Publishing with an Academic Press (Pt. III): Editorial Assistance

Click the Publishing tag (at bottom of post or in tag cloud at right) for past posts in this series, including important caveats.

Before I go on to the advantages of e-books in a later post, I thought I’d start with the biggest reason why almost all historians (who can) publish with academic presses. Prestige. Academics live for hierarchy: Chair of this, Director of that, Associate professor of the other, holder of the Distinguished Chair of something altogether different. And don’t you dare deny that you don’t try to figure out your colleagues’ alma maters at Commencement. Heck, we even use cords and colors to make sure everyone knows who’s special enough to be an honor student, or a member of an honor society such as Phi Alpha Theta… No surprise then that the academic publishing world is divided into a pretty-well defined publishing hierarchy in a general sense, though each sub-field will have its own tweaks to the hierarchy. [If you publish with or work for one of the ‘lower-tier’ presses, don’t blame me – it’s just my impression.] At the top are the elite publishers associated with the famous universities: Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton… Then you have more regional university publishing houses that are often big in particular fields (an increasing number of which are downsizing), then academically-oriented trade publishers (I’m thinking of Longman, Blackwell, Palgrave Macmillan and so on) which want broader coverage of topics, and then you get into the academic presses that specialize in particular subject fields (for EMEMH we’re talking Brill, Ashgate, Greenwood, Boydell…), then you have the less reputable presses that are seen as places where you can get your revised dissertation published without a lot of fuss (not to be mean, but I’m looking at you Peter Lang), and then the popular presses that aren’t really academic, even though academics may publish with them (Osprey, Pen & Sword…). I’m not sure about the status of vanity presses in academia, but I’ve heard of authors paying subventions to financially subsidize the press publishing their work. In other words, lots of presses to choose from, particularly if you are a military historian. But there’s no denying that if you publish with one of the Big Boys, that means something, because everyone has heard of them. When you say “Cambridge has expressed interest in my work,” the very mention of that name means something regardless of the discipline of the faculty member you mention it to, even though Boydell might be a better fit in, say, medieval history, and even though ‘expressing interest’ doesn’t really mean anything. This hierarchy is defined by a widely-accepted ranking of publisher prestige.

So why is it that this publishing hierarchy is so well established? Name recognition is a big part, connected with elite schools, just like your alma mater, your adviser, which journal you published in, which/what type of school you teach at (for those poor schlubs who have to teach). These are all signals (as economists would say) as to the quality of the person, their pedigree, their work, whether they hang out with cool people whose works you’ve also heard of, making it easy for us to quickly estimate how ‘serious’ of a scholar one is. [People who say we don’t need all the publishing details in a bibliographical citation don’t appreciate how much we use that to signal the relative ‘worth’ of a work.]

But surely it’s more than that? There must be more concrete ways in which those at the top distinguish themselves from the rest, some way they earn this merit? What do these “gatekeepers” do to have their stamp of approval on a book mean so much? In one sense, it doesn’t really matter, because there is (currently) no substitute for the prestige gained by publishing with an elite press, particularly in an emotional sense. Elite universities justify their sky-high tuition with it, and academics base their personal intellectual worth and their judgment of others’ on it as well. So if you want the respect of your peers, and you can get a manuscript accepted by an elite press, it’s almost a no-brainer.

If we dig deeper, I think the merit comes from two tangible factors: 1) the quality of the editorial staff and its work, and 2) the press’s association with the ‘brightest minds’, the undisputed experts in the field, either by having them as editors of a series, or as peer reviewers. Presumably these are in turn able to locate and woo the almost-as-bright minds to publish for their press. I’ll discuss the first aspect here, the next will have to wait for a later post.

Editorial assistance. From what I can tell, there are a variety of editors: acquisition editors in charge of finding new potential and acquiring it (public relations as well?), academics serving as series editors who oversee the publication of an entire series on a specific theme, managing editors who seem to deal with the practical details of publishing a book, and copy editors, who have the thankless job of proofreading and otherwise preparing a clean copy for printing. Presumably the big presses have more money to hire more of each, as well as acquire the top editorial talent, though there is increasing evidence that most academic presses are foregoing some of these editorial costs, particularly copy editing.

Somewhere in there is design, how the actual book looks. If you buy a lot of books for your own personal library, you probably know the aesthetic pleasure of looking at the expanse of book spines sprawling across your bookshelves, the different font and color combinations that help define the book for you. You are likely similarly mortified by the ugly sight of the occasional dustjacket-less ex-library book with an unremovable call number sticker mocking you. Maybe you even notice that all those naked library books (and PDFs) tend to muddle together, each lacking a physicality and denying you visual cues as to its contents. Surely part of the reason why a publisher like Peter Lang is at the bottom is because their font selection is far too similar to the ugly typewriter font used in old dissertations themselves? No doubt about it, as digital publishing has taken off, the book fetishists among us have emerged from out of the woodwork.

Putting aside the intangibles of emotional responses to print, what about this more ‘objective’ factor of editorial assistance – does it make a significant difference? I think it depends on which editor you’re talking about. The acquisition task isn’t particularly relevant in this comparison, since presumably you have managed to ‘acquire’ your own manuscript. The only relevant point of comparison for self- vs. press-published with acquisition and managing editors would seem to be advertising. The press pays people to make up flyers, send out catalogs and email notices, maintain websites, send copies to reviewers, and presumably presses still send out book reps to encourage bookstore buyers and library acquisitions personnel to purchase the book (they certainly do for textbooks). These editors also travel the country (and world), looking bored at conference book displays, making websites and Amazon webpages, and they generally talk up the books on their lists. In addition to travel accounts and server space, another more mysterious publicity advantage which presses have is that their works are more likely to be included in library catalogs and databases that people search – I’m not sure what the mechanism is for that. And, I’m also not sure if historical societies would consider self-published e-books for their awards and prizes either. That’s another form of free advertising and signalling of quality.

Say you want to self-publish: Can you do all this marketing and branding yourself? It’s possible that online venues could make up for at least some of this: conferences and email, Google search and Google Scholar, PressForward, certain EMEMH-themed blogs, maybe even Facebook. It depends on how Internet-centric your intended audience (other academics) is. Most publishers now have webpages and email lists that will keep you up-to-date on the latest releases, and they are sure to send these to the various email listservs as well. Most of these things are quite easy for any academic to do – create a website, create a blog, contact your acquaintances about your work, ask the listservs to post an announcement… But most scholars don’t, something I realized when I noticed how unusual it was to see Tonio Andrade shamelessly shill his new book Lost Colony: The Untold Story of Europe’s First War with China on multiple listservs! (Hey Tonio: free advertising!)

So the big issues regarding PR seem to be:
1. Do you want to do the publicity yourself, and will you be ok if it takes longer to get the word out?
2. If you don’t want to become a self-promoter, are you willing to live with the lower ‘sales’ that result from that? How big of an audience do you want your work to reach? If you’re in academia and non-tenured, the most important audience is your peers who pronounce on promotion and tenure (as well as those reviewing your book and writing letters for you), so that prestige may be really important.
3. Do you know how to break into the *academic* book publicity pipeline? Reviews in journals, on H-net listservs, in library catalogs and databases, in WorldCat, in Google Books, in Google Scholar…?
I don’t know that the PR network has been replicated for self-publishers, outside of Amazon, but I’ll bet it’s getting closer every day. The institutional pipelines – libraries and databases and journals and societies – remain a mystery to me.

I am least convinced by the benefits of copy editing, largely because of the cost (in money and time) that it adds, and because of my own experience, which coincides with similar experiences mentioned by Cohen. I am skeptical that academics would be unable to convey their argument to an audience of their peers without editorial assistance; they manage to do it (with lesser or greater success) at conferences all the time. It is, however, certainly needed when transforming an academic tome into a book for a general audience, but if an academic writer can’t create a coherent argument for those in their own sub-field, they have more to worry about than deciding whether to self-publish or not. Money, I think, is a more urgent issue. With books priced at $50+, the cost premium added by intense copy editing makes a difference. I fully acknowledge that fewer errors are better than more errors, that more elegant and focused prose is better than prolix and convoluted prose. And I also accept that editors need to get paid if they do the work, and that perhaps $100 for an EMEMH monograph is a fair price given the effort put into it and the market that will buy it. But is that extra effort (and the cost it entails) worth it from an academic consumer’s perspective? I am increasingly less sure whether I am willing to pay that price premium, particularly the diminishing returns of intense copy editing. From my experience, most errors in my own drafts and in those of my colleagues tend to be minor ones that in no way influence the reader’s comprehension, even if they do allow you a fleeting sense of superiority that you caught the author out. How important are a few grammatical, spelling and factual errors really in a 250-page book? If you had to read those additional errors without the help of a diligent copy editor, how much would you pay someone to correct them? Is having 20 errors twice as bad as having 10 errors, and how much should/would one pay for a halving of that error rate? Will I stop reading once my error-counter reaches 10, and if so, why should 10 spelling errors change my view of the argument – shouldn’t I judge the argument on its own terms? If a bibliographic entry lists the publication date as 1996 instead of 1997, that is a rather clear error (unless there was some leeway as far as the publication vs. copyright date is concerned, or the edition), but the real question I am left with is: How much did it cost the reader for that error to be caught, or 10 similar errors? I will quickly find out the correct date when I look it up; an incorrect year won’t hinder finding the full reference. I’m not sold on the idea that works without intense copy editing are beneath my attention. As a thought experiment, when you are a commentator on a panel and read your panelists’ drafts, would more copy editing have made a difference in your comprehension and comments? You can probably tell who took the time to proof read their draft, who finished all their footnotes, but does that make it a “better” paper, or one that receives more discussion? And, let’s be honest, just about every monograph we read, all benefiting from copy editorial assistance presumably, has a few errors of some kind or another.

Nobody's Perfect

[As an aside, what this also makes me realize is that we academics still think that people who make grammatical/spelling mistakes are less intelligent. I sometimes feel that way, but only when someone else makes a mistake – I only made a mistake because I was super busy! Maybe I’m still stuck in a romanticized individual author mindset, and I don’t appreciate the ‘team work’ that goes into a publication? It seems that a lot of history is still like that as well.]

My own experiences regarding copy editors maybe be limited, but here they are, with identifiers removed to protect the innocent:

A) In a short work (7,700 words) with an elite publisher, the copy editor made various changes to my citations in order to fit their formatting requirements, as well as correcting one or two oversights regarding cross-references. A worthwhile endeavor, but these would be unnecessary with self-publishing since you define your style; one could even ask why each press has its own tweaks to the citation style, but I won’t go there. There were a couple of minor questions about whether to mention X or Y (I generally sided with the editor because the suggestions didn’t seem like a big deal either way, the path of least resistance…). So maybe there were a dozen stylistic corrections and three minor but clear errors (publication dates) that were caught. However, I also caught, reading the final draft on my own, three grammatical errors that had been missed, mostly missing apostrophes (help! my students are rubbing off on me!). It’s always good to have multiple eyes, and to get some distance between one reading and the next. But I wonder how much value is added by that extra pair of eyes, and how much those eyes charge for a look.

B) In my much longer book (390 pages total) that had almost no copy editing that I recall, I’ve discovered 6+ errors that snuck through the process, most of which were errors stemming from cut-and-pasting. Spelling errors are exceedingly rare now (or they should be), given spell checking [my personal bugbears are mixing up homophones and dangling my participles]. Since there was almost no proofreading by the press, is a markup for editorial assistance justified? At what rate? I won’t justify the price charged for my book – it is what it is and I had little to do with it (other than choosing the press). But I am much more leery of the high price of monographs having now been through the process myself and finding that the absence of copy editing didn’t significantly harm the final product and its reception.

C) My most vivid memory of editorial intervention is an article/chapter I wrote where my word describing another author’s view was replaced (after I had seen the final proofs?), a word choice that was completely inconsistent with what that author really thought of the subject. It’s not that big a deal, but my point is that 1) errors are made on both sides, but publishers (or editors) justifying their trade only talk about those that authors make, and 2) editorial interjections don’t always match the intent of the author of the work, and occasionally work against it.

If such copy editing had little impact on the price of a book, it might be a moot point. But given the hours required to carefully pore over a 250 page manuscript, we have to ask how much this editorial assistance is worth. I don’t think I’m the first to suggest the parallel with the recording industry: in essence publishers seem to be saying that there’s no point in listening to a live recording (or maybe a demo) of a song when you could pay more for the studio version. Let’s assume the studio version is actually worth more than the demo. If all the overhead, editorial assistance, and PR added by a press increases the price of the book $50 (I have no idea how much really, but the comments from several editors on Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities blog assure us the labor is very time-consuming), I want the option to pay only $50 for the unedited version instead of $100, particularly since the author is an expert in the field. The expectation of consumer choice is a function of the new digital world that we live in, but it’s the world we live in. The publisher is of course free to charge whatever price they want, but I’m similarly free to look on used book websites for a ‘fairer’ price (moral economy anyone?), or I might even be tempted to photocopy the 20 pages that I actually care about from the library. The result will be the continuing contraction of the market for such works, and a concomitant increase in the voices encouraging people to self-publish. Of course one solution that publishers have adopted is to control distribution more tightly through e-books with DRM and the like, which is understandable from a business perspective, but is going in the wrong direction IMHO. And in the academic world, publishers can’t make the threat that no one will write if they don’t get paid – academics don’t get paid for writing anyway. If we’re state employees, the tax payers and students pay us. Maybe they (and our libraries) shouldn’t have to pay twice. See “open access.”

As hinted at above, it doesn’t help that when asked to pay $100 for a book (or even $50), probably half of the time we really only want a chapter or two of it: paying $15 for a CD album instead of $1 for the one MP3 track that you really like. Even if it’s a monograph by a single author, how many times are no more than a handful of pages relevant to our particular combination of period/place/topic? Perhaps this is most common in EMEMH (look at how limited the books published over the past decade on the subject are), where for example an author covers all aspects of Austria’s wars from 1526 to 1815, probably because that large of a scope is required for a publisher to sell enough copies. [This also likely means the book takes a lot longer to write, because the author has to stretch beyond their knowledge base – see here for an argument to digitally publish mini-ideas.] But for a particular project I have one page where I need some info on Austrian engineers during the Spanish Succession (and French engineers, and English engineers…) – I can’t find a more detailed book on that because nobody will publish it, because nobody will buy a whole book on that for $100. And then, much less editorial assistance is needed for the 30 pages I’m reading vs. the full 300, but I pay the full premium if I buy the book because the publisher wants the scope to be broad in order to charge $X for it in order to sell Y number of copies (or is it the reverse?). This is veering into economies of scale and publishing industry practices, but as a lowly end-user/consumer, and as an author, I don’t like the direction in which the status quo is heading.

In short, Dan Cohen’s conference presentation talked about the final 10% of an academic publication process that takes up an inordinate amount of effort, time and adds a lot of cost. How much, measured in dollars and delays, is that 10% really worth to the academic end-user?

At the same time, my emotions take me in a totally different and possibly contradictory direction, yet this too makes me wonder if that final 10% is really worth it. I’m struck by the incongruity of academics relying on copy editors: we expect our students to do their own work without an editor cleaning up their prose, catching mistakes, etc. – we insist that they turn in “their own work.” Maybe we penalize them for errors. We even shake our heads with disappointment (or secret glee?) when a colleague has a spelling error on their class flyer in the hallway. Yet apparently we as academic authors can’t be expected to do the same with our most important work? Yes our works are longer than students’ papers, and yes we are really busy, but so are our students and they don’t have nearly as much practice writing as we do. I sometimes think I’d rather see what an author’s rough final draft manuscript looks like before the editing – does that tell me something about how careful the author is as a scholar or not? That’s how we judge them in any case, as individual authors: we don’t give the editor tenure or promotion or hearty praise in reviews, although occasionally we’ll point out poor copy editing in a review, as if those mistakes are beyond the author’s control. If an author turns in an error-laden manuscript to an editor, or can’t make a coherent argument on their own (as a few of the editors claimed in Cohen’s blog), does that tell us something about the author’s scholarly abilities? If they make lots of mistakes or bone-headed ones that are fixed pre-publication, how likely are they to have made other mistakes, say, in the archives, or somewhere else? Editors say they catch factual errors – true enough, but what authority are they using to catch errors, sources unavailable to anyone else with an Internet connection or library at their disposal? A specialized encyclopedia, frequently written by non-experts (or maybe experts’ opinions were even based on conjecture)? Are they relying on WorldCat or other online resources that have their own errors? In any case, editors aren’t likely to travel to the archives to match up the proper folio number, or double-check a quotation, or decypher a critical mis-transcribed word. They certainly don’t fix the problems that invariably pop up in negative reviews, which seem to be the more important part of academic conversation: author X missed key sources, misinterpreted a key document, failed to examine a key event/person/period/place, over generalized from a narrow evidence base… Rare is the editor that can operate as a scholar in the subdiscipline in addition to doing all their other jobs. I have no reason to doubt editors who claim they receive mounds of incomprehensible drafts submitted to publishers, but I wonder if I want to be reading that kind of manuscript after it’s been cleaned up anyway, and how much do I want to pay for that? I wonder whether those consistently-sloppy writers should be allowed to hide behind editors.

Regardless of how useful editors really are, anyone interested in self-publishing needs to figure out how to replicate publicity and some degree of quality control. Many others have discussed these issues online, and I’ll provide my own take in a future post on digital self-publishing. But next up, the real advantage of academic publishers – the academics that give them name recognition.

[As yet another aside, it might be interesting to test the ‘accuracy’ of press reputation independent of their own claims, e.g. compare the reviews of works by publisher. Admittedly other factors might confound such an analysis, particularly prestige and social networks. I don’t know if anybody has done that.]


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