Self-publishing academic work

This guest post comes from Tim Bale, Queen Mary, University of London.

I can’t be the only person to have experienced this: you’re writing a book and you realise that it’s either getting too long and/or that some of the stuff you thought should go into it doesn’t really fit any more.  So, reluctantly but also with a sigh of relief, you cut it.

But then what do you do?  Bin it completely in spite of all the hard work you put into it?  Really? Sure, that’s the sensible thing to do – the thing you’d be perfectly happy doing if you were a totally rational individual rather than a living, breathing human being prone to practically all the cognitive biases under the sun: in this case the so-called sunk cost fallacy.

In reality, what you often do, if you’re anything like me, is to think whether there’s something you could do with it somewhere else.  I mean, you could always turn it into a journal article, right?

Wrong!  At least in my case.  At 18,000 words and with a whole bunch of endnotes, it was going to be agony trying to cut it in order to make it short enough for a decent journal.  I did explore the possibility of going in the opposite direction and beefing it up to come up with the 25,000 required for those short (and short turn-around) books that a couple of well-known publishers now seem quite keen on.  But two things about that, put me off.

First, I would have been topping and tailing it with ‘theory’ for the sake of it – something I hate doing.  And, second, have you actually seen how much those things cost!?  Only university libraries could possible afford to buy them, and I’m not really sure (morally speaking) that even they should be spaffing forty or fifty quid on such footling things anyway.

In any case, I had the temerity to think that what I’d written might be the sort of thing that people who were simply interested in, rather than formally studying, British politics, contemporary history and the EU might enjoy reading.  I also thought that, since it was originally written to be ‘approachable’, it might come in handy, too, for anyone teaching those subjects – both at post-16 and post-18.

One alternative would have been to stick it up as a post on my blog.  Yet, to be honest, it wouldn’t really have fitted too well because that’s simply where I collect (mostly for my own memory’s sake rather than because many people read it there) the very short-form stuff I write for newspapers and websites.  But no-one else was going to host it, I was sure – so sure I didn’t even ask anyone.

It was only then I thought about self-publishing it.  Initially, I dismissed the idea – I mean, that’s ‘vanity-publishing’, right?  OK for your pseudonymous erotic novel but, for something academic? Surely not?

Then, for the book I was writing (The Conservatives after Brexit), I had to get hold of a book by the well-known Brexit-backing Tory MP, Mark Francois.  Turned out he’d self-published it with Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing – to much hilarity because critics assumed (whether correctly or incorrectly, I’ve no idea) that he’d tried and failed to get a commercial publisher to run with it.

Speaking frankly, it wasn’t exactly a masterpiece but it did contain a few nuggets.  And, for good or ill, made me think, maybe I wasn’t quite so mad to be thinking about it myself. So I went on the KDP website and dipped in and out for a few days, alternating between thinking, ‘This could work’ and ‘This is just too much effort’.

Had it not been the summer and had I not just handed in the first draft of the manuscript of the book proper for copyediting – and had not my wife, who is much more organised than me, said she’d hold my hand though the process – I probably wouldn’t have bothered.  But I did.  And it turned out not to be that hard at all.

Simplifying a little (and I concede that my little effort doesn’t contain figures or tables which, I’m guessing could introduce a bunch of complications that I avoided), all you do is do it for Kindle first, decide on a title, prepare a pdf, submit it for approval, get it back, make any necessary adjustments, choose from one of the off-the-shelf virtual covers, and you’re pretty much done.  Amazon supply you with an ISBN number for free, so the only thing left for you to think about is the pricing.

Frankly, I had absolutely no idea what to charge: I only knew that I wanted to be able to say it would cost ‘less than the price of a coffee’, primarily so students, if they were interested, could afford it.  What was obvious, however, was that the royalties were, by an order of magnitude, far higher than you get from an academic publisher and they get paid to you after three months, not yearly.  The only tricky decision – and I’m not sure I totally understood it or made the right call – is that you can go for a slightly less generous deal which (I think but I’m not sure!) makes it easier for libraries to buy.  I didn’t go for that, but who knows?  It may be better to do that for teaching purposes: let me know if you do! 

Anyway, to cut to the chase, I plumped somewhat arbitrarily for £2.99, submitted the final version, and expected to wait a few days. In fact, it was up there for download and sale within a couple of hours.  Spurred on by my success (if you can call it that), I thought I may as well do a paperback version, which I priced (again arbitrarily) slightly higher at £4.99 but still well within reach, I hoped.

The only faff was finding a cover photo (one without copyright complications) and then deciding on the text to put on the back and front covers and where to put it: let’s just say I didn’t miss my vocation as a graphic designer, although, if were less impatient, I could probably have done a better job.  Likewise, I instantly noticed a few proofreading errors but I figure I can correct those when I get time.

At the time of writing, my book – more a slim volume or even, dare I say it, a long pamphlet, really –  has shifted just under 600 units, three-quarters of which were downloads and the rest hard copies.  Well over nine-out-of-ten have been bought in the UK, and four-out-of-ten were bought in the first week it went on sale, after which it’s basically bumped along the bottom, selling a few here and there. In part, I guess that’s because I pushed it on Twitter when it first came out and then haven’t bothered since.  That said, I’m not sure that, if I had done more, I would have really have achieved appreciably higher sales figures.

What will be interesting to see is whether the book is recommended by people teaching British politics, contemporary British history and EU modules.  That might see a few students buy it, although we all know how difficult it is (for perfectly understandable reasons given how hard students have it nowadays) to persuade them to stump up for books nowadays.  That said, I hope it might be useful for teachers doing their own preparation for whatever formats they’re running with.  If you’re one of them, let me know, perhaps!

Finally, while it would obviously be ridiculous for me to think I might be part of a trend, let alone thinking I might start one, we all of us have found ourselves moaning about academic publishers and their super-profitable business model.  The latter is always said to be under threat but kudos always seems to keep it going. I’m not immune to the k-word: given the importance of the REF in the UK, how could I not be?  But, if you’ve got something you’re not going to be submitting for some kind of research assessment exercise (perhaps because you’ve already taken care of that) – something that you want people (ideally students and teachers) to read and therefore want to make affordable – then (always assuming you have no moral objections to Amazon) why not consider giving it a go?

And if it doesn’t work out?  Well, there’s always that pseudonymous erotic novel….