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Josie Dixon – From Planet PhD to Destination Publication: A Traveller’s Guide. Part 1. Ivory Tower vs Shopping Mall

This post is the first in a series by Josie Dixon, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in academic publishing, as Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and Publishing Director for the Academic Division at Palgrave Macmillan.  She now runs her own business, Lucian Consulting, and gives training workshops on publishing and other forms of research communication for postgraduates, postdocs and staff in over 50 universities internationally, alongside her training and consultancy work in the publishing industry. In this new set of blog posts for PhD2Published, Josie examines some of the polarities between Planet PhD and the world of publishing, and offers strategies for how to bridge the gap. 

In this series:

  1. Ivory Tower vs Shopping Mall
  2. Micro vs Macro
  3. Passenger vs Driver
  4. Process vs Afterlife
  5. Features vs Benefits

There’s a great article by Peter Barry which appeared in the Times Higher Education under the headline ‘Footnotes and Fancy Free’.  Among many useful insights, Barry caricatures very effectively two opposing worldviews or value systems in academic research.  For residents of the Ivory Tower, it’s all about pure intellectual excellence, never mind who (or what) it’s for.  For those who inhabit the Shopping Mall, there needs to be a clear benefit to an identifiable audience, and ultimately some form of commercial value for a paying market.  Barry diagnoses a fundamental problem in the fact that all too often PhDs (particularly in the arts and humanities) are supervised and examined by Ivory Tower standards, yet at the postdoctoral stage, researchers are suddenly pitched headlong into the Shopping Mall.  This is of necessity where publishers live, since their business is dependent on realising a commercial return on the investment that is made in every new publication.

Profitability – at whatever level – is key to a sustainable publishing business, and even university presses (whose non-profit model is the least commercially driven in the industry) can’t avoid this fundamental pillar of the Shopping Mall.  The sources of subsidy which have long shored up large sectors of university press publishing (particularly in the US) are running dry, and editors are looking ever harder at the commercial factors which position a prospective publication on the right or wrong side of the margins of viability.  At the other end of the scale, many major players in the academic publishing industry are fully commercial businesses accountable to shareholders with steep demands when it comes to the return on their investment.  It’s a fine balancing act to reconcile editorial values based on intellectual quality (those ivory tower sympathies which bring graduates into publishing in the first place) with tough financial imperatives, but that’s the daily challenge for commissioning editors at commercial academic presses like Palgrave Macmillan, Routledge, Blackwell, Ashgate or Continuum, to name only a few.

So the first stage in your journey from PhD to publication has to involve stepping out of the Ivory Tower and into the Shopping Mall, in order to see your project from the publisher’s point of view.  Here are five key questions to ask yourself, to help you to take this more commercial perspective on your research:

  1. What’s your USP (unique selling point)?  Can you sum up the original contribution of your research in a few accessible sentences, and make it into a selling point?  Imagine a blurb in a publisher’s catalogue – your sales pitch needs to be aimed at non-specialists in the book trade and the library supply business, not your end-user academic readers.
  2. Who are you writing for?  Publishers respond best to projects pitched at a well-defined readership.  Beware losing focus by trying to be all things to all people, either in terms of level (a research monograph is not a textbook or a trade book) or subject (interdisciplinary projects run the risk of being peripheral to several markets and central to none).
  3. Why do they need it (and will they pay)?  In tough market conditions like the present, there is very little room for discretionary, nice-to-have purchases.  Even libraries are having to prioritise very carefully after severe budget cuts, so there must be a clear demand for your research before they will consider buying it.  This is closely related to the next question:
  4. What benefit does your research provide?  (not to you, but to the reader!) Think about the applications of your research – how will it be used, and where will it make a difference?  Is there a problem (intellectual or otherwise) to which your research offers a solution?  Are there methodological tools or reference features which your readers will find helpful?  Publishers are looking for something more tangible than ‘another new interpretation’ of the subject, or research that ‘fills a gap’.
  5. How international is its focus and appeal?  The UK is a small market, and these days even the US is insufficient to carry the commercial viability of an academic publication.  Publishers will be thinking about the appeal to international markets, so you need to, too.

For more detailed guidance on these and other factors essential to maximising your chances of success in a competitive publishing climate, come to one of Josie’s publishing workshops or contact her direct. 

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