Publish and be ignored

Lack of support, poor editing, negligible marketing: the alleged shortcomings of British academic publishing are increasingly leading authors to sign up with US and mainstream imprints. Matthew Reisz reports

April 24, 2008

Ask British academics about British academic presses, and the responses are often pretty unflattering. One, who asked not to be quoted by name, sent an eloquent e-mail welcoming the "chance to sound off about the inadequacies of Britain's university presses".

Another, Andrew Lambert (Laughton professor of naval history at King's College London), had been published by university presses and specialist maritime publishers before producing an acclaimed biography of Nelson: Britannia's God of War for Faber and Faber (2004). He seems equally unimpressed by "three big academic houses" to which he submitted a book proposal a few years ago.

"One said they didn't do the 19th century," he explains, "another that there was no American interest, although they were very British, and a third that it was 'too serious'. I'm happy working for a mainstream publisher who doesn't think he knows more about my work than I do."

Kasia Boddy, lecturer in English at University College London, makes a slightly different point. "From listening to friends and colleagues," she says, "my impression is that academic publishing today sometimes verges on vanity publishing, with authors expected to pay for (and organise) cover images and such." Her forthcoming book, Boxing: A Cultural History, will appear on the Reaktion list, which means that, even at £25, it "will be much more reasonably priced than many academic-press books and will therefore, hopefully, reach a wider audience. Reaktion also produces beautifully illustrated books, and most academic presses would be reluctant to have so many pictures. I have 150 (images), 40 in colour."

Panikos Panayi, professor of European history at De Montfort University, has just published a "multicultural history of British food", Spicing up Britain, also with Reaktion Books. This has worked out well, but he recalls a number of frustrating earlier experiences with academic publishers. His first gripe is the length of time everything took: a year to accept a proposal and six months to send a contract or, in another case, two years from submission of manuscript to finished copies. There seemed to be little marketing of individual titles beyond sending out review copies to the publications that he himself suggested. And because "editors in educational presses tend not to read the manuscripts", his relationship with them never felt personal or committed.

Worst of all, he says, was the time he offered a book to Cambridge University Press. When the commissioning editor sent it out for review, he got one positive and one lukewarm report and asked Panayi to revise the text. Once this had been done, it was sent out again to a completely different reviewer and finally rejected. Although the book was later published successfully by I. B. Tauris, Panayi's involvement with CUP had wasted three years.

Writing is a lonely business. In the absence of significant financial rewards, what most authors would like is a bit of commitment or enthusiasm. So why do some publishers behave in a way that seems almost designed to demotivate them?

Many books written by academics are of purely specialist interest, so the only realistic choice is between a British or US academic press. American books tend to be cheaper. British editors, often responsible for far more titles, may adopt a less "hands-on" (or interventionist) approach. But what are the differences in terms of author experience?

One writer who has "published books with more than one publisher on each side of the Atlantic" (but asked to remain anonymous) says simply: "My experience with the Americans has been far better." Although he admits that "generalising is dangerous" and that his dealings with British academic publishers go back a few years - he has made a deliberate choice to go down the American route since then - his verdict is pretty damning.

"Americans seem far more interested in the book and the author," he says. "They seem to treat publishing as a profession of value and an author as a person of value. Brits seem to treat publishing as filling in time with nonentities until they find their true vocation.

"Americans take sub-editing seriously and work hard to improve your text; sometimes they are a bit too intrusive, but they understand when you say so. Brits don't really bother. Americans consult about the title, whereas Brits just change it to something unattractive.

"A whole series of complaints I made about my high-selling book going out of stock over and over again in the US were treated with disdain verging on insults by a major British academic press, whereas Americans are always anxious to hear about distribution problems, and deeply embarrassed and apologetic if things go wrong. Finally, when American editors like your book, they will fight to get it published. In Britain, that would all be too tiresome."

Some titles - particularly in areas such as history, sociology, current affairs and some of the sciences - have genuine "crossover appeal" and, at their best, combine intellectual rigour, readability and sales potential. Many publishers are keen to publish such books, and there is a real overlap between the "trade" division of somewhere like Oxford University Press, some of the small, entrepreneurial publishers such as Profile and Reaktion, and the more "serious" imprints of major commercial houses such as Penguin, HarperCollins or Random House. The crucial skill is to spot the books that will reach a readership beyond the obvious specialist niches. It is here that "general" publishers often seem far more astute.

Take the case of Mary Laven, who teaches history at Jesus College, Cambridge. In 2002, she published a book called Virgins of Venice. This focuses on the period during the Counter-Reformation when the authorities were clamping down on laxity and the city's 3,000 nuns - many of them well-born women with no particular religious vocation - were subjected to "compulsory enclosure". This naturally led to disputes, and Laven draws on the records of prelates and magistrates to reconstruct the gossip, intrigue, friendships and flirtations behind convent walls, and to reveal how the individual sisters managed to survive and even carve out precious areas of autonomy for themselves under the most constricted conditions.

Even this brief description of what the American paperback describes as "an intimate look behind closed doors at the secret lives of Venetian nuns" should be enough to convey its human interest and commercial potential. (It is also a major work of scholarship, the product of intense archival research and a contribution to wider debates about religious history.) That is certainly how Penguin saw it, and Virgins of Venice duly received excellent reviews, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, secured translations in six languages - and sold film rights. It proved, in fact, a genuinely successful crossover title, cited on reading lists but also widely read outside universities.

But while a mainstream publisher such as Penguin loved the fact that Laven was writing about a city as glamorous as Venice and telling poignant stories of women living in seclusion, the three academic houses she had approached beforehand saw things very differently. There was no market for "local case studies", they told her. Oxford University Press rejected her initial proposal by return of post, then "helpfully" suggested that she might like to consider a general textbook-style survey of women in early-modern Italy. This revealed little understanding of the nature of academic research - was OUP proposing a swift trawl through the secondary literature or a further ten years' work in dozens of different archives? It also ignored Laven's desire to write about the specific, fascinating world she had uncovered. Such obtuseness meant that the academic presses missed the opportunity to publish a powerful, important and highly profitable book that reached out far beyond the tiny clique interested in Venetian ecclesiastical history. It also means that academics keen to reach a non-specialist readership are often wise to look elsewhere.

In the past, the career-building kudos attached to publication by well-known academic presses gave them a de facto monopoly. Such incentives are now far weaker. Lambert argues that "academic authors should not see themselves as outside the mainstream if they want to have an audience".

Christopher Clark, of St Catharine's College, Cambridge, author of Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia (Allen Lane, 2006), tends to agree: "You don't have to 'dumb down' your material to be interesting to a broader reading public. The ideal is the crossover book that impresses immediate colleagues and makes a contribution to scholarship but also awakens wider interest. Writers such as Niall Ferguson, Paul Kennedy and Natalie Zemon Davis have created a niche in which many of us now aspire to flourish. In other words, the sanctions that may once have discouraged academics from going to trade imprints have largely disappeared."

Furthermore, Clark suggests, academics may look for different kinds of publisher as their careers develop. "They start by being grateful that anyone would want to publish their work at all - at that point the notion of being published by an imprint as august as OUP is enough to make one light-headed. Markets, sales, royalties are the last thing on one's mind.

"Later, they begin to think more seriously about how to write a book that will be noticed outside their immediate subfield. This is, above all, a question of reviews. Some publishers - and they generally don't include the academic presses - are incredibly good at rustling up reviews in the daily national papers, plus The Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books and New York Review of Books.

"All that means broader recognition. It may even be important for promotions, because promotion panels at higher levels generally include people from a range of disciplines and it helps if the candidate's name is already more widely known."

There are, admittedly, some downsides to being published by general publishers. Academic presses may have more specialist editorial expertise. Although they may be less effective at getting their books reviewed in the national broadsheets or their authors on Start the Week, they are often better at getting coverage in the key peer-review journals. And they often keep their books in print for far longer. All these factors can be very significant for some academics and outweigh the boost in profile, advances and royalties that a commercial press may offer.

In most cases, of course, the income generated by a book can form a nice addition to holiday funds, but is unlikely to be life-changing. Yet it is nice to reach out beyond the academy, the extra cash is always welcome and, perhaps more important, bigger advances tend to concentrate publishers' minds.

After all, as Clark suggests: "If you are going to write a book that people will actually read - perhaps, even, in large numbers and with pleasure - why not get paid for it? These days, anyone with a 'trade' idea and a good track record is urged to get an agent (this is far more pronounced in the UK than among US or continental European academics). And once you have an agent, you are looking to secure an advance, not merely to supplement your pathetic salary and pay for a new dishwasher, but also to ensure that the publisher has an incentive to invest in the distribution and general publicisation of the book."

Adam Tooze, Gurnee Hart fellow in history at Jesus College, Cambridge, author of The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (Allen Lane, 2006), amplifies this point by describing a debate he attended in Cambridge on history publishing. According to Tooze, the agent Andrew Wylie (aka the Jackal) "justified the bankrupting advances that he demands for his clients with a hydraulic model of the book market. Books sell through visibility. There is only so much high-visibility space to go round. If you extract a huge advance from a publisher, they give your book attention and market it properly, at the expense of junk like Jackie Collins. The book buyers simply buy what is put in front of them. So if a decent crossover book by an academic gets some space, the only person who loses out is Collins."

Tooze seems very happy with his current publisher. While obviously influenced by financial factors, he also admits to a "sentimental attachment" to the Penguin imprint. "All the history and other books I cared about most when I was growing up were published by them," he says.

He is equally pleased with the editorial team: "They aim of course to sell books, but what really excites them is winning Wolfson History Prizes." Since the millennium, titles from Atlantic Books, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Weidenfeld & Nicolson and many from the Penguin stable have all received the prestigious award, alongside a number from OUP and one from Yale University Press.

Rather less impressive was the executive from CUP who responded to Wylie's challenge. "He stood up," Tooze recalls, "and in all seriousness stated that the unique selling point that CUP offered its lucky academic authors was the fact that the digital format of CUP's catalogue records merged more smoothly with's electronic catalogue system than that of any other publisher he knew of. And then he sat down."

Many writers no doubt have perfectly happy relations with their British academic publishers, or have no basis for comparison. Yet the level of dissatisfaction is very striking, which is worrying, and, unless they start fighting back fast, the UK's scholarly publishers risk losing out to mainstream presses or to their American competitors.


British publishers' invoiced sales of academic and professional books in 2007 amounted to £775 million (71 million units).

This breaks down as follows: £574 million (55 million units) in social sciences and humanities versus £201 million (16 million units) in science, technology and medicine. Over half the total sales by revenue came from the home market (£398 million), although exports (£376 million) represented a slightly larger proportion of sales by volume (36 million versus 35 million units).

Source: UK Book Publishing Industry Statistics Yearbook 2007, Publishers Association, 2008.


Sophie Goldsworthy, editorial director, academic and trade, Oxford University Press, says:

"Where a publisher such as Oxford University Press can excel is in publishing books that marry scholarly integrity with appeal to a broader audience. The Oxford brand is a byword for authoritative content, and it also opens doors, with key media players aware that we can offer authors who are the leading names in their fields, able to deliver good copy, intelligent interviews and engaging debate.

"Our PR team tailors a comprehensive campaign for each trade title, with strong networks ensuring a prominent line-up on the literary festival circuit, regular serial or extract deals in the national press, and authors frequently invited to participate in the Today programme and Start the Week on BBC Radio 4.

"Oxford's size and global reach - with offices and sales team in 50 countries - also make us stand apart from many dedicated trade publishers who tend to focus on the transatlantic axis. The editorial, marketing and promotional skills of a publisher with subject experts in every field, a rigorous and extensive network of peer reviewers and - let's face it - a degree of longevity can all pay the author dividends, securing the broadest possible dissemination and widespread coverage.

"Recent highlights from a wide range of titles that exemplify the best of this marriage of scholarly content with packaging and promotion for a general readership include David Hendy's compelling history of Radio 4, Life on Air, which won the Longman-History Today Book of the Year Award, and was reviewed everywhere from Times Higher Education to Time Out, from the Daily Mail to The Tablet.

"Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It proved that a serious economic subject can enjoy both mainstream praise and sustained sales, as it raced through seven printings in its first year, appeared on several Book of the Year lists and won the prestigious Lionel Gelber Prize. It also stimulated a good deal of discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos this winter, where (U2 singer) Bono was photographed presenting a copy to an American government official.

"Science is another frontier where general interest is best served by serious and thoughtful scholarship, with recent highlights including Peter Atkins's introduction to the laws of thermodynamics, Four Laws That Drive the Universe, and Richard Dawkins's collection, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. Dawkins's earlier book, The Selfish Gene, needs no introduction, but the recent 30th anniversary edition was perhaps as widely reviewed as the original, summed up by The Independent as "a genuine cultural landmark of our time".


Richard Fisher is executive director of academic and professional publishing at Cambridge University Press, and was for many years a commissioning editor in history and politics. He says:

"The key to any effective publishing relationship is honesty. Any publisher must be honest and straightforward about what they can and cannot do for a given author with a given project and, reciprocally, authors must be honest about their expectations and (importantly) their capacities.

"There are some great trade publishers and some great scholarly presses, and there are less good trade publishers and less good scholarly presses. Authors must be tough-mindedly realistic about their own wants and incentives, and recognise that what impresses tenure committees and hiring bodies may not, necessarily, be the same things that impress the editors of BBC Radio 4's Start the Week or the principal buyer at Waterstone's.

"If you want footnotes in untranslated Latin set on the page, and for your book to be exhibited at a specialist 60-delegate conference on, say, Byzantine studies, then it may be that the trade route is not for you. But if you want to make a splash in the Sunday papers, to appear at national literary festivals and to gain a wider public reputation, then clearly you do want a more general imprint (always assuming, of course, that you can communicate your ideas with appropriate clarity and enthusiasm - it is painfully easy to write turgidly about a very interesting topic). The problem is wanting both sets of services from the same publisher at the same time. Realistically, that won't happen.

"The other thing that has to be borne in mind is how small, in topic terms, is the window of opportunity through which academic authors may be gazing. If you work in anything quantitative, seriously critical, analytically hard, then it's going to be extremely difficult to persuade one of the major trade houses that your proposal is likely to interest that notoriously elusive figure, 'the interested general reader'. History (but by no means all of history), biography and certain parts of popular science dominate this world in ways that I know colleagues from other disciplines often find frustrating, not to say irritating. In practice, we are talking about the potential output of a very small part (perhaps less than 5 per cent) of the British academic community.

"The other, perhaps not unjustified, perception is that the world of serious trade non-fiction is unhealthily dominated by a metropolitan literary elite in which age, looks and media-friendliness can sometimes be privileged over other, more cerebral qualities.

"At Cambridge University Press, we publish well over 1,300 new academic books each year. Our primary focus is firmly on the worlds of higher education and the learned professions: students, faculty, practitioners and librarians. Within that cohort there may be perhaps 50 titles annually that have the capacity to reach a more general audience, and we push these as hard as we can (and spend quite a lot of money on so doing). But, as booksellers and literary editors often tell us, the existence of the other 1,250 always makes it less likely that they will take the 'trade' claims of those 50 titles as seriously as they would were they coming from another, more general house. It's partly a question of critical mass, and partly a question of being known for being very good - world-class indeed - in one sphere of publishing and less well known in another. As in all things, it's a question of choice, and being honest at the outset is the most important guarantee of happiness for both author and publisher."


For Anke Bernau, lecturer in medieval literature and culture at the University of Manchester, whose book Virgins: A Cultural History came out last year, "dealing with a publisher like Granta was a very different experience from dealing with any academic press - they are such different animals that that cannot but be the case".

She acknowledges that university presses play a crucial role in publishing important academic work that is highly specialised, heavily referenced or written in a style never likely to appeal to a wide audience. And she is sympathetic to the problems faced by the smaller university presses in particular, which are "increasingly being pressured to be profitable but are at the same time not fully autonomous".

Many rely on academics as series editors and peer reviewers, who are paid little or nothing for this work and have many other demands on their time, which can result in delays. (This can be a source of major tensions as deadlines for the research assessment exercise approach.) And low staffing levels can mean that authors get little individual attention from their in-house editors.

All this may be understandable, but it still means that the "author experience" with a trade publisher can be much more rewarding.

"Working on the book for Granta was a real pleasure," Bernau elaborates, "mainly because of the editor I was working with. He was not only intelligent and humorous and therefore wonderful to deal with, but he was hands-on in an unobtrusive way. This meant that he was always available should you need to talk something through or to ask a question (or have a panicky moment). So there was definitely an interest in the project and a personalised relationship between author and editor."

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