Reading and Publishing

Last week I was at a train­ing event in Reading on pub­lish­ing in the Arts. I only stopped the one day. It wasn’t bad, but there was noth­ing that we couldn’t have in a more focussed form from the Leicester fac­ulty of Arts. I also felt that I was com­pletely as cross-purposes with the oth­ers as to the point of publishing.

The aim of the sem­inar I was in was to help post-grads pub­lish a book, because, it seems, post­gradu­ates want to have their thesis avail­able in book form. This is baff­ling as it doesn’t tally at all with my own view of pub­lish­ing a thesis. If I pub­lish my thesis I will want it to be read. The fact that it may or may not be a book is irrel­ev­ant. The book is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

An example of the dif­fer­ence between the two views was dur­ing a ses­sion on pro­du­cing camera-ready copy for pub­lish­ers. It would seem that IB Tauris, to take an example, are ask­ing for some books to be copy-edited, proof-read and type­set by the author. They also want the author to get state­ments vet­ting the book. My ques­tion in this sem­inar was “If we’re writ­ing the book, vet­ting the book and pro­du­cing the book then why do we need a pub­lisher? Why not go via print-on-demand?”

The answer was two-fold. One was the gate­keeper argu­ment, the other was sales. I’ll deal with the gate­keeper first.

The gate­keeper argu­ment is that it’s not just a mat­ter of pub­lish­ing. It’s also where you pub­lish. Publishers are gate­keep­ers, ensur­ing a stand­ard or qual­ity. But this is rub­bish. If I’m get­ting the reader’s reports it’s not the pub­lisher who is main­tain­ing the qual­ity. It’s me. Further pub­lish­ers will pub­lish some­thing if they think it will sell regard­less of reader’s reports. The gate­keeper argu­ment falls over.

More per­suas­ive is the sales argu­ment. This is that the pub­lisher will send out review cop­ies and push the book onto pub­lish­ing lists mak­ing it more vis­ible. A self-publisher could do this, but you’d hope the pro­fes­sional pub­lish­ers would be bet­ter at it. This is a more dif­fi­cult argu­ment to rebut.

It’s not impossible though. A mono­graph can cost over fifty pounds, and I’ve pos­ted books here with costs much, much higher. The increase over­head makes increased costs. Do the extra sales on mar­ket­ing off­set the sales lost through higher prices. Who knows? There’s no stud­ies done. However, I think it should be pos­sible to pub­lish a book with a free end cost with the help of the AHRC. The AHDS is the per­fect repos­it­ory for this. As one PDF file a book could be left in the AHDS and made avail­able for free. Obviously you wouldn’t want just any­thing here, but it would be feas­ible to provide reader reports to the same stand­ard as reques­ted by cur­rent pub­lish­ers. Rather than being avail­able to select schools, the book becomes avail­able to every­one – even the pub­lic. The pub­lish­ers are no required. This will no doubt make them jolly happy as I’m told time and again that they make very little profit on schol­arly pub­lish­ing. If we factor pub­lic­a­tion costs into grants then there is no reason at all for AHRC fun­ded work not to be openly accessible.

Ultimately it might be time to ask the obvi­ous ques­tion – what are we pub­lish­ing for? To dis­sem­in­ate inform­a­tion or to feed the pub­lish­ing system?


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. Cornelius says:

    Alun, although I can­not pos­sibly copy the style of your blog entry, it’s smart what you say, as always. However there is more to be said (pub­lish­ing mat­ters always get me going!). Publishing books in UK aca­demia is neither about dis­sem­in­at­ing con­tent nor about “feed­ing the pub­lish­ing sys­tem”. In fact it is about feed­ing the assess­ment cul­ture and doing well in RAEs, that have indeed become some­thing like an end in them­selves. That’s the one and only reason why post­grads need to worry about how and when to get their first book out. For all other pur­poses, Research Council fun­ded online pub­lic­a­tions at AHDS are far super­ior, for the very reas­ons you men­tion your­self — writes Cornelius from where the RAE can­not reach him.