DEFENDING ACADEMIC SELF-PUBLISHING: THE PROBLEM OF BOOKS (AND A NEW ONE)

I have recently published a new book, but I don’t know whether it is really a book because it is self-published and, as such, it does not exist for the authorities that assess my research, the Ministry and ANECA. My new book is called Entre muchos mundos: en torno a la ciencia ficción, and it can be downloaded for free from the digital repository of my university. This is by no means the first book I publish at the DDD if I count the e-book versions of other books I have published in print or the 10 e-books with my students, but the novelty is that this is the first time I use the digital platform to publish a new book. ‘New’ relatively, since Entre muchos mundos gathers together a selection of 21 articles and book chapters on science fiction which I have published between 2000 and 2021. My intention was not only to put them together but also to make them all available in Spanish. As the credits show, most of these pieces had been originally published in English, but there is so very little on science fiction in Spanish that I decided to self-translate. The volume is quite long, around 340 pages, but I had already self-translated some of the pieces, and in case you don’t know, Word offers a translation tool (right-hand mouse button) which, as far as I’m concerned, works as proficiently as Google Translate or Deep-L. It still requires revision, logically, much not as much as you might think.

My collection is organized in three sections, Part I – Science fiction, genre and texts; Part II – Masculinity and Science Fiction, and Part III – Science fiction, women and feminism. Each section has 7 articles, with the first section being necessarily more miscellaneous. One of the hardest parts of organizing any book, particularly if it is an anthology of previously published work, is making it seem coherent. Another hindrance is getting over the embarrassment of re-reading work published fifteen or twenty years ago. What I have discovered in the process is that even though constant reading and studying brings new ideas all the time, one’s mind still spins around the same insistent notions. We are (or I am) rather stubborn creatures in what we think and believe. The matter that has surprised me more is that I wasn’t aware that I had already written so much on science fiction; in the end, I had to leave out some articles. This is not the kind of book I would have written if I had started from scratch but at the same time it is a more consistent sample of my work than I initially believed.

The focus of my post is not, however, the contents of the book, which the reader is invited to sample as more than other 100 readers have already done. I would like to discuss why this book exists and why it is in an academic limbo. In the process of trying to have my book Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2020, Routledge) published in Spanish, in self-translation, I have contacted 20 prospective publishers. Of these 7 declined to publish my book, usually invoking the excuse that their catalogue was full for two more years but never giving me the chance to consider if this was convenient for me. One, by the way, stopped replying to my e-mails at a point when I had already sent the contract with Routledge for them to check the matter of the language rights (which Routledge has granted me for Spanish). To my dismay, 11 publishers have never even replied to my proposal, accompanied by a rather complete dossier, and samples of my self-translation. Of the three who did reply showing some interest, I have finally been fortunate to be invited by one to publish the translation. In contrast, I had only contacted Palgrave and Routledge to publish the English original. I came to the conclusion that if publishing the translation of a book accepted by a top international academic publisher had been such a long, complicated process, there was no way anyone would accept a collection of already published articles on science fiction. In fact, I haven’t even tried to find a publisher. Why bother?

The market for academic books collapsed possibly a decade ago when students stopped buying books (I always speak of the Humanities, where handbooks are not as habitual as in science degrees). Reading Javier Pérez Andújar’s delicious Paseos con mi madre, I came across a reference to Dos obras maestras españolas: El Libro de buen amor y La Celestina (1962) by Maria Rosa Lida de Malkiel, a book that all students of Philology like him (and I) read photocopied. The academic market survived for as long as copies had to be paid for but when digitalization resulted in the rampant piracy in which we all participate, publishers reacted by increasing the price of volumes so steeply that not even well-paid tenured professors can afford them. In the recent order I have passed to the library, some of my colleagues have asked for books priced 120-160 euros; paperbacks start now at around 30 euros, which is still expensive. As for e-book editions, I wonder who is buying them because they are that expensive if not more. I believe that if e-books were in the 5-10 euros range, piracy would diminish but of course this is incongruous in an academic market in which articles are priced around 35 euros (and please recall that authors are paid royalties for books but not for articles, or, for that matter, book chapters).

It makes, then, sense to self-publish, which as I noted in my previous post, some first-rank figures are already doing through platforms such as Amazon. If we want knowledge to circulate, this is an attractive possibility, though of course everything has a cost. Surfing the internet seeking publishers, one soon comes across businesses offering help with self-publication, including a concern by Planeta. They value the editing and proof-reading of a standard volume (200-350 pages) at more than 2500 euros. I don’t know if this is cheap or expensive, but I realize that not all academics have the skills to produce a correctly edited e-book that looks minimally nice. I hope this fits the description of my new book, but I must say that even though I am very far from being a professional book designer, I have 30 years’ experience in editing and proof-reading my own texts (like most of us do), and more than 10 years’ experience in publishing online at UAB’s DDD. Actually, I love the process of choosing fonts, designing covers and so on, but I am aware that not all academics enjoy it. Self-publishing, then, has that: it requires either money or skills, and of course time. If I recall correctly, I have used about six weeks to edit my new book, combined with other duties, though I am not teaching this semester.

Once the e-book is edited (and I say e-book because self-publication on paper makes no sense at all), and it is uploaded online, what remains is making it visible. We believe that publishing on paper with an academic publisher is more practical since the book enters a catalogue and the publicity machinery of the publisher. Just consider this: books have a shelf-life of a few weeks, even when they are published by big commercial houses; possibly, university libraries extend that shelf-life since the idea of academic novelty is not so limiting (most journals accepts reviews of books published in the last two years). Even so, my Routledge book has sold about 150 copies in the first year, which was enough for it to become a paperback, whereas Entre muchos mundos already has 123 readers in one month. I have not even announced its publication, except for a tweet. If you’re thinking, ‘fine, but you’re not making any money out of this book’, consider that I have made no money whatsoever with the articles and book chapters included in it.

So, supposing you have the skills (or the money) to produce a legible e-book as a .pdf (Calibre can help you transform it into .epub and .mobi), and supposing your university has a digital platform where you can upload it (as Academia.edu and ResearchGate have, too), why do we insist on publishing academic books on paper, even paying thousands of euros for the privilege? Because of the Ministry and the assessment agencies, whether they are ANECA or the regional ones. Books are an uncomfortable grey area in assessment because they do not follow strictly the same peer reviewing system as the journals, and because they are not ranked according to the same metrics. In Spain, a research group of the Universidad de Granada build a few years ago SPI (Scholarly Publishers Indicators) on the basis of a survey asking us, researchers, about the prestige of the publishers in our area. This oddly subjective method created a series of distortions which has resulted in a rather singular list. SPI, besides, mixes Language and Literature, which means that the list is rather useless for either area. The Ministry and ANECA are so unsure about how to judge academic books that they give full volumes the same value as single articles in our personal assessment exercises. I stupidly believed that, with 9 chapters, the Routledge book should be sufficient to pass the next assessment until an ANECA bureaucrat corrected me. I still need to submit 5 more items, ideally from peer-reviewed A-list journals. Given the importance of peer-reviewing, and the treatment which academic books receive as suspect vanity publications unless they have the seal of a SPI top publishers, it is no wonder that self-publishing academic e-books has attracted so few people.

In the end, though, you need to ask yourself how you want to organize your academic publishing. I myself have led for many years now a dual career: I publish in what the Ministry and ANECA consider valuable publishers and journals for assessment, and I self-publish online for free at UAB’s repository what I want to circulate with no limits at all, even if it does not count for assessment. Hence, my new book. Would I publish a full monograph in this way? The answer is not yet because I still need to be assessed every five years (perhaps when I retire). So, yes, I understand that there are few advantages in self-publishing e-books that do not count for assessment, except that knowledge circulates for free, which is a gigantic bonus. If, in short, academic publishers instead of digital repositories are issuing our work, this is because the Ministry and ANECA require it, not because this is the best way in which knowledge is enhanced. Open Access, in fact, currently consists of making available what was once published not what is being self-published (and could be also peer-reviewed if required).

I hope you enjoy my book, but I also hope you think of publishing your own collections and of self-translating. It is extra work, I know, but perhaps not as hard as you assume. Stick to the Ministry/ANECA rules for assessment if you have to, but look beyond them, and circulate your academic work in as many ways as possible. I believe it is worth it and satisfactory.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

5 thoughts on “DEFENDING ACADEMIC SELF-PUBLISHING: THE PROBLEM OF BOOKS (AND A NEW ONE)

  1. Very much in agreement. And congratulations for having the constancy and dedication to engage in self-translation, not everyone is up to the task. Well, actually, almost nobody.

  2. Thanks again for the message!
    Self-translation is now easier than ever thanks to automatic translation, and I must say that it keeps me in touch with Spanish and Catalan, as I need to struggle to correct the IA translation and make it legible. Since we mostly publish in English, I do believe that self-translation is a good exercise and a way to multiply one’s bibliography with relatively little effort. Or I just like it!
    Sara

  3. Thanks for this, I hadn’t seen the error! It is now corrected. Yes, I have been self-translating since July 2021, using Word’s automatic translator, followed by revision. In this away, I also need to work on my written Spanish…

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