In nursing this research project along through about 20 years I learned a few things on the way about publishing, and self publishing
One of the criteria for the award of a PhD is that work will include material worthy of publication. So when you walk out of your viva has a newly minted PhD one of the things you believe is that the 80,000 odd words with you written are publishable. Very often they are not. In most cases even for an academic publisher, you will have to rewrite the entire thing and in the process discard thousands of words which you sweated blood over.
Now this is one of the things which I warn anyone who comes to me looking to do a PhD, and right from the start a good supervisor will insist that you have a publication strategy. This means working out what part of the research you can present as conference papers, how you can build those into journal articles, and how you will shape the final work has something which can be published without a total rewrite.
My problem was slightly different to the average. My PhD dissertation was literally a game of two halves: I had a very detailed 40,000 word analytical narrative of the UN operation in the Congo based on Irish primary sources, and this was wrapped in about 40,000 words of theory. Irish publishers wanted the story of the operation but not so much the theory while international academic publishers wanted the theory but less Irish material and more comparative research.
Back then, doing that comparative research would have required extended field trips to overseas archives. There was a significant likelihood that many of those archives would simply not possess the same rich narratives that the Irish military archives had in the unit histories.
So there in the work sat for quite a few years. Since I was teaching courses on international organisations, it was useful to add material on Cyprus and Lebanon for teaching purposes. I had a growing collection of primary research material, some of it like United Nations documents in digital form, and this was useful for showing students in class how to dissect the meaning behind some of these diplomatic texts. As my teaching moved more into teaching digital methods in the humanities, that collection of research documents provided a ready set of materials for teaching students how to transcribe, edit and mark up the content of primary sources for research.
While I could always probably have found a publisher for the growing narrative, there came a point at which I thought it would be useful to actually go through the process of self publishing.
I thought it would probably be a learning experience, and it sure was!
So some things I learned:
Editing is hell. Anything the words you’ve written is bad enough, but when you scratched out those words in several different sessions over a number of years then editing for consistency for little things like paragraph spacing and indents, or how you present dates can be mind numbingly boring.
Editing to clean up inconsistencies in styling is also an enormous nuisance. Over the years, I have moved away from fully featured wordprocessors to more minimal writing environments, with a stricter attention to sticking to a basic style sheet. Back when fancy word processors with a multiplicity of cool fonts and effects first appeared we all embraced them as an opportunity to give full reign to our creative design abilities producing overdesigned flyers and newsletters. I had sections of text that were originally written in Wordperfect, before Windows even existed, as well as several different versions of Word. In the end, since I moved to doing a lot of editing on mobile devices, the final text was done in Google Docs. Once that was ready then I had to move it into Kindle creator for the final visual polish. It’s one thing to be able to say to students that it’s important you pick a fairly simple text editor and stick to a simple stylesheet consistently, what cleaning up the mess you made by using five different editing tools over the course of 20 years really brings it home. It also reminds you about the problems of maintaining archives of material which was written in old file formats!
Maps are hard work. I written a separate blog post about this, but basically if you’re writing non-fiction and you’re going to need maps then you need to think right from the beginning about how you’re going to identify the important places in the text and what tool you can use to make them appear on the maps at the end. I can add places to public domain physical maps because I can use graphics tools but most people can’t and therefore you’re going to need a friendly geographer. Since good history requires a grasp of place and an understanding of how places relate to one another you probably need to have this working dynamically why you’re doing the research. Again, make really good friends with a geographer.
Cover design is important and it’s not easy. Again I opted to have a go at this myself and the end result could be better. There are online tools for cover design but as people have pointed out they produce a limited range of designs which are easily recognisable. You can get a cover designed by a designer and some of these can do something decent for a reasonable amount of money. if you’re trying to sell the book based on its cover this is probably worthwhile.
There were other things you need as well: you need to write the whole about the author piece and the book description: that magical 150 words that will persuade people to actually buy the book. You might think having written 60,000 words of text, that those 150 words will be easy but they’re not: writing short is much harder than writing long.
Working through the process of putting it together for self publication has also made me think about how I would approach any research project differently. We now have completely different research resources to those which existed when I started my PhD research. We have a whole range of different tools not only for writing but also for managing research materials, and for analysing and mapping the concepts and ideas emerging from the archival material. There are also different expectations about the availability of the underlying research material to the reader so that now any research project is not only geared towards creating a final text, but a fully integrated digital artefacts which exposes the process of research for scrutiny and review.
Did I really need to go to the effort of self publishing this old stuff in order to learn all these things? Perhaps not, but as I say to my students while we can all run we can’t all just jump up and run a marathon without training. So yes, well I could’ve dodged it and just cycled the course, the experience of trudging the full distance on foot was probably useful. I did walk the walk and while the end product is only fair to good rather than absolutely excellent, the process will certainly help me to do better in front of classes when I have to talk the talk.
The end product of this research journey is now out as an ebook on Amazon. I am told it has 8 spelling errors, and I might not have caught all the formatting issues, but don’t let that put you off buying the book!
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