Pressing a bitter battle of words

November 15, 1996

The failings of university presses are notorious among academics - but authors have their own shortcomings. Brian Brivati outlines a charter for a better working relationship between both sides.

Every author I know has a horror story about academic publishers. Manuscripts that sat unread on editors' desks for years before being rejected. Readers' reports that were for a different book or on an earlier draft. No advances and long delays in paying tiny royalties. No corrections allowed at proof stage on pain of financial penalty - Pounds 1 a comma. No marketing strategy beyond inclusion in a catalogue. A pricing policy that ensured minimal sales.

Dealing with three or four different people as the stages of production and the staff changed: each of whom seemed to know less about the project than the others. The sale of the list your book is on from one publisher to another without your knowledge; the sale of the publisher! Losing or ruining illustrations. Long periods of frustrating and depressing silence. An overall failure to invest in keeping authors because of the assumption that there are a dozen more just waiting for the prestige of publishing. This is, of course, worst in the presses of the oldest universities and their satellites, but the research assessment exercise has made things bad everywhere.

Every publisher I know has a horror story about academic authors. Manuscripts that arrive a year late and twice the contracted size. Dem- ands for huge advances for books that will lose money. The attempt to rewrite the entire manuscript at proof stage irrespective of cost. A failure to read stylesheets. An assumption that every minute of every day should be spent on that particular book. An inability to grasp the economics of modern publishing. This is at its worst in the oldest universities and among their satellites but the research assessment exercise has made things bad everywhere.

The key to effective publishing is communication between authors and presses: each has a responsibility and self-interest in keeping the other happy. The problem, says Sean Magee, who has experience of both sides as an author and as a former editor with Blackwells, is expectations. Each side is unrealistic about what to expect from the other. Unrealistic expectations on the author's side extend to potential sales and the economics of promotion. On the other side the presses' expectations and imaginations tend to stay stubbornly low because they either cannot afford or do not need to take a risk.

Geoffrey Goodman, who has edited academic journals for many years, maintains that the problem with a press such as Cambridge is its deep conservatism. This might be because of its success in creating relatively stable export markets but Goodman worries that its "complete lack of imagination" will eventually cost the press dearly.

I love books and enjoy the process of producing them. By and large, I have had good working relations with publishers but I have suffered long delays and silly errors, and I have also, as an editor, watched appall- ing neglect of a promising series. I have also argued unsuccessfully for remotely approp-riate rates of advance or royalties from both Manchester University Press and Leicester University Press and felt that both these organisations lacked any real sense of connection with authors - they did nothing to keep me and so I moved on. Individuals are what matter in publishing and individuals are increasingly mobile. But the real pressure is on people trying to publish their first book, who are still somewhat awed by the process of publishing.

While I acknowledge that academics can be inept, we are in the end the ones who make the product. Without authors the industry would grind to a halt. The core of my argument is that authors in the areas I know best, humanities and social sciences, should demand a better deal. In return, academics should keep to their contracts and the result will be a greater financial reward for authors and better quality production for both authors and publishers. The complaints listed above are from specific academics and publishers: none of whom was prepared to go on the record. It is madness for two sides of an industry who are reliant on each other to have such fears about openness.

The pressure on academics comes directly from the RAE. The accountants of the various presses must have jumped with joy when the terms of the original exercise were announced. Years of decline seemed at an end: academics would be forced to publish. This massive transfer of power has gone largely uncommented on in the profession collectively, but individually the stories abound. The pressure of the RAE spurred colleagues all around the country to speed up their research programmes and try to get contracts. The response of the presses was to reduce the royalties of people demanding faster publication and, in some cases, to push the costs of publication increasingly onto the authors.

An outfit in Wales opened which charged PhD students to publish their doctorates. With an overall explosion in the number of titles published across the trade, this will top 100,000 new titles for the first time this year. If the changes brought about by the RAE had been accompanied by a corresponding wind of change through the presses things might be different. But did the presses acknowledge or plan for the pressures on their major suppliers? Did they adopt a stakeholding approach and look at new ways of publishing or of integrating new technology into their processes? No. Their editorial and marketing procedures stayed very much as they were.

The context of the academics' rage and frustration is now rather different - with job opportunities increasingly tied to publications either banked or expected. The pressure on publishing comes from a general slump in the market, combined with a rise in electronic self-publishing. As the latter becomes more mainstream, academics will not need the presses to publish their monographs and presses that have not diversified will go to the wall. Electronic publishing is going to move increasingly into the most specialised end of the market as new generations of academics, expert with the technology, come through. Books will continue to be an essential part of the scholarly world but they will be even more tightly concentrated, with very few in the mass market and many in niche quality sectors.

Publishing research over the Internet makes a great deal of sense because it is the only medium that allows immediate and ongoing debate about the work to be accessed by everyone interested. To ensure that what remains of book publishing continues to flourish publishers and authors will have to work much more closely together.

While concentrating on publishers' sins I acknowledge that academics could do more. With this in mind I present a draft code (see panel) of practice for academic authors and publishers. The THES Code should be agreed between the two parties when first contact is made. Legal minds will have to determine its place in law, but I see it more as a mutual undertaking to communicate properly and a recognition we are in this together, so if the worst arguments can be avoided, so too can some of the stress of working in this profession.

Brian Brivati is senior lecturer in history, University of Kingston.

The THES Charter for Publishers

* To acknowledge receipt of proposal and tell authors what is going to happen next * To reply to a proposal within two months of receipt with update or response (where rewrites are demanded these should be specified and a reasonable time allowed) * To send, within two weeks of agreement to publish, contracts and stylesheets and to be open to negotiation on these (contracts should not be "take it or leave it" ) * To notify author of change of personnel dealing with the project * To allow 10-15 per cent corrections, beyond printer's errors, at proof stage free of charge * To give author final say, on cover, blurb and catalogue entry; to keep price of hardback realistic * To ensure that authors' suggestions on marketing are followed up * To ensure that review copies are sent with follow-up to key target reviews editors * To buy at least one case of wine for a launch party and forward copies of reviews to the author The THES Charter for Authors

* To put forward only proposals for books which will be written or collections that will be edited * To read/understand contracts before signing them and challenge clauses not approved of * To read and understand stylesheets and submit material in appropriate format and on time; to inform publisher of likely delays * To ensure that MS written reflects objectives of original proposal * To return proofs on time and with the absolute minimum additional changes * To use contacts and knowledge of subject to aid in the marketing of the book * To have realistic expectations of the potential market for book.

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