History of Medicine
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- Transcript Publishing and Public Engagement Panel
- Biography and its Place in the History of Psychology and Psychiatry symposium
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Transcript Publishing and Public Engagement Panel
Chair: I’d like to welcome our panel who have very kindly agreed to come today and give us the benefit of their wisdom; from a slightly different perspective, a practical perspective on writing biographical works, which is getting them published. So going round the table we’ve got Ruth Ireland, who is an editor at Palgrave Macmillan specialising in history. Perhaps you could say just a few words about yourself and your role Ruth.
Ruth Ireland: Yes. So just about Palgrave Macmillan: they’re the academic branch of the Macmillan publishing group, which encompasses Nature Publishing, Picador, Palgrave Macmillan, and the Macmillan education. I work in our scholarly division, and we also have a college textbook division in the same offices. We publish mainly monographs, library monographs, edited collections and some trade crossover books, including some kinds of biography.
Chair: Mark Pollard: he’s publishing director at Pickering Chatto. Again, he has an interest in commissioning history and a particular interest in the history of science and medicine.
Mark Pollard: Yes. Pickering Chatto is a small independent press, covering basically humanities and life sciences. We specialise in primary research materials and also monographs and essay collections, doing multi volumes in editions alongside our monographs. We publish primarily for a research library market.
Chair: And finally we have Martin Goodman who is a professional writer and has just published this book, Suffer and Survive, a biography of Haldane which won the BMA Medical History Writing Award. And he’s also the director of the Phillip Larkin Centre for Creative Writing at the University of Hull, Martin, would you like to say a bit about your interests and the way you approach writing your nonfiction works.
Martin Goodman: So I’m interested really in looking at how you can move the story of science, science more than psychiatry in my instance, across into mainstream publishing. That was my idea at the time when I was writing the Haldane book. I was shifting into academia for the first time but looking to have sort of a mainstream success to take with me, with all the impact, narrative associations that can come with that. And I had several ideas at the time which I pitched to my agent.... I really go into writing as a novelist, which I also am, and I was trying to see an idea that would spark interest in the reading public, but also be sustainable; had a really interesting character, had a really interesting narrative drive; and one that moved a lot from, sort of, beginning through to end.....I thought self experimentation was a very interesting idea, and I’d looked up to see who was the greatest serial self experimenter in history, because one of the troubles in biographies is that they can sometimes collapse. You get a big idea and then there’s not much else going on, and you’ve still got another sort of 40 years to cover. So I was trying to see somebody who was doing these great experiments on themselves throughout life. I found one book called Who goes first? by Lawrence Altman, that was looking into this concept of self experimentation. That gave me the 2 greatest self experimenters in...world history were a father and son: John Scott Haldane and his son J B S. Haldane. All of the Haldane family, apart from John Scott Haldane already had a biography, and John Scott Haldane just seemed to me to be an incredible person. The thing that made me really think I could connect this with the reading public, for whom the name Haldane had no particular relevance, was when I discovered that it was Haldane who first put canaries into mines for the first time to detect toxic gases. And nobody knew this. This wasn’t in the public domain at all. And then I also discovered that there was this incredible narrative history, with a lot of high points, so he was the man who drank mixtures of toxic gases to compare his own symptoms with miners to find out what they were suffering for the first time. He solved the problem of the bends by, as a non swimmer, plunging into the waters and then created the dive tables. He created the salt tablet; he invented the first space suit; he was the allied scientist that went into the trenches of the First World War to encounter the gases being released by the German forces, and breathe in those gases, have his son and colleagues breathe them in as well; then analyse the gases and build the first gas masks. And from that developed oxygen treatment as well. So he was the father of oxygen treatment. So I had that particular story to tell. My agent got buzzed by this one, of the [proposals] I gave him and said, “We can run with this one; we’ll get you a big advance for this one.” So on that, you put in the 6 months of intensive work to be able to delivery your biography. One of the reasons I like to write biographies is that you can sell things on proposal; so you haven’t got to do 3 years and deliver the book; you can actually get the idea together. He said, “We’ll get £60-80,000 for this one.” “Well great, that’s worth it!” And in reality, we had one offer, and the one offer came at £11,000. So, but that’s part of the reality of mainstream publishing as well, because it’s always sort of ever diminishing [returns]. But it was a fascinating project. One of the things for me, I’d been sort of quite disturbed by hearing that biography is ‘the b word’ and you have to be an apologist for it, and on the creative writing side, for me...life writing is honourable, and there’s a great passion to it all. I actually wanted to not just write about the concept of self experimentation, but find the life that’s associated with it, because life gives you the dramatic character that, people like people on the whole. People like people. So if you can find a person you can begin to sell a story around it. It gives you, you know, that narrative drive, it gives you...relationships. For me, one of the things I like in all of my writing, is to find somebody that won’t give up; that will keep on. They’ve got a story to tell that’s somewhat against the societal norm, and whatever’s thrown at them, they’re going to keep on telling that story. That’s what I like; that sort of persistence and carrying on. So I tend to sort of look for that narrative line to follow. That’s one of the things that I think that gives something that mainstream propulsion. And I’m writing another biography at the moment – just ending on that – it’s a biography of a Zen master who brought Soto Zen from Japan to America....With this new one, this concept of the Zen master, that’s bringing in a little bit of psychiatry because in a way American Zen, and Western Zen, which is coming through his successors is defining itself, to a great extent, by the way that it is incorporating psychotherapeutic techniques into traditional Soto Zen techniques. And this is being designed by successors, and people who are dominant in that Zen, who have a parallel life as prominent psychotherapists. And this man, who was a Zen master, a very hard thing to connect with, had another, had a sort of scandalous backdrop as well, which is he had sexual relationships with women students and alcoholism. So two addictive behavioural patterns which transferred to his whole community. And one of the things that I find is that people are now trying to dictate that life by that psychiatric mode, and I’m beginning now to discover that I’m not just wanting to do a narrative line but to bring in an argument as well that actually sort of analyses the way that we’ve all taken on a sense of a normal life and be shocked by aberrations from it. But a Zen master is something that’s actually quite slippery beyond that. The other side that I said that I’d talk about is...what I do as Professor of Creative Writing at Hull, [which] is...teaching non-fiction, creative non-fiction, and trying to link up, as a creative writing tutor, and this is happening not just in Hull but elsewhere, with people say, in science departments or history, or many other [academic] departments, [who might be] looking [to learn how to develop] that narrative strand [in their own subject matter].
Chair: Thank you very much, Martin....for an interesting insight into what writers are looking for who are perhaps aiming to speak to a much larger audience than we might normally as historians. So I’m going to kick off with a question first of all, and then [I’ll be taking questions from the audience]...When I first started convening this symposium, I read a lot of papers that seemed to..., or passing rumours, that seemed to imply that biography was somehow not particularly respected, or just generally difficult to publish for some reason. And we’re probably talking more here about the academic, historical side of biography, but perhaps also, I don’t know how far [this stigma] goes into the other kind of writing [that Martin does]?. ...if Ruth, you could kick off?
Ruth Ireland: Oh, okay. Well, actually I brought some props with me that might illustrate this. We do publish some biography, but not very much. We publish biographies of people that people have heard of, basically...But these ones have both done fine, pretty well. We’re not talking about mass market books; they’re scholarly studies. They’re both written by real academic historians as opposed to writers who might be used to writing for a more general audience, but we’d be looking for, in a biography, much the same as we’d be looking for in any other proposal. So you get a proposal that’s basically a biography;[and the kind of questions I’d be asking myself are] is it someone that’s quite well known? Have there been lots of other biographies of that person? This, [for example] is the first biography of Patrick Pierce for 30 years; the previous one was a little bit biased. Little bit sympathetic to the English side, perhaps? This one is very, it’s written by a Dutch guy; it’s very unbiased. It’s done pretty well... people who are interested in reading about this man’s life will read it ... but I think, yes, speaking from a publisher’s point of view, we do publish some biographies but we have to be very choosey about which ones, because you might have a fascinating story about a little known suffragette, but if no-one’s ever heard of her, it’s going to be a very difficult sell basically.
Mark Pollard: I would say, very interesting what Ruth was just saying. We are Pickering Chatto; we’ve very much a niche publisher. We are publishing for the academic sort of library/research market and all our works are obviously geared that way. We’ve come into things, I mean, we have a very strong representation of life writing on our list, partly I think because we’ve got a background in doing...major works, and...correspondence letters and things like that, as well as...monographs and...biographies as well. So in some ways, maybe for us, our reputation and our audience, things that are related to people’s lives, that’s what they’re looking to us for maybe more than some other people. I would say that we don’t tend to do comprehensive biographies. Usually...we find that...most of the biographies on our list sort of have an angle to them; there will be an aspect of someone’s life. We have a whole series on political biographies of people, which is very much looking at their political...life, if you like, rather than just the whole of their life and every event within their life. We’ve got other biographies of people, we have a series on Empire Studies, and again that’s looking at people who were involved within the... empire in some sort of political, or some aspect that sort of brings out their life in the context of something else. And I would actually just say that that’s actually one of the things where maybe [we would look at] a lesser known character, and we do actually publish some sort of biographies of lesser known characters where you mentioned, you know a lesser known suffragette: if [the book] could say something that was not just a biography of that person but actually said something about the suffragette movement...and had a specific angle; I mean, that’s where a lot of our...biographies come from, and that would be the same in the...history of science side of things....One of our series is 19th Century Science and Culture, and again we have some biographies in that....We’ve got one in that series of Watt, and basically different biographical approaches [towards him]...how his reputation has changed and developed really to fit the times...and how...he was being represented. And... that is one of the things that..., I think is interesting, biography isn’t purely objective. I mean it is of its time, and also involves the person who’s writing it; very much so. I mean, it’s also interesting, from my point of view, I find that people who are actually writing biographies tend to have a much greater engagement with their subject matter possibly than some of the other books we’re getting proposed to us. They have much greater, maybe it is because there’s sort of identification there, but they have much sort of stronger feelings, either pro or anti, towards...their subject than maybe [someone who is writing] a slightly more abstract concept book..
Audience member 1: How do you judge a good biography? Human lives are so slippery, it’s hard to…
Mark Pollard: Well, I think, partly what I’m saying is there’s different types of biography, and I think ... we would judge a good biography in exactly the same way that we would judge any other academic or scholarly work, which is: does it fulfil what it sets out to do? ...Basically, with any academic book, you know, [it] sets out what [it] needs to do and then...you judge it against whether it’s actually achieved that end at the end of it. That’s often, I mean, in the whole...academic reviewing process, that’s one of the things that often comes out,...which is, you get the reviews back and...someone will say, “I don’t think that the person has adequately achieved this or whatever” and then the author will...come back to us and say, “So and so’s misunderstood what I was trying to achieve.” Now, I say, my usual response to that is, “It’s all well and good...saying that they’ve misunderstood what you’re trying to achieve, but how do we get round that?” I mean, basically the point is, you’ve got to address that in some way whether it’s to make your argument stronger in the first place, set out your case [more clearly] about what you’re trying to achieve. I think that’s how you judge a good biography, you know, ...whether it achieves what it set out to achieve, whether that’s a whole life, an aspect to a life, or whatever. Whether the reader at the end of it feels that the author’s done what they promised to do.
Ruth Ireland: I’d agree with Mark there, definitely. I think that, apart from a good subject, you’ve got to find your angle....A lot of historical biographies...tell that person’s fans, or otherwise, what they already know, which they like because they think, “Oh, yes I know that, I know all of this; you know, I’m really interested in the subject” but you’ve got to pick out some evocative kind of details that they might not already know about, and maybe makes them think about the person in a different way from before. But I think, going back to what you said, was definitely, to have that angle and...be very clear [about it] in your proposal, and kind of stick to that, and not, you know, waiver too much around that because you’ve got to have a clear line. And also, going back to what [Martin] was saying, you’re talking about having enough evidence there to make that life as complete as possible....that’s why some people have lots of biographies written about them and some people none because there’s not enough evidence. You’ve got to have [enough material for a] good story, basically, I’d say.
Chair: And my question was going to be: what counts as biography from a publisher’s perspective? Because I think probably a lot of what we do wouldn’t fit in the conventional category of, sort of, birth to death.
Mark Pollard: Our books are... academic monograph length, so I mean, we’re not usually looking for an exhaustive biography... That’s partly why we’re going for a certain angle, rather than an exhaustive, sort of, magisterial... enormous, several volume thing... So I mean, we would usually qualify biography with some word like ‘political’ or... some sort of aspect, and we would either use biography or we would use ‘life’...usually in the title. But it can be a fairly broad definition but we’re not averse to the use of the word biography....
Martin Goodman: In the more popular terms, I suppose you’re really looking for drama. You spoke about [passion] but I found that in selling a book you have to come up with personal passion first of all. Though it’s completely separate from Haldane I had to talk about my father’s career in the mining industry and my mother’s death from lung disease, and that seemed to be an effective mode of selling this book. But also, [Ruth], you spoke about evocative detail, and that seems to be a really essential part.... There’s also a tendency, I think... when you’re looking at the successful biographies that have sold, is that they have a very dramatic opening chapter, and in creative writing terms, you tend to avoid the cradle to graves. You actually try and find that emblematic punchy first tale that gets somebody interested enough to then go through the life, first of all. And a lot of books actually – a bit like Simon Winchester’s – you’ll have that great tale at the beginning, that magnificent opening chapter, and then it’s fairly pedestrian after that, but you’ve gripped somebody. So that’s really, I think one of the things – at least in the mainstream market – but that’s maybe not something you’d be looking for so much?
Mark Pollard: I always think the introductory chapter is important in any work, but I mean, I think possibly...when it comes to more academic ones, it’s really setting out what you’re trying to achieve. So you’re setting out your arguments.
Martin Goodman: So the actual, the narrative line of the life is not enough.
Mark Pollard: I would say, I think that’s possible, I would say, certainly the audience for our books is someone who is probably already gripped; they’ve already decided they’re interested in that person. What they want to... know is what this book is going to set out to do. I think, obviously in more trade books, you are trying to engage with someone, someone who maybe doesn’t have the same background knowledge. That’s why our books tend to have a certain angle to them, [and] most of our books will presume a certain level of knowledge with that person, or their background, or their works, already. Whereas you’ve got to make much more of a case, I think, in a trade book, for the individual; and also possibly your readership is much broader so the type of facts those people are going to be interested in, covers a broader spectrum.
Martin Goodman: It’s hard; you’ve got to allow for the fact that your true experts in all of these areas are going to come and read your book and possibly be very challenging towards it, so you have to cater to them and try and find something new to give to them, whilst filling in the background in a way that’s not going to bore the experts but pulling the other people along. It’s a hard act that.
Mark Pollard: Definitely.
Audience member 2: How have the changes in the publishing industry, the book market, [writ large] affected the way you evaluate book in general, biographies in particular, particularly perhaps in terms of the way you evaluate the book, you judge it’s potential audience, you price it and you look at it’s length? And what do you think’s in store?
Ruth Ireland: That’s a lot of questions there. Well, for academic publishing, it’s a pretty steady kind of business; there have been changes, but in terms of how we evaluate what to publish, I don’t think that will really change. It comes down to the quality of the project, the originality, timeliness, all those things that you’ll know about.
Mark Pollard: Peer review, I think, is going to stay. It’s the same thing. It’s a form of market research as well. What we’re doing is we’re providing something for a market, so I mean, primarily, I think, still the best form of sort of market research that we can do is peer review.
Ruth Ireland: It’s crucial.
Mark Pollard: What do the people who are actually going [to be] the main audience for the work, think about it? So I don’t think that’s going to change. In terms of the market, it’s obvious relatively small and relatively specialist market, but, the academic market. The numbers are not great...
Chair: Could you give us an indication of what those sales numbers might be again, because you told me on the phone, and I was quite shocked.
Mark Pollard: Well, an initial print run would be two to three hundred copies, so it’s not a large market. That does affect the pricing obviously because it’s not just the cost of printing that you have to recoup on that, it’s all the other additional costs of marketing, advertising, promoting a book, distributing it. So they are over a much small print run so therefore the unit costs go up, and that’s why academic books are a lot more expensive than trade books.
Martin Goodman: In trade terms, it’s probably a multiple of ten of that, but it’s still not significant in terms of sales. I was surprised to discover that the hardback actually well outsells the paperback on the whole, even in the mainstream, because...they’re very well reviewed on the whole, very widely reviewed from mainstream markets, so you’ve got that initial push, but then the paperback doesn’t necessarily boost beyond at all. I’m a member of the Biographer’s Club as well, based here in London, and there’s a general sense of foreboding or doom, really, [laughter] amongst the...mainstream biographers.
Audience member 2: I withdraw my question! [laughter]
Martin Goodman: - in that people sense that the market is just being taken away; the mid-list books just aren’t wanted anymore.
Chair: Mid-list? Sorry, is that an industry term?…
Martin Goodman: Yeah, mid-list is anybody who isn’t selling about 10,000 copies, really.
Chair: So if you’re not writing a biography of Jordan, say…
Martin Goodman: Or you’re not writing the new one of D H Lawrence or something. There are certain people who will always get, you know, the Virginia Woolf one will always find a market, and things like that...but if you’ve got a name, like Richard Holmes you can probably get any book out because he’s got his own name, or you can attach yourself to one of these buzz names that’s not [had a biography done of them] recently. But to take somebody that’s never had a book done and do, just go to the... primary sources, it’s going to be hard now, I think, to continue to get those through....
Ruth Ireland: Yes, if you want your book to be in book shops. But no, if you want to do a scholarly study. Because both these books were done for a trade-ish market: this was dual publication in hard back, library monograph as well as this paperback with a nice jacket. This one, [on the other hand] I did in hardback first and sold at about £30 and did very well; paperback has bombed because everyone already has the hardback. So that’s the two different ways that we experiment…
Mark Pollard: So the audience you were going for were interested enough to buy the hardback first.
Ruth Ireland: Yes, and also because the study is an academic study of it’s... I mean, I read it on holiday and got some strange looks. [laughter] It’s interesting but it’s not as jazzily written as a proper trade book would be. I mean, I’m interested in the subject so I was interested in it.
Mark Pollard: I think you always have to think about your audience. That’s the main thing. We are primarily academic publishers and therefore that’s the market we have to go for. I always get a bit twitchy if I get a proposal in that says, “This will appeal to everyone.”
Ruth Ireland: Oh, I don’t like that.
Mark Pollard: “This has got a wider trade audience.” And I’m going, “Well, I can’t reach that audience.” So in terms of expectations of that author, I’m also slightly wary because I’m going, “I know that that’s not our primary audience.” They might not be writing the right book for our primary audience because they’re trying to appeal to a broader audience than the type of book...that is expected from us. But also their expectations are going to be different because if they think they’re going to find it in the bookshop at the end of their road, they’re going to be sadly disappointed because that’s not the way our publishing works; and that’s not the way our distribution networks are set up.
Ruth Ireland: For good reason.
Mark Pollard: For good reason. We have to focus on our principle market and go for that. And, you know, all those sort of peripheral ones, if you can get a few peripheral sales, all well and good, but you can’t devote all your energies and all your resources to that; you have to focus on your main audience. And I think it’s important for both us and the authors to sort of focus on what, on a main audience, rather than try and please everyone. Because if you try to please everyone, you please no one.
Martin Goodman: How important is the library market?
Ruth Ireland: Well, to us it’s completely core...Basically, most of the sales will be to academic libraries and public libraries. And that market exists. And even in the humanities, where funding is ever decreasing, it always will exist, whenever your book has got something to say.
Mark Pollard: It’s also a market we can reach. That’s the other thing we have to think about as publishers: what market can we reach? I mean, that’s, for any discipline...for any book we get in, part of what we’re judging it on is obviously peer review and whether it’s a good book or not, but from us, in terms as publishers, is whether we can reach the audience that that book is aimed at. And so disciplines that have very focused groups, good conferences, you know, good societies that...bring all those interested people together are much better than some that are quite disparate and difficult to reach. That’s why there’s a slight dichotomy maybe between publishers and what’s being pushed in academic circles which is the emphasis on interdisciplinary, which is not necessarily what publishers want to do. Because I mean, basically, you’ve got…
Chair: Because you need the intellectual infrastructure basically in order to disseminate the book?
Mark Pollard: Yes, I mean, how do you reach… if it’s interdisciplinary, which audience, have you got to target both of those audiences? Is there enough in that book to interest one of those groups or are they just going to say, “Oh well, no, it’s for the other ones” and then it falls between two stalls.
Martin Goodman: I found that very frustrating with the Haldane as well because I feel it’s a great book if you’re into the great war, or if you’re into diving, or if you’re into coal mining, you know, but how do you tell those people because it’s all of those things.
Mark Pollard: Sure, yes. I think you just have to sort of try and focus on...who we can reach, and I mean, it’s the same as choosing a publisher. You choose a publisher partly based on...what their strengths are, where their list is focussed, because that’s what people are looking for from them. If you go to [a publisher] who hasn’t [already] got that, unless they’re saying that they’re going to develop that area and they’re obviously putting resources into it, it’s not going to happen. So that’s why when someone approaches me with something that’s outside our speciality, I’ll just say, “I’m sorry, I think you need to approach someone else” or try and suggest someone.
Chair: That became very clear to me, having spoken to a lot of publishers in convening this panel, that they have very self defined areas of expertise and it really makes a big difference whether you’re hitting that or not hitting it [in terms of how interested they might be in publishing a particular kind of book].
Mark Pollard: Distribution, sales, marketing are all set up to gear in…
Chair: So it’s really physically built in [to what they do], is what you’re saying? It’s not just a whim of the [particular publisher] doing this and not doing that?
Mark Pollard: No, absolutely.
Audience member 3: Just going back to the history of psychiatry/psychology specifically: in talking about biographies and single biographies of any one person, would you consider, say, a collection of small biographies of say, 4 or 5 important figures from the 19th century?
Mark Pollard: Yes.
Ruth Ireland: Yes. I would, yeah. I think as a collective group they move something forward; that they use each other’s ideas to advance something, then that’s in a way, the perfect academic biography.
Mark Pollard: Absolutely. As long as it hangs together. It’s like any argument, whether it’s a biography or whether it’s a...more theoretical argument, [my question] is “does it hang together?” So that would be great. The thing with that is obviously to draw those commonalties together and the connections. But yeah, definitely.
Martin Goodman: On the mainstream side you’ve got things like Richard Holme’s The Age of Wonder, and Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men [in that genre.]
Audience member 4: I’ve got a some slightly different question: I mean, there’s been concern with biography specifically, but I’ve got a bit of a problem about genre and the notion that genres have got very kind of ossified, crystallised and categorised. I mean, I’ve published 7 books: I’ve got a manuscript – which is on history of psychology – I’ve got a complete manuscript which is a kind of semi popular attack on creationism, which a lot of people have looked at, they think it’s great. My regular publishers have looked at it and say, “It doesn’t quite fit into us.” Others have said, “It’s not quite us.”...Continuum had a palace revolution or something and decided they didn’t want it after all, and I’m feeling really frustrated by this....
Mark Pollard: The thing is, it has to be something that we can sell. I mean, basically that’s the thing. It’s not a criticism of what you’re doing as such, it’s a fact that, I mean, there’s no point a publisher taking something on and then not being able to sell it: they will lose money on it and you’ll be very disappointed. And it won’t reach the audience you want it to reach. That’s the difficulty... I mean hopefully you will find the right publisher. I mean, I’d always say, “Look for, you know, something similar on someone else’s list, and if you can see something similar on someone else’s list, that will be the best publisher to approach.”
Male: But there isn’t one! [laughter]
Chair: You’re too interdisciplinary!
Audience member 4: It’s like they’ve defined themselves in such a way -
Mark Pollard: We have to.
Ruth Ireland: Yes.
Male: - they don’t think it’s their kind of book.
Mark Pollard: Yes, I mean we have to define ourselves; we have to define the audiences that we can reach and we can go to. That’s our part of the process.
Ruth Ireland: Yes. Sometimes it has to be like that.
Chair: You’re audience delivery mechanisms, aren’t you, basically? That’s what you are.
Ruth Ireland: And we have to be able to sell it to our colleagues too. If I get a proposal that ... if I put that in front of my sales and marketing people and they ask me, “What is this?” that’s not a good start. I’m sure you will find the right publisher but maybe look again at your proposal.
Audience member 4: But there’s a kind of age old problem of dodging the slush pile?
Ruth Ireland: Well, I don’t have a slush pile [laughs] But maybe look again at what your proposal said. Is it clear? Your proposal is going to be read by a very busy editor and maybe some sales and marketing people, who are also very busy. It needs to be very obvious what this book is about. They need to say, “Oh that goes on this pile. That goes on this subject.” And, like, going back to what you said about inter-disciplinary, it’s a bit unfortunate, but we have to be able to place it somewhere or we can’t really go anywhere with it.
Mark Pollard: No. And the other thing I would say, you know, the other word that fills me full of fear when I get a proposal is, “This is truly unique.” Because if it is truly unique, again, it’s going to be very difficult for us to place. [laughter] And...if it is truly unique, who’s it going to appeal to?
Ruth Ireland: [Yes], don’t present it like that. Don’t say those words.
Chair: Really? Does that turn you off?
Ruth Ireland: Avoid those phrases. Know what a publisher’s looking for in that proposal; avoid those clichéd phrases like, “Well, this is definitely going to appeal to scholars of this, and everyone else” or “nobody has ever written on this before.” Well, there’s probably a reason they haven’t. [laughter] Or maybe that’s not actually true. I get proposals all the time, “There’s been nothing on this for ages.” And I think, yes there has. I just bought a book about this the other day. Know what else is on the subject and use that to your advantage. Say, “A great book just came out on this a couple of years ago, but it didn’t go into this aspect, and that’s what I want to do.” And that gives us somewhere to go…
Mark Pollard: And that’s something reviews always pick up on. If someone doesn’t mention something that is out there, that would be the principle criticism.
Ruth Ireland: Be honest and do your research correctly, then it will get that audience...Like you say, getting someone to read it and say, “Ooh yes, I think I know what to do with that” is actually the first hurdle. So if you present it properly, you’re halfway there.
Mark Pollard: You know, when putting together a proposal, if you think very hard about the audience and you know, when you’re presenting something to a publishing house, you say, “I think this will appeal to these audiences.” I mean, the more information you can give, so I mean, like we were saying about...defined groups, so if you say, “Oh well, this will appeal to this; there is this society and it’s got 20,000 members or, you know, 2,000 members or whatever of that society” that immediately will perk up someone and think, “We can reach them because we can buy that mailing list or whatever.”
Ruth Ireland: Be specific.
Mark Pollard: Yes, absolutely.
Audience member 5: I’m just wondering if you could comment briefly on whether you are seeing the kind of thing you are looking for, sort of in general, in proposals. Do you have sort of a dearth of biography or of marketable things, or is it, you know, an overflow?...
Ruth Ireland: No, it varies a bit. I think it’s quite a hard one to answer...There are times when I’m looking for something, but most of the time I’m looking at the things that are coming to me or I’m going out to visit people at universities and I’m asking them what they do, and they say, “I do this,” and I think, “That sounds like really interesting” or “that sounds like something I couldn’t do.” But just in terms of, again, going back to how you present your proposals, whether it’s biography, whether its history of science, whether it’s social history, whatever it is, the subject, it’s knowing that subject and presenting it in a good way. You know, it could be the best book in the world on something, but if you present it badly, it won’t go anywhere. It’s a bit unfortunate, but true to say that I think sometimes very well presented proposals can get somewhere much quicker than something which is really fascinating but too hard for me to understand, and I just don’t know what it is and I can’t get to grips with it.
Chair: So a lot rests on your one-pager basically; your proposal that you would send?
Ruth Ireland: As much information as possible, you know. If people send me a proposal I think might have some potential, but I don’t know what’s going on, I’ll email that person back and say, “You need to give me more on this; a sample chapter or two, you know. This is what you need to do because otherwise I can’t even look at this.”
Mark Pollard: A lot of proposals we have, maybe particularly from younger academics, maybe it’s the subject of their PhD and things like that, is that they presuppose that everyone has the same sort of knowledge as they do. Particularly some of the more obscure characters [or subjects]; they will launch straight into what they’re going to do, but they won’t actually make the case for the individual that they want to write on. They will just go, “You know, everyone must be as interested in this person as I am”, which is not necessarily going to be the case, but you know, it might be if you can explain why that is going to be the case.
Ruth Ireland: Yes, [try and] make our lives easy.
Mark Pollard: Lots of people just leap straight in and go, “I’m going to write a book on Mr X” and you think, “He’s not even got a Wikipedia page.” [laughter]
Ruth Ireland: I do actually check that! If the Wikipedia page is looking a little bit stubbish I think to myself, “Hmm.”
Audience member 6: What if somebody doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, but you think you can make an argument for them being important? Well, I’m doing a kind of semi biographical study, not in the history of psychology/psychiatry but he’s actually talked about a lot in passing by lots of different people but no one has actually ever looked at him, and he’s not, he wouldn’t be well known, but for example, for historians of public health in the 20th century, everyone’s heard of him…
Mark Pollard: Set that Wikipedia page up… [laughter]
Audience member 6: Well, I could do. So your advice is to set the Wikipedia page up myself before I apply to a publisher?
Ruth Ireland: Well, you can say to a publisher, “He has no Wikipedia page, but it’s a mystery because all of these people have said this.” You know, be specific about who has heard of him, where has he been discussed but never written about, and that will…
Mark Pollard: You can help generate the audience for that by doing things like setting up the Wikipedia page. If you start it, then other people might get interested and therefore you’re generating the thing. I would say, that’s the same, we as publishers will market any book but particularly within academic circles...anything that the author can do to help market that book, and it’s not, you know, holding it up and saying, “Buy this! Buy this!” but it’s maybe, you know, contributing to list serves, discussing things, you know, asking questions. It doesn’t have to be gross commercialism, but you know, just raising interest...or just telling people that the book’s out there...
Ruth Ireland: Even before you write it, you know; the whole way along. Publishers love writers who are, even academic, especially academic writers in our case, that are market savvy but also marketing savvy, like they’re aware of what they can do to promote their own work, because we, I mean, my division publishers about 600 books a year, and believe me, we do not have a lot of budget for marketing those books, so your book will get into the catalogue and if you go to a conference we’ll probably give you some flyers. That’s kind of it. So it’s then down to you to do all you can and to generate interest in the subject as well as in your book....
Mark Pollard: And coming back to some of the earlier sorts of questions, I think it’s an interesting time in terms of technology in terms of what you can do, particularly with biography. I would actually say that in terms of reviewing, actually biographies stand a better chance of getting reviewed than some other works.
Ruth Ireland: Yes.
Mark Pollard: I think most of the media are, overall, are more interested in things like biographical and life writings, and they can possibly write a more interesting piece or a more interesting review on that. But there’s also, there’s Twitter, with an individual there are obviously birth dates, death dates, significant dates; with Twitter and things like that out there, there’s all sorts of events, anniversaries that can be celebrated much more than just a broad concept, you know, which you can’t sort of say, “This concept was thought of on this day.” [laughter] Whereas [when the subject is say] Joseph Banks [you have dates such as] when he set out for Australia or whatever....
Chair: So marketing opportunities are perhaps more prevalent if you’re actually looking for them in biographical works than they might be in the more generalist [works]?…
Ruth Ireland: I think it’s maybe easier for reviewers to get a hold when they know what that book is, because it says it on the cover: it’s a life of this person, or these people. Definitely bear in mind anniversaries and things like that. I mean, it’s really nice when I see some of these books getting reviewed on Amazon just by people who have read it, and that generates more and more [interest], which is a good thing.
Audience member 6: So get your friends to read it and rate it on Amazon.
Ruth Ireland: Get your friends to read it and then tweet about it.
Audience member 7: Yes, interesting discussion. I think there’s a real tension here in terms of the academic role of biography, in that you’re talking about why you [might pick up on a proposal] but arguably the more important part of the equation is peer review first of all, what other academics see as significant. But there’s also the kind of funding end of the equation which, again, is peer reviewed process in part, [and] what academics see as significant, [what they are willing to fund and who]...It seems to me that [people getting funded to research and write] biographies tend to be right at the top end [of the academic tree]...people who’ve done the other kind of work, proven themselves in the field that they can do history, and then they move onto the biography.
Mark Pollard: I’m not sure that’s my experience. To be honest, a number of the biographies on list are the basis of someone’s PhD work, so…
Ruth Ireland: It really varies, yes.
Mark Pollard: So that would be their first book.
Ruth Ireland: Yes, I’ve had quite a few that were the work of PhDs...
Audience member 7: I think on the academic side, on the other hand, there is the impact agenda, you know. People know that one of the ways you can make an impact is through biography because, as you say, people can review them, there’s a kind of popular audience, but the kind of techniques that Martin was describing, that’s so much of a contravention of a lot of the kind of standard expectations of what an academic book entails. There’s a tension around it about how you write good biographies to gain a certain sort of readership, and you know, that’s something we’re going to have to work through in academia if we’re going to go there. I mean, both in the impact agenda drive,... and sales as well, academics might sometimes like to write a book that sells, that will actually make an impact in that sense too, so…
Martin Goodman: That’s part of the impact narrative as well: if you’ve got a good sales figure, it goes in.
Audience member 7: I mean, perhaps you’re right; perhaps, I don’t see it on the ground that young academics are making it through the biographical route, but…
Mark Pollard: Well, I mean, maybe our experience is different. I would say that we have probably more biographies coming from newer or younger academics than necessarily more experienced academics. I think, we get some from both but…
Audience member 7: Is there a lot of political biographies…
Ruth Ireland: Political biographies?
Mark Pollard: We have a political biographies list, [which] goes right across the spectrum.
Ruth Ireland: Us too. Political biographies, we also have literary lives...these books [tend to be] the author’s second books, I think.
Audience member 7: Do you know whether they started off as biographies? So like, you track back to the PhD that turned into that biography: was it initially a kind of broader study they had gone down, and knew they would be able to publish?
Ruth Ireland: I doubt that.
Mark Pollard: No, I don’t think so.
Ruth Ireland: Yes, started as a biography.
Audience member 8: Just to get back to the practicalities again: I’ve been hearing a lot about this new ‘print on demand’ system and wondering whether publishing houses are using that?…
Ruth Ireland: Absolutely, we do.
Audience member 8: How do you think that will change the whole practice?
Ruth Ireland: Well, all of our monographs will eventually go ‘print on demand’. That’s kind of the policy. We’re now publishing e-books alongside all of our monographs unless there’s some kind of permissions nightmare involved and then we can’t do it. I think, is it quite comparable to you, Mark, in that we’d print about 300 or 400 copies and when those copies sell out we go print on demand. Are you asking in terms of people being able to self-publish and just basically just produce their own books?
Audience member 8: Well, do you see that as a possibility?
Ruth Ireland: Well, doesn’t that circumvent the whole peer review process and…
Audience member 8: No, not necessarily, but [perhaps it would enable] a broader spectrum [of works]...to be published…
Mark Pollard: I mean, self publishing brings the whole open access debate, which I mean, I think perhaps self publishing’s probably not the way; it would be more open access that would be the ongoing model, although that’s very problematic and it’s got a long way to go, I think. And there’s still a whole issue about costs and who pays for the peer reviewing and who hosts things...so it might be open but it’s not free. And there’s various models out there. I mean, I wouldn’t underestimate… the printing is actually not, I mean people think that the printing is actually the most significant thing [in terms of costs], but it’s not actually. It’s actually a lesser proportion of publisher’s costs, and it’s actually going down. In terms of all the others things which are the distribution, the marketing, the actual getting the work out there in terms of audience. I know Ruth was saying, but individually you won’t have that much budget, but collectively, and that’s why we want to focus books, because collectively that is quite a bit of money, which you can’t do if you do it yourself. We don’t actually use print on demand. Primarily we don’t at the moment because all our books are hardbacks, and the print on demand technology at the moment, doesn’t actually, we don’t feel gives us the quality that we need. However, there are a lot of other technological advances in printing, so what’s happening is that you can actually publish shorter print runs, so it’s not print on demand as such, but you can actually get down to fairly low print runs. And that’s one of the things I think most publishers are doing, which is smaller initial print runs. And that’s not just because of expectations, but you’ve got to bear in mind that it’s not just printing the book but you’ve got to store it. So...you want to keep your stock in the warehouse to an optimum level, but you don’t want lots of books sitting on the shelves needlessly for a long length of time. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for us [with regards] cash flow. So that is one of the things [where...] print technology is changing; there are new presses coming along all the time. I was just talking to printers yesterday: we’re installing new presses that are, not digital presses but use another technology which actually uses proper ink, and there are all sorts of developments going on there but it will change. I mean, as Ruth said, again, e-books; it might be the case, certainly some libraries are saying they’re not accepting any paper products and they will only accept electronic products, and that might increase in the future. So I mean, we publishers will provide things in the way that the majority of our customers want, so e-books might be the way forward. So far, certainly from the take up of e-books for us, it’s is only a small proportion of our actual print sales. But it might change. Certainly I think the hype is greater than the actuality at the moment.
Chair: So when you say you’re getting down to lower print runs, you mean, the subtext is “and it’s economically viable for you.” Is that what you mean?
Ruth Ireland: Yes. It’s cheaper for us print small amounts than it is to store them in a warehouse.
Mark Pollard: When they were just graphic presses, which were what was traditionally, then you would have 400 would be about the minimum that...would be economic to set up on that.
Ruth Ireland: It takes away a lot of guesswork because if you’ve got something a bit out of the ordinary, but not a monograph, and you think, “I’ve got no idea how many its going to sell,” you can print a fairly conservative amount and then just print again whenever you need to, which is brilliant. And that has changed things a lot actually.
Mark Pollard: Yeah, that’s a good point. I mean, you can actually take slightly more risks than you could when you only had traditional presses available to you. So you can think, “That’s a relatively specialist topic. I don’t estimate the potential sales could be greater than that, but because I only have to print so many, it’s still economically viable.”
Chair: I think we’ve actually run out of time so we’re going to have to leave it there I’m afraid. But thank you very much for coming, Ruth, Martin and Mark.