When undertaking doctoral research, you are of course influenced by a number of academics whose books you have read, but are never likely to meet. My PhD was on the impact of the car on middle-class suburban London between the wars. Two authors I admired on a long reading list were Matt Houlbrook (@tricksterprince) and Sean O’Connell. Matt’s work on an alternative history of the mid twentieth century capital Queer London, was beautifully written, exhaustingly researched and really different. Sean’s groundbreaking social history of driving The Car in British Society sparked my interest for my PhD project.
Unlike younger doctoral students, I had worked in business, specifically sales, for many years and this definitely influenced me in the way I supplemented my research by asking the authors I admired for some help. In the business world, if you want to meet someone or to find out something, it is usually possible to get in touch to arrange a short meeting. So, when I was busy with the early stages of my research, it seemed normal to me to get in touch with academics whose work I admired. I now know that some people in the academy might think this approach a bit weird, or unseemly, or pushy. Well, perhaps, but senior academics are generally pretty grown up and capable of looking after themselves. If they don’t want to be bothered by an upstart student they can just say they are too busy. I found that a carefully written email was enough to get a meeting and that I did not need to use a plea from my supervisor.
My approach was to write to Sean and Matt and say could I meet them for a cup of coffee for 45 minutes to discuss my work. I’m pretty sure Sean thought this was odd because he worked in Belfast and I was in London. Still, it was £50 on a budget flight well spent as far as I was concerned ( I understand that not everybody has £50 spare). Sean kindly accepted my offer of a coffee and we spent an hour together talking about my thesis. It was great to talk to the expert in my chosen field and I came away with lots of solid advice. In fact, one small thought transformed my research. I had been using The Autocar as a key primary source and I didn’t know, but Sean told me, that there was an index to the magazine, which not all libraries had with their copies. This nugget transformed by research, focussing me in on my topics instead of endless reading through copies of the magazine.
I met with Matt at his rooms in Magdalen College in Oxford, again for 45 mins. I was interested in discussing Kate Meyrick the infamous owner of many of Soho’s illegal nightclubs in the 1920s. Matt was full of good advice, and also wanted to discuss my research, which was of course flattering and great. Two things happened as a result of this meeting. Firstly, Matt was one of the organisers of an interwar history discussion group and he asked me to join. This allowed me to meet lots of big names in the field and present papers and generally build my confidence. Secondly, we were able to join up our research in a small but interesting way. Between us we were able to establish that parties of queer men visited suburban roadhouses for a night out in the 1930s. The queer liaison history was new to me, and the roadhouse stuff new to Matt. This one small research gain has had a big impact on my future work and is one of the reasons I am still researching and writing about roadhouses.
Experienced academics are usually open to a brief meeting as long as you explain why you want to meet them and you are clear that it won’t last too long and that the least they will get out of it is a cup of coffee. The benefits of expanding your network in this way will surprise you.
By which I don’t mean publishing at the Co-op, although they do funerals and travel so perhaps it is possible.
I am in fact talking about my current book project, 1930s London: The Modern City. I will write about the book itself at some later date. My first book, The Experience of Suburban Modernity, was published by Manchester University Press, which is, of course, a very prestigious organisation. They offered an excellent and conventional experience for this newbie author. They commented on my proposal, they sent drafts to a reader, they delivered editing, copy editing, technical support, printing, series branding, marketing and distribution. This was all provided at no cost to me. From a financial point of view, all I had to pay for was the photographs. In return, I get a modest royalty from sales of the book. This is the business model that has been used in publishing since Charles Dickens was a young lad.
For a new author, the advantages of using a major academic publisher are enormous; most important of all, it guarantees that your writing will be given the benefit of the doubt. If you are with a major imprint then you can’t be a complete fool. This privilege comes with some constraints. You soon learn that it is as much their book as yours, in some areas it is definitely their book not yours. Format, size, typefaces, layout, pricing etc. etc. are not open for discussion. Quite right too, anything else would not make business sense.
One of the conditions of my contract was that I had to give MUP first refusal on my next book. I proposed London in the 1930s, which is a sort of hybrid academic/coffee-table book and because they don’t publish this sort of thing, they passed up this wonderful opportunity. Discussions I have had with other academic publishers suggest that they would have done so as well.
At the same time as these discussions were being held, the world of publishing was facing a hugely disruptive effect from the rise in tablets, e-books, self publishing and micro publishing. For fiction, access to readership for new authors seems now to have shifted to Amazon where through variable pricing and crowdsourced reviews, authors can break through into the mainstream world of physical books, while there still are some. Fiction publishers can now bid for authors who have already proved that their work sells. It can’t work in the same way for academic publishing and the endgame for this genre is hard to forecast.
Meanwhile, I was discussing my predicament with a friend of mine, Maddy who is the owner of Yellowback, a small company that provides editorial services to academic journals, and editing and copy editing to authors (www.ybediting.com) . Yellowback are beginning to move into micro-publishing which is a natural extension of its current work. Chatting my problem through, it became apparent that we ought to be working together on this project. So we came up with a plan to produce a book between us as a co-operative project breaking down the barriers found in the traditional publishing model.
Yellowback are responsible for editing, sourcing designers and printers, marketing and distribution. I am responsible for the intellectual content and selection of photographs. In the middle we are both responsible (contract lawyers, please look away now, you will find some scenes disturbing) for agreeing the design, fonts, cover, blurb, page layout, page size, paper quality, book pricing and anything else that is not specifically spelled out in our agreement. Maddy and I are friends, and we see the project as a bit of an adventure, but for a normal commercial arrangement, these mutual responsibilities would have to be carefully thought through.
Projects like this have some set-up costs that would normally be exclusively paid for by the publisher. In this particular version of co-operative publishing the initial costs are shared between author and publisher. The receipts from sales pay off these costs before any profits are distributed. Any profits are then shared between publisher and author on a negotiated basis, determined by the allocation of work and who takes the most risk on the initial investment. For the author, the profit share is likely to be far higher than a royalty model would provide. One of the key benefits of this approach is that if the book fails, the author loses money, which keeps everybody keen. Of course, for this to work, the author has to find some funding. In my case, my employer, the University of Westminster has provided some partial financial support from their research budget. The logic behind this is that my book will deliver some demonstrable impact for the next REF, or maybe they just like the idea.
The benefits of the approach for the academic author are manifest. In short, you have a lot of artistic control over how the book will look. I was able to have a real discussion on photo size, fonts, page layouts, paper quality etc. etc. Of course it helps that Maddy is very open to my ideas. You are committed to the project’s success in a far more immersive way than in the traditional model. Discussing which distribution channels to use and how the printer gets the books to Amazon and how much it costs to store them and send them to customers is fascinating. The time to market is much quicker too. The time from submission of manuscript to finished book is going to be about four months.
So, is this an alternative to the traditional way of producing an academic monograph? Yes, but the market needs to develop. In Maddy, Yellowback has an experienced editor with a doctorate who is very connected to the academic world. This means that she can find an appropriate academic reader for the book who will understand what we are trying to achieve. Without these credentials, what is left would be a sort of facilitated self-publishing, which would not be seen as credible. The other issue is finding the initial funding to pay for the printing and design. Experienced academics might be able to access QR funds in exchange for some of the book’s future profit share; the department might even make a surplus on the deal. Younger academics, who have not yet made their way in their university career, would struggle. Of course, the middle class ones could get their parents to ante up, so the system would be discriminatory in a most unhelpful way, even though the traditional route would still be open.
I will report back on progress as the book takes on its physical form.