Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Writing for free? Why? —Advice for potential authors

Here's a question that has been bugging me for a while: Why would anyone accept to write for an academic or trade publisher for free or in exchange for very little money?

The reason why I'm asking is that in the past few years I've received multiple requests from publishers to write articles and book chapters on infographics and visualization. In some cases, it's not just that the publishers didn't want to pay anything; they even asked me to pay them for the "privilege" of seeing those words printed. This practice has always struck me as bizarre and insulting, no matter how widely spread it is.

Here are some possible answers to the question above:

1. You are a scholar striving to get tenured, or a tenured professor getting ready for your periodic review.
2. You want to bring attention to your work.
3. You need to build prestige in the industry.
4. You just want your name on the cover —or, at least, in the index— of an actual book.
5. You need to make some extra money.

The first answer makes sense: Being on the tenure track at an educational institution puts a lot of pressure on you. You do need to publish, no matter what. But the other ones? Nope.

If you want to bring attention to your work, or build some prestige, launch a website and write useful, thoughtful articles on a regular basis. Build a strong presence on social media. Don't just promote yourself, but the writings and projects of other professionals and academics in your area of expertise. Share as much as possible. Become a curator. Go to conferences.

Regarding 3, 4, and 5, it makes more sense to self-publish. Save a few thousands dollars, hire a good copy editor, a printer, and a distributor, and publish your own book under your own brand. When you work for a publishing house, you can expect to get just a small percentage of the price of each book sold as royalties. When you self-publish, that percentage can increase to 40%. This means that, after selling just a few hundred copies, you will recover your initial investment. And even if you don't have any money to spend, you can always think of print-on-demand.

By the way, if you believe that working with a professional publisher will grant your book tons of promotion, think twice. You will end up doing most of it yourself.

So my answer to the folks who ask for freebies is usually: You either pay royalties or you release the chapter/article on the Internet for anyone to download and copy —perhaps under a Creative Commons noncommercial license.

I strongly recommend that anybody who's not a tenure track academic applies the same policy.
 I'm in the mood to make some enemies today.

Now you may wish to ask: Then, why did you sell The Functional Art and a video tutorial to Peachpit Press, and you're writing another book for them? Why don't you publish all that yourself?

It's simple: I like them. A lot. After reading some horror tales, and hearing stories that I cannot really write about for now (related to recent visualization books, that's all I can say,) I realized how wonderful my editor and copy editors are. If you're going to sacrifice some potential royalties, do it just for people who are professional, honest, and respectful. You're lucky to be able to work with them, but they are also lucky to have you as an author.

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