In an earlier post, I announced that I was going to write a textbook for open publishing and track my progress through a series of blog posts. In this one I examine my initial thinking.
Deciding to go for open rather than commercial publishing was not an easy decision, and I am still open to changing my mind if I run into too many problems. But here are the pros and cons that influenced my decision.
The pros of commercial publishing
I have experience of being published before by two major international publishers. Here are some of the benefits (in order of importance to me):
- professional editorial support. In general the publishers provided me with excellent editors to work with. They managed the whole process from book proposal through text writing to feedback to copy editing to external review to actual publishing. One publisher in particular was particularly good at this. I did three books with them, different editors each time, and the whole process was very professionally managed. In one case the editor suggested that whole sections of a book contributed by a co-author should be replaced (reinforcing my own view), which helped me out of the very difficult position of criticizing a colleague’s work. In another case I needed professionally developed graphics and the publisher handled this, including the cost, in a very satisfactory way. The copy editing was sometimes a challenge, as one of my publishers is American, and there were often conflicts over spelling and the use of certain expressions that are common in English English but not American English. Generally though these were not serious and compromises were usually found. A major part of the market in terms of size is the USA, so the writing has to take account of that. Particularly for a new author, this editorial support is extremely helpful and important;
- quality feedback. Normally, the text goes out for review before publication to three independent reviewers. I have found this feedback tremendously helpful in the past. The publisher doesn’t give much in the way of incentives to reviewers (a small honorarium or several other books that they publish) but I’ve always found the external reviewers thorough, constructively critical and very helpful;
- money. Although, writing for a niche market, I don’t have big sales, the books provide a steady income through royalties. I was getting 12% on my later books, bringing me around $5 a sale, or between $2,500 – $10,000 a year over several books (more in the years immediately following publication, less in later years, but one book in particular started slowly but ten years later is still producing a steady income as it has been adopted as a required text book by a number of instructors.) I’m not getting rich, but it is a handy, taxable supplement to my main employment income;
- recognition. This one is difficult to measure, but both are recognized quality publishers, they have a strong review process before accepting publication, so it probably does help in terms of status and promotion to be published by a quality publisher;
- niche marketing. All my books have been published as part of a series with a common theme. This enables them to be directed at a specific market, and it allows the publishers to develop an extensive list of potential readers from the purchase of other books in the series. This also helps me as an author, to know who I am writing for.
The cons of commercial publishing
This has changed over time. Whether it’s because I’m more experienced or whether it’s because the industry has changed, the cons have become stronger more recently:
- marketing – or lack of it Both publishers, but one more so than another, have been dreadful at marketing my books, especially in recent years. Publishers ask you to provide long lists of journals, professional societies, media outlets, etc., that can be used to promote the book. Fair enough, but then they don’t follow up. Both my publishers failed to send out review copies to the 10 key journals I identified for my last two books. Publishers want me to take copies of books to conferences to market them. I have a whole loft full of books I’ve ordered to be delivered at conferences, then haven’t been able to sell – I had to pay for both the books and the shipping. Poor marketing is not what you would expect from international publishers. The main value of a publisher to authors is their know-how in marketing. But at least for books in a niche market, publishers basically expect authors to do their own marketing. Electronic publishing (more than half my sales are now e-copies) has just made publishers lazy (and greedy – the price is the same as a hard copy). The struggle over marketing through a commercial publisher, more than anything, has made me think about open publishing – I’m going to have to do the marketing myself in any case;
- royalties. At least I get royalties. Some publishers, such as IGI, won’t pay anything. Others ask authors to pay to get published (and some authors are desperate enough to do this). But 8-12% is not a fair return any more on what is often many months, sometimes years, of hard work. If publishers did more to actively market books, then it might be more acceptable, but at this point in time, 8-12% is a really unfair distribution of revenue. Publishers have for far too long traded on the need of academics to get published;
- failure to change the book format. Commercial books still have the format of the sixteenth century. They may be typeset electronically, they may be available for downloading online, but the format is still the same as books from the Guthenberg Press. One example: knowing that most of my sales of my last book would be electronic, I peppered the text with embedded urls, so those downloading the text electronically could just click on the text to get the link. At copy editing stage, all the urls were stripped out. No matter how much I ranted and raged, it could not be changed because it was company ‘editorial style’. I had to build a separate web site (batesandsangra.ca) for the book at my own expense, to support the book. I am hoping, with open publishing, to be able to exploit the interactiveness and dynamism of web publishing.
Will open publishing be any better?
Well, we’ll see, but here are my main reasons
- I have to walk the talk. The content of my book is about teaching in a digital age. Therefore the format needs to enable me to practice what I will be preaching. There is nothing as powerful as a good example, and the book itself needs to be an example of the benefits of digital teaching. So this means, yes, embedded urls, but much, much more (more on this in my vision for the book, which will be another post). I don’t think commercial publishers are anywhere near ready to support this kind of approach to book publishing (if so, please contact me with an offer in the 50% royalty range – just kidding);
- proof of concept Open textbooks are in their infancy. Like many new media, most still reflect the format of the old medium, print publishing. Many open textbooks at the moment are just that: a (free) electronic version of a text designed for printing. What should an open textbook look like? What’s involved in radically redesigning an open textbook? This seems to me to be a very interesting and important research and development question to work on;
- collaboration and crowdsourcing There are many people now teaching innovatively and in ways that exploit digital media. If I follow an open approach to writing and publishing, to what extent can I successfully draw on others to provide content, examples and feedback. Won’t it be a better book if I have many collaborators/contributors, rather than to try and do everything myself?
- the world is changing I may be getting money now from commercial publishing – but for how much longer? My own view is that commercial academic print-based publishing will be dead within ten years. It’s an unsustainable business that has failed to adapt fast enough to changing technology. This is not to say there is a sustainable business model yet for open publishing either, but I will wager that one will be found more quickly than a rescue plan for commercial publishing;
- knowledge should be free This is the most compelling reason for me. Can we find a sustainable way to produce original high quality content that can be made available free of charge? I have had great fortune not only to be educated in public schools and universities, but also to work in them. Just consider this project as a rather tiny attempt at giving back.