I’m an academic. Here is why my next book will be self-published and crowd-funded.
Self-publishing a book is an unusual decision in academia. Academics are expected to write books for publishers that have a high reputation in their respective fields. Self-publishing has the academic cred slightly above scribbling on cocktail napkins. I’ve been pretty successful at publishing articles in top publications for my field, and an edited volume on the Hacker and Maker movements I co-authored is coming out in early 2017. It is totally conceivable I could publish a monograph in an academic press.
So what gives? Why am I self-publishing a book financed through Kickstarter?
There are academic presses doing an excellent job. They give authors creative control, have excellent series, and offer inexpensive paperback versions. For example, I really respect Andrew Chadwick’s Digital Politics series for Oxford and MIT Press’ Science, Technology & Society series. The problem is that most authors are not lucky enough to publish with a decent press and a supportive editor. Nor is it necessarily the right model for the goals of all authors. Here we can start to see the cracks in the academic publishing model.
Some less reputable presses push out lightly edited dissertations and edited volumes as expensive hardcovers. They like books on contemporary topics that require little editing and zero publicity. This is because they sell 300 copies or so mainly to libraries. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with libraries. Heck, you would be hard-pressed to find a bigger believer in libraries than me! The issue is that poorly edited and distributed books do nothing to connect with readers. This “publisher to library pipeline” drains academic institutions of vital funds and mainly benefits publishers. It needs to be institutionally re-thought.
I like my writing to be read and referenced. Sadly, many academic publishers don’t seem to have this same goal.
Last year I published a chapter from my dissertation in an edited volume that lists for $195 in hardcover only. My chapter was a descriptive piece that traced the evolution social network sites to mobile apps. The same year I published a theoretical article on the same topic in the open-access online journal The International Journal of Communication. The latter received 18 citations in the last year. People come up to me at conferences to talk about it. The expensive hardcover, which looks very pretty sitting on my shelf, didn’t get a single one. I can’t say I remember anyone mentioning they read it. The theoretical piece was probably more useful to researchers than a descriptive chapter. Still, it is also true that academics spend their scant free time writing stuff that nobody reads.
The sad thing is that writing is exciting and emotionally fulfilling. It is one of the big perks of an academic lifestyle. Writing a book can be a way to (I know how corny this sounds) find joy in your work. It can also make your ideas relevant to new audiences. This is hardly a new idea in my discipline, communication. Communication researchers have been involved in community activism, policy work, and non-profit organizations for decades. The discipline of communication as a whole, however, is only too slowly getting over the idea that scholars cannot be practitioners and public intellectuals. Again the issue is institutional. Apparently you must make a choice in who you write for.
Do you research & write for wider audiences, or is your goal to please the committees that will advance your career?
An assistant professor once confided to me that she wished she could do more research in the local community. The problem was that she needed to publish to obtain tenure. She didn’t feel comfortable entertaining the idea of doing more engaged research. I got the sense she regarded research that connected with local community and public institutions as too time-intensive. It was a lot of commitment for speculative rewards. This perception speaks volumes about how professors self-police definitions of “real research.”
The book I am writing traces stories and projects of “civic tech.” This movement of community activists, designers, software engineers and hip bureaucrats are trying to progressively improve democratic institutions. This vibrant scene grew beneath me as I researched the ideas behind open data, and how civic concepts were worked through in “civic hackathons.” I also worked for the city of Los Angeles and volunteered for my own city of Long Beach. So I have been in the thick of the same public sector that my communication professor friend was afraid to engage with. What has gotten me excited is that civic technologists are collaboratively re-building institutions in a time of public distrust of anything overtly “political.” They are trying to improve government infrastructure, communication, and policies. In their work I see the seeds of classic arguments and some novel approaches. The civic tech movement is also at a moment when I might be able to help their good ideas grow and take shape.
Maybe I can be the person to tell stories that matter to a movement of people. I can’t do that by selling expensive books that nobody reads.
Any search for an entirely perfect publishing model will quickly get smashed on the rocks of reality. Crowdfunding is no different. Controversy has emerged over how campaigns for gadgets like the “Coolest Cooler” have only delivered over cost and long past deadline. With popularity has come imitation. Inkshares, a crowdfunding website specifically for books, launched in 2013. In some disciplines using Kickstarter is even used as a “front end” to pressing a larger number of books. For example, the art press Aperture integrated Kickstarter campaigns to launch many of its books. Crowd-funding has passed from being a radical idea to a funding strategy.
Savvy scholars will note I’ve fallen into a trap of precarious labor — working under insecure conditions for diminishing returns and little benefits. This is true, if not exactly Kickstarter’s doing. I’m currently adjunct teaching two courses per semester and drive a 2007 RAV4. In a good year I net $20k. (Yes, I would make more as a barista, thank you for noticing) I try to cap my teaching at two courses a semester. This gives me two days per week to read, think, and write. A luxurious cache of time. It is mine to do with what I choose. Engaging with a fascinating movement while helping spread and improve their ideas is what I am interested in.
Crowdfunding can help my book reach an interdisciplinary audience of academics and non-academics. It can be easily integrated with online publicity campaigns to get the word out. If people like its ideas they can support it. By being backed directly I can also deliver a full-color softcover for a reasonable $30. This will let me pay my designer and editor fair rates. If I’m lucky, maybe I can add some money to my coffers to reserve more time for research and writing. Some day I want to write an academic book that covers much of this same material. Right now, a self-published crowdfunding model is simply the right fit for this project and my career stage. It is an option that we academics should talk about and treat seriously as a viable option, and not simply look down our noses at. Because who wants to write books that nobody reads?