover it by accident two months later.

Most academic publishers have their own contracts, carefully worded to protect them and give them as much jurisdiction over your words as possible in order to make money now and in the unpredictable future. If you want a second opinion, the Society of Authors offers free advice for members.

With most deals, it is usual to be offered an advance, ranging from zero up to £2,000, and about 5 per cent of net receipts. After the bookseller's 50 per cent is taken off, that is about 50p a copy on a £20 book; the remainder goes to the publisher to cover production, overheads and future investment costs such as digital. Textbooks can be a good way to earn regular royalties, but these are unlikely to provide you with any REF brownie points.

The REF and all assessment exercises skew publishing. UK academics are under intense pressure to produce REF-friendly publications: the funding and reputation of the department (and ultimately the institution) depend on this. The "gold standard" comprises a research monograph and three journal articles, all peer-reviewed and published with an established academic press. It's a case of publish or perish. But should we be building our national intellectual life around such restrictive rules? One professor voiced the opinion of many I've spoken to: "The whole system is in denial since the majority of academic books languish unread in libraries - students and many staff can't afford to buy works at £50 a title."

The REF's predecessor, the research assessment exercise, has been distorting academic publishing for years, threatening the much-needed balance of book types across edited collections, textbooks and trade titles. Unfortunately, these just don't cut it in terms of gaining research funding. We need this range of titles because they all do different jobs: a textbook can influence the learning of a generation of students; an edited book brings together a group of researchers all working in a similar area; and a trade "crossover" title can bring exciting new research and ideas to the general reader. Surely these are more important in terms of "impact" than a research monograph that sells 190 copies and, although valuable as part of the literature, will be read properly by just a handful of the author's peers.

This debate will run and run. In the meantime, academics, if they want to publish, must negotiate their way through what can be a minefield of conflicting advice and confusing criteria. Speak to old hands and they will tell you stories of nightmare experiences and embarrassing mistakes, and warn you off certain publishers. Academics at all stages in their careers feel anxious about being published: fearful about having their finished work mangled and misrepresented.

In fact, publication is a fleetingly enjoyable experience after which academics wonder why they spent so long on their Author Questionnaire given the "blink and you'd miss it" marketing their book received. All authors, trade and academic, find that they have to do their own marketing: some take this in their stride, sending out order forms with their Christmas cards or blogging.

But apart from the issue of time, there is also a cultural aversion to such things among academics. Yet surely, after having spent so long working on a book, you should want to spread the word a little? Some wonder whether DIY publishing is the way to go, following the lead of scholars who have set up experimental online publishing exchanges. The prospect of personalised, cost-effective Web 2.0 mash-ups of academic writing is becoming a real possibility. Publishers will need to communicate the value they are adding to the process as they invest in the new digital publishing models, and they will continue to need the content that only academics can provide.


To improve your proposal's chances of winning over a publisher, be sure to:

- Present your proposal on three to four A4 pages, with the text single spaced and clearly laid out with headers

- Provide a working title. It should not be oblique, and it should make the subject seem familiar

- Provide an introduction that explains your proposal

- Offer a rationale that lays out why you want to write this and why it is worth publishing/reading

- Give a brief synopsis that outlines the scope, approach and themes. (What is your angle? Do you have new material or draw on novel sources?)

- Supply chapter titles with 100-word summaries (be sure to namecheck anything that the sales team may have heard of)

- Suggest how long your book may be and how many illustrations, diagrams and the like that it may include

- Describe the target market. Focus on the core audience (philosophy undergraduates or postgraduates, for example, or lecturers in history). Highlight any international appeal

- Discuss competing titles. This is important: the reviewer will comment on this and the editor needs this information for editorial meetings. "No competition" is not an answer

- Have an answer for your editor's most important question: what does your book do that similar titles do not?

- Sell yourself. In the biographical details you provide, state your academic affiliation, outline your writing experience (reviewing, previous publications), media work and online presence if you have one.


The editor will be your advocate and guide throughout the publishing process, but in reality it is Emily, the editorial assistant, who you'll hear from most often.

Your editor should swing into action when your nicely presented manuscript (follow the publisher's guidelines please!) arrives on time with all its bits (notes, references, numbered pictures and diagrams).

Don't go to ground on delivery day if you haven't finished the manuscript. Come clean and be honest with the editor about how much you've really written in time for them to reschedule.

The editor may not have time to read all the manuscript, but he or she will probably send it out for an academic report, after which you may be asked to make some changes. It's best to accept these with good grace, perhaps forgetting to do a few you really can't stomach.

On the evidence of 20 years as a commissioning editor, receiving manuscripts from academic authors, I'd say that many would benefit from editorial help to improve readability, strengthen structure and, crucially, cut the text down to a reasonable word length (80,000 is a good number to aim for). This is not a criticism, just recognition of the different strengths on either side that together make a successful publication.

The amount of help an author will receive depends on a variety of factors: the editor's inclination and skills, whether the publishing company values such work, whether the projected bottom line can justify it. (Note to universities: hiring an experienced editor to shape departmental manuscripts before delivery would probably be money well spent.)

Once the text is passed by the editor as "final", it heads off to what some regard as a black hole, the production department, from where, with luck, it will reappear a year or so later.

This is the period in which you may have to endure what many consider the ordeal of copy-editing. Stories abound of overzealous copy-editors who go beyond their brief of imposing consistency and checking punctuation into wholesale rewriting.

Of his experience, one academic wrote: "I had written, 'no hell is too bad for a plagiarist.' The copy-editor changed this to 'plagiarism is completely unacceptable'. There were similar dilutions and intrusions throughout. The thing about the changes was that they were so arbitrary - unless he was working on some strange inner logic."

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