It was one of those clinking-glasses, late-night, after-conference gatherings in which colleagues kvetched over the ills of academe. For the topic of scholastic publishing there was instant consensus for the thesis that there isn’t much payback for the amount of work than goes into a book. I innocently blurted out, "I know. I just got my third-year royalty check and it was a lousy $50." Dead silence. Finally a good friend quipped, “You got a royalty check? What’s it look like?”
That was more than 20 years and four books ago. It’s gotten much worse. Recently I received an e-mail from a scholar asking me to alert members of an organization with which I’m involved that a particular publisher had bilked him through a series of unethical practices. I had to tell him that my role with the group was such that I could not do investigative reporting, nor could I engage the organization in activities such as economic boycotts that are expressly forbidden by my group’s charter. But the thing is, he’s probably accurate in his cataloging of abuses: poor production, nonexistent editing, rude encounters with staff, and an abruptly canceled contract.
We may be on the cusp of a post-publishing academy, but it’s not here yet. Some professors are in the uncomfortable position of needing a book for tenure review, but finding their options limited. Once-proud publishing houses have gone the way of TWA, or have been bought by corporate giants looking for blockbusters consumed by tens of thousands, not research tomes read by tens. Academic presses are falling like autumn leaves, and those that remain have pared operations to the bone. Into the void we have seen the emergence of dodgy operations that cater to desperation, not the advance of knowledge. What’s a scholar — especially junior faculty — to do?
First, here are some things you should avoid doing. Number one on that list is contact with companies that wants you to pay them to publish your book. So-called "vanity presses" find easy marks among panicked scholars approaching tenure review. Don’t be a victim. It’s child’s play for a tenure committee to spot vanity press books, and trying to pass one off as legit is more likely to backfire than succeed — think tenure denied and thousands of dollars lighter in the pocket for a poorly produced book unlikely to be in any library near you.
You should investigate recent titles from any publisher you are considering. If you don’t like what you see in those books, chances aren’t good you’ll like what the publisher would do with yours. Pay special attention to design. A good designer can make pyrite sparkle like real gold, but there are also some very bad designers out there. Avoid the prima donnas, those who view the written word as clutter that competes with their utterly "brilliant" designs. In academic publishing, clean and clear generally trumps frippery, irony, and cutting-edge (in the designer’s mind) coolness.
Academics don’t have many cards they can play, but some things can be negotiated, so don’t just sign any contract put in front of you. You can, for instance, ask for the right to approve the design and to write your own illustration captions. You should also negotiate copy editing. Who will do it? Do you have the right to approve edits? Do you have the right to change copy editors? (Most presses subcontract copy editing and quality is wildly uneven.)
It is vital that you negotiate the terms under which you or the publisher can withdraw a project, and the consequences of cancellation. You may not be able to do much more than secure your own right to withdraw without consequences, but that’s important: It protects you from being sued to recover costs associated with the project. If there’s an advance — very rare for a first book – negotiate things such as keeping it if the publisher reneges, and what happens if you die before delivering the project. Make sure it’s specified what control you have over you own work. Can you make it available to students? (Probably not!) Can the publisher reassign the project? (Don’t agree to such a thing.) What about foreign rights?
Above all, very carefully negotiate all delivery dates. Err on the side of caution. Publishers are delighted with early manuscript delivery; they can play hardball if it’s late. Negotiate every time limit you can. Don’t forget – because publishers will – that you’re also a classroom instructor. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll find yourself with five days to approve a copy edited manuscript that will show up during finals week!
There are many things to which you’re unlikely to get presses (especially university presses) to accede. Many presses lack staff and budget for developmental editing, securing image copyright permissions, or indexing. You can try, but I doubt you’ll secure a promise to use a union printer. Nor is it likely (outside of the disciplines of art and photography) that a press will invest in expensive glossy papers for images, so think about using only those that will scan well on regular paper. If you expect the press to do aggressive marketing of your book, dream on. It’s also unlikely you can negotiate royalty percentages but – as my friends and subsequent experiences attest – you’ll be lucky to see any!
The press will also have expectations that may or may not be written into the contract. If you have a lot of illustrations or if the quality of them is crucial, many publishers ask you to secure a subvention to underwrite part of the cost. That’s reasonable, given that they can’t afford to lose money on your book. Think before you agree. Secure commitments (departmental funds, outside groups, underwriters), as you may be talking thousands of dollars. The press also has the right to expect you to submit careful work, not treat it as a PR firm designed to make you look good. You should proofread and copy edit carefully before the work goes to a copy editing service. And know that the press will not back you if you plagiarize or violate copyright laws.
Civility is an unwritten expectation. Publishers hold the ultimate trump card – they don’t have to deal with jerks. You can request certain edits and you should ask the press to correct mistakes, but don’t sweat the small stuff. As a journal editor, I’ve encountered authors who want to battle every semicolon, interrogative, and word change. Several hold the view that they shouldn’t be edited. They are usually invited them to submit their golden prose elsewhere.
Bottom line: Kvetching is therapeutic, but these days there are just a few letters' difference between academic and anemic publishing. If you’re new to the game, good luck and be careful. You don’t have to settle for anything, but you probably will have to settle for less than you’d like. Publishing is probably a means to an end (tenure) for most. Fame is unlikely, and “fortune” is an occasional $50 check – if you’re lucky! If you need payback beyond tenure, good luck. Ask those of us who’ve published more than one book why we bother and we’ll go Cicero on you. Virtue is its own reward.