The story of a book contract
Last month we (Heather, Kim, Laura and Aisha) signed a contract with Bloomsbury Publishing for a book entitled ‘Celebrity, Aspiration and Contemporary Youth: Education and Inequality in an Era of Austerity’ based on the CelebYouth study. We’re currently writing the first chapters with the final manuscript due in February 2017. We’re very excited about this book and the interest we’ve had in our work meant we felt optimistic about finding a publisher. However securing a deal for the book we wanted to write turned out to be trickier than we thought. I describe that process in this post.
Putting together a book proposal
Book proposals offer the chance to look at a familiar project in an unfamiliar way, to go back to unexplored data and to develop new ideas. With the pressure on academics to publish, many books are made up largely of recycled journal articles so gaining maximum benefit from every idea. We decided that we wanted our book to have a lot of new material. This would make it more interesting for us as writers and hopefully for readers too. So we decided to draw most heavily on the individual interviews we did with young people which we haven’t used yet in other writing. Here is the summary we used to sell the book to potential publishers:
The book examines how celebrity is part of how young people think and talk about their imagined futures and how this shapes their aspirations. It explores this within the wider policy context of England, including a focus on aspiration and meritocracy, and addresses the role of social class, gender and ethnicity. It contributes to understanding young people’s transitions into adulthood at a time of high youth unemployment, precarity and public sector cuts. The book takes an innovative approach to youth aspirations, using the lens of celebrity to explore how young people talk about hard work, success, happiness, and money. Its original empirical analysis challenges dominant conceptions of contemporary young people as a fame-hungry, get-rich-quick generation, showing instead the complex ways that young people navigate growing up in an ‘austere meritocracy’.
Pursued by a Publisher
During our research we were approached by an enthusiastic editor from one of the larger academic publishing houses and so we committed to taking the proposal to him first. He was lovely and very efficient – securing us reviews and an offer of a contract in just a couple of weeks. This was where we hit a problem.
This contract was for a hardback and e-book both retailing at around £60. The initial print run would be just 300. The publishers said that they would think about bringing out a paperback, but not for 18-24 months and then only if our sales and reviews were strong.
A couple of months later, Anonymous Academic reported a similar exchange with a publisher:
“How much would the book be sold for?” I inquired, aware this might not be his favourite question. “£80,” he replied in a low voice.
“So there won’t be a cheaper paperback edition?” I asked, pretending to sound disappointed.
“No, I’m afraid not,” he said, “we only really sell to libraries. But we do have great sales reps that get the books into universities all across the world.”
“So how many copies do you usually sell?” I inquired.
Anonymous Academic concludes that academic books are a money-making machine for publishers and so they have lost all interest in the content of the books they produce. That wasn’t our experience. Our enthusiastic editor knew about our work, commissioned a couple of helpful reviews and even cut the wait time between hardback and paperback to twelve months and upped our royalties when we expressed concern. But he was clearly trapped in a problematic model of publishing.
As Anonymous Academic notes “much of the time that goes into writing these books is made possible through taxpayers’ money. And who buys these books? Well, university libraries – and they, too, are paid for by taxpayers. Meanwhile, the books are not available for taxpayers to read – unless they have a university library card”.
Perhaps we’re being naive given the state of publishing and rapidly falling book sales across the board, but we want a chance for teachers, youth workers, undergraduates, doctoral students and even the general public to buy our book. We had been given public money to do this research through the Economic and Social Research Council. All our publications to date are Open Access and we don’t want to write a book that only people with access to a few hundred of the more elite global university libraries can read.
So we said no to this contract.
We considered self-publishing and Open Access publishers such as Open Book. Lots of people offered helpful advice on this via Twitter. Kandy Woodfield spoke positively about her experience of using Pressbooks to produce her edited collection Social Media in Social Research and Helen Kara blogged about indie publishing for academics. I had recently quit my job to go freelance so the autonomy and DIY ethic of this approach appealed to me. I also had one single-authored book, a co-authored book and two edited collections on my CV so had enough of a track record to feel free to make riskier choices. However, as a team, we decided to go for the safer option of a well-known academic publisher.
We turned to Bloomsbury who are established, have a good list of publications in the sociology of education and who generally support affordable paperbacks. We wanted to be open from the start so told our editor there why we’d decided against our first publisher. While it took longer to get a contract offer from Bloomsbury, this reflects their concern to get a range of reviews to inform their decision making. We feel that they understand what we want the book to do and who we want to engage with it.
We were very happy to sign the contract they offered us.
As I said, all of our publications so far from this research are freely available to all who want to read them thanks to the use of Open Access funds at Brunel where I was based when the project was undertaken. It would be lovely if we could have done this with the book too but despite the name, Open Access does not necessarily make a book available to all. People still have to find it and so here it’s really helpful to have a publisher who will market and publicise the book. This work, like that of decent proof reading and copy editing costs money. We need imaginative, creative academic publishers like Bloomsbury to make our research accessible.
We’ll be posting more about our progress with the writing on this blog…
Tags: academic publishing, book contract, books, hardback, Helen Kara, Kandy Woodfield, Open Access, paperback, publishers
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