Academic Authors: The Perils of Losing Control of your Content

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By Daniel Berze, Senior Vice President, Glasstree Academic Publishing

After months, and often years of work spent developing your manuscript for publishing, not to mention the years that have gone into the researching and developing your ideas, academic authors eventually reach the stage of publication. Typically, authors hand their manuscript over to a traditional academic publisher, and the dissemination process is facilitated. What can go wrong?

What many academic authors fail to register is that upon transferring their content to a traditional publisher, they are also transferring the entire ownership and control of their work to a third party with very different motivations and a very different agenda to their own. There are serious implications in doing so, as many authors have discovered to their peril.

In the course of my two decades of work in and with the academic publishing industry, I never fail to be shocked by the stories that I have heard from authors who have suffered as a result of relinquishing control of their content. A few examples follow;

One author submitted his book manuscript to his publisher, one of the ‘big five’ academic publishers, particularly specializing in book publishing. He was elated to see that his book was finally being published and distributed and hoped that it would make considerable impact in the academic community. He did not know how much impact it would indeed generate! In one of the examples used in his book, while describing a complex construct, he used a reference to the World Trade Towers in NYC. Eight months after publication of the book, the 9/11 terrorist attack took place. The World Trade Towers reference in the book had become not only entirely inappropriate, but grotesquely offensive to all readers. The author contacted his publisher and informed them that the book would have to be immediately edited, removing the offensive reference. The publisher refused to do so. For seven years, the author was deluged with irate emails from students and professors, who chastised him for being so insensitive and anti-American for writing such a reference. Only after seven years was the author able to introduce the appropriate change, and in doing so, put a stop to the assaults on his character and standing in the academic community.

Another example: an author is provided with a strict deadline to complete his manuscript within six months with a traditional publisher. Given his many competing academic responsibilities, this is no easy task, and it would require working long hours and sacrificing forthcoming holidays. After a great deal of effort, the manuscript was finished and submitted to the publisher (again, one of the ‘big five’). Months go by and the book was still not published. The author was eager to ensure that his ideas would be publicly registered, one of the essential components of the publishing process. It was only after 13 months that his work was published, subject to the publishing priorities and preferences of his publisher, with no explanation or justification for the delay.

As a final example (although I have experienced and can recount dozens of these stories), an author works diligently and after two years submits his academic manuscript for publishing. The book is indeed published, but given the publisher’s ‘front list’ marketing prioritization, no efforts or investment are made to promote the book, which gains no attention whatsoever upon being published. Not satisfied to watch the ‘ship sink’ without an effort, the author engages in several PR activities on his own back, even to the point that costs are incurred. The author is not a PR specialist, and finds it difficult to generate impact without the support of the publisher. The book dies a silent death.

Increasingly, Publishers actively encourage authors to promote their own work, without providing them with a budget to do so. As publishers typically earn around 91% of book royalties, many authors have expressed their aggravation at having to invest their time and effort to promote their work, without a comparable investment from the publisher and little financial reward to the author. In addition to this, an increasing number of publishers are actually making a ‘buy back’ a perquisite to agreeing to publish an author’s work. A ‘buy back’ requires an author to agree to build a predetermined purchase of one’s work into the publishing agreement. For example, if a publisher is aware of a conference taking place in which the author is participating, a buy back agreement may be made, ensuring that all conference attendees receive a copy of the book. The author assumes the risk and a sub-portion the conference fees are used to pay for the book (if sufficient persons attend). It is a guaranteed success for the publisher, with no risk whatsoever.

One of the major advantages of independent publishing is that it returns control to the author. Control over the content. Control over the frequency of republishing of revisions (as independent publishing makes use of Print on Demand, content can be updated and republished as frequently as is required). Control over profits and the economics of publishing.

Academics, take back control.

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