How to be an Academic Superhero

iStock-143922633-superheroIn an excerpt from his new book, Iain Hay explores the process of getting your academic work published.

Publishing a book is a tremendous academic and personal achievement. A good book can very clearly launch or cement your role as a leader in your scholarly field. For example, as a 34-year-old, Paul Starr (1982) wrote the magnificent The Social Transformation of American Medicine. This landmark volume traced, in exquisite, beautifully written detail, a 200-year history of the US health care system. The book won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize as well as a host of other notable awards, including the Bancroft Prize in American History, and helped to establish Starr’s place as a leading contributor to sociology and public affairs. Aside from the career rewards book publishing can bring, ‘Having the book physically in your hands, turning the pages and remembering the blood, sweat and tears that went into it, is a moment of euphoria’ (Birkhead, in Evans et al., 2014).

Books generally offer more substantial and less ephemeral scholarly contributions than journal articles. As Paul Starr’s magnum opus did, books can stand as major statements in a broader research and writing career as well as on your office bookshelves. A book allows you to explore and tease out complex ideas in more detail than is possible in shorter forms of publication. As your publication count grows, so you may find that your recollections and appreciation of the relative importance of most of your papers, commentaries and reviews diminishes. But even though more and more books are now published in electronic form, most are still issued as tangible artefacts and contribute to that sense that you are adding to the permanent record of scholarship in ways that journal paper writing may not.

In some academic contexts, publishing a book may be critical to your career. Indeed, Otis (2008) suggests that in the United States securing tenure at most research universities requires publication of at least one book. For many early-career scholars this means converting a dissertation – generally written for a particular purpose and for an audience who have to read it – into a book, which has readers who need to be convinced they want to read it. William Germano’s (2013) book, From Dissertation to Book, provides careful counsel on this sometimes challenging task. Germano has also written another very successful book entitled Getting it Published (2016), which focuses on what publishers do and offers detailed advice on how to traverse publication successfully from contract to next book. If you wish to know more about the publishing process, you may find these volumes provide useful supplements to the material set out below, which moves quickly through book publishing practices for career success.

Find the Right Publisher

There are at least four key matters to take into account when looking for the right publisher for your book. First, which publisher appears to be the best ‘fit’? Be sure to match your topic with the publisher. Who published the books you have cited in the work you are proposing to the publisher? Who is publishing the best work in your field? As noted in Chapter 18 most book publishers have particular markets and audiences that they announce on their websites. As well as matching the topic and market to the publisher, give thought to the length of your book. Some publishers have now started to move towards producing short books of around 25,000 to 50,000 words and have special series for this purpose. So, there is growing scope for shorter volumes as well as the ‘traditional’ 100 000–200 000-word productions. Look too for any book series that may be relevant. Contact the series editor directly and ask if s/he would be interested in considering the work. With a series editor’s imprimatur, you may get a better chance with an editor. The second matter to take into account is whether the publisher is credible. Do they have a good reputation? Publishing with a high-quality press will give you a great deal of career confidence and will also assure prospective employers of your abilities.

Do not make the mistake of sending your PhD to a dodgy publisher who has sent you an unsolicited email expressing their wish to publish your PhD without any revision. Some ‘publishing houses’ appear to fish for prospective publications by monitoring institutional thesis repositories and other records of PhD graduation, and then sending emails to recent graduates indicating their interest in publishing the work with little or no editorial input and oversight. Aside from the fact that your thesis may already be available freely through institutional open access initiatives, publishing with such an organization will do nothing to advance your academic career. By contrast, it may actually harm it by damaging your reputation and constraining your copyright capacity to publish further from your work. If you receive any unsolicited approach from a publisher check their bona fides very, very carefully.

Indeed, in any quest for a good publisher, review online resources extensively and speak with staff in your university research services office and library to assess the quality of publishers. Who do published colleagues recommend? Ask around. And do not be coy about making clear your ambitions to publish a book. While some less-than-charitable colleagues may mock your ambitions, most others will be supportive.

And you will probably find that others who have gone down the book publishing path successfully will be only too happy to help. Third, find out about the publisher’s markets and marketing. Which publisher’s books come to your attention on a day-to-day basis? Which publishers do you and colleagues pay attention to? Which publishers sell into markets relevant to your work? For example, if your book is about indigenous environmental management in Canada, is a UK-focussed publisher going to be in your best interests? Does the publisher distribute their books internationally? This can be difficult to assess accurately and is worth inquiring about. Some major ‘global’ publishing houses operate as a loosely interlinked collection of more or less independent regional entities and so while you may believe you will have access to international marketing opportunities, the reality may be different. Sales of your book may be confined to the much smaller local region of the publisher.

Finally, how long will it take to get your book published? Find out how many months or years will elapse between contract and hard copy and consider that time frame against your personal and professional needs (e.g., time to next promotion or to a prospective job relocation). It can take several years for a book to see the light of day.

Develop a Proposal

Once you have found a prospective publisher, you will need to prepare a proposal for them to evaluate. Most reputable publishers provide proposal outlines online. You can also use one of those forms as a model if the publisher you wish to approach does not offer any such guidance. Alternatively, write to the publisher advising that you wish to submit a proposal and seeking their advice on matters they need considered. Box 19.1 provides some indication of the sorts of material that may be expected.

In your proposal you will need to justify your work and sell your capabilities to deliver a high-quality manuscript, on time. Be truthful. Do not exaggerate, but do not be unduly or overly modest about the book or your own capabilities. As Box 19.1 indicates, you will also need to point to the book’s likely markets. Frost (2011) makes an interesting observation about this: The publisher will need to know which established markets your book will sell to. If you tell them it is like nothing else, you’re actually telling them there’s no established market. That is the last thing they want to hear because it takes a lot of time and money to create a market from scratch. If, however, you can describe your book as structured like Writer A’s, or containing a discussion that counter-argues Writer B’s, they know straight away who else they might sell to.

Write your proposal carefully. Especially if you are an author unknown to the publisher they will be assessing you and the quality of your work on the basis of the proposal.

When it’s time to send your proposal to potential publishers (see Box 19.2), two important points need to be remembered. First, even if you have already written the book, do not send them the entire manuscript unsolicited. Send the proposal and a sample chapter or section, being sure it is a good one! Second, deal with one publisher at a time – or be upfront that your work is being considered elsewhere. Some publishers ask about simultaneous multiple submissions in their proposal form. If you really wish to approach several publishers at the same time, ask if they will consider your work under these terms or do they demand sole agency? Whatever you do – single publisher or several – let the publishers know. ‘Keep in mind that if two or more presses like your book and want to offer you a contract after they have invested time in [reviewing] your manuscript, the ones you turn down are going to be unhappy, and you might want to work with them in the future’ (Otis, 2008).

Negotiate a Good Contract

Good news! Your book proposal has successfully navigated the process set out in Box 19.2 and has been accepted by the publisher who has sent you a lengthy contract to consider and sign. What scope do you have to tailor this to suit your specific needs and ambitions? The answer is, not much. Most reputable book publishers have standard contracts that specify their own responsibilities in the production of a book as well as those of the author (or editor). The contract usually assigns to the publisher the full and exclusive right to publish the work. It will stipulate the format and deadlines for the manuscript submission, including electronic details, numbers of figures, tables, photographs and other illustrations, and word count. It will also set out royalty rates, information about any advance payments, details of complimentary copies for the author, and describe the author’s responsibilities for obtaining permissions, returning proofs and providing an index. Unless you are already well established as an academic superhero, you will probably find little scope to significantly amend important elements of a book contract – such as royalty levels. Do not expect to make much – if any – money out of publishing an academic book. Royalty rates usually lie between 5 and 15 per cent of publishers’ net receipts and as, Berlatsky (2014) notes, many successful scholarly books sell only 350– 1000 copies globally! Typically, contract negotiations are around the ‘margins’, such as who pays for indexing (you or the publisher), how many complimentary copies of the book you will receive, the timing of manuscript receipt and processing, who is to be involved in the important issue of cover design, and publisher support for marketing activities such as a book launch.

Although there may not be too much scope for amendments to a contract, do remember that because it is an agreement between you and the publisher you are just as entitled to make specific demands as they are. Often a book contract will contain a clause noting that you will offer your next book to the publisher before presenting it to any other. You may be happy with this, or you may wish to keep your options open and so prefer to delete the appropriate clause. In my experience, publishers have never actually chased me for violating the ‘next book’ provision. Moreover, even if you did offer the publisher your next book without any desire to publish with them, you could always refuse to accept the terms of any second book contract. Before you sign a contract, check to see if there is an appropriate lawyer at your institution who is able to cast their critical eye over it. Or you may wish to consult your relevant society of authors. There are many of these around the world (e.g., Australian Society of Authors; The Authors Guild (USA); New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc) Te Puni Kaituhi O Aotearoa; The Society of Authors (UK); The Writers’ Union of Canada) and they may check your contract, as well as offering a range of author support and representation services. You should also register with your relevant copyright or reproduction rights agency (Box 19.3). Their missions vary, but most work to ensure that appropriate payments are made to creators (e.g., authors) by government, educational bodies and other users of copyrighted materials. So, for example, material copied for classroom teaching purposes can be a source of revenue to the relevant author. Sometimes, these payments can be relatively generous. In my own experience, copyright agency payments often exceed publisher royalties.

Write the Book… Sell the Book

And now for the easy part – writing the book. Once you are contracted to produce a book you can set about the labour required to complete it. This is a time you will need to marshal all of the research skills, time management skills and other skills discussed in this book. When you have finished your manuscript on time, submit it to your commissioning editor. Surprisingly, because on-time delivery is quite uncommon, your punctuality may endear you to your commissioning editor and support your next book proposal! After your manuscript has been submitted and checked, it will be copy-edited and moved through production. During this process, and as with journal articles, you will receive correspondence from the editor, copy-editor and others about the manuscript before it goes to print. You are also likely to be asked to provide more information to the publisher about marketing opportunities (Box 19.4) and to write ‘blurbs’ for the cover and promotional material and even to contribute to a publisher’s blog in ways that link the book to current events. Although it can be tedious, give careful attention to the publisher’s requests for assistance on marketing matters. Your ambitions to maximize the book’s audience are aligned!

And do give thought to some of the many ways you can help to promote your book (Box 19.5). Do not be shy about letting others know that your book is available. You will have spent a great deal of time and energy producing it. You have something worth saying. And people are so often busy with their own work and lives they may not be aware of the work that has consumed your every waking hour for months or years. Tell them about it!


Read this piece in full in Iain Hay’s new book How to be an Academic Superhero out now


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