Why Academic Self-Publishing is a Bad Idea: And Why I’m Doing it Anyway

Shortly after successfully defending my dissertation, at the recommendation of my advisor, I submitted by manuscript to a reputable academic publisher. Several months later, I was delighted to receive a congratulatory email:

Thank you very much for your submission. I am pleased to inform you that we have accepted your manuscript for publication

Accompanying the email was an Author Guide, a Style Guide Supplement, a Sample Contract, and a Contracting Document. Also included was a copy of “Ten Awful Truths about Book Publishing” by Steven Piersanti, President of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. In effect, the inclusion of this document was meant to prepare me for, and to explain, the fact that this publisher expected me to subsidize the publication of my manuscript in exchange for the seal of approval that the publisher and its imprints might represent. We authors are called upon to understand and support an industry that, without our understanding and active support, would otherwise be left to die on the vine

The deal that I was offered was essentially this: In exchange for publication under one of the publishers scholarly imprints, I would be required to pay for copy-editing by the publisher at a rate of $6.50 / 250 word page, and type-setting at a rate of no less than $2.00 / page. What this means is that a 50,000 word manuscript would cost me $1,700. The royalty schedule in the offer was 6% of the net sales from the first 1,000 books, 8% of the net sales from the subsequent 1,000 sold, and 10% of net sales thereafter. If we assume that my book would be sold for $25, and that the markup is 60%, then 1,667 books would need to be sold at full price in order for me to break even. When you consider that this publisher sells titles to universities at a steeply discounted rate, then the number of books that would need to sell before I broke even gets even larger. When one considers that it is not uncommon for a scholarly book to sell as few as 350 copies, this approach makes sense from the perspective of the publisher, particularly since the costs of marketing and promoting the book also tend to fall on the author. What this seems to amount to is the McDonaldization of academic publishing. The publisher mitigates their own risk by offloading a large proportion of their costs, as well as the labor necessary to prepare and market the manuscript. The publisher benefits from both short and long tail sales revenue and, in exchange, the author receives a seal of legitimacy.

In spite of the fact that all but very few academic authors receive nothing short of a very raw deal when entering into publishing agreements, the alternative (i.e., self-publishing) is apparently an even worse idea.  Self-published books are not typically considered when professional academics go up for tenure review or promotion. The quality of self-published texts also vary wildly, which is a function of the extent to which authors seek out and invest in professional copy-editing services. Many worry about a lack of peer review in self-published manuscripts. But it is important to note that peer review and third-party academic publication are not the same thing. Furthermore, the values of the latter are not identical with those of the former. Peer review is meant to ensure that a work achieves a certain level of scholarly rigor, and that it marks a significant contribution to a field of study.  Review for publication includes this, of course, but it is motivated not just by the question “is it important,” but also by the question “will it sell.”

But all this is largely a digression. In the end, what I mean to highlight is the fact that I am in an excellent position to experiment. I do not expect to enter the professoriate, and so can afford not to be motivated by the ‘numbers’ game. My dissertation is already published and openly accessible, in a way, and so it is not like I would be ‘wasting’ an original work should my experiment fail. My dissertation makes important contributions to several fields including the history of philosophy, sociology, and theology. It has value, and would do well to reach a larger audience. And it’s value has already been certified by my doctoral committee (as necessary to earning my PhD), as well as by a third-party academic publisher who accepted it for publication. What I have here is a perfect and low-risk opportunity to explore self-publishing and to document the process.  I have, therefore, declined the offer of publication and am going to begin my journey down this alternate path. Worst case scenario: I spend $1,700 and sell only a few copies of my book, in which case I’m no worse off than I would have been had I accepted the offer.

What’s next? This will be the topic of my next post on the subject. In setting out a road map at the start of the process, it will be very interesting to see, at the end of this experiment, just how wrong I will have been.

Do you have any experience with academic self-publishing? Is self-publishing just a terrible idea? What are some important things to consider, and pitfalls to avoid? Any feedback would be incredibly helpful as I embark on this journey. Let me know what you think in the comments below.