by Kevin Ward, Jo Bullard & Dave Featherstone
This section seeks to unpack the ‘black-box’ of publishing books. It provides some guidance on different stages in producing a book, from why bother to write one, to ways of ensuring you reach your target audience.
Writing a book, whether on your own or with a colleague, is not easy! There will be plenty of times when you ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ The intellectual and organisational effort required is immense. If you are writing a monograph (a research based and authored book rather than an edited volume) there is a need to sustain an argument over approximately 90,000 words. If you are editing a book, this throws up its own challenges: introductions and conclusions need to pull together the contributions of individual chapters; and awkward contributors have to be managed! So, given this, why write a monograph or edit a book?
There are a number of reasons for producing a monograph. Some are specific to writing a book, while others are more general reasons for publishing academic work. First, writing a monograph remains a highly valued activity. The intellectual effort involved means that monographs continue to be benchmark publications, although this does differ from one country to another (Ward et al., 2009) and across different disciplines and even sub disciplines in geography. Further, there is evidence that exercises such as the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) have increasingly recognised academic monographs as important publications. Second, and in contrast to journal articles, books allow authors to produce a sustained argument. There is greater capacity to construct a serious theoretical argument and to give empirical findings a real airing. You are not constrained in the way you are when writing journal articles and may also have the freedom to be both provocative and creative. Third, monographs travel across disciplines. If you want to appeal to audiences beyond geography then writing a monograph might be a good way of going about it. They also last. Disciplines are known for the books they produce, less so for their articles. In some disciplines and sub-disciplines, books are still the mainstay of building academic reputations through publishing.
For edited collections many of these arguments also hold true. While you will not write the whole book, you will be the intellectual spark, and it will be you—perhaps with colleagues—who will put your imprint on the collection through the volume’s introduction and the conclusion. These chapters are important as they set the scene and pull together the points made in the individual contributions. Edited collections can be an effective way of uniting a group of authors working on similar subjects but from different perspectives, or of collating the uses of, or approaches to, new theoretical frameworks or specialist techniques forming a benchmark volume. Specialist conference sessions or workshops can be good starting points for such a book.
When considering writing a book it is worth looking at the profiles of different academic publishers. Think about the sort of book you want to write. Who are its intended readers? Many academic publishers are now focused on textbooks and unlikely to be interested in publishing a research monograph; however some do still specialise in this area. It is also worth checking the activities of the learned societies relevant to your field. While some society publishers have more restricted marketing and distribution systems than large multi-discipline publishers, they may be ideal for a specialist book with a specific audience. There are also examples of partnerships between learned societies and mainstream academic publishers where the society sets the agenda for the series but gains expertise and facilities from the publishing partner—one example being the RGS-IBG Book Series. Speak to academic colleagues about their experiences, visit publishers’ stands at conferences and check publisher and society websites.
Does the publisher publish in your research field and have a good reputation among intended readers?
Does the publisher produce the type of book that you want to write (e.g., textbook, monograph, edited book, conference proceedings, reference book)?
Are hardback and paperback versions published simultaneously? If not, how many hardbacks does your book have to sell before the publisher will commission a paperback run? How are they priced? Will an e- and o-book be available, and in which formats?
What marketing and distribution system does the publisher have? For books likely to appeal across disciplines it may be advantageous to choose a publisher with an appropriate range of catalogues (e.g., human geography and sociology, history, economics; physical geography and geology, engineering, meteorology).
Does the publisher have a sales team to promote books internationally?
Does the publisher send out copies to academic journals for review?
Does the publisher attend large academic conferences and book exhibitions?
Does the publisher have a track-record of accommodating specific author requirements and/or are they willing to negotiate? For example, some publishers are willing to make certain books available in economically disadvantaged countries at a locally-viable cost; some will publish a large number of figures.
If a publisher gives you the answers you hope for to most of the above questions, you have probably found the publisher for you. Unlike simultaneous submissions to journals, which are not allowed, it is permissible to submit your book proposal to more than one publisher at the same time (although you cannot hold multiple contracts!). Different publishers will react in different ways if you choose to tell them you have done this. For some it will not be a problem, for others it might be.
In the majority of cases, in order to get a book contract, you first have to write a book proposal. This is a sales document—it is your attempt to sell yourself and the book you want to write to a publisher. Before writing your proposal, and as part of identifying a potential publisher for your book, you need to consult the publisher’s website which should include instructions on how to structure and submit your proposal. Most publishers request very similar material, including the following:
A summary overview, which outlines the book’s central argument, drawing on the work of others to make an intellectual case for why such a book should be commissioned.
A detailed outline of the book’s structure and content, with a short paragraph describing each chapter, and how it speaks to the main arguments of the manuscript. This should show how the book’s arguments develop over the manuscript. For edited books, most publishers require a list of chapter titles and named contributors (and their affiliations). Many publishers require an estimate of the final length of the manuscript (and have strict limits for maximum length).
A realistic definition of the primary and secondary markets for the book.
A list and assessment of competing titles and the ways in which your book will be different from these existing publications.
Author’s/editor’s curriculum vitae and academic biographical details.
In some cases publishers also like to receive sample chapters or full manuscripts. This is particularly the case in the US, where there is a strong tradition of graduate students turning their PhDs into books in order to gain tenure. In the UK and elsewhere, revising PhDs into books is not the norm, although it does happen. And, of course, there are also certain risks involved in writing a book for a particular publisher before getting a contract. Put simply, it might not get commissioned and you then have to revise it in light of the requirements of other publishers.
For proposals for edited books you are often in the awkward position of having to approach contributors before you have a publisher, as the publisher will rarely approve a contract if the contributors are not identified. If you are unable to confirm all of your contributing authors, most publishers will tolerate some uncertainty about who will contribute to the book, but you will need to state clearly who has been approached and has agreed (if only in principle) to write chapters. You will also need to indicate what steps you will take to control the quality and consistency of the chapters and what steps will be taken to ensure the final book is coherent and balanced. Protocols for this vary. In some cases the book editor reviews each chapter and only when the book is complete is it sent out to external review; in other cases individual chapters may be sent out to external reviewers by the editor before they compile the volume. The most appropriate procedure is likely to be dictated, if not by the publisher, then by the editor’s level of expertise in relation to the breadth or depth of the subject matter.
The person you send the proposal to differs from one publisher to another. In some cases you might submit it to the general geographical list, which would mean sending it to the commissioning editor. Alternatively you might send it to a series editor, who will tend to be an academic. In some cases the academic editors have the final say on which proposals are commissioned; in others it is the commissioning editor who makes the final decision. Either way, your proposal will usually be sent for review by at least two academics in the field. These will be chosen by the series or commissioning editor, although you may have the chance to suggest possible names.
Once the editor receives the reviews they will liaise with others at the publisher or with other editors or an editorial board. The editor will then make a decision on your proposal. If the decision is to accept, then the commissioning editor will present the proposal to senior staff at the publisher for contract approval. In most cases this is straightforward, but in some cases authors might be required to make some changes to their proposal before being issued with a contract. The decision to reject a proposal, at whatever stage, can be taken for all manner of reasons. Sometimes the proposal is simply not good enough. In other cases it might be felt that the book does not fit in the publisher’s list or series. Whatever the outcome, the reviewers’ comments will be forwarded to you, so even if the proposal is not accepted you can take on board the comments when producing a revised proposal that might then be accepted elsewhere.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed book?
What is the likely readership for this book?
Who is going to read the book and who is going to buy it?
Are you aware of any competing titles? If so, how does the current proposal compare to these?
Is the author/editor the best person to produce this book? For edited books, are the proposed contributing the best/most appropriate?
Do not think that submitting the manuscript marks the end of your work! When you sign a contract with the publisher it will outline your responsibilities including specifying the expected word length and delivery date. The contract will indicate the number of presentation copies you can expect and will set out a royalty percentage. This is always low. Very few academics make any money from publishing academic monographs. The publisher will also provide guidelines on how the manuscript should be formatted.
As with journal articles, it is the author’s responsibility to secure the right to reproduce any copyright images or other material, and to pay any necessary permission fees. Sometimes publishers will agree to pay you an advance on future royalties towards these expenses. Once you pass the completed manuscript to the publisher it is likely that it will be reviewed by at least one academic referee. This should take a couple of months and you will then be expected to respond to these comments, which normally will consist of matters of substance rather than style. Typical revisions that you might be asked to make include the balancing of content, removing any repetition and reducing the length of the book (make sure it is within the word limit you agreed before you submit it!). Once you submit the final version of the manuscript it will be passed on to another section at the publisher. Typically the manuscript will go through the same stages as journal articles:
Copyediting: the publisher commissions someone to read the manuscript. They check the grammar, the spelling of the text and the references. The copyeditor will contact you with a list of queries that you will need to address before the manuscript is typeset.
Typesetting: the manuscript is typeset according to the publisher’s house style.
Proofs: you will be sent a copy of the proofs, which you will be required to check promptly for errors. A professional proof-reader may also be appointed by the publisher. At this point, an index has also to be compiled, either by you or by a professional indexer. Where ‘professionals’ are employed it is likely that you will have to pay for this against your future royalties.
Printing: the manuscript is finalised and the book is printed.
Publication: advance copies are sent to you a week or so before.
Books do not sell themselves. While the publisher will market the book it is also your responsibility as the author to do your bit, which can take a number of different forms. All publishers ask authors to complete a marketing questionnaire and provide a host of information usually including:
Short academic biographies.
Short and long descriptions of the book, including its main purpose and the thinking behind writing it.
The book’s main competitors and its USP (unique selling points).
Details of the book’s main audience.
Mailing lists/online forums on which details of the book should be circulated.
Conferences or professional meetings where the book should be displayed.
Scholarly journals that are likely to review the book.
It is worth providing as much information as you can to the publisher to make sure that you see your book marketed effectively, reviewed in journals and on sale at conferences. There is nothing worse than having invested all that time and effort in writing a book to find it not on display at conferences or not being reviewed in journals. It is also worth developing activities to ensure the insights of the book travel beyond the academy, for example, to relevant policy, public or activist communities. This can be by writing blogs drawing out the relevance of the text for key events, or writing accessible summaries of the key arguments for nonacademic publications.
Ultimately whether a book sells or not depends on a number of things. Some of these are beyond your control. What you can do as an author is to produce a clearly written and organised book that is aimed at a particular audience and then do your bit to market it wherever and whenever you can. Good luck!
Publishing is a crucial, but sometimes daunting and unexplained, part of academic life. All academic geographers are supposed to do it, but there are few formal guidelines about how best it should be done. Many of us discover how to publish by trial and error or through the mentoring and support of colleagues. Publishing and academic landscapes also change, presenting new challenges to established academics. The publishing and getting read guides have four main aims: to provide clear, practical and constructive advice about how to publish research in a wide range of forms; to encourage you to think strategically about your publication profile and plans; to set out some of the opportunities and responsibilities you have as an author; and to support you in getting your published research read.
By Helen Jarvis
by Michael J Bradshaw
by C Kinpaisby-Hill
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