A little tailoring can sew up chance of success

November 7, 2003

Customising articles for specific publications improves your chances of making it into print, writes Nick Saunders.

When it comes to publishing, academics inhabit a world unrecognisable to the public. We neither write nor read like other people. For us, the printed word is a tool, not a pastime.

There is no fail-safe guide to getting published, peer review sees to that.

But there are points to consider and mistakes to avoid. Strategies differ between disciplines and for articles, monographs and edited volumes, all of which are weighted differently by the research assessment exercise. As academic book publishers focus increasingly on student texts, it is advisable to develop a dissemination strategy for your research. The first step is to publish in a range of journals - create a track record, develop and hone a style, and build confidence.

The most frequent mistake is taking a piece of research (typically a PhD chapter), writing 8,000 words in a generic academic style, then sending it to several journals simultaneously. The hope is that the editors will somehow divine its worth, put everything into their "house style" and send you an acceptance letter. This hardly ever works. Getting published, like the research it spreads, is a skill not a right.

Unlike other authors, academics write for free, spreading knowledge and understanding for their own disciplines - something called the greater good - and the éminence grise of the RAE. Yet, where we differ, our publishers do not. Academic publishers are as hard-headedly commercial as trade publishers. The rules of engagement are the same, albeit tailored to a specialised market of students, academics and university libraries, rather than airport bookshops. They are driven by profit, not by intellectual worthiness alone. Never lose sight of this if you want to get published.

We all develop our own approaches. I have often found it useful to turn the process on its head. Instead of writing something first and hoping it will fit somewhere, scan a range of journals, look at their word limits, their academic strengths and their orientation (theory and/or empirical).

Choosing a suitable journal immediately focuses your article - you know how many words to write, what aspect of your research to emphasise, the style of referencing, bibliography and the possibility of illustrations. This formula, if ruthlessly applied, frees you to be creative within that framework, and to wield the editors' scissors before they do. In other words, write for the journal you have chosen. It opens the doors to inspiration, makes an editor's job easier and helps your article stand out.

Book publishing should be approached with similar attention to detail, whether monograph or edited volume. You know your field, but search Amazon and the British Library online catalogue to avoid nasty surprises.

Where once an already published similar book might have deterred other publishers, today many are keen to have a key topic on their own list.

Having identified a publisher, don't phone for a chat - that will come later. Instead, sell yourself and your manuscript in a short covering letter, accompanied by a CV, a brief synopsis of the book, a sharp assessment of the competition (why yours is better), a list of chapter headings, a sample chapter and a realistic deadline.

Finally, depending on your aspirations and ability, don't forget the public. Although many academics have neither the desire nor talent to write popular articles or books, there are benefits for those who do. Apart from the surprise of being paid (albeit usually not much), you become identified with your subject by the public and influential beyond academia. Also, your prose becomes clearer and more accessible, which can improve your academic writing and lecturing styles.

Getting published is all about originality, clarity, precision and style, and placing a suitably tailored manuscript in the right hands. We all have to do it, so why not get it right?

Nick Saunders is lecturer in material culture in the department of anthropology, University College London.

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