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Lessons Learned: Self-Publishing for Professors

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by Barbara W. Sarnecka, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, University of California, Irvine —

Barbara W. Sarnecka

One Cognitive Scientist’s Experience.

Several years ago, when I decided to write a book and publish it myself, there were three questions I knew I would not be able to answer until the whole thing was over.

Would the book suck? I didn’t know anything about publishing. I had never even written a book before, much less published one. Smart money said the book would suck.

Would I lose money? It seemed unlikely that the book would ever sell enough copies to cover the cost of producing it. I’m a professor, and most books written by professors sell hardly any copies at all.

Would I regret self-publishing? If self-publishing was a good idea, why weren’t any of my colleagues doing it? What had I failed to consider?

Let me back up. I’m a professor of cognitive sciences. After teaching a graduate seminar on scientific writing for about 10 years, I was no longer satisfied with any of the books I had long assigned for the course. Many of them contained useful insights, but none fit my everclearer and more specific vision of what the course should include, and how it should be organized. I decided it was time to write my own book.

Usually, when professors write books, they either write scholarly monographs and publish them with university presses, or they write textbooks that are published by big companies. But my book was neither of those things. It was more like a combination self-help book and style guide for early-career researchers. It was not research, so my university would not count it as a publication for the purposes of my next academic personnel review. That meant it did not have to go through peer review, the quality control mechanism of academic publishing, which a university press would have provided.

I’m a proponent of open science. All of my scientific research articles are freely downloadable from preprint servers, and I initially imagined a book that would be freely downloadable, too. There were only two problems with this vision: First, I wanted a physical book that I could hold in my hands, so there would need to be at least one printed copy. Second, a book is a lot more work to produce than an article. It requires special expertise in things like editing, indexing, cover design, and interior design. I couldn’t do it all myself.

The traditional solution would be to work with a publisher, who would put up the money and oversee the whole process. But I wanted to be able to give away at least the electronic version of the book for free, and no publisher would agree to that. (One colleague assured me that I needn’t worry, because a pirated copy would be available on Russian websites within a week of publication.) So, I started thinking about self-publishing. With the advent of print-on-demand technology, books cost much less to print than they used to, and I could hire other people to do the parts, like developmental editing and book design, that I couldn’t do myself. To be honest, self-publishing also sounded like fun. Many of my colleagues have written books, and their experiences with publishers have been mixed, at best. The authors don’t receive real editing, of the sort where an editor pays careful attention to the text and works with the author to make it better. The authors also don’t get to make design decisions, and I had a very clear idea of how I wanted this book to look. As a self-publisher, I got to pick the people who edited and designed my book, and their only priority was making me happy. “This must be what it feels like to be rich,” I thought. All of that took place a couple of years ago. I went ahead with the plan to self-publish, and the book was finished in October of 2019, so I can now tell you the answers to my initial questions.

  1. The book does not suck. It has garnered nothing but five-star reviews from readers. I get a lot of very nice emails from grad students and professors all over the world telling me how much they like it, and thanking me for making it available for free. The book was favorably reviewed by a journal earlier this year, and recently I learned that it has received a commendation from the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (SIPS), an organization that advocates for open science practices. This is all extremely gratifying.
  2. I did not lose money. The total cost to produce the book was $9,886, and it took about a year for the total royalties from book sales to exceed that number. That was true even though the full text was posted online and freely downloadable. Some people like a printed book.
  3. I don’t regret self-publishing. I kept waiting for something bad to happen, but nothing did. I had fun every step of the way, and I love how the book turned out.

After my last academic personnel review, my department chair asked me to meet with him about my unorthodox publishing decisions. My personnel case had been written by a colleague who is also a close friend, and she told me to expect a scolding. Apparently my decision to self-publish the book, as well as my practice in recent years of sending my work to noncommercial, “diamond open access” journals (free to publish in, free to read) looked to some people like self-sabotage, and the department had engaged in an extended discussion of whether I knew what I was doing.

My chair and I met at a coffee shop on campus. “I need to talk to you about this self-publishing thing,” he said, and I braced myself for some well-meaning advice. “How do you do it?” he continued. “Like, is it hard to do? Because the last textbook I wrote, the students have to pay over $100 for it, and my co-author and I get like $10 of that, and we split it. So my students pay $100 for a book, and I get $5. It seems so stupid—the publishers didn’t add that much value. So I’m thinking maybe I’ll self-publish my next book. What do you think?” I told him I thought it was a great idea.

Barbara W. Sarnecka is professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California, Irvine and associate dean of faculty development and diversity for social sciences. She is an expert in the area of cognitive development.

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