Academic Publishers and Production Values

pile of booksLast week a book review I wrote was published on the LSE Review of Books blog. (This review is part of the ‘review a book a week’ series I’m running through 2019.) The book I reviewed was The Lost Ethnographies, edited by Robin James and Sara Delamont, and it is an excellent collection with only one problem: poor production values.

In publishing, “production values” is a term that covers the technical parts of the process. These include such things as: paper quality; page layout and cover design; font types and sizes; proof-reading, copy editing and indexing; print quality – essentially all the different factors that go into making a physical or digital book. A publisher with high production values is one that aims for good quality in these factors; a publisher with low production values is the opposite.

The Lost Ethnographies was published by Emerald and I’m sorry to say the production values weren’t great. As a reviewer, this was handy because it gave me something to criticise, but as a reader it was intensely irritating. There were typos on most pages, the print quality was poor, and the index was inadequate. I’m seeing more and more of this with academic books and it’s beginning to annoy me.

I understand from people who work in publishing that some academic publishing, particularly of monographs, is uneconomic. Therefore they have to outsource proof-reading, omit indexes, keep paper costs to a minimum, and so on. I hear from academics that they are really fed up with having to spend time, sometimes a lot of time, on correcting the errors of incompetent copy editors and proof-readers. At times these people are even introducing errors into books and articles. Here are some examples from the last week’s conversations:

“I had a difficult relationship with the people [publisher] outsourced editing to in [overseas country] – big issues were introduced the first time I got the proofs (bits missing, new wrong spelling) and it took a lot of pushing from me to get them changed.”

“I did an article on Jewish [redacted] whose editor changed every mention of midrash to mid-rash. It makes it sound as if I were writing about the aetiology and progression of measles.”

“When I first started writing and publishing I didn’t know how awful it was and consequently I didn’t proof read as carefully. Any newer academics who trust the process will find things are being published with typos, added words and other random deletions and insertions that ruin their papers. It is definitely getting worse and taking hours of my time to undo the damage at proofing stage.”

Worse still, academic publishers with low production values have the gall to charge three-figure sums for their books. From what I hear, Springer, Emerald, Palgrave and Routledge have bad reputations in these areas, while smaller academic publishers, such as Policy Press and Jessica Kingsley have much better production values and pricing policies.

In theory, the trade-off with the bigger publishers is that they’re better at distribution, marketing, and selling translation rights, but in practice this may not be the case. I am also hearing that even getting commitments about things like marketing and pricing into contracts with large publishers may not mean they are met. I heard one sad tale last week about pricing, where the author fought hard to have their book reasonably priced as per their contract, but didn’t have much success. I heard another about a publisher who had made clear commitments on marketing in a publishing contract but then didn’t see them through. The author concerned did what they could to put pressure on the publisher, but couldn’t afford to hire lawyers and in the end had to put up with broken promises and shattered dreams.

It seems it’s no longer the case that authors simply write books and publishers do the rest. It also seems that we have reached a point where academic monographs are being published badly because they are uneconomic. There is a simple solution to this: self-publishing. Perhaps it is time for academic researchers to build self-publishing costs into their funding bids. Authors could commission their own copy editors, proof-readers, indexers, page layout specialists and cover designers. That way they could have full control of the process and ensure that their book’s production values are high. Copy editors and proof-readers can be found via the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and indexers via the Society of Indexers. Page layout specialists and cover designers don’t yet have professional associations, so look for people with experience of academic work and testimonials that you can check such as Blot Publishing, or ask around for a recommendation.

Of course self-publishing isn’t valued by the REF, so some UK-based academic authors will have to continue working with commercial publishers. But I think that might change in time. Also, there are no paywalls for self-published books and articles. Digital self-published materials such as e-books and pdfs can be made available to readers for free, and hard copies can be produced as print-on-demand for small sums to cover costs. So there is a strong argument for self-publishing being the ethical option. (And blogging is self-publishing too!)

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