I hope I will be forgiven some self-promotion if I point out that my first book (that’s a little like saying my “first” marriage – so far it is the only one, and no other is anticipated, but one should never say never) has just been published. It is a handbook of intellectual property designed specifically to address the needs and concerns of researchers and teachers, and it was published on December 10 by the Association of College and Research Libraries. It is available for purchase on the ALA Store site here. There is also a PDF made available under a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-commercial license on the ACRL site. I also expect to have a PDF in the DukeSpace institutional repository soon.
As a last piece of book promotion, I will note the blog post about the book on the Author’s Alliance web site, which was largely written by me.
All that aside, the real purpose of this post is to tell the story of publishing this book, because I think it is instructive for thinking about scholarly communication today. If I had to start with a moral for the whole story, it is that I should have started with the librarians, because they are a group — the ACRL was wonderful to work with — that can publish in the way most consistent with academic values and needs.
The story begins when I was contacted in 2009 by an editor for the University of Chicago Press, who suggested that I should write a handbook on IP for scholars. I was immediately interested, and, at the editor’s request, wrote first a proposal and then drafts of the first two chapters. Those chapters were sent out for review and we received both helpful suggestions and a recommendation to continue to develop the book from three reviewers. With that step complete, the U of C Press and I signed a contract in late 2010, and I set out on a long and difficult journey to finish and publish the book.
The writing process took me considerably longer than I expected; no surprise there, of course. When I apologized to my editor I was assured that it was OK; they would be interested in the project, they said, whenever it was complete. During this time, however, I got the first indications that this would not be a smooth relationship. I sent in chapters as I finished them, as the editor encouraged me to do, but did not get any of the promised feedback as I progressed. For a couple of years I was essentially writing in a vacuum.
I finished writing in March 2013 and, in May of that year, finally sent the Press the completed draft of the manuscript, which they sent out for review. The Press’ policy is that they must have two reviews of the full manuscript that recommend publication before they refer the book to their board for a final thumbs up. So I began to wait. After six months I checked in and was told that the Press had sent the manuscript to three reviewers. One had sent in a report with a recommendation to publish. One had reviewed just two chapters of the book, asserting that they were only qualified to comment on a portion of the subject matter. The editor had not yet heard from the third reviewer, and without two full review that recommended publication, they could not move ahead. The editor told me that the third reviewer would be reminded and that the Press would also look for an alternate reader.
Five months after this, having still heard nothing, I inquired again. My e-mail went unanswered. A second e-mail did elicit a response, which was that they were still waiting for that third reviewer. There was no sign they had ever sought that additional reader.
At this point I was pretty frustrated. Five people had read at least part of the manuscript, and all had recommended publication. All of them had also made really helpful suggestions for improving the text which I tried to adopt. But the U. of C. Press was still passively waiting for that one final reader so they could comply to the letter with their self-created rules. What bothered me most was the apparent lack of effort and commitment I was getting from the Press. After talking with several academic authors about my situation, I decided to withdraw the book from the U of C Press.
When I told my editor about this decision, the first reaction was to try to talk me out of it and ask me to have patience. The second reaction was to remind me of our contract and to suggest that I had no alternative but to wait it out with the U. of C. In response, I suggested two concessions from them that would make the waiting easier. First, I asked (for the first time, I am embarrassed to admit) for some form of open access to a version or a part of the book. Second, I asked to be paid half of the advance we had agreed on as a sign of the Press’ commitment to the project. I was told, however, that the first request was impossible because they needed to protect potential sales for the book, and that the second was contrary to their policy. In regard to the latter issue, I was pointed to specific language in my contract about when the advance would be paid. So I looked. It turns out that the contract language was actually different from what the editor told me it was. It stated pretty clearly that I would be paid the advance when I sent in the manuscript, not, as I had been told, only when and if the board approved final publication. I have no idea why the contract language was what it was, or if it was really different from what the editor thought it should be. I had not changed or negotiated that part of the agreement back when it was signed. Maybe the Press just figured that no one will read their contracts, so they could claim whatever they wanted about them.
Anyway, I brought this discrepancy to the attention of my editor. That was the last contact I ever had with that person. A few days later I got an e-mail from the Director of the Press, apologizing to me for the treatment I had received and confirming that the Press had breached our contract by not paying the advance in a timely fashion. I was told that I would be released from the contract AND that the Press would still pay the advance I was owed. Over the next few weeks, we signed a formal letter releasing me to publish the book elsewhere and I received a check for the long-delayed advance.
On the plus side of this relationship, I did get quite a lot of very helpful feedback for my manuscript from the readers (although, of course, I am solely responsible for whatever errors remain). Also, when faced with the clear evidence that they had not lived up to their side of the bargain, the Press did the right thing (maybe just to get rid of me!). But on the negative side, I got almost no help from the editor in actually developing the manuscript, the “management” of peer-review was lackadaisical, and I wasted over a year after the book was finished waiting for the Press to get its act together before I asserted my freedom to start looking for another publisher.
After this experience, I spoke to one other commercial publisher, and this time made the expectation of an open access copy a condition from the beginning. That led to a very short conversation. So finally I did what I should have done from the start — work with the ACRL. That experience was smooth, collaborative, and focused on the best way to make my work serve the needs of the audience it was intended for. The ACRL arranged for excellent and expeditious copy-editing and indexing. They agreed to immediate open access for the entire book. When there was a problem with the first print run of the book, the ACRL took immediate responsibility and re-printed the whole run. The process took less than six months from signing a contract to publication.
From this experience I take away three lessons, which I think are worth sharing. First, the claims about how much effort publishers put into a new book, and the help they provide to authors, are at least sometimes exaggerated. I was working with a prestigious university press on a book they had solicited in the first place, and yet did not get nearly the kind of assistance or interest that I sometimes hear promised. Second, it is extremely important to read, negotiate and save a copy of the publication contract. That my book is now in print is largely due, I believe, to the fact that I could go back to the actual language of our agreement in order to convince the U. of C. to release me to find another publisher. And finally, as I said at the beginning, libraries and library organizations, in my experience, understand the needs and goals of scholarly authors better than commercial presses. As the future of academic publishing unfolds, I strongly hope that more and more of it will be in the hands, or under the oversight, of libraries.