Books,  publishing

Why don’t academic authors self-publish?

A Soap Box.

<Photo by MonsierLui>

I got an invite from Frank Rennie the other week to contribute a chapter to a book he is thinking of putting together around the subject of the mismatch (or distance) between academic thinking and the potential of new tools. Frank is a big fan of the self-publish sites and has suggested we eschew an academic publisher, and just publish ourselves via Lulu or Blurb.

This got me thinking as to why more academics don't do this, and still chase the book contract. It certainly isn't for the money, so it must be for the prestige. This can be broken down into personal and external I think. There is the personal prestige one feels in having a book accepted by a publisher and going through the actual process. One feels like a proper author. There are some practical advantages also – real deadlines to keep you motivated, professional copyediting and some promotion. But these practical advantages are often over-played, for example, as an author you have to suggest most of the avenues for publicity.

The external prestige is probably the greatest factor. This is strongly reinforced in the UK by the REF, which wouldn't really consider a self-published book, but also by promotion committees and just general esteem amongst colleagues. Self-publishing is seen as rather sordid and the last recourse for the demented author who couldn't get published anywhere else. It tended to smack of desperation somewhat. But that clearly isn't the case anymore (if it ever was), with the news that author Barry Eisler turned down a $500K contract to self-publish. Going it alone is seen as a sensible option.

Academic authors are not in the same position as Eisler, but they never were anyway. The return on most academic books won't buy you a yacht cap, let alone a yacht. But increasingly academics are developing what we might nauseatingly refer to as personal brand. That is they carry sufficient credibility and connections within their own networks to make self-publishing as viable as traditional publishing in terms of generating interest. Add to that they can be in charge of rights and make their books open access. So the question then is what is the aim of academic publishing? Is it to be as widely read as possible or to generate items for your CV?

So why did I go with a publisher? Well, they are doing open access so maybe, you can have a bit of both. And I don't think I've quite shaken that prestige thing.


  • Joss Winn

    Print on demand is also an option. I’ve just had a chapter published in a real book, with real editors, where the publisher and editors work on short (i.e. much more satisfying) schedules.
    “abramis is a new academic publisher that specialises in the innovative on-demand publishing model.
    Combining experience of the traditional publishing industry with expertise in new technologies and processes, as an academic publisher we offer a wide range of publishing services and solutions that are designed to meet the needs of today’s academic authors.
    Focusing on academic titles and programme related materials for students, the publishing model delivers benefits to the author in terms of premium royalty payments and also in the time taken to bring a title to market, which can be under four weeks for a finished manuscript. ”
    More info on the publishing method here:

  • Pepsmccrea

    Highly relevant argument Martin. The emergence of e-book readers (Kindle etc.) have changed the nature of publishing, but it’s hard to beat a good old print & bound…
    Joss – I suspect that the quick turnaround of your innovative service will only become more in demand. Hope it’s going well.


    To quote the name of one of my favorite blogs. “No Good Reason”.
    They are waiting for exemplars to follow the lead from. Let’s set up a faux web site to look like a prestige publisher, like Elbow Patches Ltd or PlasticTowers so self publishers can grab a veneer link.
    How does that yachting cap fit?

  • Martin

    @Alan – true. Was that comment posted from your yacht, bought on the proceeds of your book?
    @Joss & @Peps – thanks, and yes, POD changes things, but e-books even more so. I didn’t really go into ebooks, but the point of a publisher is reduced even more, and in some ways an academic book is quite well suited to an ebook. You often want it for some, but not all the content, and they aren’t the sort of books you want to display on a shelf at home as much (mine excepted of course), and their current cost is ridiculous.
    @Alan – one of my many business ideas never to be taken up is a disaggregated academic publisher. They do the filtering and charge a fee for this, so it has prestige, but then it’s published through Blurb or whatever and you get the profits. I love Elbow Patches Ltd. I am still a few quid short for the yachting cap, but I’m hoping the new book will allow me to get one with a nice gold badge on the peak.

  • patent lawyer

    Self-publishing is seen as rather sordid and the last recourse for the demented author who couldn’t get published anywhere else. It tended to smack of desperation……………

  • Emmett Stinson

    This is an inane argument, which shows a total lack of understanding of academic institutions; academia is based on peer-review. Self-published books, by their nature, cannot be peer-reviewed, and, ergo, self-publishing is not an acceptable activity for academics. There are wonderful open-source academic publishers who peer-review and then publish as both books and (free) ebooks, which is an already-established practice, but self-publishing will not become an established practice, no.

  • Judy O'Connell

    You’ve missed the most frustrating issue altogether. The reason (in Australia) is that government funding to universities is tied directly to their publishing output – and the publishing output that counts is only those avenues that are ‘ranked’. What can you do without money? [re]Evolution is crushed before it can start! Peer review, and quality of work is the other essential that cannot be ignored.

  • Martin

    @Emmett – believe me, I know all about peer-review and have written about it many times. I think you are rather missing the point – peer-review is the means by which prestige is gained. You seem to be seeing it as an end in itself. The real issue is that we have so institutionalised peer-review that it allows traditional models to be perpetuated. A few have started experimenting with different models of peer review (eg PLoS), but generally it is the thing that keeps publishers in business. There is also a strong argument that in a digital, networked world you do post-review. What I am arguing is that we have alternatives now, and not every output needs to go down the same route, and yet academics seem very cautious about exploring these. And peer review for books is a different beast than that to articles one should remember. The proposal is peer-reviewed, not the final output (except as a post-review), and really the argument then is if it will sell sufficient quantities and fit a niche – at least half of the judgement publishers make is a marketing one, not a quality, academic value one.

  • Martin

    @Judy – yes, we have the REF here in the UK which does the same. It all seems like an agreed con between publishers, research councils and the government. At times it feels like I do academic publishing to fulfill a kind of academic duty and then get on with the real discussion and debate in other spheres. But I do accept that books and (peer-reviewed) articles have a role – they’re just not the only kids in town now.

  • Judith

    Ironically, we academics who are charged with pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge through research in our disciplines also work within medieval institutions that organizationally resist change. As recently as 15 years ago, articles published electronically did not count for promotion and tenure at many universities. That has changed, as book publishing is now beginning to change. I agree with you that “it all seems like an agreed con between publishers, research councils and the government.” Yet at the same time, we are drowning in words. The real issue is no longer access to means of dissemination. Rather, the peer review publishing process and other ways that academics self promote are strategies for positioning themselves and making their words “value-added.” So yes, prestige and visibility.

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