A Publisher of One's Own

Self-publishing is still rare for academics. But a few scholars are trying it out.

July 17, 2014

Self-published books are on the rise, to the dismay of onlookers who wonder what to expect from a sector where E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Greyoriginally published as online fan fiction by a tiny Australian e-book company – appears to be the best of the lot. More than 391,000 self-published titles appeared in 2012, according to Bowker, the official ISBN-issuing agency for the U.S. The self-published titles appear to be selling. In 2012, a quarter of Amazon’s top 100 bestselling Kindle books had been self-published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. And in 2013, readers in Britain bought 18 million self-published books, a 79 percent increase in market share compared to the year before.

Academics, meanwhile, inhabit a parallel publishing ecosystem: a constellation of university presses and journals that publish slowly, offer few economic returns, and subject all work to painstaking peer review. Scholars and publishing experts in the U.S. and Britain say self-publishing by academics remains a rarity. A handful of scholars, however, have turned to self-publishing to produce pet projects, such as blistering critiques of academic life. And others have struck away from the publishing mainstream in other ways: by founding journals, establishing independent presses and writing on blogs. Of course, much nontraditional publishing isn't self-publishing. Many online journals or independent presses have peer review that operates in ways similar to traditional academic publications.

Almost no active scholars have eschewed conventional publishing entirely. Educational technologist Martin Weller, a professor at the Open University in the UK, argued in a blog post that “external prestige is probably the greatest factor” spurring academics to chase book contracts rather than publish their own work.

“Self-publishing is seen as rather sordid,” Weller wrote, “the last recourse for the demented author who couldn’t get published anywhere else.”

Nonetheless, many scholars – particularly supporters of the open-access movement, which argues that scholarly research should be available for free online -- have grown increasingly frustrated with academic publishers in recent years, Weller said.

“Mostly publishers are making an economic decision (will this book sell?) rather than an academic one (does it add to the field?),” the educational technologist said in an email.

Academic books are almost never bestsellers, but a book that becomes a required text for a university course can be quite profitable.

“You do all the work, and the returns are very low,” Weller said. “You sign away a ridiculous amount of rights – the form includes future TV rights, merchandising, etc., but you take all the risks … if someone sues because of the book’s content it is your liability.”

Scholarly publishing can also take a long time: up to four or five years, said Steffen Bohm, a professor of management and sustainability at the University of Essex.

These woes – the plodding path to publication, the abdication of control over the material, and the concern, which Bohm also expressed, that academic presses are run to minimize economic losses rather than for the good of the scholarly community – have prompted some professors to venture outside the monastic confines of academic publishing.

Fabio Rojas, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, said he’s “still a believer in regular publishing.” (His next book is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.)

“The reason that academia has value is that we’re people who engage in self-criticism,” Rojas said. “We have peer review. It’s not perfect, it doesn’t always work, and a lot of garbage gets published anyway. But that’s why most of the energy in academia may be on traditionally peer-reviewed materials -- because that’s what the value added is.”

But self-publishing, the sociologist said, “is now a new tool in the tool box.”

“If I want to get something out there that doesn’t quite fit the mold, then I have this new option,” he said. “What if Mark Zuckerberg had to go to the Myspace people and ask permission to start Facebook? That would be absurd. Same thing with academia: after a certain point you have to say, if this is a truly good idea, you have to take the initiative and get it out there.”

In 2011, Rojas self-published a book called Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure. The book emerged from an online advice column he had written for graduate students.

“People for years kept saying, 'You should write this as a book,' ” he said. “And I thought, no press would ever publish it, because I’m blunt about academia.” (The title’s fast-and-loose spelling might not have passed muster at a scholarly press either.)

The book now sells for $3 online. Rojas said the ability to charge a low price was another advantage self-publishing offered.

“Anybody in the world who has a cell phone, a desktop – they can read this for three bucks or less. And I’ll give it to you for free if you’re financially strapped,” he said. “This doesn’t replace my normal academic publishing, but what it does is it reaches a new audience.”

Like Rojas, Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Emory University, has a book forthcoming with a scholarly press. But Bousquet is also planning to self-publish two books in the next few years.

One of the books will collect a number of blog posts and articles the English professor has previously published. Like Rojas, he plans to take advantage of the freedom self-publishing affords in order to write frankly about academia.

Bousquet’s “real motivation” to self-publish, he said, was “to have complete freedom of content.” He described his book’s content as “frequently inflammatory.”

Despite self-publishing’s increasing ubiquity in non-academic circles, Rojas and Bousquet are still anomalies for incorporating self-published books into their academic (or, at least, academic-related) output.

Roger Whitson, an assistant professor of English at Washington State University, said he thought self-publishing books was, on the whole, an activity that only already-tenured professors could afford to undertake.

“Part of the reason why academics publish pre-tenure is that they want to receive credit for becoming a specialist in the field, and one of the main ways they see that happening is through peer review,” Whitson said. “For pre-tenure people who haven’t established a name in the field, academic publishing is really important.”

After receiving tenure, more academics are in a position “to experiment and demand more from different publishing models,” he said.

Whitson has self-published a book of his own: a collection of writing from his postdoctoral program at Georgia Tech. “I would never consider it a major publication of mine,” he said. “It was just something that was fun.” Whitson does not list the book on his C.V.

Thad McIlroy, an electronic publishing analyst, noted that pre-tenured academics who self-publish might face another problem: marketing.

“For folks who are prominent in the field, they’re going to be able to self-publish and be feasible in the market,” McIlroy said. “For people who aren’t prominent, they’re going to have a credibility problem.”

Although self-publishing poses no impediments, it does not “guarantee an audience,” the publishing analyst said.

“There’s so much noise out there that to be heard above any of the noise, regardless of the topics you’re publishing on, is hugely difficult,” McIlroy said. But for academics willing to forego “the endorsement of the learned journal or the learned university press,” the self-publishing channel is “quite accessible,” he said.

At nearly all institutions, self-published content plays no part in tenure decisions.

Weller, from the Open University, said the exclusion of self-published material from tenure evaluations should not be an ironclad rule. “[I]f a self-published book went on to become highly influential (for the right reasons) in its field, then why shouldn't it count?” Weller said.

Despite the ease of self-publishing, the benefits of peer review and the stamp of an authoritative publisher remain irresistible currency in the academic world. Stephen Robertson, director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, noted: “If you’re wedded to the book as the form you want to publish in, there are few advantages to self-publishing.”

In other words, why would a scholar publish in a traditional form – the monograph – but in an untraditional way?

For an academic to self-publish a book is rare. For an academic to self-publish a blog post, on the other hand, is increasingly common. And blogging, too, can be a way to escape the strictures of traditional scholarly publishing.

“Self-publishing is how we live now,” Bousquet said. “Self-publication is a name for the many other forms of communication that precede and follow the emergence of the traditional book. In some cases you may see the replacement of the traditional book, or you may see the traditional book being more of a print-on-demand kind of thing.”

Whitson said he thought forms of self-publishing such as blogging should be taken into account when assessing a scholar’s bid for tenure or promotion.

“I think ideally it would be great to maybe have a number of different ways that scholars can communicate with each other that are recognized by academia,” Whitson said. “I’m a big advocate for them recognizing, in some way, my blogging activity as part of my research while also acknowledging that it’s not the same thing as a full-length monograph.”

Blogging is a common practice among a younger generation of scholars. Many academics – for example, scholars like Whitson who are involved with digital humanities -- find that many of their scholarly conversations take place online.

Other scholars, however, aim for a middle ground. They want to avoid the hassles of academic publishing, but they don’t want to abandon the long-cherished forms that scholarship tends to take: the review, the article, the monograph. And they hesitate to publish through Amazon or through similar websites like Smashwords or Lulu, which publish all manuscripts without any screening process.

The online, open-access journal Sociological Science is one example of how scholars have tried to develop alternative publishing models. The journal is peer-reviewed: well-regarded sociologists select which papers to publish. But the journal does not offer editorial suggestions, and it publishes all accepted papers within 30 days of receiving them.

Bohm, from the University of Essex, has found yet another way to avoid the frustrations of scholarly publishing. In 2005 he co-founded Mayfly Books, an independent open-access press. The press is run by a group of academics, Bohm said. (Mayfly’s website declares itself an alternative to the publishing industry, which, the website claims, “is no longer in public hands and hence fails to represent any public.”)

Mayfly Books reviews its manuscripts, but does so quickly.

“We have published stuff that between the conception of the idea and having it in print, it took nine or ten months,” Bohm said.

The Essex professor said some concerns with scholarly publishing were endemic to the UK.

“In the UK you literally have Oxford and Cambridge, and that’s more or less it,” Bohm said. American university presses rarely show up at academic conferences in Europe, he added, which makes it difficult for European academics to establish connections with publishers overseas.

“I think there’s a need to establish new academic university presses to increase competition and to not just run it for making profits, as it were, although I don’t have much hope,” he said.

Between fed-up academics and an array of new publishing technologies – as well as strong ideological support, in some corners, for the idea that all published research should be free – scholarly publishing seems like particularly fraught terrain. Despite the noise, however, most academics continue to publish in traditional channels.

“Publishers and academics need to get back to a mutually beneficial relationship,” Weller said. “[I]t has become increasingly antagonistic.”

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