Radical Books

Self-publish and be Damned: A call for Radical Publishing Alternatives

I’m really proud of my first monograph Pauper Children and Poor Law Childhoods in England and Wales 1834-1910. It’s a major revision of my 2013 PhD thesis, which I’ve updated and widened both in its remit and its geographical focus. I have chosen to publish it myself with Kindle Direct Publishing.

Previously, I submitted the book proposal to a major international publisher. Peer reviews were very encouraging, and when the publisher offered me a contract I was delighted. My excitement was short-lived, however, when they told me they would market it at £65. Further, if I wanted a particular cover image I would be expected to pay for the permissions myself.

Pauper Children is the first book to explore the diverse strategies of care for pauper children and would be expected to sell reasonably well, probably around 300 copies in the first instance. That means that the publisher would gross £19,500 from my work and pay me £468, less permissions for my cover image.

I know this is now ‘normal’ for academic publishers, but I want my book to be bought by more than just university libraries. It has wide public appeal and I have written it with the intention of reaching a non-academic audience. Indeed, one of the publisher’s own reviewers described it as ‘clearly written’ and believed it would attract a popular audience.

REF 2020 is beckoning, a respected publisher is offering me a contract, and inclusion of my book in most university libraries is hanging in the balance. But it would remain inaccessible to most people. There must be another way.

So, what to do?

My first instinct was to publish it all on my blog. But that doesn’t seem feasible given the book’s length. It then occurred to me that I could I publish it myself.

This has several advantages: it would be available much sooner than with any academic publishing house; it would reach a potentially wider audience, especially among non-academic readers; the cost would be considerably less; and it might encourage other academics to think about self publishing their own work. Many self-publishing platforms are available, but I chose Amazon’s Kindle because of its ease of use and worldwide familiarity. Pauper Children was released on 2 August 2016, it costs £3, £1 of which is donated to the Care Leavers Trust.

Manchester Archives: Children at Crumpsall Workhouse, c.1897 Catlog: GB124.DPA/2372/83
Children at Crumpsall Workhouse, c.1897 (Manchester Archives: GB124.DPA/2372/83)

Has this been a good decision for me and also my career? The Care Leavers charity is over the moon. I am feeling more optimistic than I have in months, and have had complete editorial freedom (reviewers permitting) for my beloved children who are central to the book’s ethos. I feel it’s the best decision I’ve made for my career, my sales figures and my online profile.

Ensuring Quality Control and ‘REFability’

But what of quality control? Although it went through the rigorous peer review of an international publishing house, how can we be sure that a self-published book has the academic integrity of books released by major publishers? This was by far the most debated point when I launched Academics for a Publishing Revolution on Facebook. Douglas Wilkie of Melbourne University, who has self published widely, was very helpful on this issue:

Major sections of the research forming the basis of my books has already been published through the normal anonymous peer review process in recognized journals before putting it into book form. Therefore, the vast majority of the research has been already verified by strict peer review. The extracts of reviews published with the books simply confirm the original anonymous peer reviews, and reference to the original peer-reviewed journal articles is frequently made throughout the books […] One of my prime concerns with the ‘self-publishing experiment’ was academic quality control, I was certainly not simply planning to seek out favourable reviews from friends. I too have a reputation to protect and would not have embarked upon this project if there was any doubt about the integrity of the research or writing.

I feel the same way. I have submitted all of my chapters to historians who are both familiar and unfamiliar with my topic and period, and also to interested ‘amateurs’ of diverse ages and backgrounds. It has been proofread by diligent and pedantic academics, and consequently has been scrutinised just as rigorously as any other academic publication.

Of course there are still risks. Primarily, will it count towards my REF submission? Again, in the Academics for a Publishing Revolution Facebook group, Barry Doyle of the University of Huddesfield explained that REF managers are not meant to consider where the work is published, just its quality. Uncertainty on this point, however, remains. The Times Higher Education recently reported that historians at the University of Dundee were told,

the publication element is based only on an assessment of the journal that work was published in, not an evaluation of the work itself. Where you publish, not what, “decides historians’ fate”.

In the same THE article, one anonymous academic expressed concern:

not having a process to assess or evaluate the piece of work a judgement has been made on is a shocking way to go about things. This doesn’t inspire confidence in a process that ultimately is leading to the ending of people’s employment or careers.

This is worrying for all historians, not just the self-published. However, change is coming. Craig Blewett argues in The Conversation that ‘academics need to embrace new ways of writing and sharing research’,  He claims that ‘change isn’t coming to academia – it’s here.’ Most of us realise this, and of course blogs such as HWO are using digital platforms with great success.

Self-published works can also be submitted for REF impact studies. As exercises in innovation and engagement with the general public self-published works certainly tick the boxes. They also have access to a very simple method of evaluation using the numbers of books sold and Amazon reviews, as well as interest on social media.

Is Change afoot?

Academic publishing has to change, and we have the power to change it. Many publishers, of books and journals alike, enjoy profits from selling our work at high prices, prices that exclude many of the people we write about. Helen Kara and Nathan Ryder, authors of the recently released Self Publishing for Academicsbelieve that self publishing is the ‘way forward for academia’. They claim that it ‘should be considered routinely as an option alongside books, chapters, journal articles, etc.’

In conversations at Academics for a Publishing Revolution, dozens of Early Career Researchers as well as more established scholars all support self publishing in principle but feel too precarious in their posts to risk moving away from the current system. REF submission, of course, is their primary concern as it has a huge impact on future careers and potential offers of permanent posts. Stephen Caspar notes the ironies of academic publishing, asserting that ‘it’s time for a new manifesto, putting it mildly – this system is stupid’.


On 2 August I organised the Children’s Welfare History Workshop to coincide with the launch of my book and to further enhance Pauper Children‘s impact. The workshop was sponsored by my employer, the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University, and their support and interest bodes well for my book’s REF submission. My Twitter networks have proved invaluable for attracting first-rate children’s historians such as Alysa Levene, Helen Rogers and Steve Taylor. I am particularly pleased that many local people, including non-academics, registered for the (free thanks to sponsorship) workshop and I hope it will become an annual event. The event demonstrated how vibrant and dynamic the field of children’s history is.

The process of submitting a Kindle ebook was fairly simple and problem free. There were some formatting issues and with hindsight I should have paid for a expert to help me with this. I have also made the book freely available via PDF on Academia.edu and offered it to libraries and other interested groups. Most of all I want my work to be read as widely as possible and this self-publishing adventure has made that more likely than traditional academic publishing. To date Pauper Children has sold 506 copies, and for a short but very sweet moment was ranked number 5 in Kindle’s non-fiction list.

Would I do it again? I am now preparing a collection of my essays and blog posts for another self-published Kindle ebook that will be available before Christmas. This will again enable my work to be read more widely. I will certainly be considering self publishing for future monographs, but if I publish traditionally it would have to be with a publisher who markets the book for less than £20.


But what can we do now? If we can publish exceptional research ourselves, as a consortium or through an open-access platform as suggested by some, including the Open Library of Humanities, we can still offer successful REF submissions. Citation of our research should increase enormously as more people have access to and read it, and we will continue to satisfy our conditions of employment.

What I’m asking for is not so very revolutionary. I would like academics, and historians in particular, not to publish with a ‘traditional’ publishing house for a year. It won’t affect REF greatly and it will have four significant benefits:

  • Let publishers know how we feel
  • Test the water concerning self/consortium/open-access publishing
  • Publish more and publish quicker
  • Start the Revolution

Just one year, and maybe by next summer we will have more research circulating, more readers, and more citations. Many of us feel a sense of injustice. We want more for our research. Let’s change the publishing world.


  1. Any attempt to take academic research to a wider audience is to be applauded and there is no doubt that the way academic publishing works limits the impact our research might make.

    However, the journal / monograph market exploits academia more than academics. Anyone in an academic position is paid for the reviewing, editing and writing they do. It’s just that the pay comes from a university salary rather than a publisher. The fact that publishers get so much for free from the HE system and then charge it a fortune to access those same publications it is deeply problematic. [However, the gross income for publishers is nowhere near as large as suggested here. The retailer would take 40% I think.]

    Compared with full-time writers I’d say tenured academics are actually very well off. They get a good salary regardless of how many people buy their books or read their articles. They do not have the precariat-status that freelancers and fulltime writers face (or ECRs with no permanent contract).

    There is also the problem of the public who pay for research to be done via taxes and then have to pay to read it because they don’t have access to a university library. Expensive hardbacks and journal download costs are certainly ripping of the taxpayers who paid for the work in the first place.

    The biggest victims of all this are academics without academic jobs. They are not being paid by anyone for their research and get no financial reward for journal outputs and very little from book sales. They might not have a library affiliation and thus end up paying from their own pockets to access journals that they have given their labours to for free.

    I would not advise, however, an ECR to self publish. Yes their work will be more widely read but it won’t help in a job application. A shortlisting panel will not read the work of applicants. All they can go on is where it is published and what the title is. There’s simply no way from just looking at a CV and list of publications to tell the quality of a self-published book or article. In a competitive market a panel won’t take a risk or try and find out because there will be another applicant with a book from a publisher with a sound reputation.

    For REF, it makes no difference where something is published and ECRs should have nothing to fear there. But for the job market it matters a lot, however much that’s unfair or playing into the pockets of publishers.

  2. Thank you for commenting Dr Anon. You are completely right about all the other ways academics are exploited, but are paid well or their work. However it’s the publishers that annoy me because they are not paying us much and making huge profits rom our research. I believe it’s down to established academics to lead the way here, and I hope I’ve made a good start.

  3. I agree with much of your argument, but would ask you to re-calculate the figures. “That means that the publisher would gross £19,500 from my work and pay me £468, less permissions for my cover image.” Technically, the book would garner that amount. However, booksellers (including online) would take a cut – usually 20%-33% for actual shops, less for online. There is the cost of printing, paper, transportation, publicity, in-house editors, taking it to bookfairs and major conferences – also you don’t mention copy setting, designers, proof-readers etc who all have to be paid. Publishing is in financial crisis. However – the figure they are paying you is crazy! 2.4% royalties for a sole-author book is stupidly low, and should be re-negotiated. (Also: I’d disagree with Dr Anon when s/he says that publishers are of no concern for REF. they are. The panel would check the publisher for a sense of the worth of the book. Uni presses like Duke, Yale, OUP carry more clout than others that are know for churning stuff out that will have short shelf life; Self-publishing means no peer review.)

  4. Thanks for your comment and for the figures, very helpful. I disagree with you about peer review as all self published works can be submitted to formal peer review networks and to colleagues and interested parties both in and outside of academia. However there is no guarantee that authors would do this, although mine was reviewed by other historians, friends and interested people. It was also peer reviewed by the publisher I intended going to before I decided to turn them down and self publish

  5. Doesn’t the advance of technology – and obsolescence – pose a problem? I have a book in front of me that’s 40 years old – will PDF and Kindle still be readable in 40 years’ time? I’d argue that it poses problems for the long-term impact of self-published research.

    1. Other publishing platforms are available Chris 😉

    1. Thank you for saying that Ian, it’s made my day

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