Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rare Serious Query

I had lunch today with a well-established academic philosopher who is seriously considering self-publishing his next academic book.  His reasoning runs roughly as follows: He doesn't need any further academic credentials ("I'm non-promotable"); his work has already appeared in / been published by the most prestigious journals and presses ("I've already proven myself"); and the crucial chapters of the book are based on recently presented material that has been criticized and commented on by other experts in his field ("The book has already been reviewed extensively by my peers").  From this, he concludes that there's no advantage to himself or his career from publishing with the big-time University Press that is ready to offer a contract.

But he also sees positive considerations against publishing with a UP.  He claims: The UP contracts short-change authors; the rights/control that Presses claim over authors' work (including their future work) are unreasonable; the marketing/sales operations at even the best Presses are inefficient, unreliable, and even under good circumstances often ineffective; the copy-editors have become unbearably ignorant yet increasingly interventionist; the quality the physical books has declined.

Finally, he claims the following as positive reasons in support of self-publishing: He retains ownership of his work; he controls the distribution, production, and promotion of the book; the Internet and various sites (Amazon included) make it relatively easy to produce and sell the book; and (maybe?) he gives some lesser-known philosopher a chance to get a book accepted at the big-time University Press (viz., by causing there to be one less ms in the system by a well-established person).

Is he wrong?


Anonymous said...

Was he able to think of any downsides?

Anonymous said...

My worry is with permanent archiving. If he or she is willing to deposit the book at, say, PhilPapers or even working with a University library to preserve it, then that would be excellent.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great idea to me, especially if he can offer it for less than $100.

Anonymous said...

the marketing/sales operations at even the best Presses are inefficient, unreliable, and even under good circumstances often ineffective; the copy-editors have become unbearably ignorant yet increasingly interventionist; the quality the physical books has declined.

This is all true, but can he do better himself? I think that's not obvious, and is worth considering. (What would his publicity be? At least the press sends around ads, shows up at the APA and other conferences, etc. What will he do? Send emails to his friends?) Will this be an e-book only? A big pdf file? Something I'd need an e-book reader to read? Or would it be a physical book, too? A lot of relevant details seem open here. I say this as one who is not intrinsically opposed to the idea.

Doug Portmore said...

I think that it's a great idea.

Anonymous said...

It is a seriously good idea. However, will said scholar be able to convince any library to purchase the book? Will a self-published book fail to make it through the channels that convinces whoever is in charge of library purchasing to buy the book?, and on a large scale?

Anonymous said...

The thing with marketing operations at big university presses is that they can afford to be inefficient, and it may make no difference. Acquisitions departments in major research libraries know about new releases from all the big presses, and if they actively maintain their philosophy collection, any book from OUP/CUP/etc. is basically guaranteed to be purchased.

Try a search on for some lesser known philosophical treatise by OUP and you'll see just how much effect their name has on library holdings worldwide.

Anonymous said...

In a similar vein to other comments, what are we to make of the claim that control of the distribution, production, and promotion of the book is a positive reason? How much of a hassle will these tasks be for the author? Will he be able to meet his distribution goals with minimal inconvenience?

It might be that retaining ownership of the work outweighs the costs of having to manage those tasks, but this sort of control doesn't yet strike me as a further positive reason for self-publishing. I'm genuinely curious about how much work that sort of management requires.

jj said...

I can't say whether he's wrong without knowing a lot more about the situation, but I'd have some pretty serious reservations about following his example. Imperfect as the peer review system is, it nevertheless provides some kind of relatively objective stamp of approval. As a consumer of philosophy texts, I'd be a little cautious about spending my money and time on a self-published book; I'd expect it to be likely to be bad. Obviously that's defeasible, and if people whose opinions I trust tell me it's worth reading, that might outweigh the initial reluctance, but there's absolutely no question that it'd count as a negative. If one of the reasons you want to publish is that you want your ideas to be out there in the field, then you need to publish a book that will be read, and a major press will help with that.

I also don't understand some of the the particular worries raised against going the more traditional route:

"The UP contracts short-change authors"

This is presumably to some degree negotiable, but given the quantities of books that are typically sold, it'd be somewhat surprising if you could do better, financially, self-publishing. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd guess off the cuff that you'd get less than 10% of the sales you would if you published with, say, OUP. Are you going to get better than 10x the royalty margin?

"The rights/control that Presses claim over authors' work (including their future work) are unreasonable"

I haven't found this to be so in my experience; I'd like to hear which rights the author has in mind. The only reference to future work I've seen in any of my book contracts has been that the publisher has 'first right of refusal', which basically means that if you decide to publish a new book, you should give them the first chance to see if you can come to an agreement with them. You could then walk away and publish with someone else or alone, if you're unsatisfied with what's being offered.

Anonymous said...

Where are the examples of commercially successful self-published works of philosophy? I can't think of any.

And with university libraries cutting budgets, how will he convince them to buy his book? Does he have a marketing plan for the hundreds of libraries he'd like to have his book?

If he has a press ready to offer a contract, I fail to see why he thinks it would be better for him to walk away from their distribution possibilities.

Tor Hershman said...

Here's a lill' something from an unprofitable philosopher who, some say, bez most amusingly blasphemous.

Yeah, 'tis moi.
Of course you may view me wee YouTube Channel from me blog's link.

Oh yeah, the subject...I would image the main foe in his existence is too much food not lack there of sooooooo,
nay...don't self-publish.
However, WTF does moi know?

CTS said...

If this person is established in his/her area, not publishing with an established press will not have the consequences that would follow on the same move by an unknown or less established author. People in that area will quickly learn about the publication and will seek it out.

In many ways, I think this is a good move for well-known philosophers. It is an important step in altering the status quo in academic publishing.

Anonymous said...

I think self-publishing is a good idea. And posting a (free?) online version would be a good idea too; the worries about distribution would disappear. If it's an important work that people are already talking about, it won't take long for word to spread that there's an official version online. The only downside is that not all university libraries will buy it, so he'll probably make less royalties, and if there's a free online version, hardly anyone will buy the hard copy. But I doubt he's in it for the cash anyways.

PS He can probably get a student to typeset the thing in LaTeX and make it look nice for little to no money.

Anonymous said...

Tell him to post it online. The questions about distribution disappear. He can copy-edit it himself. He won't be bound by any contract.

Here's a question for your colleague: why does he still fetishize the book? Why does it need to exist in hardcopy at all?

Anonymous said...

Happy Australia Day mates!

Anonymous said...

I would be concerned about the archival implications. Will a self-published book be given a Library of Congress catalog number? Will there be any permanent record of it?
I'm not clear what self-publishing means, but I would think there was a distinction between self-publishing and open source publishing (ie for a journal). There is an Open Monograph Press format, but that is designed to work with publishing houses to make publications more accessible and affordable.

Dan said...

Self publishing has improved massively in recent years. One can now do self publishing without any upfront cost, and with reasonably priced books. You can get an ISBN for free for the book. Registering the copyright costs $45 Further info here:

The last one is connected to Amazon in some way – you can see the webpage has a similar format and I got there via a link on Amazon…

You keep the copyright, it is easy and hassle free. The book will be printed on demand when someone orders a physical copy from Amazon etc, Kindle downloads can be made available. Most importantly the price will be much lower than for a title from an academic press – a philosophy book will be the same price as a self published novel. At it will still come with better royalties. This means many more people can afford to buy the book; and people are more likely to take a chance on buying it if they think it looks interesting. Whereas with books from academic publishers (which are always more expensive than this – sometimes ridiculously so) one needs to be pretty confident of needing or wanting to read it in order to splash out. So you may well end up with more readers.

The only downside is the advertising. Here are some suggestions. Write to journal editors offering the book for review, because reviews sell more books than anything else does, I think. Email everyone you know in the profession. Ask people to request their university library to get a copy. Mention it in future when you do talks. Send a copy to Brian Leiter – he usually lists books received: more people read that than attend the APA. Actually he would probably do a post about the book given it would be a trailblazer.

I expect the Library of Congress would take a copy if you sent it in. I say someone should do it, and Spiros’ friend sounds like the ideal person to give it a go. Being the first person of his stature to do it would make it talked about and create a buzz, which would be an extra advantage to being the first.

Anonymous said...

Yes looks like the Library of Congress does accept donations of suitable material (and I am sure the book in question would fall into this category).

I expect the Bodleian etc are similar.

Anonymous said...

the smart way to proceed would be to coordinate with the person in question's university librarian, who will no doubt be much more familiar with the processes of cataloging and ensuring that the book gets properly archived.
As someone who works in the history of philosophy, and who avails myself of material in both national libraries and very good private collections, I cannot emphasize enough how much good work goes into ensuring that our cultural intellectual history is preserved. If you want it to be at least possible to be read hundreds of years from now, you do want to ensure that the people responsible for such record keeping know that your work exists. They don't call it information science now for nothing.

Anonymous said...

For many (most?) retired philosophers, income from such a book is irrelevant. They tend to be more concerned about their legacy. I can think of two prominent retired philosophers who have self-published in the last year. (I won't name them to spare possible embarrassment.) Whether from age or illness or other factors, publishing with the usual University Presses might be too time-consuming and a hassle they don't need.

Such retirees are more likely to purchase copies themselves which they donate to a few libraries where the book would be of interest to future researchers, regardless of publication venue.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend against this. All one has to do is look toward the issue with vanity presses and predatory journals to worry about self publishing getting any additional justification.

I would also argue that not publishing with a UP won't open up a slot for a younger scholar to publish. If this established scholar really is a known quantity, then their book will more likely make money for the UP and make it possible to offer another book. So without publishing in the UP the established scholar is likely to prevent the new kid on the block from getting their book published.

I am willing to bet that this kind of information could be confirmed by asking one of the major UP editors.

Anonymous said...

I'm a scholarly-publishing professional who was sent this link by a philosopher.

Here's a quick-run down of why I think your friend is very, very wrong:

-"the UP contract short-changes authors":
Sounds like he wants more royalties. But even if they doubled his royalty percentage, he wouldn't be making much money off of a scholarly book. And he should know that. What he probably isn't considering is all of the secret costs of self-publishing. He'll have to pay for copyediting, proofreading, and marketing himself. (To say nothing of making it e-book-ready.) And if he doesn't, that's bad news for the success of his book.

-"the marketing/sales at even the best presses are bad or ineffective"
There is no press on earth that isn't delighted to have an author supplement and collaborate on the marketing of a book. If he wants more or better marketing, he can easily make that happen within the traditional publishing system

-"the copyeditors have becomes unbearably ignorant"
I won't argue that there are a lot of bad editors. But there are a lot of good ones. And for every 10 or 20 edits that you have to say, "sorry, you are wrong" about, there is one that you are deeply grateful for. Also, many presses will let you recommend your own copyeditor. He would need to get his book copyedited anyways (or really, really should), so why not have a press pay for it? He probably has no idea what the typical cjjost of this work is anyway.

-"the quality of physical books has declined"
No doubt. Does he think he going to get a handsewn book from Amazon's self-publishing?

-"he retains ownership of his work":
It's unclear what he is wanting to do with his work that he is not able to do under the current contract. Does he want to negotiate foreign-language rights on his own? I doubt it.

"he controls production and promotion of the book":
I have no idea why he would consider this a plus. Unless he has previously worked in publishing I think it is safe to say that he knows little to nothing about typesetting, printing, binding, book design, or professional marketing. He'll spend considerable time learning even the basics about these things, when he could be spending time working on his next book.

"the internet makes it easy to sell and produce a book"
Yes, but not necessarily a good quality book. Also, just because it is easy to sell doesn't make it easy for your prospective readers to find it. That's all sales and marketing.

"he gives some lesser-known philosopher a chance to get a book accepted"
This is really a very silly idea. A press will publish as many books as possible by an established scholar, because they know the book will be profitable. They will only publish a set amount of books by new scholars, because they will likely lose money on them. If anything, the opposite is true. The robust list of books by established scholars is what finances the books by unknown scholars.

This guy is not an idiot but he's an idiot about publishing, and that's not a bad thing. But it is painfully ignorant to think a whole industry is built on something you can learn in a few days noodling around on the internet. Self-publishing is a great thing. But I am not convinced it is a great thing for scholars.

Charlie H said...

I published a book through Amazon's CreateSpace and it has worked well for me. First, I wanted to do something a bit more experimental that surely would not have flown with reputable UPs; second, my friends at various institutions asked their libraries to pick up a copy, so it has been in some sense archived (I think I sent a copy to the Lib of Congress as well); finally, last and least, I earned as much money as books I've published with UPs. The only downside is whenever I talk to others about the book, I have to deal with the "well, it's only self-published" stigma.

Anonymous said...

"I can think of two prominent retired philosophers who have self-published in the last year. (I won't name them to spare possible embarrassment.)"

Sounds to me like you - and perhaps others - think self-publishing is a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

Charlie H,

Is there some reason you didn't give us the book's title, or link us to the online order form?

Show us the work.

Charlie H said...

Hi, Anonymous - didn't want to seem self-promoting, but since you asked...

One further bonus: I had total control over the cover!

P.D. Magnus said...

I self published a logic textbook (forall x) which is available for free under an open license. It has been used lots of places, and it has been as good a thing to have on my CV as a traditionally-published textbook. However, making it freely available was part of the point.

I also self-published a book related to one of my hobbies and sold it via Lulu. It has been modestly successful, but largely because it caught on with the community of hobbyists.

If this famous philosopher were to self-publish a monograph, then it might catch on with people who already follow that philosopher's work. So it might go well. However, publishing a book involves a lot of skills beyond just writing. Getting help is essential, beyond just getting feedback on the ideas. (For the textbook, successive classes of students helped me find errors. For the hobby book, several volunteers read drafts.) Layout and typesetting are technical skills. And so on.

In short, the famous philosopher would be taking on substantial additional tasks beyond just writing a book. And, unless famous phil already has a background in publishing, those tasks will require new skills. For some people, this could be a welcome challenge. For others, it would an obvious downside.

Anonymous said...

Physicist David MacKay self-published "Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air" back in 2008, and so far as I can see, it's been a great success. So whilst I am sure that there are obstacles to be overcome in pursuing a project like this, it doesn't seem as though they are insurmountable.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:06: I didn't include the names, mainly because I didn't ask their permission. And, admittedly, this is a very new type of venture, so it's hard to guess what stigma they or others might attach.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous 12:06: I didn't include the names, mainly because I didn't ask their permission."

How odd. They publish books and you feel like you should get permission to tell others about them? How are people supposed to know about their books if we need permission to know who they are and what they've published?

Anonymous said...

I wish more people would do this! What a brilliant thing to do if you are someone whose book doesn't need vetting or the imprimatur of a Uni press.

I hope he will do it and others will follow and offer their books at reasonable prices to us.

You could benefit from getting a very rigorous review from someone--possibly pay someone to be a 'real' editor and hold your feet to the fire.

Brian Weatherson said...

Some universities have very good services available to support this kind of publishing. Here, for example, is what Michigan offers - Obviously Michigan is an outlier in terms of how much it has engaged in online publishing, but I imagine it would be worth at least asking his library whether they have support for self-publishing.

Matthew J. Brown said...

Another option here is an open access academic press, e.g.,

You keep many of the benefits of an academic press without so many of the problems.

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