How To Deal With Reviewers’ Comments

editing textYour first set of reviewers’ comments lands in your inbox. Your heart begins to race. Will your work be accepted or rejected? Will they love it or hate it? Can you bear to open the email?

These may be reviews for a journal article, book proposal, or book typescript. In each case the process is the same. First you need to read the comments and give yourself time to react. Whether it’s the exultation of an acceptance, the despair of a rejection, or the mixed feelings that come with requests for revisions, you need time to process your emotional response before you do anything else. Whoop, cry, eat chocolate, do whatever you need to do.

Because of negativity bias, negative comments – even when constructively phrased – have more impact on most people than positive comments. We need to work to counteract this bias. So, unless you’ve received very favourable comments and you want to revel in their glory, I recommend waiting at least 24 hours before you read the comments again. This can help you to take a more balanced view, which is useful because if it’s a rejection or revisions, you’ll need to see how your work can benefit from the reviewers’ input before you send it off again. This can be quite a challenge, especially if the reviewers have different views of your work and how it can be improved. Your journal or commissioning editor may offer some guidance and if so you should take that into account. But sometimes they leave it all to you.

My solution to this is to treat the reviewers’ comments as data and go into analysis mode. I create a table with one column for the comments and another for each reviewer. Then I enter each substantive comment into the first column and put a mark in the other columns for each reviewer who has made a similar point. This helps me to pick up the instances where reviewers are effectively saying the same thing, though perhaps in very different ways. It also helps me to see at a glance which comments have been made by all or some reviewers, and which only by one of the reviewers.

I have said before on this blog that reviewers’ comments come in three categories: the no-brainer (act on this), the no-thanks (don’t act on this), and the oh-wait (probably act on this, though not necessarily in the way the reviewer suggests). So my next job is to sort comments into these categories.

If a comment has been made by more than one reviewer I will take it more seriously. That doesn’t mean I’ll definitely implement it, but I am more likely to do so. If a comment has been made by all reviewers I would need a very, very good reason not to implement it. If a comment has only been made by one reviewer, that in itself might be one reason I could decide not to implement it, though I would also expect to give at least one other reason.

Once I have sorted the comments into their categories, I will list them by category in the first column of another table with two further columns: a brief note of what I plan to do in response to each of the no-brainers and the oh-waits, and a brief note of what I plan to write in the cover letter against each comment from all three categories. This is useful because I can dip into it when I have a spare half-hour or so, and find a job or two to do to get me closer to the finish line.

It is important to be polite in your response to reviewers’ comments, even if you think they’re the biggest load of old rubbish you’ve seen since your last visit to the municipal tip. Some reviewers’ suggestions seem to be based more on what they would have written than on what you actually have written and this can be quite annoying at times. When you come across a suggestion you really don’t want to implement, there are some tactful ways to say so, such as:

“This is an excellent suggestion though unfortunately beyond the scope of this particular project.”

“I can see how this suggestion would improve my work but sadly I am unable to incorporate it within the allocated word count.”

“This is a really interesting idea. I have considered it carefully and concluded that it doesn’t quite fit with the thrust of my current article/book, but it will influence my thinking for future projects.”

Remember you are the author and, as such, you have authority. While authors do need reviewers’ input (at least, when it’s constructive), and your work should benefit from intelligent use of their feedback, you don’t have to do everything a reviewer says. Also, a rejection is only a rejection from this journal or publisher. It doesn’t mean your work is worthless; sometimes it’s only because they already have plans to publish something that is similar in some way. This post should help you make the best use you can of reviewers’ comments. That will produce the greatest benefit to your work and career, and is also a way to respect and honour the time and care (most) people put into writing reviews.

I Finished The Book!

Research ethics in the real world [FC]For the last three-and-a-quarter years I have been writing a book on research ethics. It has been like doing another PhD, only with reviewers instead of supervisors. Four sets of reviewers: two sets of proposal reviews and two sets of typescript reviews. I have to thank my lovely publisher, Policy Press (part of Bristol University Press), for giving me so much support to get this book right.

This has been the hardest book I’ve written and I hope never to write another as difficult. On the plus side, I’m happy with the result. It is different from other books on research ethics in three main ways. First, it doesn’t treat research ethics as though they exist in isolation. I look at the relationships between research ethics and individual, social, institutional, professional, and political ethics, and how those relationships play out in practice in the work of research ethics committees and in evaluation research. That makes up part 1 of the book.

Second, it demonstrates the need for ethical thinking and action throughout the research process. In part 2 there is a chapter covering the ethical aspects of each stage of the research process, from planning a research project through to aftercare. There is also a chapter on researcher well-being.

Third, the book sets the Indigenous and Euro-Western research paradigms side by side. This is not to try to decide which is ‘better’, but is intended to increase researchers’ ethical options and vocabularies. I am writing primarily for Euro-Western readers, though the book may be of use to some Indigenous researchers. There is a sizeable and growing body of literature on Indigenous research and ethics, including books, journals, and journal articles. Using this literature requires care – as indeed using all literature requires care (see chapter 7 of my forthcoming book for more on that). But Indigenous literature, as with other literatures by marginalised peoples, requires particular care to avoid tokenism or appropriation.

Many Euro-Western researchers are completely ignorant of Indigenous research. Some know of it but are under the misapprehension that it is an offshoot of Euro-Western research. In fact it is a separate paradigm that stands alone and predates Euro-Western research by tens of thousands of years. Some Indigenous researchers and scholars are now calling for Euro-Western academics to recognise this and use Indigenous work alongside their own. My book is, in part, a response to these calls.

It was so, so hard to cram all of that into 75,000 words – and that includes the bibliography which, as you can imagine, is extensive. There was so much to read that I was still reading, and incorporating, new material on the morning of the day I finished the book. I’ve found more work, since, that I’d love to include – but I had to stop somewhere.

I awaited my final review with great trepidation, aware of the possibility that the reviewer might loathe my book – some previous reviewers had – and that that could put an end to my hopes of publication. Was I looking at three-and-a-quarter years of wasted work? I was so relieved when my editor emailed to say the review was positive. Then the reviewer’s comments blew me away. Here’s one of my favourite parts: “In my view the author through excellent writing skills has covered very dense material (a ton of content) in a very accessible way.”

I was even more delighted because this review came from an Indigenous researcher. She waived anonymity, so I have been able to credit and thank her in the book. I will not name her here, as I do not have her permission to do so; you’ll have to read the book if you want to find out.

Finishing a book feels great, and also weird. It’s like losing a part of your identity, particularly with a book you’ve lived with for so long. Though there’s still lots of work to do: I have to write the companion website, give input on the book’s design, read the proofs, start marketing… publication is due on 1 November, which feels a long way off but I know how quickly five months can pass.

I think this book will be controversial. A senior and very knowledgeable academic told me that one reason I could write such a book is because I’m not in academia. I’m glad if I can use my independence to say things others cannot say – as long as I’m saying useful things, at least.

More than anything else, I hope the book helps to make a difference. In particular, I would like to make a difference to the current system of ethical regulation which is too focused on institutional protection and insufficiently focused on ethical research. It is also terrible at recognising and valuing the work of Indigenous research and of Euro-Western community-based or participatory research. When I was preparing to write the book, I interviewed 18 people around the world and promised them anonymity. Some were research ethics committee members and others had sought formal approval from ethics committees (or institutional review boards in the US). I heard tales of people completing ethical approval forms with information that committees wanted to see rather than with actual facts; people teaching students how to get through the ethical approval system instead of teaching them how to conduct ethical research; people acting ethically yet in complete contravention of their committee’s instructions; people struggling to balance ethical research with Indigenous communities with the inflexible conditions set by ethics committees. Although many of the people who serve on ethics committees are highly ethical, the system within which they are forced to work often prevents them from acting in entirely ethical ways. It seems to me that this system is not currently fit for purpose, and there are many other people who think the same. I hope the evidence I have gathered and presented will help to create much-needed change.

As an independent researcher, I am self-employed. This means I do all my writing in my own time; I don’t have a salary to support my work. Do you like what I do on this blog, or in my books, or anywhere else, enough that you might buy me a coffee now and again if we were co-located? If so, please consider supporting my independent work through Patreon for as little as one dollar per month. In exchange you’ll get exclusive previews of, and insights into, my work. Thank you.

How Open Is Open Access?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 18 January 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

partly open doorThose outside the UK probably won’t be aware of Jisc. The non-profit organisation’s role is to provide technological solutions to academic problems, including researching and developing new ways of working supported by technology. (Full disclosure: they are also one of my clients.) Jisc is publicly funded by UK taxpayers’ money and member subscriptions. Its members are from the UK, and its objectives are designed to create benefit for the staff and students of adult education institutions in the UK.

But its strategy includes a stated intention of ‘growing our offering internationally to further benefit our members’.

Jisc is also very keen on open sharing of information and resources. It advocates open access to research publications, which its says means making them ‘freely available so anyone can benefit from reading and using research’. It promotes the sharing of research data, and the use of non-restrictive Creative Commons licensing to enable re-use of resources. Jisc identifies various potential benefits of this, one of which is that ‘researchers in developing countries can see your work’.

So far, so many good intentions. I’m sure most of my Euro-Western colleagues will be nodding their heads and thinking yes, marvellous, jolly well done Jisc. And indeed I am not writing this post to criticise those at Jisc, who are doing their best to be good guys, and who after all exist in the UK for the benefit of their UK members. My point here is to critique our more general Euro-Western academic mindset, which Jisc’s example illustrates.

You see, until very recently, I would have been one of those people nodding along, with a satisfied expression, thinking “oh Jisc you are doing well”. But my eyes have been opened by a recent blog post written by Andy Nobes of international development charity INASP, featuring the work of Florence Piron from Université Laval in Québec and her colleagues from around the world. Piron and her colleagues have written – in French – some publications that offer new perspectives and ideas to Euro-Western advocates of open access. In particular, they challenge the idea that Euro-Western researchers simply making their work visible to ‘researchers in developing countries’, as Jisc suggests, equates to open access. By contrast, they see it as an extension of colonialism and an ‘alienation epistemic’. This is because it does nothing to make knowledge generated in other parts of the world equally visible to researchers in Euro-Western countries. In turn, that serves to reinforce the use of Euro-Western theories and models as normative, which is to the detriment of local epistemologies in other parts of the world (Piron et al 2017).

We don’t think of these things, do we, us Euro-Western researchers? We’re too confident that we’re doing OK as long as we’re making some kind of gesture towards those with fewer privileges.

Piron and her colleagues point out that many Euro-Western academics are unable even to think that ‘valid and relevant knowledge’ could exist in other places and other ways; they can be ‘blind to epistemological diversity’ and regard Western science as universal (ibid). Even those Euro-Western academics who do respect other forms of knowledge are unlikely to engage in truly reciprocal knowledge exchanges. Collaborative projects often involve Euro-Western academics acting as principal investigators while researchers from other parts of the world are restricted to data-gathering and administrative work (Sherwood 2013, Yantio 2013).

In some Euro-Western academic circles there are moves afoot to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. But this is not only needed in Euro-Western establishments. Some teachers in other parts of the world also choose exclusively Euro-Western literature and examples for their students (Mboa Nkoudou 2016). This is a direct real-world consequence of the pervasive Euro-Western conviction that any other way of thinking must be inferior to our own. It makes life harder – not easier – for people in other parts of the world to solve their own local problems in appropriate and sustainable ways (ibid).

Truly open access will involve a two-way exchange of – and respect for – knowledge and the epistemological positions on which it is based. Obviously this is beyond the power of a single organisation, such as Jisc, or a single individual, such as you or I. However, all Euro-Western researchers, and those who work with them, need to be aware of the difference between open access as we tend to purvey it, and genuinely open access. Only with such awareness will we find ways to move from our one-way, take-it-or-leave-it approach to a true openness and sharing with other academics around the world.

Thoughts On Writing Book Chapters

Sage handbook of QREI have written two chapters for edited collections, both on qualitative research ethics. The first was for a book called Qualitative Ethics in Practice, edited by Martin Tolich and published in 2016 by the late lamented Left Coast Press. I said ‘yes’ to that one straight away because it was the first time I’d been asked. Writing the chapter was an interesting and enjoyable exercise but economically pointless. I got a free copy of the book, but I could have bought the paperback for £24.99 from Amazon or, no doubt, for less elsewhere. (I recommend using the book price comparison site Bookbutler, though it doesn’t index all sellers; I don’t see Wordery on that site, and Wordery often have good discounts as well as free shipping worldwide. eBay is also worth checking for discounted new copies; as an author myself I am not advocating buying secondhand books). Given that the chapter took me at least a week to write and edit, an affordable paperback is poor recompense. Also, book chapters don’t carry the academic kudos of journal articles, so they don’t do much for my reputation with universities.

When I was a doctoral student, I loved a good edited collection for offering a range of viewpoints and arguments within a single book. As a reader, I still do, when it’s well done. That suggests I should contribute to such collections. Yet there is so little recompense.

I thought about this carefully. On the morning of 5 January 2016 I decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and made a belated New Year’s resolution that I wouldn’t write another book chapter. On the afternoon of 5 January 2016 I got an email from Ron Iphofen and Martin Tolich asking me to write another book chapter, for the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics which they were beginning to co-edit. Ron and Martin are colleagues with whom I get on well, and that makes it harder to say ‘no’. I did say that I could not take on a chapter requiring primary research or any kind of extensive review of literature with which I wasn’t already familiar. (Well done, past Helen!) After some discussion we found an angle that worked, as it would cover an area where I already had some knowledge that I needed to develop, and it also suited the editors.

I got my copy of the book this week. It’s almost 600 pages, 35 chapters, and retails at £120 on Amazon. On one hand, that still represents woeful recompense for several days of work. On the other hand, £120 is way beyond my budget for buying any book, even one as extensive as this book. And I’m very glad to have a copy.

So I’m rethinking the whole book chapter thing again. Now I think I am more likely to say ‘yes’ if the book in question will be big and expensive and useful for my work. I also think I’ll keep to my decision not to write chapters that need primary research or extensive new reading. Some new reading is inevitable, and that’s OK, but essentially I’m only going to write chapters that I can actually write straight from my desk.

Another thing I have learned about writing book chapters is to ask the editors for the book proposal, so I can see where my chapter fits, and not duplicate work others may be doing in their chapters. It doesn’t seem to be common practice for editors to give the book proposal to potential contributors (I’m not basing this solely on my own experience, I’ve heard the same from other academic writers) though I expect some do. If you’re asked to write a book chapter and the editor doesn’t give you the book proposal, ask for it before you decide. It can give you a much clearer idea of what you’re contributing to.

As with all academic writing intended for publication, book chapters are likely to be peer reviewed individually, and the typescript of the whole book is also likely to be reviewed. (The proposal will have been reviewed, too, before being accepted by the publisher.) So be prepared for edits, proofs etc to come your way. You may also be asked to review a chapter by another author, as sometimes book editors and commissioning editors get around the difficulty in finding reviewers by having their chapter authors review other chapters. Overall, there will be more work than just the writing.

I’m currently reviewing the typescript of a book which is reminding me how much I like a good edited collection. The book’s theme is strong and consistent, and the variation in the chapters is fascinating, in terms of both their content and how authors are addressing the topic. This offers a particular type of richness that no single or co-authored book can achieve. So I’m content with my decision, now, not to say a blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to requests for book chapters. I will say ‘yes’ to writing chapters that will benefit me in the process and the outcome, as well as benefiting editors, publishers, and readers.

Let’s Talk About The Index

indexDo you ever think about the indexes of textbooks and reference books? Do you ever wonder how they’re created? Because they don’t appear as if by magic, and as yet no software has been invented that can extract a good quality index from the text of a book. It takes human intellectual effort to figure out how readers will want to use a book, and so which words and phrases and ideas from the text need headings or cross-references in the index.

The best indexes are created by professional indexers. In the UK they are likely to belong to the Society of Indexers (SoI), which also provides training and accreditation for would-be indexers. The SoI’s distance learning course includes four assessed modules, online tutorials, an online workshop, and practical indexing exercises and assignment. The SoI also provides a conference, various workshops, and online resources for members and non-members. There are equivalent organisations in other countries, such as the American Society for Indexing, the Indexing Society of Canada, and the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers.

As a reader, I care a lot about indexes. A good index makes it so much easier for me to use a textbook or a reference book. Even if I’ve read a book thoroughly and taken notes as I went along, there’s almost bound to come a time when I want to look up something I remember reading but didn’t note down. Some academic publishers, such as Sense Publishers, don’t seem to provide indexes at all. I find that hugely frustrating, digging around among 240 pages of text to try to find the paragraph or two that I want to read again.

Other academic publishers pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to the author. That can lead to indexes of variable quality. Here’s a photo of one from a Palgrave Pivot book, Writing Anthropology by Francois Bouchetoux.

Writing Anthropology index

That is the entire index for the whole 120-page book. Palgrave is an established publisher which has published many fine books, some of which have excellent indexes. The author of this book is evidently highly intelligent, with many skills, such as writing; it’s a worthwhile book. But I don’t think indexing is in his skillset.

Some authors can produce good indexes. Pat Thomson is one, but she’s in a minority. Yet publishers still try to persuade authors to create or pay for indexes. As authors don’t get paid for writing books, and academic books earn much less for authors than they do for publishers, this seems both wrong and stupid to me. Wrong because an academic publisher should accept the financial responsibility of providing a good quality index, stupid because if they don’t then their book is less useful so fewer people will recommend it to others. I am not the only person who takes the quality of an index into account when writing reviews online (as I plan to demonstrate, next week, upon this very blog).

Several times in my life I have been in discussion with various publishers who have tried to pass the responsibility of creating or paying for an index on to me. Each time I have argued that they should pay for it because I have neither the skills nor the budget, and the lack of an index will reflect more poorly on their reputation than mine. Each time I have won the argument. So if you are a writer in this position, fight your corner. And if you’re a publisher, be like non-fiction publisher Mango Books.

Round of applause!

Is Peer Review Bad For Your Mental Health?

peer review peopleI am currently waiting for peer reviews of two books I’ve worked on: one sole-authored, one co-authored. We don’t talk much about the experience of waiting for reviews, and it’s not something that appears to have been researched. Yet it’s something everyone doing academic work has to go through and it may be bad for our mental health.

I’m finding it particularly difficult at the moment because a lot rides on these reviews. The sole-authored book, which is on a contentious topic, has already had one set of reviews. Reviewer 1 was utterly damning, saying ‘I couldn’t find anything to praise’. Luckily, reviewers 2 and 3 were more measured, offering both praise and constructive criticism, and their input helped me to revise and strengthen the typescript. However, in the process, my editor and I realised that we needed further reviews from people with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. My editor approached around 10 potential reviewers, but only one agreed to do the job. So I’m gibbering – what if that person agrees with Reviewer 1?

The co-authored book is in a contentious format. My co-authors and I decided that I would be the person to liaise with publishers, as I have form in this process. The last time I liaised with academic publishers for a co-authored book was in the early 2000s, and I’d forgotten how heavily responsible it makes me feel. Fortunately, I’ve found a publisher that is interested and has sent the book out for reviews, to two professional academics and two students. This is great – and terrifying – but at least there are four reviewers. Even so, what if they ALL think it’s rubbish?

In many ways I love the peer review system. I welcome feedback on my writing, and I’m not at all averse to constructive criticism. I am by no means arrogant enough to think I can write a good book without input from others. Yet peer review, as a process, is fraught with uncertainty. Comments may not be constructive, or may not come at all. They may be positive, or negative, or in between, or a mixture.

There is a body of research which demonstrates that uncertainty has a detrimental effect on mental health. Luckily for me, my mental health is fairly robust right now, so I can use this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to build further resilience. But what about those who aren’t so fortunate? We’re hearing a lot about the mental health crisis in higher education, but nobody seems to be talking about the potential contribution of the peer review system to this crisis. Given the evidence of links between uncertainty and mental health, it seems likely that there may be a relationship here.

I’m not arguing that we should tear down the peer review system and replace it with something completely different. Time spent waiting for reviews also has a positive effect, in that it creates necessary distance between the author and their work, meaning sensible revisions are easier to make. But I do think we need to be aware of the effects of uncertainty and take steps to reduce its impact on us. Here are four ideas.

  1. Aspects of life fall into three categories: those you can control, those you may be able to influence, and those you can neither control nor influence. Spend most of your energies on the first, some on the second, and none on the third. So I will spend my energies on hard work and good fun, and with any luck I won’t have much energy left for fruitless worry about the outcome of the peer reviews.
  1. Plan for different outcomes. Plans for positive reviews are easy, plans for negative reviews more challenging. For me, the worst-case scenario is that the publisher decides not to publish after all, which would mean – for either book – several years of work down the pan. However, that is unlikely, and if it does happen I/we can revise and submit again elsewhere.
  1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling. Writing this blog post is one way for me to acknowledge my own difficult feelings about this waiting period. In professional UK society the culture is not to talk about feelings much, if at all; if anyone asks how you are, the standard answers to give include ‘I’m fine’, or (with an eyeroll) ‘snowed under’. It’s as if we’re not allowed to give a real answer to the question. Yet suppressing our emotions is also bad for our mental health, so let’s talk about the difficulty of waiting, being in limbo, for unpredictable peer reviews.
  1. Practise self-care. All the usual stuff: eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep – or, if you can’t sleep, rest your body quietly in a dark room and try to still your mind. There are some good video soundtracks and podcasts online to help you sleep. Work can be part of self-care when it’s work you enjoy and you don’t do too much. Spending time with loved ones is definitely part of self-care.

The peer review system can also be hard on reviewers, such as by asking more of people who are already too busy, and offering only intangible rewards. Saying ‘yes’ to a review request adds an extra burden of work, saying ‘no’ comes with an extra burden of guilt. Some people deal with this by deciding how many reviews they will undertake, such as 12 in a year, or three per draft article or book they themselves submit. That’s a great example of focusing on what you can control.

If you’re waiting for reviews yourself, the wait will be over, sooner or later. I hope you will be able to use the advice in this post to help make the process a little easier – as I intend to do myself. I wish you luck.

Why and How to Negotiate with Academic Book Publishers

poor writerThe academics I have met who write books seem to assume one of two things. The first assumption is that publishers are doing authors a favour by publishing their books. The second is that the royalties offered are a set figure. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

I suspect the first assumption exists because academics need publications so badly that when someone agrees to publish their work it can feel like a massive relief and a cause for celebration. Yet publishers would not exist without authors. Nevertheless, publishers are hard-headed business people, and they are not going to publish a book if they don’t think it will turn a profit.

The second assumption may exist because we live in a society of set prices in shops, set salaries and fees for work, and so on. The notion of haggling is unfamiliar. So you need to know that the royalties a publisher proposes to give you are generally a starting point for negotiations rather than a fixed offer. In a moment I’ll give you some pointers on how to handle these negotiations, but first let’s look at why it is important to negotiate.

Publishers often belong to parent companies that are very, very rich. For example, the company Informa plc has four operating divisions: business intelligence, academic publishing, knowledge, and events. Its academic publishing division covers the humanities, social sciences, and STEM subjects, and includes publishers such as Taylor & Francis, Psychology Press, Cogent OA, and Routledge. In 2016, the latest year for which figures are available, this division made an adjusted operating profit of £187.2million. Informa as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £416.1million.

Here’s another example. The RELX Group plc is ‘a global provider of information and analytics for professional and business customers across industries’. This company includes the publisher Elsevier, which primarily publishes academic books in STEM subjects, as one of its four divisions. In 2017 Elsevier made an adjusted operating profit of £913million. The RELX Group as a whole made an adjusted operating profit of £2,284million.

It is evident that academic publishing is very, very profitable for these companies, and their shareholders. Yet authors, who may work for years on a single book, are to be content with royalties of a few hundred pounds a year – or less?

One reason this power imbalance hasn’t been important before now is that most, if not all, academic authors used to be in permanent academic roles with more than adequate salaries and time to write books within their day jobs. Yet, as we know, these days more and more academics are in casual and precarious roles, and have to write books in their own time. Even those with permanent jobs are often so over-worked that they, too, have to write their books outside working hours. Also, some people writing scholarly books are not in any academic role, but are independent researchers, unemployed, retired and so on.

Authors are contractually prevented from discussing their own royalty rates. However, I can tell you that the Textbook and Academic Authors Association conducted an anonymous survey of academic authors in 2015. They found that average royalties for print books ranged from 9–14%, and the highest royalty reported was 30%. I can also tell you that, in the UK, academic writers earn the lowest annual averages from their books of any type of writer.

Clearly publishers do need to earn money from the books they publish, to pay for their staff, buildings, printing, marketing, and all the other costs associated with their business. They also need to make a profit (or, if they’re not-for-profit, a surplus) to reinvest in their business and, if a plc, pay dividends to their shareholders. However, do they really need profits of hundreds of millions of pounds, from the often unpaid work of academic authors?

I believe we should be negotiating harder for higher royalties on our scholarly books. I have done this myself, successfully, with different types of publisher. Here are some tips. First, forget about feelings such as gratitude or repulsion, and treat the deal as a business transaction. Position the conversation as a business deal by saying something like, ‘As we haven’t done business together before…’ Second, ask for more than you think they will agree to. There’s a chance they might say yes, and if not you are leaving space for them to make a counter-offer lower than your request but still considerably better than the original offer.

The publisher is likely to specify separate royalty rates for hardbacks, paperbacks, and e-books. You can negotiate really hard on e-book royalties. Publishers’ costs for e-book production and handling are much lower than for print books. They don’t have to pay for paper, printing, storage, shipping, or returns. Also, they don’t sell as many e-books as print books. This means they can give more here.

If you get stuck on a figure that doesn’t seem enough to you but the publisher won’t budge, you can ask for a ‘riser’. That means after, say, 1,000 copies have been sold in that format, your royalty will go up by a few percentage points. This is often easier for publishers to say yes to because if they sell 1,000 copies, they have already recouped most, all, or more of their investment in your work, so then they can afford to pay a higher royalty. It’s probably not worth asking for a riser for hardbacks, as they don’t sell many copies, but it is well worth giving it a go for paperbacks, especially if you’re writing a book that is likely to have a wide readership.

Occasionally an academic publisher will offer a small ‘advance’ of a few hundred pounds. This is not an extra advance payment, it is an advance on royalties which the publisher will claw back from your royalties until it has been fully repaid. If a few hundred pounds would make a real difference to your work for the book – enable you to buy other books, for example, or to travel for meetings or to interview people – then by all means accept. But do be aware that it’s not extra money, they’re simply rearranging the offer.

Bear in mind that the person you are negotiating with, usually your commissioning editor, will not have the power to make the final decision. Keep your relationship with them as cordial and professional as possible, and make your case as clearly and concisely as you can, because you need them to advocate for you within their organisation.

In many ways this is the simple part of the negotiations. Once you agree the royalty figures, the publisher will issue a draft contract. It is a really good idea to get independent professional advice on the contract, because it will be hard to understand its implications unless you have specific legal expertise. In the UK, you can join the Society of Authors as soon as you have a draft contract, and specialist vetting of that and any other contract you receive is included in your membership fee. They will tell you which points to negotiate on, and how.

Does all this negotiation sound icky to you? Get over it. You are going to work really hard on writing your books. It makes sense to do all you can to make your books work as hard as possible for you.

Is There A Gender Pay Gap Among Academic Authors?

Kara and DorlingThe gender pay gap is much in the news at present. The BBC is under scrutiny following the resignation of its senior editor Carrie Gracie on the grounds of unequal pay; large companies in the UK pay women less than men; Iceland has just become the first country in the world to pass a law making it illegal to pay men more than women. I could cite plenty more instances. And this got me thinking: what is the situation for academic authors?

I belong to several Facebook groups for people in or connected with academia. In one group recently, a doctoral student in some financial difficulty – as so many doctoral students are – bemoaned the need to read a chapter from a book costing US$52. “Is this how academics make their money?” the student asked.

The idea that all people who write books are rich is a complete misperception. A few writers are rich, and some of them are women: JK Rowling and Jodi Picoult, to name just two. But they are not academic writers. Some academics who are writers are rich, but that’s mostly because they receive generous academic salaries. (NB: I’m not saying all academic salaries are generous. I’m saying rich academics are the ones on generous salaries, and some of them are also writers.)

In America writers are treated with more respect than in most countries. The Textbook & Academic Authors’ Association is open to members from any country but it is based in America and 80% of its members are American. In 2015 the T&AAA conducted a survey of 403 textbook authors which showed that average royalties were in the band of 9%–18%. So it seems there may be a geographic pay gap for academic writers, because this range is higher than academic royalties I have heard about from the UK. But there was no breakdown of the survey findings by gender.

My publishing contracts contain confidentiality clauses which make it illegal for me to tell you, or anyone else, what my own royalty rates are. This is standard practice in the publishing industry. I can tell you that one young British academic of my acquaintance recently told me, pre-contract, that they had been offered royalties of 7.5% on sales. If that person’s book retailed at US$52, you might think they would therefore earn US$3.90 per sale. Not so. Royalties are paid on the amount the bookseller pays to the publisher, not the amount the customer pays the bookseller. A book with a retail price of US$52 would probably sell to the retailer at around US$36, so the author’s royalty per sale would be US$2.70.

Many academic books retail for less than US$52. Mine are currently listed on amazon.com at $39.93 for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners (2nd edn) and $33.66 for Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences. Some retail for much more, though they are often edited collections. For example, the Sage Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods is an eye-watering $490.48. I have never heard of anyone earning anything for contributing a chapter to an edited collection. It seems likely that books at these prices are only bought by the libraries of rich institutions. (At least that means students and staff at those institutions can use the books, and a few other libraries provide wider access. For example, the British Library in the UK holds copies of every book published in the UK, and anyone can register to read those books for free. The snag is that you have to go to London, which isn’t easy or possible even for every UK resident, let alone people based further afield. Some other countries have national and regional libraries which are publicly accessible, but again they are bricks-and-mortar institutions and you have to go to them.)

Some publishing contracts offer no royalties at all on the first 250 or 500 (or some other figure) of books sold. Given that some academic books only sell a few hundred copies, these kinds of contracts could result in authors earning no royalties at all. I can’t find any reliable statistics about sales of academic books, which is a finding in itself.

I can tell you how much I earned in total royalties last year, on the two books I have in print, one of which is a second edition. For 2016-17 I earned £1,236.70 in royalties. Earlier this decade, Queen Mary University of London reported on the earnings of almost 2,500 professional writers in the UK. Academic writers had the lowest average annual income, at £3,826, behind travel writers, non-fiction writers, children’s fiction writers and adult fiction writers, respectively. I aspire to become average one day.

So publishing is not how academics make their money; it’s how academic publishers make their money. But is there a gender pay gap in academic authors’ royalties? With the current secrecy around royalty rates, there is no way of knowing. But given the prevailing interest in the gender pay gap, I hope that next time the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association, or the Society of Authors, or a similar body conducts a survey, they will ask about, and report on, gender parity or disparity.

How To Market Your Academic Book

Norwich market by Lane

Norwich Market by talented artist Lane Mathias

If you’re going to write an academic book, you need to be prepared to do some marketing. Otherwise it will sink, without so much as a bubble, deep into the ocean of published academic books. Of course if all you need is the publication on your CV, then don’t waste your time on marketing. But if you’ve written something you actually want people to read and use, you need to get to grips with the whole marketing thing.

 

There are three main categories of sole-authored academic book: monograph, textbook, and trade book. A monograph usually has quite a narrow topic, perhaps just one research project. Its audience will be small, primarily academic peers and perhaps a few doctoral students, and its royalties will be low or non-existent. A textbook is probably for undergraduates, maybe also early stage postgraduates, with a potential audience of millions and, if you’re lucky, significant royalties. A trade book is anywhere in between. You need to know which yours is to help you figure out who your readers might be and so how to market your book.

Your publisher’s marketing department should help you. After all, it’s in their interest to sell as many copies of your book as possible. But they can only help up to a point, because they have a lot of other books to try to sell as well as yours. It’s worth having a chat with them, and finding out what they can and can’t do to help you. For example, they should:

  • Post information about your book online well ahead of its publication date
  • Market your book to relevant retailers, including bookshops and online retailers, and wholesalers, and to academic libraries
  • Include your book in their catalogue and on their flyers for specific events such as conferences in your field
  • Send out review copies, including to people you find who are willing to write reviews or can otherwise promote the book to a significant number of people
  • Take your book to academic conferences, display it along with other books on their stand, and offer a conference discount.
  • Promote your book via their e-newsletter and social media channels
  • Give you a jpeg of the cover for your own use
  • Make flyers for you to take to conferences and seminars

Realistically, though, a lot of this will happen around the time of publication. They won’t ignore your book thereafter, but they simply can’t push all of their books all of the time. So, if you want your book to be widely read and used, you need to market it too.

I have no background or training in marketing; I’ve been learning on the job since my first research methods book came out in 2012. I’ve been lucky to have had terrific support from the marketing department at my lovely publisher, Policy Press, though I know not every academic writer has this experience. I have learned some things you can do to help raise awareness of your book. These include:

  • Add information about the book to your email signature
  • Add information about the book to any web pages featuring you, such as your profile on your employer’s website and your LinkedIn page
  • Send information about the book to any e-lists you subscribe to
  • Send information about the book to your professional association(s) to include in their e-newsletter
  • Ask your employer for help publicising your book through their website, newsletter, and other publicity channels
  • Write one or more blog posts featuring the book for blogs with big readerships in your field, and publicise the blog post(s) at and after publication through your social media channels
  • Create a video about the book or some aspect of the book, upload to YouTube or Vimeo and publicise through your social media channels
  • Create a podcast about the book or some aspect of the book, upload and publicise through your social media channels
  • Publicise the book itself through social media – don’t keep saying ‘buy my book’, but promote any good reviews or positive comments you receive
  • Write an article for the mainstream media based on, or featuring, your book
  • Make sure your book cover appears on any PowerPoint or other presentation you give, and mention it in the presentation

Then there’s the more unofficial kind of marketing. This blog is, in one sense, a marketing tool. It’s other things too – a place to keep my professional musings, for a start – but marketing is part of its purpose. This is marketing by providing something of value (or at least doing my best to do so!). Another method I use is to mail signed bookplates to people who have bought copies of my books. That’s counter-intuitive marketing: in theory, I should be wooing people who haven’t yet bought copies. But I think it can help, because it will improve the likelihood of people talking to others about my work.

Another unofficial kind is marketing through networks. This is unpredictable and you always need to be alert for opportunities. For example, at an academic event recently I met a Prof from a university where I don’t have any contacts. We were talking about graphic novels in research, and I remarked that I’d written about that in my last book on creative research methods. The Prof was interested and asked me to email over details of my book. I did so a few days later, and received a reply saying, ‘Thank you for this. I will raise it with other staff for dissertations as it looks useful.’ So that should at least have sold a copy or two for their library, and with luck it’ll make its way onto more course lists.

I need to figure out what else to do, though, because my royalties this year were lower than last year: £1,236.70 as against £1,627.20. That’s quite a drop, and disappointing in a year when I published a second edition and had lots of positive feedback on both books. There are two tried-and-tested ways of increasing royalties that I know of. One is to write more books, and I’m working on that. The other is to do more marketing: not only for my books, but also for the journal articles I’ve written and co-written. More on marketing those next week.

Why I Love Reviewer 2

pencils and heartFeedback can feel like a very mixed blessing at times. Positive feedback is a delight to receive, while even the most constructive criticism can come as a crushing blow. Writers are particularly susceptible to this, especially novice writers who haven’t yet learned to separate critique of their writing from critique of themselves. I often meet doctoral students who are very reluctant to show their work to their supervisors, fearing criticism because they’re worried that it’s not very good. If it’s a first draft, of course it’s not very good, and a second draft will also contain problems that have to be fixed. Supervisors need to see this work so they can give feedback, which should include information about:

  1. what you’re doing well,
  2. what needs improvement, and
  3. how you can make those improvements.

If any of these elements is missing, ask them to include it in future feedback.

More experienced writers can also struggle with feedback. “Reviewer 2”, referring to an anonymous peer reviewer of an academic journal article, has become a standing joke on social media.

Roses are red, violets are blue, why are you so loathsome, Reviewer 2?

Even when you are really experienced, with a thesis or dissertation, several journal articles, book chapters, and even books to your name, feedback can pack an emotional punch. When you receive feedback (which should be in writing), read it through and give yourself time for emotional as well as cognitive digestion. If anything in the feedback annoys or upsets you, apply self-care: chocolate, a hug from a loved one, walking outdoors, meditation, gardening, exercise – whatever works for you. Then, when you’re ready, read it again and find the key messages.

Here’s some of the feedback from my book proposals:

  • The synopsis is quite antagonistic
  • This will provide insufficient information to be useful
  • The thrust of the book remains unclear
  • Chapters 1 and 8 seem to be somewhat repetitive
  • It is a bit thin and not complex enough to add anything new
  • The proposal covers a wide terrain and is unfocussed
  • I think this would be an excellent edited book… the author would benefit from the input… it’s a very broad aim otherwise and may not succeed
  • Far greater clarity is needed
  • The book will not make a very original contribution
  • The writing style is stiff

Luckily there was also a fair amount of positive feedback. Positive feedback is great: it provides much-needed encouragement, and lets you know what you can relax about. But it’s the “Reviewer 2” type comments that really help you improve.

There are three sensible ways to respond to constructive criticism. First, the no-brainer. Chapters 1 and 8 seem repetitive? That’s useful and specific, so I would definitely check those two chapters against each other and remove any unnecessary repetition.

Second, the no-thanks. An edited collection rather than a sole-authored book? I thought that could potentially make the aim even broader, with a bunch of authors jockeying for position. Luckily, my editor agreed.

Third, the oh-wait. The book will not make a very original contribution? I was sure it would, but what this comment told me, crucially, was that I had not communicated the originality of the contribution well enough in my proposal. It is so important to remember that reviewers can be wrong – though if they are, the fault probably lies in your writing. (Not always. Some good scholars are poor reviewers, especially those who are unable to distinguish the piece you are writing from the piece they would write if they addressed the same topic. But usually.) So when you are considering feedback on your writing, don’t always take it at face value. Think about it in the context of your work as a whole, and make a decision. You should certainly take notice if more than one reviewer says similar things. Another reviewer on the same proposal says more clarity is needed. The two comments, together, tell me I have not been clear enough about the contribution I think the book can and will make. That is very useful information because I need the book’s contribution to be perfectly clear by the time of publication, so I and my publisher can communicate it to potential readers. More work evidently needed.

This decision-making can be difficult, and sometimes a second opinion is helpful. Reviewers, too, can be unclear. If you don’t understand what a reviewer is trying to say, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that they’re cleverer than you and reach for the despair. However, it may well be that they haven’t articulated their point effectively, which unfortunately makes your job harder rather than easier. Sometimes you can go back to them for clarification; it’s fine to do this, even if you have to go through an intermediary such as a journal editor. But it is sensible to check with someone else first, to make sure it’s not a comparatively straightforward point that you’re just missing for some reason.

I always welcome feedback on my writing. I can’t write a book, or anything else for that matter, without feedback from a range of people. Critical feedback doesn’t discourage me, or at least not for long. The only time I’ve had a journal article rejected is when I wrote one for a client; I told them I would need feedback on a draft from a suitably experienced person, and they said someone from their organisation would provide this, but when the time came they said they couldn’t and I should just send in my draft. I was sure that wouldn’t work, and indeed it didn’t. After that I was able to persuade them to find me someone who could offer feedback; their input was very helpful, and the article was accepted by our second choice of journal.

I understand that some people struggle with feedback. I understand why some people struggle with feedback. But honestly, if you’re one of those people, and you want to succeed as a writer, you need to find a way over, through, past, or around that struggle. I hope this post will help, and that you will learn to love Reviewer 2 as much as I do.