Creative Research Methods Summer School 6-8 July 2017

casic-logofinalPhD students and Early Career Researchers are welcome at this event organised by the Community Animation and Social Innovation Centre (CASIC) at Keele University.

The Summer School will be held in central England at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme (6-7 July) and Keele University campus (8 July), where you will experience the KAVE and our Makerspace facilities.

The facilitator will be Dr Helen Kara, author of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. Speakers will include:

  • borderlinesProfessor Mihaela Kelemen – CASIC Director
  • Dr Lindsay Hamilton – Keele Management School, Keele University
  • Véronique Jochum – Research Manager, National Council for Voluntary Organisations
  • Dr Emma Surman – Keele Management School, Keele University
  • Dr Ceri Morgan – School of Humanities, Keele University
  • Professor Rajmil Fischman – School of Music, Keele University
  • Sue Moffat – Director of New Vic Borderlines, New Vic Theatre

keele-logo-2The Summer School will enlighten, inspire and guide ECRs and students at all stages of scholarly or professional doctorates. Each day will be packed with interactive hands-on sessions addressing six broad topics:

  • Arts-based research
  • Transformative research frameworks
  • Mixed-methods research
  • Knowledge co-production
  • Research using technology
  • Writing creatively for research

We are offering an “early bird” price of £230 for bookings received and paid by 21 April. After that date the price will be £270. The cost includes refreshments and lunches and a complimentary copy of Dr Kara’s book on creative research methods.

There will be a dinner and performance of ‘Around the world in 80 Days’ at the New Vic Theatre on July 6th, at an extra cost of £20.

For more information click here.

Please follow #CRMSS17 on Twitter for pre-event updates.

How ethical is it to write a book?

indigenous-research-meth-cover_Three bloggers and tweeters had an online conversation in December and this post is a response to that discussion, which  began when Naomi Barnes, aka @DrNomyn, posted her thoughts on qualitative research. She wrote of the politics and power of research and knowledge, and her realisation that there are ethical implications to every decision she makes as a researcher. Naomi describes that as ‘a huge and sobering responsibility’.

Naomi tweeted the link to her blog post, which was picked up by Ian Guest, aka @IanInSheffield. He responded, first on Twitter and then on his blog. Ian’s concern is with southern-theory-cover_the ethics of representation, and in particular what and who is missing from accounts of research and communication. This leads to his interest in where knowledge shared online may go, and what impact it may have, beyond that which is visible in tweets and blog posts.

Then Deborah Netolicky, aka @debsnet, joined in. She problematises the ethics of writing: how to represent the messiness of research (and life) within the inevitable neatness of writing, and how much – or how little – of the author’s self is, and/or should explicitly be, expressed in their academic writing.

research-as-ceremony-cover_Each of these points links to my current writing project: the book on research ethics which I have spent the last two years talking about and researching, and which, this year, I will actually write. Like Naomi, I’m aware that there are ethical implications to every decision I make as I work on this book. What I choose to read; what I choose to take from that reading; who I speak to; what I decide is significant from those conversations; how I select and place each word in the text; how I acknowledge my reading and conversations within that process; what I leave out, and why – Naomi is right, it is a ‘huge and sobering responsibility’.

decolonising-meth-cover_One of my proposal reviewers said, ” There is a considerable international literature on research ethics with which the author may not (yet) be familiar: Mertens and Ginsberg; Hammersley and Trianou; Tolich and Sieber; Posel and Ross; Iphofen; Israel; vd Hoonaard; Denzin, Lincoln and Smith; and even Stark; Schrag…” This was not a lack of familiarity – most of these are on my bookshelves or in my electronic folders – simply a lack of reference. But I am interested in the reviewer’s view of ‘international’ and – like Ian – in what, and who, is missing from that view.

Most of the work cited by this reviewer is written from Euro-Western locations. The chilisa-mertens-cram-cover_exceptions are Posel and Ross (South Africa) and Sieber and Tolich (New Zealand). Yet I would argue that these authors, too, turn a predominantly Euro-Western gaze on the topic of research ethics. For example, neither text addresses the impact of colonization on research worldwide, nor mentions the work to decolonize research methods or the Indigenous research being done in their country of origin. I am currently reading a different body of work which highlights this as a huge lacuna at best, and imperial epistemological violence at worst. Books on Indigenous research and decolonizing methods are opening my eyes to the value, power, and ethics of non-Euro-Western research practices.

decolonising-solidarity-coverSo of course I will include this body of work in my forthcoming book. To do that was an easy ethical decision: as soon as I knew the work existed, it was obvious that I should read and incorporate it into my own work. The hard part is how to do that. I guess I’ll figure it out as I write, but one thing’s for sure: it won’t be a tokenistic chapter or mentions in passing with a few footnotes.

Like Deb, I also need to figure out where and how to put myself into this writing. I am white, British, a descendant of some of the most predatory imperialists the world has yet seen. I benefit daily, hugely, from the legacy of colonization. I live in a country made rich on the profits of oppression, invasion, exploitation and slavery. I only speak English, because I only need to speak English, because my ancestors invaded so much of the land on this planet that now English is the most commonly spoken language worldwide. One thing I’m learning, in reading about Indigenous research, is that in many cultures worldwide, people value their ancestors as highly as their living relatives. For me, the dead are dead; if I was ever to have a relationship with my own ancestors, I would probably need to start by shouting at them for several years.

Sometimes I wonder whether I have any right to even write about this body of work. But then I think that the risk of perpetrating epistemic imperialism by leaving it out is worse than the risk of perpetrating epistemic violence through inept inclusion. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s even ethical to write books at all. I have discovered, since I began to write professionally, that being an author is a way of claiming authority. Is that ethical? I guess it depends on how you do it. My aim is not only to write about ethics but also to do so ethically. As Deb says, there will be ‘moments of awkwardness, uncertainty, openness, weakness, resistance, emotion’, and I want to reveal as many of these as I can. That, too, seems like an ethical approach. Yet I wonder how ethically I can write, given that I write with enormous privilege: access to structures such as universities and publishers, and social capital that is denied to most Indigenous researchers. I’m not arrogant enough to think I can write a book which will change that situation. But at least, perhaps, I can move the goalposts by acknowledging and including work on Indigenous research and decolonizing methods alongside Euro-Western methods and ethics. Also, I want to acknowledge the Euro-Western location of Euro-Western research methods and ethics, rather than maintaining the common assumption that these are the only methods and ethics on the planet.

fork-in-the-roadIt’s a tough and daunting task. I’m not even sure whether I’m going in the right direction – or whether there is a “right direction” at all. But I aim to consider all the ethical implications of each decision I have to make and, at each fork in the road, to choose the most ethical path. I think that’s the best I can do.

Review Of The Year 2016

2016By far the most popular post on the blog in 2016 was Ten Ways To Get Hold Of Academic Literature. In fact, thanks to @elfriesen making a great contribution in the comments, it should now be called Fifteen Ways To Get Hold Of Academic Literature. I’m glad this post has proved to be such a useful resource – though it may partly be the most popular because it was posted very early in the year: January 6th, to be precise.

Oddly enough, the second most popular post with readers in 2016 was in fact published in March 2015. It’s the post on Creative Research Methods, which outlines the structure and content of my book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. I’m surprised and delighted that this post is still so widely read.

The third most popular is my post on Getting Creative With Your Thesis Or Dissertation, published in July 2016. I’m not so surprised about this one, because I’ve had really good feedback about it, on Twitter, by email, and from people in my workshops. It gives examples of several doctoral dissertations and theses which have been put together in more creative ways than the traditional brick of paper full of dense academic writing. I’m continuing to collect such examples and will write on the topic again when I have enough to merit another post.

The fourth most popular is Ten Top Tips For Becoming An Indie Researcher, published in June. Again, I had a lot of positive feedback about this post. I aimed to provide realistic encouragement, i.e. to make the drawbacks of this lifestyle clear as well as the pleasures. Reading back over the post, I think I succeeded. A lot of people I’ve spoken to this year have been very interested in how I manage to survive and thrive as an indie. For me, and for others who I know, it’s a great way to live. But it has a lot of challenges, and it is definitely not right for everyone.

The fifth of the top five is a post from October, Devising Your Own Research Method. This post explains when, and how, you can create a new method. It’s primarily aimed at doctoral students, who tend to have more time to think about their methods than jobbing researchers do, though it may also be useful for early career and other researchers.

My own top five, in professional terms, don’t have an order of priority, so I’m going to put them in chronological order. The first was the Research Methods Festival at Bath in July, which was a terrific event. I met some great people and learned a lot.

The second was my recent trip to Melbourne, Australia, where I delivered a keynote speech and three workshops on creative research methods, and met some wonderful people in real life who I’d been talking to on Twitter for years. I’d never been to Australia before and it was an amazing experience.

The third was being commissioned to teach a 60-credit module on creative research methods for EdD students at Staffordshire University in the first half of 2017. I’m in the process of planning the module, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself and my intention is that my students will do too. If others want to follow our progress, you can find us on Twitter through the hashtag #StaffsEdD.

The fourth highlight of 2016 was working on the second edition of my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide. This is a heavily revised and updated edition, with a whole new chapter on methodologies, due for publication in April 2017.

The fifth highlight was being asked to facilitate a Summer School on Creative Research Methods for doctoral students in July 2017. This is being run by the Community Animation and Social Innovation Centre (CASIC) at Keele University, and will be held at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme and at the Keele campus. We’re in the process of putting the programme together now, and it looks terrific. We’ll be covering arts-based methods, research using technology, mixed methods, transformative research frameworks, and writing creatively for academia. There will be a range of presenters and lots of hands-on and interactive work. Booking opens in January, with a discounted early bird rate; follow me on Twitter @DrHelenKara if you want to find out more.

I’m going to rest this blog, now, till the New Year. I wish you all a happy holiday.

Second Edition Finished!

Pages from Research and evaluation for busy students and practitioners FC.jpgI mentioned before that I’ve been working on the second edition of my first full-length research methods book. And I’ve just finished! It’s been quite a chunk of work. I’m sure some people turn out second editions that just have a few new paragraphs, some updated references and a different cover. Not this one. This second edition has a whole new chapter, several new sections, lots of updated references, and all the work that goes with shuffling the old bits to make the text cohere and the narrative flow smoothly around the new bits. We’ve even updated the cover – isn’t it lovely?

I’ve also corrected a few small errors (ahem) and tried very hard not to make any new ones (fingers crossed). Luckily I’ve had help, from friends and colleagues, my lovely editor and others at Policy Press, and the useful constructive criticism I collected from some of the kind people who took the time to write reviews of the first edition. Many books have just one name on the cover but I don’t think any book worth reading or using can really be produced by one person entirely alone. It’s too complex a task. In these days of indie publishing, authors can do more themselves, and have more control of the process, if they choose. I support that – I even do it, at times – but I would still use beta readers and a professional editor, as a minimum. Plus there are all the people I bounce ideas off as I go along.

You might think the work is done at the point when I email the typescript off to the publisher. If only! These days, if you write a textbook, you need also to write a companion website. So these last few weeks I’ve been devising discussion topics and essay questions, quizzes and scenarios, and searching out resources to add to the companion website for the second edition.

There are still tasks ahead: respond to queries from my editor, respond to queries from the copy editor, read the proofs, probably other things I’ve forgotten. Then there will be marketing, in the New Year, ahead of publication in April. I’ve learned a lot about marketing in the last few years but I still know very little, and I’ll be interested to learn how to market a second edition.

But before all that, I’m off on my travels! A stop-over in Tokyo this weekend, Sydney next week, then Melbourne the week after for work. I’m aiming to blog at least once when I’m away, and will be interested to see who’s around to chat to on Twitter when I’m usually asleep. My aim was to finish the substantive work on the second edition before I left the UK, and I’m very glad I have.

Working On A Second Edition

2nd-ednI’m working on the second edition of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide. This was my first full-length research methods book, published by Policy Press in 2012, and it’s ready for an update. I’ve never worked on a second edition before and it’s an interesting process. One of the problems I had with the first edition was that the typescript review was not at all helpful – just half a page of text with only one point that I ended up implementing. That was frustrating at the time. I wanted more input this time around, and my lovely publisher agreed that this would be a good idea.

First they asked for a couple of unstructured pre-proposal reviews from people currently using the book. One was half a page and the other was 2.5 pages, and they were both helpful, with a useful balance of praise and constructive criticism. Of course authors need praise like plants need water, but also it’s handy when revising work to know which aspects I don’t need to worry about.

My next job was to write a proposal for the second edition, saying why I thought there was a need for a new edition, and what the key features of the new edition would be. This went out to five reviewers for structured responses, which again were very helpful and balanced. All seven reviewers had lots of ideas – two full pages of bullet points when I compiled them into a Word document – to add to the ideas I’d already had myself, and some that readers and reviewers had contributed after the first edition came out.

The second edition will be around 10,000 words longer than the first, with a whole new chapter on research approaches and methodologies. I can’t quite believe that didn’t go in the first edition! One of the main criticisms I received from the reviewers, which was also made in some of the published reviews when the book came out, was that while the book has ‘evaluation’ in the title, there is only one mention of evaluation in the text. That is not in fact the case, though it is what the index says. In 2012, when the first edition came out, I didn’t know how to check an index. I have more idea now! Evaluation is threaded through the text: for example, in the introductory chapter it is referred to seven times, on pages 1, 5, 6 (three times), 9, and 11. This time I will be making sure that evaluation is fully covered in the index, and that it appears in the contents list – another mistake we made. This is partly because the contents list only includes the chapter titles, and it’s easy to miss out the word ‘evaluation’ at that level, because you can’t say ‘research and evaluation’ every single time or it becomes very wearing for your readers. (I was comforted to find that other books have the same problem, e.g. the new edition of  Michael Quinn Patton‘s Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods – though that book does have a full indexing of ‘evaluation’.)

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to recapture the ‘voice’ of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners. The voice of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences was very different. But I started writing yesterday and it came straight back, as familiar as the voice of an old friend. I have a lot of work to do, but it’s work I love, and I’m excited about it, because I think I can make a good book better.

Self-Publishing For Academics

Self-Publishing For Academics - High Resolution.jpgToday Dr Nathan Ryder and I are launching our co-authored e-book Self-Publishing For Academics. Self-publishing offers a huge opportunity for many academics, and they’re beginning to take it up. Nathan and I have self-published several e-books between us, and have self-published in other forms too such as blogs and zines. We wrote the book we wished we’d had when we set out on our self-publishing journeys.

Working together turned out to be a dream collaboration and we’ve written about that this week on the Research Whisperer blog. For this blog, we thought we’d interview each other; this gave us a chance to ask some questions we hadn’t got around to before. Here are the results.

Helen: What surprised you about our work together?

Nathan: How easy it felt. Writing a book is hard, and I’ve always thought that collaboration is quite tricky too, despite how necessary it is. We started from a concept, expanded out, divided the areas up and got to work. I know we’re both busy, but we made this a priority, and I think because of that it’s got done in a far more timely manner than I thought.

Given your own experiences in publishing and self-publishing, why did you want to co-author this one?

Helen: There are so many different options for self-publishing and marketing that I suspected you and I had taken different routes, even though we have both self-published for the same audience, i.e. doctoral students (up to now, anyway!). When we began talking I found we did indeed have different, but complementary, experience and knowledge. I think the combination of our approaches has made for a much better, richer book than I could write by myself.

Where do you think self-publishing will be most useful for academics?

Nathan: A big problem for many people is that they wait a long time to be “picked”. Someone waits for someone to pick them for a job, or a project or to write a book, say. The need to be chosen is a really tough need to overcome, but it’s barrier that can be hurdled. Academics don’t have to wait for a publisher to say yes to their monograph: it’s perfectly possible to do it yourself. A consequence of this could be that they could do the work that they think matters and will connect rather than what someone else thinks they can sell. There can often be shortened turnaround times for publication too.

What have you learned about self-publishing by doing this project?

Helen: I learned a lot about covers. I guess I vaguely knew it was possible to design your own but, not being a very visual person, I didn’t think it was something I would be able to do. Now, though, I might just have a go! It’s also useful to know where good bespoke covers can be obtained more cheaply than by commissioning a professional designer. Also, I learned a lot about self-publishing for free. I haven’t spent a huge amount on my e-books, but I certainly haven’t done them for free, and it’s really useful to know about the options there.

Which makes me wonder, what have you learned about self-publishing from our project?

Nathan: The value of beta-readers and an editor. For both of my previous books I had relied on myself and asked my wife to look through the drafts, but we don’t have the experience to know everything to look for when it comes to editing. And for this book, the beta-readers really helped us to spot gaps in our writing or logic – and even corrected us on some of the terms we used!

Do you have a routine or process when it comes to writing?

Helen: For the first draft of a book, I calculate how many words I need to write per day or (more often) week to get the draft done by the deadline. Then I add that to my weekly to-do list, and ensure I get those words written – even if that does, on occasion, mean spending Sunday at my computer. Also, I am quite focused about using my writing time for writing, so I’ll produce several hundred words in an hour rather than spending my ‘writing time’ fossicking about on social media or surfing the internet. I don’t need a particular place to write, I just need my laptop – I write on trains, in airports, on friends’ sofas, and in bed. However, unlike many writers, I’m not keen on writing in cafes because I find the people-watching and eavesdropping opportunities too distracting!

What do you plan to self-publish next?

Nathan: I’m going to finish a project I started some time ago, and get my first book available for print-on-demand. Fail Your Viva came out in January 2013, and within weeks I was exploring how to get it in print. At the time and for a long time since I’ve convinced myself that I can’t manage a print run, but as we were working on our book – and through doing a little hobby self-publishing – I’ve gained the confidence to finally make it happen. That, and digging some older writing out and seeing if I like it again.

I know you’ve got your series that you’re past the halfway mark on. Have you got any plans beyond them?

Helen: Lots and lots of plans! I want to narrate the audio-books for all the e-books I’ve self-published for doctoral students. I also want to start making videos for YouTube. That’s something I’ve tried several ways but haven’t yet got the hang of, but I feel as if I’ve learned quite a bit in the process and if I keep trying I’ll get there eventually. Also, I’m doing preparatory reading, thinking, and interviewing for my next full-length trad-published book, on research ethics, and I expect to start writing that in earnest in the autumn.

So if you could sum up in a sentence the main piece of advice you’d give someone who was thinking of self-publishing… well obviously that would be ‘read our book’! But apart from that, what would you say?

Nathan: Start now! There are a hundred-and-one things that can get in the way of finishing any writing project, but the only thing that’s really in the way of starting is the writer. Start today. (then read our book)

Last question from me: what are you going to do to celebrate Self-Publishing for Academics being finished and out there?

Helen: Have a cuppa with you on Skype! After that: take your advice, and start writing the next e-book. That’ll be the last in my series for doctoral students, and the last one I write for a while, so when I get that one finished I’m really going to celebrate.

Research Ethics – Can You Help?

telephoneDear Internet

I wonder whether you can help me. I need people, from outside the UK, to talk to about research ethics. They can be academics or practitioners, from any discipline or field, and they need to have some interest in research ethics. If they fit that specification, and they’re based outside the UK, I’d like to talk to them.

This is for my next book which will be on research ethics. I’ve done a bunch of interviews with people from the UK, but I want to take a more global look at the topic. I’ve asked everyone in my networks but I’m getting nowhere, so I’m throwing this out to you in the hope that you may know one or more people who might be willing to talk.

Interviews are taking about an hour and can be done by phone or Skype. The interviews will be kept confidential, and I’m happy to email over my questions for someone to look at before they decide whether or not they want to take part. I won’t use anyone’s name in connection with the book. I am compiling a list of the roles and countries of origin of the people I’ve spoken to, to give my readers some idea of the breadth of contributions, with interviewees choosing their own designation e.g. ‘senior lecturer in social work, British university’ or ‘independent researcher, UK’, but if someone doesn’t even want to go that far, that’s OK with me. Some of the people I’ve spoken to have held several roles in connection with research ethics but have chosen to speak to me from just one of their roles, which is fine. Some have chosen not to answer all my questions, or to answer several in one; that’s fine too.

I would be particularly interested in talking to people doing, or who have done, research in countries with authoritarian rather than democratic governments – though I’d also love to talk to Australians, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and so on. In fact I’d like to talk to people from pretty much anywhere outside the UK, though I only speak English.There’s no big rush; I’m hoping to get the interviews done some time in the next 3-4 months.

Obviously I wouldn’t expect you to give me someone’s contact details, but if you know people you think might be willing and able to help, perhaps you could draw their attention to this post and then, if they want to get in touch, they could email me through the contact form.

Here’s hoping…

I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

head scratchingSome people call me an expert. I even call myself one on occasion, usually when I’m trying to win work or funding. But I don’t feel like an expert – or perhaps I don’t feel like I expected an expert to feel.

When I was younger, I thought of an expert as someone who knew pretty much everything about their subject. It’s true that I know a lot about research methods, probably more than most people on the planet, but I don’t know anywhere near everything. Research methods is such a huge and fast-moving field that nobody could know everything, but I don’t think I even know as close to everything as possible. In fact I think I’m a long way from there. Lots of people know things about research methods that I don’t know and, however much more I learn, that will always be the case.

But I do know how to be confident, even when I don’t feel confident. I don’t mean I’m falsely confident: if I don’t know the answer to a question, I’ll say so; if I don’t understand what someone is saying, I’ll ask for clarification. When I was younger, I thought doing that would make me look stupid. Now, quite literally, I know better.

I can even be confident about working on a project when I don’t know what I’m doing. That is a stretch for my confidence – sometimes it wobbles a bit – but I can do it. For example, I’m writing a book on research and ethics. The working title is Research Ethics in the Real World. I’ve been working on it since last summer. So far I have read half a dozen books and made notes from most of them, bought another 25 or so, interviewed eight people, and written 676 words. I’m at the exploratory stage and I really don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have a structure for the book, or its voice, or a writing style. I don’t really know what I want to say, beyond something about how research ethics is linked with institutional, political, and global ethics; that it doesn’t exist in a bubble of its own.

But I have faith in the process. It’s what I tell doctoral students: keep on reading, thinking, and writing, and you’ll get there in the end. I’ve done this a few times now, though each time is different. And I do have a glimmer of a plan: when I finish making the notes from the books I’ve read, I’m going to plug those and my interview transcripts into NVivo, do some emergent coding, and see what falls out. I hope that will help, though of course it may confuse me further. But if I’m lucky, I’ll start to spot some connections, relationships, and patterns, which will help me find the way.

This is how creativity often works in practice. Bumbling around, doing what you enjoy, whether that’s picking out tunes on an instrument, messing around with paints, or stringing words together to make sentences. Lots of fiddling and noodling, also known as practice, while you work out the song you want to sing, the picture you want to paint, or the book you want to write. Not really knowing what you’re doing. Even when you’re an expert.

Knowing And Remembering

Creative research methods in the social sciences [FC]Over the next three weeks I will be doing eight presentations about creative research methods, in Edinburgh, London, and Calgary, to audiences of practitioners, postgraduate students, and academics. I like doing presentations, once I get going, but this is a little daunting because each presentation is slightly different from the others. For example, one is for evaluation practitioners at the NSPCC, so they will want to know how to use creative methods in evaluation research focusing on children and families. Another is for MA students at the University of Calgary, who need to know about arts-based methods and research using technology. A third is for the Social Research Association in Edinburgh, which is likely to generate a mixed audience of practitioners and postgraduate students with a variety of learning needs.

Although I’ll be the one doing the teaching, the prospect of giving these presentations feels rather like the prospect of doing a bunch of exams. This is partly because I’ve had to do a whole load of revision. Although creative methods have always been part of my practice, I finished writing the book a year ago, and I seem to have forgotten a surprisingly large proportion of its contents. I feel rather as though I need to learn it off by heart – including the 500+ references – before I do the first presentation. Which is tomorrow morning. So that’s not going to happen, particularly as I already have rather a lot of work to do on the train to Edinburgh today.

Luckily I’ve had time to refresh my memory to some extent. When I re-read the book I wrote, I remember some parts vividly, while others almost feel like new information. I find myself thinking ‘Ooh, that’s a good point’, as if it had been written by someone else, and ‘Did I really write this?’ because I don’t remember.

This is a strange phenomenon, and I wonder whether other authors have similar experiences. I suspect at least some of them do. It’s not entirely new for me, either. I’ve never been one for hanging on to old papers, but some years ago I came across an essay I’d written for A level geography, all about fluvio-glaciation and peri-glaciation. I couldn’t remember ever knowing those words, let alone what they meant.

So I’ve been thinking about the difference between knowing and remembering. Sometimes I know I know something, such as the name of a tune I am hearing on the radio, but I can’t bring it to mind – we say, ‘It’s on the tip of my tongue’. Sometimes I don’t know I ever knew something, such as the geographic terminology above. Some things I know fairly indelibly, such as how to drive my car, make a veggie chilli, or write an email. Yet there must be lots of things I’ll never know I ever knew, which is a strange thought.

I did remember some things about exams which made me feel a bit better about my forthcoming ordeal-by-presentation. I remembered that I used to have the same feeling, that I needed to memorise everything in my schoolbooks, and the same lurching internal near-panic because I knew I couldn’t. And I remembered that I had actually been quite good at exams, and one thing I’d learned from doing exams that was still applicable now is that I don’t need to remember everything, but to remember enough, and to know what to do with what I remember. In fact, to be creative.

I can do that.

Indie Publishing for Academia – Ten Top Tips

SYPhD_green_SQmarks_noblend_LC2_RGBThree weeks ago I became an indie publisher as well as an indie researcher and writer. In that time, my embryonic publishing company, Know More Publishing (see what I did there?!), has gained a website. Also, my first short affordable e-book, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, has gained three five-star reviews on Amazon UK and a fourth on Amazon US. I didn’t bribe a single reviewer!

It’s around a year since I decided to go down this road, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. I think there’s a great deal of potential in indie publishing for academics, altacs, doctoral students and others. Indie publishing doesn’t figure in organisational performance metrics, which creates a barrier for some people, though perhaps one day it will. But it’s a great way to produce work which is too long for academic journals, or doesn’t fit their requirements, but is shorter than a traditionally published book. And it’s open access – you can make your work available for free if you wish, or at a very low cost.

On the down side, there is no quality control. I know there are arguments about whether the peer review system actually enhances quality, but editors certainly do, if they’re doing their jobs properly. With indie publishing, it is possible to plonk any old drivel online for sale. That’s not the kind of indie publishing I advocate. I worked in traditional publishing, I write for traditional publishers, and I have loved books all my life. So I want to see good quality indie publishing from academia and its associates, and to publish good quality books myself. Here are my ten top tips for anyone who shares my aims.

  1. Write something nobody else has written. As an academic or altac, you should be used to spotting gaps in literature. Your work will gain much more interest from others if it’s the only one of its kind.
  1. Get feedback on your writing. Starting Your PhD went through three sets of beta readers, from potential doctoral students to experienced supervisors. It wouldn’t have been worth publishing without their input.
  1. Use a professional editor. It doesn’t matter how experienced a writer you are, you will have blind spots. I know I did. I will always pay to have my books edited by a skilled professional who can bring fresh eyes and a keen brain to improving my text.
  1. Unless you are really good at design yourself, use a professional cover designer. You need someone who knows about book covers, how to make them stand out even at thumbnail size on a mobile device.
  1. Join the Alliance of Independent Authors. This worldwide organisation has approved ‘partner members’ including editors and cover designers which is useful if you don’t have people in your networks with those skills. They also have an active and ALLiEthicalAuthor_Badgesupportive closed group on Facebook where you can get help with all aspects of indie writing and publishing. And they have an Ethical Author code, as well as a publicly accessible searchable blog full of sound advice.
  1. Be prepared to do lots of promotional work. As an indie publisher, you’re not only the author, you’re also the sales and marketing departments for your work. This could involve anything from chatting on Twitter to lugging print copies around with you. You will need to decide what you can do, when, and how. It doesn’t have to be much – but if you don’t do anything to promote your work, it will sink beneath the ocean of available literature.
  1. Buy ISBNs, aka International Standard Book Numbers. These are the 10 or 13 digit numbers used by cataloguing systems to identify each unique book. You can only buy them from one organisation in each country, they’re not cheap (though the more you buy, the cheaper each number becomes), and you can’t transfer them between publishers or even leave them in your will. Also they take ten days to issue, so don’t leave this until the last minute, or you’ll have to postpone your book launch (like I did, ahem). You can get free identifiers such as ASINs from distributors such as Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble (Nook), but these are distribution codes, not unique book identifiers – or if they are actual ISBNs, they are owned and assigned by the distributor, not by you. This effectively means you are giving away part of the control you have over your work, and having control of your own work is a big part of the rationale for publishing independently in the first place. There’s a more detailed explanation of this on the Alliance of Independent Authors’ blog.
  1. Research the different ways you can publish your work – and expect to spend a considerable amount of time on this, as there are a lot of options. To begin with: e-book only, print only, or both? I’ve gone for e-book only, as I’m writing short books for students who will be comfortable with technology, and e-books are more affordable than print books. So then I decided to publish via Kindle Direct Publishing. This is a no-brainer even if you regard Amazon as the evil empire, because you will sell most of your work from this platform, so if you’re not willing to do business with Amazon at all, don’t publish independently. I also decided to use Draft2Digital, who take a small commission from your income for distributing through most of the other major channels – Kobo, Barnes & Noble (Nook), iBooks, Scribd etc – and they’re very helpful when you get stuck with your uploading, as I did. You could upload your work with each platform individually, and save yourself the commission; it’s your decision whether the hassle is worth the benefit. I decided that, for me, it wasn’t – and my sales figures, so far, bear this out (see below). I might decide to produce print books one day, in which case I’d use CreateSpace on the advice of fellow members of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
  1. Launch your book with some kind of a fanfare – then relax. I had a virtual launch day with a dedicated blog post and a lot of tweeting. Ten days later I went on holiday, which was excellent timing, as the process of preparing and publishing the e-book was much more difficult, stressful, and exhausting than I anticipated. I won’t be able to take a holiday every time, but I’m going to build in at least a weekend off after each one from now on.
  1. Write another book. Full disclosure: in the first three weeks, I’ve made £56.48 from sales on Amazon and $6.30 from sales through Draft2Digital. Not bad for a first e-book priced at £1.99/$2.99. However, given that I’ve shelled out around £500 on editing, cover design, and ISBNs, at this rate it will be six months before I break even. But I have a cunning plan for world domination: the next book in this series, Gathering Data For Your PhD, will be out in November, and I have four more planned for 2016. There is clear evidence that the more you publish and promote, the more readers you will acquire. This applies in the same way to free material.

I hope my learning over the last year will benefit others. If you decide to go down the indie publishing road, do let me know. At present I only know of two other academic types who are doing this: Dr Nathan Ryder, who has published a couple of very useful short e-books on preparing for your viva, and Dr Jenna Condie, who has a book of blog posts on sustainable urbanisation. If you know of other academic indie publishers, please leave a comment. Let’s start a movement!