On Open Access Publishing

Out from Fincham Press now: Get your copy! (Why, go on: get the twin book from Cambridge University Press, too!)

Working in a library school, the UCL Department of Information Studies, for 15 years, I was aware of the growing and swirling discussions about Open Access, and have been part of the wider OA community for a while: one of the journals on whose editorial board I serve, Digital Humanities Quarterly, has always been fully open access with no publishing fees, and is now 11 years old. I’m reluctant now to publish any of my research in journals which are paywalled.

False barriers to access, and gatekeeping, are hugely problematic for the dissemination of research, as are the financial models which profit massively from academic research without giving much back into the system. When it comes to books, though, the costs of production obviously make OA discussions much more difficult, and it’s very much a live discussion in the UK academic community: now that open access book publishing is going to be mandated, who will pay the book processing charges?

My first book, Image to Interpretation, came out in 2006, and mainly sold in physical copies. Like most monographs, it had a short print run – 300 books or so – and they have mostly sold out. I get a royalty cheque for £2.73 or so every six months for the electronic version of the book, which still sells occasionally. I’m incredibly proud of it, but I was aware that it could only ever reach a small audience.

Picture-Book Professors was a research project that grew out of online discussions, as it stemmed from a few jokey asides on Twitter, and then moved to corpus building on Tumblr. It was carried out always in the public eye: an early blog post on the topic of how academics are featured in children’s literature had a large readership, and it was only afterwards that I was persuaded I should write it up properly. It seemed to me that it had to be open access: why would I condemn all that work and what had been a public discussion to only 300 sales of a text?

I exercised my privilege, though, and fought hard for support: given the grant income I had brought into UCL during my time there, I successfully argued that my employer should pay the £6,762 to cover the open access book processing charge with Cambridge University Press. It is still rare for universities to give this type of support to academics, particularly in the Arts and Humanities, and I’m aware of the level of support I’ve had here. There’s new ground to be worked out, too: how to deliver this material best is a live discussion with CUP as I write this!

The accompanying book, The Professor in Children’s Literature: An Anthology, is also available in open access. I see this very much as an exercise in showing your workings out — the equivalent of “open science” when you are dealing with a topic in literature. It’s also about how digitised material can be curated and repackaged to bring together a resource for others. This is the first fully open access book from Fincham Press, and they are exploring what this means for them, too. I don’t mind saying that there will only be a short physical print run, which I’ve paid for, but for this book the freely available digital versions are really the main product, with other copies being made available in print on demand, as readers might want them. In lots of ways, I’m taking the open access book discussion for a walk; seeing how far I can get, and how much I can play in this space, while being cognisant of having access to resources which allow me to do so.

Experience as an Author

One of the surprising things has been that people — publishers, libraries, authors, illustrators — have been baffled by my request to feature their work in an open access volume. The monograph has many images — 32 — and 25 or so had to be licensed, with fees to be paid, as they were in copyright. Rare items also had to be digitised on demand from libraries and archives. That mechanism and fee structure is well known (if variable), but adding “and can I make it available for free online?” to the equation caused many publishers, and even leading libraries, to stutter. There are a few items I could not include as I could not get electronic distribution rights to the images, even though I was happy to pay for them.

In the end, the rights fees added up to over £1500. These are books that needed resources behind them! It also took months to obtain these rights clearances, as the open access question added much time to the process.

In general, knowing from the start that you want this to be an open access text informs your style of writing — I hope the texts are academic ones which are written in an accessible manner, even with humour in places. I think it has changed the tone and tenor of how I wrote the books, knowing they would be out there, at some stage.

Open Access Books in the Humanities

We are at a juncture where the sands are shifting: the major funders and government bodies are moving towards requirements for open access monographs. We don’t have a choice; we have to embrace these requirements, but there is a lot of work yet to be done about who will pay the costs for production. I believe that most universities could afford to absorb the costs of open access monograph production, much in the same way that they pay for lab costs or scientific equipment: it should be viewed as a centrally borne cost necessary for creating and sharing academic knowledge. It shouldn’t happen that individuals are asked to pay these costs themselves, as that is untenable. I can see people are concerned about how their personal costs will be met — and it is up to universities and presses to grapple with this. The danger is the open access premium: that only those who can afford to publish in open access will reap the benefits of having their work made accessible to a wide audience, and we have to keep our eyes open to that, as the academy needs diverse voices (as Picture-Book Professors and The Professor in Children’s Literature say!)

I can’t understand why anyone would be nervous about offering their academic work to a wide audience. Books take years to write, and academic books never make much royalty money. Why would you want to hide it away and restrict access, if you can allow as wide an audience as possible to get free access to it?

Reflections on an imprint: Or, what does a publishing intern actually do?

Recently, Fincham Press interviewed four candidates vying for a paid internship, and I got to play co-interviewer alongside my colleague. This was the hardest thing I’d ever had to tackle during my time at Fincham: because I knew how these people were feeling. I didn’t – and still don’t – feel authoritative enough to help decide who should join us, and who shouldn’t. I’ve been working here for over two years, and it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was in the same position as these four. With this in mind, and the fact that this piece should have been written at least a year ago – though perhaps that’s appropriate, when I think about the delays and pushbacks you’ll always find in publishing – I decided to write about my experience as an intern, and subsequent progression to managing editor.

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Purple Lights launch, December 2016: Reading by Nanou Blair-Gould

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sent my CV off two years ago. I wasn’t expecting to get picked, at any rate. I had visions of the interviewers, if I got that far, humouring me to fill their equal opportunities quota. I hadn’t had much experience, besides one publication to my name and fiddling with a hospital radio magazine. I don’t do posh talk, which I’d always thought was a prerequisite for working in books. I’m a council estate girl, and my way with words is still a bit more profane than might be acceptable in a regular office. Even now, I try to rein it in when talking to colleagues.

I did have enthusiasm, though. And I was hoping for some interview experience in “books”. The interview experience would be something to work on when stepping out into the big wide world, doing proper adult things, and going through a number of other interviews. The ideal scenario would be nailing one, resulting in that ‘real’ job that so many people had been pressuring me to get, real networks, and a real mortgage. Well, maybe not that last one. I’m a would-be academic and writer working two part-time jobs – get real.

My internal reaction, then, when they told me that I’d been successful went something like this (cleaned up for blogging purposes):

“Bloody hell, really? No. No. Brilliant! Nobody look at me, I could be the next Max Perkins! Oh. But I’ve still got so much to learn. Ah.”

I’d forgotten the whole point of doing an internship before I’d even started – you learn on the job. I did, however, feel that I needed to prove myself to my lecturers, who were now going to be my colleagues, so that they felt that they hadn’t ballsed it up. I admired them, and continue to do so – perhaps more so now after working with them and realizing just how much goes into working in their field. I needed to prove my worth in that environment, to which I wanted to dedicate a considerable portion of my lifetime.

A few things initially drew me to Fincham. It was a small, independent press using the university as a base. It was run by a couple of my lecturers, with a designer who was brought in from outside to make everything look pretty – though I’d soon learn he does so much more than this, as we all do. They had already put out two anthologies of student work, and at the risk of sounding like a bit of a mercenary, I thought I might have a better chance of getting published if I was “in there”. What drew me most, though, was its goal – this wasn’t a money spinner. It was just a small bunch of academics who genuinely wanted to put the work of their students out there – to get it read. This unorthodox business model came with a far more informal approach to the submissions process – no cover letters required, just send in something you’ve written that you’re proud of. Some of the works were also competition winners, and others put forward by lecturers so that more modest students could have a chance to see their work in print. I’m sure you’ll agree the result is eclectic.

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Publicity stunt, April 2017: Purple Lights and London lights

There was a lot of admin at the start. There still is. I don’t think I’ll ever stop having to gently (and not-so-gently) remind colleagues, both in-house and out, to do things so that production/promotion/target of choice can progress. This can be irritating, but such is the nature of the work: everybody has their own little jobs, like components of an engine. And if you’re waiting on oil, then the pistons can’t function correctly, and that engine will eventually seize. Everything gets held up. In this way, plans fall through and some deadlines will get pushed back. Nobody in the team is able to work for Fincham on a full-time basis, and there have been a few times where complications in our everyday and professional lives resulted in delays of some description. These things are, sadly, inevitable. This realisation is possibly the most practical thing I’ve learned during my time here.

However, the blow can be softened. The only way to tackle a number of little things, which will inevitably build up into HUGE things, is to be as efficient as you can be. In reality, I’m bloody lazy – but in work, writing or otherwise, I’ve always written everything down. Longhand. This might just be how I function – I take things in better when I have an actual thing to read or write with, and not a screen to ogle at. Regardless, if there’s one tip I would give to anyone who asked me, it would be to write everything essential to you down. You’ll absorb the information better, and have a record of it – remember that a piece of paper can’t get wiped along with your hard drive (as long as you don’t lose it, duh!)

Production continues to be the most fascinating process for me. I know that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to see it from two perspectives: as writer, and as editor. This has proved exceptionally useful to both sides. Proofreading has become second nature, and I pay far more attention to formatting my work than I ever did before working for Fincham. Potential editors will be grateful for a nicely formatted piece, free of spelling and grammatical errors. It’s disguised as common sense, but, having worked on three anthologies of student work, there are always a few that manage to sneak past the writer’s guard and onto the page, only caught by the careful combing-through of editor and production assistant. Sometimes not even then – we did a promotional stunt to coincide with April Fool’s Day. You might argue that the joke was on us. We’d left one hundred misprinted copies of our third anthology, Purple Lights, all over London, and invited the public to spot the error and tweet it. The public were far more discerning than we could ever have imagined, and threw up a whole bunch of other little niggles that all of us had failed to spot during production. (FYI: the error we were looking for was a piece that had somehow vanished entirely, yet the author was listed in the list contributors – no, we still don’t know how that happened, either.)

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Pre-tweets, April 2017: Managing Editor Charlotte Byrne, Anthology Editor Leone Ross, and writer Steph Elliot Vickers preparing to distribute books

While fascinating, and often finicky, every new publication that comes along forces my brain to work that little bit harder. Last year, the Fincham production schedule was increased twofold as we launched two new open access academic journals. I felt lucky to be part of them – the International Journal of James Bond Studies is the first in its field, and RoundTable was cutting-edge in its make-up, edited by research students at the university. In theory, it should have been easier to compile a journal issue than an entire anthology. The reality, though, was that putting a journal together was way more complicated than compiling a book. There was a whole new legal side we had to familiarize ourselves with. Which was the correct Creative Commons licence for our open access journals? What’s with the alien hosting platform? How do we get our journals indexed so they will actually reach people likely to use them? Not to mention there were a number of additional technical hitches and a lot more of that chasing up business – and we are indebted to Ubiquity staff who held our collective hand through it all.

It makes sense, then, to conclude by rounding up what I’ve learned in all of this. The short answer: everything. I used to suffer with telephonophobia. This went undiagnosed since childhood, but I’d always experienced chest pains and frequently tripped over my words when forced to answer a call, even to family. Necessary, lengthy phone calls with our printers and other outside entities ensured that this was cured for good. I can organise volunteers for events. I can organise actual events, for that matter. My fondest memory comes from the very first launch I was involved with. It was for the second Fincham publication, Screams and Silences. We were all sitting on the floor like hippies in a commune, having listened to the final reading of the night. My lecturer-colleague got up and gave an end-of-event speech, thanking everybody in attendance for their support and warmth. She then proceeded to invite me up to stand with her, claiming that the event wouldn’t have been possible without my input. I was humbled; yet the applause told me that maybe I could do anything I set my hand to. Or at least have a pretty good crack at it.

I also have also learned what goes into making not just a book, but also an academic journal, and a website. My eye for design and perception of “how things look” has been altered forever after working with our fabulous designer. I’ve also learned a great deal about people – working with our two senior editors, both with their own distinct personality types and work methods, has given me even more practice in human interaction. You can get on with anybody – you need only find the right communication.

I’m now entering my third year with Fincham Press; my second as managing editor. We’ve just welcomed a new Publishing Assistant to the family, and I’m looking forward to working with her. I know that I can empathise with and support her as she, too, has her own, unique learning experience. Perhaps it will be a bit like the one I’ve just described, or perhaps not. Two things, however, are certain:

We will continue to share the voices of Roehampton with the world – and in that endeavour, we’ll never stop learning.

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She’s got the look

When we founded RoundTable, we wanted to make sure that the journal had a unique voice and look. One of the ways that we achieved this was through a cover image designed by our very own Anne Malewski. Anne is a talented illustrator and she has done work with a range of musicians and organisations.

In order to begin the process of creating the cover, Anne met with her co-editors to discuss the concept. She then produced a number of design options which she presented to the team (see some drafts below). There was a lot of discussion and debate as we all liked different images but we agreed that the chosen image best represented our theme and provided a strong visual image for the first issue of RoundTable.

Every time I log on to the RoundTable site, I am delighted to be greeted by Anne’s image. I think it helps makes our journal unique and entices readers to explore the first issue.

Sinéad Moriarty is an editor of RoundTable.