The challenges of publishing your book in the COVID era (opinion)

In late 2020, the University of Toronto Press published our book, Assassination in Vichy: Marx Dormoy and the Struggle for the Soul of France. We spent a decade researching and writing a work we hoped would reach a wide audience. Our manuscript was peer reviewed before the pandemic, and we worked smoothly with Toronto’s excellent editorial, production and marketing groups.

We knew when our book came out that the pandemic was raging, so marketing it would be challenging. Still, our press hosted two well-attended online book launches, so we were optimistic. As time passed with scarcely any reviews or feedback, however, it seemed as if the book had disappeared with hardly a trace into an epidemic dead zone.

We contacted journals only to discover that many had no copy of our book. We then followed up with our press. They were mystified and assured us they sent copies to nine journals, orchestrated eight email campaigns and promoted our work on social and in print media. They have continued to work hard to market our book in myriad ways long after its publication. Yet COVID has, at the very least, complicated the task.

We wondered if ours was an unusual case or if COVID had disrupted not just academic book production, but postpublication visibility and reception as well. We contacted a sample of stakeholders—authors, publishers and journal editors—and not just in our own field of history. To identify authors, we issued queries on online academic forums, networked with scholars and talked to a mix of large and small presses.

We quickly discovered that we were by no means alone; COVID did create a significant visibility problem for books published during the pandemic. In this essay, we’ll discuss the responses we received regarding COVID’s impact and offer some recommendations for authors. Although our focus is on postpublication, the same challenges impacting reviews of published books are hindering manuscript peer review as well. We aim to spark a wider conversation about both the potential for a lost generation of books published during the pandemic and how to cope with the new normal in academic publishing. We want to recognize that all press marketing and publicity personnel were navigating unprecedented pandemic challenges requiring tremendous effort. Our goal here is not to criticize any stakeholders, but to understand.

Pandemic Bottlenecks

The press and journal editors we interviewed indicated that the worst time to have published a book was between November 2020 and February 2021. Many journals shut down during the early days of COVID, and others, like The Antioch Review, ceased publication. Universities and presses sent everyone home; no one was in their offices to send or receive books, and books did not always reach faculty working from home. Books sent out for review often sat in unopened boxes on trucks and loading docks or in mail rooms. The problem was amplified for books disseminated internationally, where many languished in customs. U.K. publishers, according to Chris Hart, head of marketing at Manchester University Press, struggled to get books to the Continent due to Brexit-related restrictions.

Supply chain issues included shortages of port and truck freight capacity. In one instance, a book printed overseas for Louisiana State University Press sat for weeks in a container ship waiting to be unloaded at the Port of Los Angeles. Other presses endured similar episodes. Closed warehouses, transportation disruptions and lack of shipping and receiving personnel obstructed getting books into the hands of reviewers, librarians and potential purchasers. Such infrastructure challenges remain ongoing.

The Johns Hopkins University Press, among others, noted that it was taking longer to get books printed. Printing houses sometimes closed entirely, and even those that kept working slowed production, lacking paper, ink, computer chips, parts and skilled personnel. One international printing and publishing group suffered a malware attack that led to significant printing delays. The war in Ukraine has only worsened the paper shortage. Before the pandemic it took on average six to eight weeks to print a book; that time has increased to 20 to 25 weeks for many presses.

In addition, presses and journals have wrestled with recruiting reviewers for manuscripts or recently published books. Peer review is considered faculty professional service. It usually doesn’t count much, however, in the tenure and promotion process. As faculty struggled during the pandemic with transitioning in emergency mode to online teaching, often juggling childcare and/or eldercare demands, they had less time for service. Peer review slowed as a result.

One author told us that his university press informed him that after a yearlong search they could not find a second peer reviewer for his manuscript, thus delaying his application for full professor. Dawn Durante, former editor in chief at the University of Texas Press, indicated that whereas she once told authors to expect peer review to take three to four months, she began advising them to expect four to six months. While ebooks are not affected by printing delays, they are not immune to shortages of peer reviewers.

The most vulnerable stakeholders in academic publishing are not advanced-career scholars like us, but rather those seeking full-time positions or tenure and promotion—and in particular those who must confront the net of inequities in academe arising from ethnicity, gender and class. Especially disadvantaged are adjuncts and scholars working at less prestigious institutions.

COVID also magnified systemic and intersectional challenges facing scholars of color. For example, according to Durante, now assistant editorial director at the University of North Carolina Press, Black, Indigenous and people of color scholars who often have larger service obligations may be less likely to make progress with their own manuscripts amid inequitable societal and institutional impacts of the pandemic. Often when their projects are ready for peer review, there are fewer people to tap for peer reviews, book blurbs and book reviews—especially in the case of scholars working in emerging fields. That “slows down the production process,” Durante said, “further marginalizing underrepresented groups.”

Ephemeral Changes Versus Structural Shifts?

The pandemic may have eased a great deal since 2020, but the bottlenecks in publishing endure. Many presses we interviewed no longer ship unsolicited books to journals but rather notify journals via email of new publications and wait for requests for review copies. If a journal or other review outlet does not receive a book notice, that book risks being overlooked. Books published in that critical 2020–21 time frame, when everyone’s organization was disrupted, were particularly vulnerable to sliding under the radar.

Presses increasingly rely less on book reviews to assess trends in academic research. Editors are turning to alternative metrics, such as Altmetric scores, book downloads and sales to gauge readership. Some journals are devoting fewer pages to book reviews, conserving space for scholarly articles but limiting review opportunities.

So the question is: How do authors, readers and personnel committees assess the quality of an academic book when many books are receiving fewer reviews due to COVID and the conference circuit where publishers and authors showcase new books has been disrupted? How can authors ensure that their fellow researchers know that their book exists? Busy faculty members rely on reviews to help them choose books for their classes and libraries. Book notices cannot serve that purpose. Book blurbs help, but presses told us that recruiting reviewers for blurbs has become more difficult.

Best Practices for Authors

To best adjust to the post-COVID world, we recommend the following to academics who hope to publish a book.

  • Don’t waste time. Every publishing step is taking longer than in the pre-pandemic period. Especially if you need a book contract or published book for your job search or tenure and promotion deadline, don’t cut it close.
  • Take advantage of press outreach. Some, like Princeton University Press, offer grant programs and book coaches for the pre-production process in order to promote the work of historically excluded and unrepresented authors.
  • Don’t publish parts of your book manuscript as chapters or articles. “Everything is discoverable online,” Alisa Plant, director of LSU Press, notes, and editors are leery of republishing content in book format. Some editors consider it unethical to ask librarians to buy books with content that has already been published.
  • Be proactive. Don’t assume that once the book is out, the press will handle the marketing. Ask your press to organize an online book launch or do it yourself. Create your own author website and use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and/or TikTok to raise your book’s visibility. Begin once you get the cover jacket and launch a cover-reveal event. Director of marketing at Harvard University Press Ken Carpenter encourages authors to “identify your audience, share your ideas on how to reach that audience and then partner with your press to market your book.” He urges authors to pay special attention to the press-generated author questionnaires and to use personal networks to promote visibility.
  • Don’t be modest. If you feel uncomfortable marketing your book—and we noticed authors cringe when we mentioned the subject—think of it as promoting your discipline. The more visibility your work receives, the more you contribute to advocating for your field of study.
  • Follow up! Don’t take it for granted that the book review editor of Choice, a very important venue for acquisitions librarians, or the premier journal in your field, has your book. Ask.
  • Check online for book reviews. If your book isn’t reviewed within a year of its publication, contact journals to find out if they have it. If they don’t, ask your publisher to get it to them. As one marketing director said, “The squeaky wheel gets the review.”
  • Republish. With the cooperation of their presses, authors can request a new ISBN and publication date to compensate for COVID delays.

Beyond these immediate steps, authors, book and journal editors, representatives of professional organizations, academic committee members, and senior administrators must have a conversation on academic book publishing over the long term. All those stakeholders must be on the same page and transparent regarding the value of and challenges surrounding publishing and peer review. Professional organizations can be especially valuable in creating book launch series and podcasts.

Reviews remain vital to the scholarly reception of a book, and thus to an academic’s career. Authors need institutional support and professional mentorship, not just in researching and writing their book but also in raising its visibility after it is published. Senior administrators and personnel committees need to consider both the shorter-term pandemic-related disruptions to academic publishing and the longer-term bottlenecks when evaluating their colleagues for tenure and promotion.

In the wake of the pandemic, presses and journals must do everything they can to assure books published during its height do not end up in a lost generation of works neither reviewed nor visible because they have been shunted aside by waves of new research. Presses and journals have limited resources and are stretched thin, as are faculty members, in part because of the lasting effects of the pandemic. Moreover, we have entered an era of ongoing supply chain disruptions and major changes in both the publishing industry and academe. But that is precisely why better communication and collaboration among authors, presses and journals is imperative going forward.