Review of the Year 2015

I was interested to check my blog stats and find ou2015t which were the three top posts of 2015. By far the most popular was my declaration that I will not work for nothing for wealthy institutions such as universities. That was published on 19 May, almost halfway through the year, and has had many more hits than any other post. Perhaps it will contribute to some universities becoming a little less reluctant to pay independent experts properly. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The second most popular post was published in June, and called for researchers and academic writers to make reading a priority. This was a useful post for me to revisit, as in amongst my autumnal travels I forgot about the commitment I’d made to read at least one book chapter a day, six days a week. I have been reading, but more sporadically and lumpily, so now I’ve remade that commitment.

I was surprised and delighted to find that the third most popular postwas the one from September when I announced my new venture into indie publishing, and launched my first self-published e-book, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know. The second in the PhD Knowledge series, Gathering Data For Your PhD: An Introduction, was published in November, and I’ve now written the third, Analysing Data For Your PhD: An Introduction. That is with my editor and due for publication in January. My brand-new publishing company, Know More Publishing, has already had three enquiries from other writers who want to publish with us, and that was something I did not expect at all.

There’s a fourth post, from the very start of the year, on how to write a killer conference abstract. That was the most popular post from last January but only received a tenth of the hits of the top post overall. However, this post probably outstrips all the others, because it was picked up and reposted on the LSE Impact Blog. Of course I can’t be sure, because I don’t have access to their stats, but through the year I have seen this post being retweeted more than any of my others, right up to and including last week. So I suspect this one may be the real big hitter.

Beyond the blog, 2015 has been a terrific year for me. Highlights included the publication of Creative Research Methods for the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide in April; the creative research methods conference at the British Library in May; working in Calgary, Canada, in October; and being made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in the same month. It’s also been a rather tiring year, so this blog and I are going to have a little rest, now, till the New Year.

I’m excited for 2016 as I have lots of plans. I’ll be publishing the next four e-books in the PhD Knowledge series, convening a session on ‘research for social justice: moving ethics forward’ at the Research Methods Festival in July, collaborating on special issues and e-books, teaching, speaking, and doing research. And I’m sure lots of other fun and interesting things will happen that I have no idea about as yet. I love my life!

Let’s Talk About The Day Rates

coins on handI was halfway through a post in response to Debs’ latest blog in the ongoing conversation with her and Naomi Barnes and Katie Collins when I was stricken with a chest infection. One of my disabilities is asthma, so these things hit me hard, and I’m now in bed, on steroids, coughing and wheezing and waiting to feel better. My brain isn’t working too well so I’m going to write a post inspired by a real-life conversation with my friend and collaborator Katy Vigurs earlier this week, about day rates. Katy told me it would be useful if I explained how they work. So here goes.

My day rates are between £250 and £550. Generally speaking, I offer the lowest rates to small charities, medium rates to national charities or charitable funders, and the highest rates to the private sector, central government and universities. Having said that, I will negotiate, and may offer a lower rate if it’s work I particularly want to do, or I’m feeling flush and it’s a good cause, or it’s a low-hassle job I can do from home. I may charge more for work I don’t really want to do or which will involve lots of travel or unfunded collaborative extras.

So my median rate is £400. That’s fairly low by the standards of most of my competitors, but seems high to salaried people. They wonder how, if I am self-employed and work from home, I can justify charging so much. Partly this is because I am an expert and have a wide range of skills and abilities to offer. More prosaically, it’s because of the economics.

Let’s start with holiday pay. If I take a standard level of holiday – 4 weeks per year, 8 bank holidays, and 104 weekend days – that leaves 233 working days in the year over 48 weeks. In theory, therefore, I could bring in £93,200 each year. In practice it doesn’t work that way.

I need an average of one day per week for essential business-related tasks: marketing (including writing these blog posts), keeping up to date with my field (oh the never-ending reading!), administrative management of my finances, my office, and my paperwork. So now I’m down to 185 chargeable days per year. But there is other work I can’t charge for. Lots of other work. Pre- and post-contract work, hold-ups caused by clients who cancel meetings at short notice or don’t meet agreed deadlines, writing journal articles, replying to queries via email and Twitter, my own professional development. Nobody pays me for any of that. If I do a day’s work at your university, it’ll be around two days’ work in reality, with all the planning, preparation, and follow-up work. And travel. There’s lots of travel. Sometimes it’s included in the day rate, but I would estimate about half of it isn’t. So overall that’s another day a week, so now I’m down to 137 working days. (Actually it’s more like another two days, which probably explains why I mostly only have one day off at the weekend.)

Then there’s sickness. The average annual sickness absence in the UK at present is just 4.4 days per worker, though there are suspicions that this hides ‘presenteeism’ i.e. turning up when you’re not fit. I certainly do this, because I hate letting people down, because if I don’t turn up I don’t get paid, and because I need people to know I’m reliable. Though sometimes, like today, I just can’t. I’m supposed to be chairing an event in Cardiff tonight for the SRA – expenses only as I’m on the Board, so at least I’m not losing income, but I am gutted to miss it and to let them all down. So let’s say another five days per year on average for sickness, leaving 132 working days.

At £400/day on average, in theory I could make £52,800 per year – though that would be pre-tax turnover, not profit. But it is very rarely possible to secure paid work, at my median rate, for every available working day. In reality, last year, my turnover was just over £25,000. To work out how much I can pay myself, I have to deduct all my business expenses: heat and light for my office, accountants’ fees, subscriptions, IT equipment, telecomms costs, stationery, books, etc. I have to put away a big chunk of my turnover, usually around 20%, for tax, which I pay once a year. And I need to keep 6-12 months’ running costs in the bank in case of lean periods or cash-flow problems. For the last year I’ve been able to afford to pay myself £1,000 per month. I’m hoping I can continue to do so, as dropping below that means some belt-tightening. But there are no guarantees.

I’m not writing this post as a complaint. I love my lifestyle. It buys me my greatest luxuries: time and space. I am writing this post to debunk the assumptions people have about me: that because I’m an expert, a published author, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, my income is commensurate with all those status markers. It’s not. The world doesn’t work like that any more.

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!

Why I Am Saying No To Some Universities

piggy bank and coinsIn the last few weeks I have been asked to deliver seminars at the universities of York and Leicester. I had the time and would have enjoyed the experiences. Also, in both cases, the people inviting me were my friends. So why did I say ‘no’?

I was asked to work for nothing.

Both universities offered to pay my travel expenses. This has been standard practice for many years, designed to ensure that academics would not be out of pocket when visiting another institution. Visiting academics don’t need to be paid by their host institution because they are already drawing a good salary from their own institution.

Independent researchers are not drawing a salary and often don’t earn a great deal. I have been open about my income. As I thought about the invitations from York and Leicester, it occurred to me that universities were probably open about their income, too. So I did some research and found that, although often buried deep within layers of web pages, they do indeed publish their financial statements.

In 2013/14, the income of the University of York was £305.4m and its expenditure was £297.2m. It has total net assets of £243.8m, and a retained surplus of £10.5m.

In the same financial year, the income of the University of Leicester was £286.7m and its expenditure was £279.2m. It has total net assets of £172.6m, and a retained surplus of £7.6m.

Clearly universities must exercise sound financial stewardship. They have staff to pay and to provide pensions for, and I believe that university staff work hard and should be paid appropriately. There are buildings to be maintained and refurbished, equipment costs, perhaps debts to service, and so on. But these are wealthy institutions with an annual surplus of millions of pounds. Yet, while they evidently want my expertise, they won’t pay me a couple of hundred.

I found it embarrassing to refuse my friends’ requests. In both cases they said they had no budget to pay visiting scholars. Clearly universities hold on tight to their cash. But in doing so, they minimise the types of expertise available to their students. Is that a sensible educational strategy?

In recent weeks, I have been cheerfully paid a sensible fee for work at Staffordshire University, which is significantly less wealthy than York or Leicester (income: £118.4m, expenditure: £116m, net assets £44.2m, surplus £3.6m). I have also been paid by Swansea University (income £205.8m, expenditure £182.3m, net assets £156.5m, surplus £7.2m). And I am in discussions with Birmingham City University, who said my fee was what they were expecting (income: £173.8m, expenditure £153.6m, net assets £219.9m, surplus £23.2m).

Although this is not any kind of a representative sample, I used my researcher’s eye to try to discern a pattern. York is a Russell Group university; Leicester and Swansea were founded around the same time in the early 1920s; Staffordshire and Birmingham City are post-92. So there is no apparent consistency here.

I wonder what prospective students might think. Would you like to go to a university that will encourage you to learn from a wide variety of expert people? Or would you prefer one that will restrict you to learning from its own faculty and some volunteers?