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Writing a book – when life gets in the way by Astrid Bracke
astrid

Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is her final post for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_4_edits-laptopSo far in this series I’ve written about the difference between writing a dissertation and writing a book, about planning the book and about the actual writing. In this final post I want to talk about two things: when things don’t go as planned and, related to that, communicating with your editor(s) throughout the process.

Although I loved working on the book, around seven months into the process my work life outside of the book became increasingly difficult. Looking back things hadn’t been going well for months: I had struggled with boredom – even though I kept busy – and disinterest in teaching, my colleagues, basically everything. And I just couldn’t stop talking about it: about the things that went wrong, about the things that annoyed me, about the issues that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Sunday evenings became horrible: I’d sit at home stressed and worried about the week ahead. I suffered headaches and a lingering sense of nausea, had nightmares about work, felt tension in my legs and neck, and became much more emotional than I usually am. The turning point came when one day I spent all of a lazy Saturday breakfast with my boyfriend complaining about work, did the same over lunch with a friend, and then over drinks with another friend. By the evening I realized that something was wrong.  

This story perhaps really isn’t part of a series on ‘how to write a book’. But at the same time it is. It’s important to me, though difficult, to tell this part of the story. Yes, I enjoyed writing the book, it went well and I am pleased with the result. But at the same time I also ended up having to take a break from writing and suffered from burnout. I know – and I’ve learnt since – that many, if not most, people working in higher education and academia experience extreme stress or burnout at some point. It seems to happen especially to people early in their career. Particularly people in their (late) twenties and thirties experience high levels of work-related stress. What weighs on many of us is the stress of trying to live up to high standards – usually our own.

By early May I was off work sick. Even though my burnout was not related to my book, I ended up taking off time from writing as well. Originally I had agreed to submit the finished manuscript to the publisher by the end of July. I was on schedule when I became ill, but had to ask for an extension. Many authors end up needing an extension on their book – either because of illness, because of work obligations or simply because of not being able to finish on time.

It’s important to be realistic when you draw up a plan – either at the beginning of the project or when asking for an extension. No one is served with you making a plan that is too optimistic. If you’ll only be able to submit the book on time if you work faster than you usually do it’s not a good plan. And even when you’ve been realistic in the beginning, things might happen that keep you from finishing on time. Sometimes people don’t communicate, or communicate too late with the publisher. They are ashamed or try to persuade themselves that they could still finish as agreed. This strategy really helps no one and will put you under (even) more pressure. Also, publishers depend on authors delivering their work on time: they draw up publication schedules in advance, and when an author is very late in asking for an extension this can affect the schedule.

Once I realized I had to take a break from writing the book I contacted the publisher and the series editors. I told them I was ill and that I would be unable to deliver the manuscript on time. But I also, importantly, gave them a date on which I thought I’d be done (three months after the agreed date). This was a bit of a gamble: in early May I honestly didn’t know for sure that I’d be feeling better, but with being off work and the summer coming up I assumed that I’d finish the book by the new deadline, September 30th.

It’s been two months now since I submitted the manuscript. It’s currently at the reviewers, with publication set for 2017. The process has been good overall: I enjoyed writing the book, and am generally pleased with how it turned out. At the same time I also had to deal with things not going as planned. What saved me in the end was drawing up a new plan and being clear with the publisher about the delay. And now, all I have to do is be patient for the reviewers’ comments and the published book!

Writing a book, from start to finish II by Astrid Bracke
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Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the third of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_3_2_chapter-revisionSo you’ve drawn up a plan for the book – now it’s time to write!

When I started I thought I knew really well what I was going to write. After all, I’d written a detailed book proposal. But while I was writing I decided differently on a few things – and, to my surprise, discovered connections between chapters that I hadn’t seen before. I’ll discuss that in this post, and share my revision checklist for making the manuscript ready for submission.  

It’s fine and totally normal to divert from the proposal you submitted. Even though the publisher offered you a contract based on it, it’s really not set in stone. I had planned to write four chapters, each on what I call a narrative of nature. Beforehand I had decided that the chapters would form companion chapters: pastoral and urban were a pair, and so were environmental collapse and polar. But I discovered another connection between the chapters: in both pastoral and environmental collapse narratives, time plays an important role. Urban and polar narratives share an emphasis on space.

A bigger change was that I decided to take out two novels and replace them by two others. I doubted for a while whether I would run this change past my editors. The novels discussed in a book also partly determine the audience so taking out an important author like Ian McEwan might make an impact. I ended up discussing it with a colleague who has experience in publishing and decided not to tell my editors. If I’d wanted to make a bigger change, though, like taking out or adding a chapter, I would certainly have told them.

When I started I believed my focus would be on four narratives of nature that show how climate crisis is imagined is twenty-first-century British fiction. As the project progressed it slowly became clear to me that the real argument of my book is slightly different. It’s not, as I thought, just that these books depict certain narratives, but rather that they participate in and reflect a wider cultural awareness of climate crisis. In practice this meant that at the beginning of every chapter I explicitly referred to a film or other non-literary example to show this cultural awareness, and that I did that even more in the introduction. My book now starts with a reference to Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 Oscar-speech.

When I drew up my plan I made sure to include plenty of time for revision. In general I don’t edit as I write – I very much believe in the principle of shitty first drafts and try to keep my internal editor at bay while I’m writing.

 

I’m a list-maker so naturally I made a revision-checklist for myself:

astrid_3_1_book-checklist

  • Make back-ups in more than one place!
  • First read-through and edit, paying attention especially to structure;
  • Second read-through and edit, with special emphasis on the argument on section and sentence level;
  • Revision based on first reader’s comments;
  • Revision based on feedback of other scholars in the field (this revision includes the next steps);
  • Is the argument of the chapter clear?
  • Do all sections contribute to the chapter’s overall argument?
  • Does every chapter have a strong conclusion?
  • Do the chapters contribute to the argument set out in the introduction?
  • Does the conclusion follow logically from the chapters?
  • Do the parts of the book taken together feel like a whole? Have I signalled shared themes and other connections between the chapters? Is the overarching argument reflected in each of the chapters?
  • Final revision: publishers’ stylesheet (spelling and punctuation preferences; reference style); final spell-check.
  • Manuscript ready for submission, including all the preliminaries requested by the publisher.

I left writing the introduction and the conclusion until the very end. First I read all four chapters again and revised based on the feedback I had received. This helped me immensely to get the distance and perspective I needed for the introduction and conclusion. More than once I complained that I thought the introduction was the most difficult part of the book to write (that is until I started on the conclusion and I complained about that…).

The introduction is where you probably make – and write about – most of your choices. This is where you concisely set out your argument, but also where you decide how much you want to write about the wider field, how your book fits in with other work. My book ties in with two fields of literary criticism. Choosing to focus on four ‘narratives of nature’ means explaining why these four are important. Focusing on twenty-first-century British fiction means explaining why British literature and why twenty-first-century fiction.

The conclusion is really about finding that sweet spot where you don’t summarize too much, but still bring together the main points, and showing the wider relevance of your book without going off at a tangent about other directions.

And then, much faster really than I had anticipated, most of the work was done. I put all the chapters in one document and set out to check whether it followed the publisher’s stylesheet. Although they recommended using it from the beginning, I hadn’t. I ended up writing the four chapters according to the stylesheet I used most often, and had to make the changes at the end. It wasn’t too bad though: I was going through the individual chapters again anyway and had made a list for each chapter of the things I had to change.

The publisher’s stylesheet also specifies what you should include when you submit the manuscript – not only the text of your book, but also preliminaries (or prelims). Depending on the publisher, preliminaries consist of one or more title pages, a series page, acknowledgements and the table of contents. At this stage you don’t yet have to provide the index: your contract will specify if and when you’ll need to provide it, generally a few weeks after receiving the final proofs.

Once you’ve submitted the manuscript it’s time to congratulate yourself for pulling this project off. And that’s when the wait starts to hear back from the publishers and the reviewers. In my next post I’ll write about the final element of writing a book: communicating with the editor(s) and publisher.

Writing a book, from start to finish I by Astrid Bracke
astrid

Astrid Bracke writes on twenty-first-century British fiction and nonfiction, ecocriticism, narratology, climate crisis and flood narratives. Her monograph, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, is under contract with Bloomsbury Academic. This is the second of four blog posts she will write for AcWriMo 2016.

astrid_2In the previous post I explored the differences between writing a dissertation and writing a book. In this post and the next I’ll write about the process of writing the book, both in terms of practical matters and in terms of deciding on the kind of book you’ll write.

There are two ways of going about writing a book: either you write a book proposal first, submit that to a publisher and wait for them to accept it (fingers crossed!), or you write the entire book first, and then submit that to the publisher. While some people go for the second option, most academic publishers don’t want you to send them an entire book immediately. If you do want to write the book first, or you want to publish your dissertation, you could write a proposal based on the finished manuscript and submit that. All academic publishers have a section on their website with details, so make sure to check that out first.

There’s a few risks involved with writing a book without having secured a contract from a publisher. The publisher might not accept it, or will require changes to be made to fit the book in with a series. Most importantly, though, having a contract in hand can be stimulating: having a deadline adds a sense of accountability to a project that can be quite lonely at times. Also, even though you haven’t yet written the book, having the contract gives you something to be proud of (and it looks much better on job and funding applications to have a book ‘under contract’, then just to be working on it as anyone can say that).

At the same time, I know of a few publishers who will express interest based on a proposal but won’t offer a contract until they’ve read a substantial part (i.e. a few chapters), or all of the manuscript. In that case it’s really up to you to if you want to proceed: if the publisher is renowned, if your book fits their list well and/or if you feel secure enough to go through with the book without the contract, you should.

I spent a few months researching and planning the book and then submitted a proposal with detailed chapter descriptions to a publisher. I was lucky to immediately be offered a contract. In my final post of this series I’ll write a bit more about this process and communicating with the publisher in general.

By the time I was offered the contract the timeframe that I had sketched in my proposal didn’t fit anymore. Hearing back from the publisher had taken longer than I had anticipated and I had decided not to start on the book until they had accepted it. Before I could start on the project I also had to write two articles I had committed to. With this in mind I asked for the delivery date of the manuscript to be pushed back a few months, which wasn’t a problem.

The process of writing a book has a practical dimension and a more content-focused dimension. You’ll have to figure out when you’re actually going to write it and, even though you’ve already written a proposal, you’ll have to figure out what kind of book you’ll write. Although I thought I had a pretty good idea about this going into the project, it did take quite a lot of work clarifying what I wanted to write, and what my emphasis would be on. I’ll discuss that process more in the next post.

First, though, the practical side. Once I actually started on the book I had about ten months in which to write it. In the beginning that felt like forever – I had all the time in the world to write this book! It would be fine! By nature I’m a very disciplined and organized person so despite feeling like I had plenty of time I drew up a detailed plan first.

My book consists of four chapters (13,000 words long each), an introduction (10,500 words) and a conclusion (5,000 words). I also needed time for revision at the end, as well as after every chapter, and wanted to schedule enough time so that I could ask other scholars for feedback.

My preferred method of making a plan for any kind of project is to use both a paper calendar – I currently use this one by Moleskine for my research projects – and an app, OmniFocus. I need to see on paper how much time I have available, so I began sketching out my plan using my paper calendar. I started off by planning in big chunks: around average 2½ to 3 months per chapter. When I began work on a chapter I drew up a more detailed plan, which I added to both my paper calendar and OmniFocus.

The benefit of my paper calendar for me is that I get a month at a glance – and I find it easier to plan on paper. OmniFocus, on the other hand, syncs with the app on my phone and iPad, so I always have it with me, and allows me to create projects. My book was one of those projects, and I could add to it even tasks that I didn’t need to schedule immediately but that I didn’t want to forget. Using the review-function, I was able to go back to these tasks and assign a date to them when they became important.

While planning, try to be realistic. The first chapter I wrote was the sample chapter I had submitted with the proposal, so I was rewriting more than writing from scratch. Consequently, this took me about two months at most. The next chapter’s subject matter was already very familiar to me from my PhD, so I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t be needing that much time for it either. Chapters three and four, on the other hand, were on new material, so I needed about three months for each.

Using my calendar helped me to keep other commitments in mind. I knew that by the time I had to write my introduction and conclusion I wouldn’t be teaching so I planned one month in which I wrote both. In practice, though, I wrote the book on one day a week.

While I wrote the book I used the proposal as the basis, but as I went along I ended up making changes and had to figure out in more detail what kind of book I was actually writing. I’ll discuss this process in my next post, as well my revision process.

Writing the Second Book—Week 2: Measuring Time and Energy Through the Writing Process by Allan Johnson
Writing the Second Book

Writing the Second BookAllan Johnson is Assistant Professor in English Literature at City University of Hong Kong.  He is the author of Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) as well as articles and chapters on an array of writers including James, Stoker, Conan Doyle, Shaw, Forster, Woolf, Eliot, Cather, Waugh, Doctorow, and Hollinghurst.  You can find ot more about Allan at his website: http://thisisallan.com, and follow him on Twitter @thisisallan.  Below is his reflection of writing process.

Last week I wrote about managing creative energy by dovetailing the drafting and rewriting phases so that one chapter or portion of work can be in the drafting stage while another is being rewritten and revised.  The primary reason for doing this is that these two stages of the writing process rely on very different forms
of thinking and commitment.  Spending a full day on just drafting or just rewriting is an easy road to burnout, but spending a little bit of time each day on both of these activities becomes much more manageable and keeps the project moving steadily ahead.

On an ideal day I would spend three hours on writing, three hours on rewriting, and three hours on teaching and administration, but, of course, that ideal day almost never happens.  Since the academic life is filled with commitments and interruptions that can easily whisk one away from research, I began to think about how best to manage my writing progress alongside these other responsibilities and while keeping the project on track.  While I still use the Pomodoro Technique during some parts of a project, I soon discovered that it perhaps wasn’t the most useful way to organise all aspects of the writing process.

aj

Because the drafting phase of any writing project is about creative exuberance, about finding the connections between ideas, and, ultimately, about using writing to think through the argument, focusing exclusively on the amount of time spent in the process may not be the most useful indicator of accomplishment.  When drafting a new chapter, I might be reading key sources, writing short summaries and observations, or developing my own lines of thinking and interpretation.  After the first or second week of drafting a chapter, I might not have written many words, but at the end of the three months I usually spend on drafting, I had better had something in the region of 10,000-15,000 words that can be further refined and developed during rewriting.

For this reason, I set incremental word count goals during drafting, based on weekly word count rather than time spent writing or daily word counts. By the end of the first month I aim to have at least 2000 words written (most of this time, of course, will have been spent in secondary research) and then in each subsequent week my goal is to complete an additional 1000-1500 words. Thinking holistically about words-per-week allows for the periods of additional research necessary for ideas to formulate while still keeping me on task.  And, as I try to integrate digital and analogue tools in my research for their best-intended purposes, I keep track of the growing word count in a rather old-fashioned sort of way: a blank monthly calendar pasted into my Moleskine.

But because the rewriting phase is much more connected to analytical precision, focusing on details, and, ideally, shaping the earlier draft into something accessible to others, I needed to set a much more regimented daily practice for myself in which could maintain focus and built forward momentum.  For this reason, I continue to use Pomodoro during the rewriting phrase.  I use Pomodoro Pro which not only provides all the necessary timer features, but keeps track of time spent on projects (very useful data for my monthly self-review, which I’ll explain in a future post).

Because drafting and rewriting rely on such different forms of the thinking and energy, it is important to track and evaluate progress using a method best suited for each stage.  While drafting, I use a pleasingly old-school method of noting my weekly word count in a notebook to allow for the rise and fall of creative energy through the week while still keeping my work focused.  And when rewriting, I use a rather more contemporary time management technique to keep forward momentum through the analytical precision required of rewriting.

#acwri Twitter Chat: Revision Strategies
Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #24 by Linda Levitt
Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Read out loud: another old standby. Reading out loud can reveal your clunky sentences, your unclear ideas, and your weak transitions. Reading out loud can also reveal a beautiful turn of phrase, a just-right articulation, and a resonant idea. A few variations on the theme may be useful as well: have someone else read your work out loud so you can hear a different articulation of your writing. Or, by recording yourself reading, you can listen to what you have written and be able to make notes and edits at the same time.

Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #23 by Linda Levitt
Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Print out a hard copy. An old standby, but a good one. When you need another perspective on your writing, print out a hard copy and read off of the page instead of the screen. A hard copy is helpful for both proofreading and editing, and can also be a useful way to get at seeing significant changes you might want to make to the piece you’re writing. Bring scissors, tape, highlighters, colored pens, and whatever tools might be helpful to the table.

Weekly wisdom: tips and tweaks #19 by Linda Levitt
Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)

Diorama_-_19_(8126284371)Keep a recycling file. Whether in the process of moving material from an outline to the document you’re writing or editing a piece toward completion, it’s likely that you’ll be deleting some significant chunks of text. Instead of trashing them, put those sentences and paragraphs in a recycling file. “Unused” or “save for later” work just as well. Later in the revision process, you may find a place for that concept or quote. Or, it may spark a new project or be just the idea you need for the next essay you’re writing.

How to be a Hackademic #51 by Charlotte Frost & Jesse Stommel
Image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/fiddleoak/ 
under this licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en_GBImage by http://www.flickr.com/photos/fiddleoak/ under this licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en_GB

How to be a hackademic pictureHybrid Pedagogy’s Jesse Stommel and our very own Charlotte Frost rethink academic life and writing productivity in this on-going series of hints, tips and hacks.

EDIT. Remember that good writing is about what you take out, not what you leave in.

What else can help your Hackademic writing ? Click here to find out!

How to be a Hackademic #40 by Charlotte Frost & Jesse Stommel
Image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/fiddleoak/ 
under this licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en_GBImage by http://www.flickr.com/photos/fiddleoak/ under this licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en_GB
How to be a hackademic pictureHybrid Pedagogy’s Jesse Stommel and our very own Charlotte Frost rethink academic life and writing productivity in this on-going series of hints, tips and hacks.

RELEASE YOUR INNER CRITIC. If you’ve got a lot of writing done, preferably without over-thinking it, it is now time to usefully deploy the critic inside to marshal it into something good. Let your critical side be a bit brutal, chopping irrelevant parts, making substitutions and forming better alliances between sections. It is also important to Hack your time too!

#Acwri Twitter chat, 2nd August 2012: editing and revising
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The latest Twitter chat was chaired by Jeremy and was all about editing and revising academic writing. This followed the first #acwri live chat held in Australia/South Pacific time as well, chaired by Studious Jenn. You can find out about the live chats as well the  new one at our About page. Editing and revising was voted as the preferred topic by the #acwri community on Twitter. The summary and key points form the UK time chat are documented below:

Weekly Wisdom #83 by Paul Gray and David E. Drew
WTDTYIGS Cover image

EDITING YOUR OWN MATERIAL. As you write your dissertation or a paper it is natural to make changes and major revisions. You are, in effect, editing your own material. That’s good and bad. It is good because you add intellectual capital, you clarify, and you consider the knowledge (or lack thereof) of your readers.  It is bad if, like most of us, you become infatuated with the sound of your own words.  It is difficult, if not impossible; to change language or ideas you labored over long and hard. Just like job application letters, have at least one (preferably more) people read what you wrote and suggest improvements. If a word, a paragraph, or a section is unclear to them it is likely to be unclear to others. Better to receive critiques and suggested improvements from your peers than from referees or decision makers.

Weekly Wisdom #61 by Paul Gray and David E. Drew
WTDTYIGS Cover image

WRITE A CROSS-OVER BOOK. Professors build their reputations by publishing articles and books in their specialty. Almost always, their only readers are other professors, graduate students, and their own family. Sometimes, however, a faculty member produces a successful crossover book, a work respected by, and receiving laudatory reviews from, his or her academic colleagues while also selling well with the general public.

Such books are difficult to write, however. If your book is to fly off the shelves at bookstores such as Barnes and Noble, it has to be both readable and entertaining. Few people reach the level of clear and creative writing required. Furthermore, even among highly skilled professional nonfiction writers, New York Times best sellers are rare. Nonetheless, some university scholars have written best sellers. They include  Peter Drucker, Margaret Mead, Paul Krugman, Gail Kearns Goodwin, and Stephen Hawking. We believe that professors who produce crossover books perform a valuable public service. Unless you become a world-class public intellectual like the people in the above paragraph, you may be denigrated by your academic peers as a mere popularizer. A false equation that does not work mathematically, but still describes the behavior of many misguided professors:  excellent technical productivity plus commercial success is respected less than excellent technical productivity alone.

Editors Love Authors Who Understand Publishing – Patrick H. Alexander in the Chronicle
http://www.flickr.com/photos/kavo1/526298447/http://www.flickr.com/photos/kavo1/526298447/

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Patrick H. Alexander (Director of Pennsylvania State University Press) has written a really useful article for the Chronicle entitled:  The Less-Obvious Elements of an Effective Book Proposal. He points out all the important things about getting your pitch right, making a thesis-based manuscript less thesis-y and, of course, not making any silly spelling mistakes.

Perhaps particularly interesting, however, is that he mentions the need for scholars to understand publishing and ‘get involved’. Regular readers of PhD2Published will know that this is one of the main reasons I set up this website. It seemed crazy for me to pitch a book to a publisher without knowing more about what publishing entails. How could I hope to be a part of a publishing engine if I didn’t understand what all the other parts did and how we’d work together? So I was really pleased to see Alexander point out that ‘editors love authors who understand publishing’. Read more

Kevin Ward – Writing an Academic book – Some Thoughts
The Latin Quarter, Paris, France

Following on from my appearence on the panel at RGS Postgraduate ForumAnnual Conference Training Symposium (PGF-ACTS) last week I present the first of three posts from the speakers on publishing. Todays post looks at writing and academic book and is brought to you by Professor Kevin Ward. Kevin is Professor of Human Geography at Manchester University and has been the Editor of Area a journal published on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers) since 2010.

So, you’ve decided that you are going to write an academic book.  Well, here are five tips:

1. It is worth considering the sort of book you want to write.  Look at publishers’ websites and consider the following: 

– Does the publisher produce the type of book that you want to write in your field?

– Are hardback and paperback versions of the book published simultaneously?  If not, how many hardbacks does your book have to sell before the publisher will commission a paperback run?

– What marketing and distribution system does the publisher have?

– Does the publisher send out copies to academic journals for review?

– Does the publisher attend large academic conferences and participate in book exhibitions? Read more