History publishing – between trade and academic

I have a new book out this week. Hooray! Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome is the second of two books based on my doctoral and post-doctoral research. The first one, Our Man in Rome (aka The Divorce of Henry VIII) came out in 2012. There’s a big difference in publishing terms between these two: Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome is an academic monograph and The Divorce of Henry VIII is a trade history book. But from a historian’s point of view what does that mean? Here follows my quick guide:

Academic books are generally expected to sell to a small and specialist audience, primarily university libraries and a limited number of academics who’ll fork out the cover price (usually minus a decent discount that you get by writing for the same press or being at the right conference). It isn’t unusual to sell fewer than a thousand copies. Trade books are aimed at a general readership and are expected to sell much more widely, into the tens of thousands.

That basic difference is reflected in the pricing: academic monographs often cost £60-100 while trade books might start in hardback at £20-30 and then come out for less than a tenner in paperback. (This is the UK market: it’s somewhat different in the USA, but that’s another blog post!)

The good news is that if you can convince a publisher your book can sell widely then you can get paid for writing a trade book. Trade non-fiction history is unlikely to make you rich (check out these depressing figures for authors’ median earnings). But it can be a source of income and/or cover substantial research expenses. Academic publishers may pay a small percentage royalty but they operate essentially on the basis that your income is coming from an academic salary. A senior academic (who shall remain nameless) once asked me why I’d done the trade book first. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘they were paying me.’

The publication processes are different too. Academic presses are open to direct submission from authors: you send in your proposal and off you go. Your proposal may be peer-reviewed, or you may be invited on the proposal alone to submit a full manuscript. That’ll then be read by other experts in your field; then you submit revisions; then it goes for copy-editing and proof-reading.

Some smaller trade publishers accept direct submissions, but the major ones expect you to find a literary agent first, who will then pitch your work on your behalf. Trade presses don’t do peer-review (you can of course organise it informally), but you can expect much more substantial editorial work on your book (requests to restructure, to add background, to clarify sections for non-experts and so forth) before the copy-editing and proof-reading. Without peer-review they also work to a much faster schedule – more than a year faster in my case!

The marketing process is another contrast. Academic book marketing tends to focus on getting your book reviewed in scholarly journals and in promoting it to university librarians and academics through catalogues. Trade book marketing involves newspaper reviews, radio interviews, literary festivals and (in short) a lot more work and public profile on your part.

One consideration for people working in academia will be: can I put a trade book in for the REF? If it’s based on original research and properly referenced, no reason why not. My first book was submitted and double-weighted, and I know of other similar cases. Trade books can also be a route to impact, though just showing lots of people have read your work isn’t enough.

Got other questions? Comment below or tweet me your queries!

Have ‘young academics’ been betrayed?

There’s been some frustration on Twitter with Mathew Lyons’ piece in History Today on ‘Young academics: the great betrayal‘. Commenters have taken exception, in particular, to the suggestions that many academics disdain teaching (which I agree is unfair) and that they don’t support early career colleagues. The temptation is, though, to point to structural problems as if academics bear no responsibility for those at all.

The fact is, however, that there have been possibilities to resist the structural change that has got us where we are. Twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at a Russell Group university, we had tutorial groups of six and from the first year my tutorials were run by permanent academic staff. Very occasionally they were delegated to a PhD student, but that was the exception. Now (outside Oxbridge) it’s rare to find tutorial groups of fewer than ten, and teaching by doctoral students is the norm at first-year level. I don’t have the data to hand to make that more than an anecdotal point but I doubt many people would argue with it.

So it’s reasonable to ask, I think, whether those in a position to resist that change did enough, and whether there’s more we might do now.

I’m sure that many of the objectors to Mathew’s argument were the person in the Departmental meeting who said – when it was announced the Department must take x% additional students with no additional staff – that this was unacceptable. Perhaps they went on demonstrations against tuition fees, or wrote to MPs, or lobbied within their universities. They may well have been the people, too, who went to their UCU branch meeting and said that we need a strategy to tackle the increasing dependence on casualised staff to deliver teaching. And it’s good that they did those things.

But I do think there is a case to be made – in general – that there’s been more throwing up of hands in horror at the incremental shifts towards increased precarity in higher education work than practical resistance. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a serious industrial dispute in the university sector over job security for early career staff. UCU has raised the question regularly in the annual pay negotiation rounds, but the employers’ body UCEA refuses to negotiate on the topic, and, well, that’s been it.

Yet there are many practical things that might be done. Here’s one suggestion. A consortium of universities (such bodies already exist to deliver doctoral training and for various other purposes) might hire early career academics on the basis that they’ll be guaranteed permanent work in one of the partner institutions, even if it isn’t the one where they start out. That’s how many large companies operate – with the expectation that in the first few years of work you might switch base – and they seem to manage it perfectly well. Such a system would give departments some flexibility while allowing ECRs to plan their lives better than they can on a succession of nine-month teaching contracts. It would shift some of the risk away from the individual onto the institutional group. The practicalities would take some working out, and it’s certainly not all I’d wish for in the long term, but perhaps as well as lamenting our betrayal we should start talking about solutions and how we might campaign for them. After all, if we don’t fight, we can’t win.

Class, cuts, languages and academia

A couple of days ago on Twitter, Caroline Magennis asked the question ‘What are the challenges of being an academic from a less privileged background? Questions of ‘fitting in’ but also practical issues?’ Her tweet prompted numerous comments, which you can read on Storify.

I said that one big issue was access to language-learning, which got me thinking about the fact that my route to learning Italian as an adult has – in less than fifteen years – all but disappeared.

Back in 2001, when I first started thinking seriously about studying Italian history, I signed up for an Italian beginners class. It was held on Saturday mornings at a local further education college. Not any more. A quick look at the Lambeth College website shows that not only has that course disappeared, but also the GCSE and AS-Level courses I went on to take in subsequent years. The same is true of the vast majority of FE colleges, which now focus on what are supposedly more ‘vocational’ courses.

I could still go for the two-week language course I took in Rome in the summer of 2001. That comes in at €639.50 these days for lessons and accommodation, plus you need to add food and flights, so it’s likely to be a struggle for an indebted recent undergrad. (Fortunately I wasn’t particularly indebted, because I’m old enough to pre-date tuition fees… but that’s another story.) And besides, there’s only so much you can do with two weeks.

What really made the difference to my language skills was the overseas research allowance that used to be available alongside an AHRB/AHRC doctoral studentship. As a funded PhD student (I started in 2004), I was entitled to a grant for one overseas research trip of up to twelve months’ duration. The allowance for a year in Italy, which came on top of the standard PhD stipend, was £7,200. It sounds generous, and it was, but it served an important purpose of encouraging work in the humanities on non-Anglophone topics. It meant I could get on with research and not worry about money. I could afford twice-weekly one-to-one language lessons for the first six weeks, regular flights to visit my partner, the cost of storing my belongings in the UK, and lots of trips to archives around the country. And – not surprisingly after a year immersed in Italian – I came back to the UK with very good language skills that I’ve used in my academic work ever since.

But that opportunity has gone now. The overseas research allowance was scrapped with the switch to block grant funding, and instead doctoral students compete for whatever their local university can afford in terms of travel funds. Only a handful of well-off universities can now sustain their PhD students for more than a couple of months abroad: extensive work in foreign archives is becoming the preserve of a few.

The fact that these routes to language acquisition have been abolished means it’s even harder for students who didn’t have the advantage of learning, say, Latin or multiple modern languages at school to get into those areas of history that need languages. The language problem is partly an issue of social class, for sure. But it’s been exacerbated by cuts to both further and higher education in the past decade that make it harder than ever for people who didn’t start with language skills to catch up.