Publish - and be damned

When Bernard Porter was persuaded to entrust one of his books to a company he'd not worked with before, he discovered that not all publishers are equal. Caveat emptor, he warns young academics

May 3, 2012

Writers have differing views of publishers. George Bernard Shaw once famously dismissed them all 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". My view of them, as an author of academic books, has generally been very different. I have greatly appreciated my relationships with several publishers and editors over the past 40 years. Almost without exception, they have been friendly, wise and helpful. It has been pleasant, too, to talk about one's work with people outside the academy, who can bring a refreshing perspective to it. Authorship is a lonely occupation. We need help, encouragement, constructive criticism from people in the "real" world - and the occasional free lunch.

In terms of "help", here is what I have come to expect from a publisher. He or she - more often the latter, these days - should read my book, or at least enough of it to be able to discuss it intelligently with me. She should send my proposal out to (paid) peer reviewers, and then, whether they accept the commission or not, feed their comments back to me. She might give me 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.

When I deliver the final manuscript (or file), she should have it read again by the same expert "peers", and pass more comments on to me. In my experience, this kind of feedback is invariably helpful.

I should then sign a contract, into which I have first had some input. I should get an "advance" on royalties, albeit not very much: for mine is only an academic book, after all. Then, my publisher should advise me on such matters as illustrations, if any are needed, helping me to prepare them. She should also advise me on permissions and copyright - about which, of course, she, or her team of experts, will be far more knowledgeable than I. She should 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 infelicities and repetitions - always the most difficult things for an author to see - and, if I am very lucky, to check facts. Obviously, the results of this work - typically several pages of comments - should be sent on to me.

The two of us should next discuss publicity, possibly with my publisher's marketing manager physically present. I, of course, would be able to make a valuable contribution to this discussion, from my knowledge of the people, journals, societies and professional bodies who would be most likely to take up the book: the key target audiences, in other words. The publisher, or her staff, would have personal contacts with general newspaper review editors and people in the non-print media, which would help. ("I was talking with [the BBC's] James Naughtie the other day...")

During the long process of preparation and production, my publisher should update me on developments without my having to ask, and in general make me feel as though the baby is still mine, even though I have passed it into nurse's hands. If there is to be a "launch" (christening?), the publisher should suggest and arrange it. At the end of the day, we should be able to feel jointly proud of the bright young book that has emerged from this process. It goes without saying that she will send me the first copy of it, hot off the press. She will know how I long to put the child to my breast!

That's how academic book-birth generally works, and it has been my experience with all my publishers - save one.

I should have suspected something was awry when they accepted my proposal so readily, probably on account of my reputation. (I suppose I could be flattered by this; but none of my other publishers had ever done that, even - in a recent case - with a fifth edition of one of my books.)

It appears that this eager team of publishers never sent my book out for peer review, either as a proposal or as a completed manuscript. (The publisher of my fifth edition did.) At least, they did not deny this on being questioned about it, and I had no feedback from reviewers. They didn't have my book edited at all, in the sense described above. They probably didn't even read it - showed no sign of it, in any case. They declined to provide any help with illustrations, copyright and permissions. (As a result, the illustrations are dire.) When I requested a small advance to cover the unexpected cost of illustrations, they refused.

They never wrote to keep me in touch with the progress of the book, even when they made substantial alterations to the form of it and decided to change the publication date - inconveniently, as it happened, to me. 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 an offer of a great venue for a launch I had passed on to them, they calmly told me that it was the sort of thing that authors should arrange.

They didn't even send me my first copy of the book until some time after they had stocked Amazon. I need hardly say that they never bought me lunch. Throughout the whole process, I was made to feel that I no longer had any interest in my own book. It was now theirs. Karl 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 (they were all men this time, although I don't want to read anything into that) seemed interested only 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. He also didn't reply to emails.

As a result, I asked if I could withdraw from our arrangement, repaying any expenses the publisher might have incurred (they would have come to very little - no peer reviewers' fees, for example); only to be told that if I did, I wouldn't be able to publish the book with anyone else. I'm still not certain whether that assertion had any legal basis, but I didn't risk it - and it got me looking through our contract again. It was then that I realised how very one-sided it was.

In brief: they, the publisher, could cancel our contract 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. There was nothing, for example, about peer reviewing, or editing, or marketing. I didn't notice this at the time, probably because it was my understanding that this was all part of what academic publishers basically did. Other publishers I spoke to agreed. Most thought that the lack of peer review, in particular, was "bizarre".

After the book came out, I raised these questions with the publisher repeatedly. In reply, they addressed none of my specific complaints. I met the company's chief executive a while afterwards (over lunch); he admitted that he hadn't checked the "peer review" point. Instead, I was fobbed off with anodyne responses: "We're quite happy with our procedures; look at our list", and the like.

There's a lesson here, I think, for younger academics looking to publish their work. It is not difficult to get books published these days. You can even do it yourself, for very little cost. And there are scores of publishers around that proudly advertise 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 specialist publishers.

So, young academic, be warned. If a no-frills type of publisher is what you want, like a no-frills airline, then fair enough. They will get you there, but in minimal comfort. (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 be aware that better, more helpful publishers exist, if your book is good enough - and they will, I hope, survive for some years to come, even in the present difficult climate for publishing.

Alternatively, if you stick with the no-frills option, you might at least try to persuade your publisher to write some reassurances about the services you expect them to provide - peer review, editing, publicity etc - into your contract. In the past, this wasn't necessary. But I'm thinking of doing it myself from now on.

I still don't think that Shaw was right about the generality of publishers. But he was clearly right about some of them. If they no longer have to get books typeset (we do that ourselves, on our computers), don't get them peer reviewed or properly edited, don't help or advise on matters about which they must have more professional knowledge than their authors (such as copyright), disregard writers' usually pertinent advice about publicity, fail to 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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