How Academic Publishing Has Shifted during the Pandemic

The biggest changes in scholarly publishing that university presses have seen since the pandemic began and suggestions for authors navigating these changes.
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If you’re working on a scholarly book project, you may be wondering how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected academic publishing, and what it means for you as a prospective author.

While the pandemic has had far-reaching effects on every aspect of working life, here are three of the biggest changes in scholarly publishing that university presses have seen since the pandemic began, followed by top suggestions from editors for authors navigating these changes.

Virtual Conferences

Just like scholars, publishers have seen both positives and negatives associated with the shift to virtual conferences during the pandemic.

On the plus side, virtual conferences have increased accessibility—eliminating travel costs, making it possible for people to attend multiple conferences simultaneously, and allowing easier access for many people with disabilities. Virtual conferences also cut the carbon footprint and waste involved in travel and shipping exhibition materials. Marketing and sales departments have adapted remarkably well, and quickly switching to virtual conferences during the pandemic has probably accelerated a change on that front that would have happened anyway.

On the negative side is the loss of the personal connections and conversations that take place between sessions at in-person conferences. From the publisher’s perspective, this is difficult for acquisitions editors, who are there as exhibitors and to be available for informal conversations and meetings with potential authors. Without a physical exhibit hall, scholars aren’t casually browsing books to get a sense of the publisher’s output or approaching an editor for a quick chat (that could lead to more!). Editors have noted that this has negatively affected acquisitions.

Peer Review

Acquiring editors have seen a significant slowdown in the peer review process—from finding reviewers with the bandwidth and availability to take it on, to actually getting the peer reviews in hand. Although the Association of University Presses handbook on best practices for peer review notes that “it is customary to give peer reviewers at least six to eight weeks to review a full manuscript and three to four weeks to review a proposal,” since the pandemic began it has often taken longer.

Disruptions to Printing and Distribution

Publishers and booksellers have been sounding the alarm lately about pandemic-related breakdowns in supply chains and shipping that are causing, or about to cause, major problems in book production and distribution. Paper mill closures and increased demand have led to paper shortages, international shipping has been severely bottlenecked, and there are ongoing labor shortages everywhere.

Publishers are doing their best to take this into account by extending their production schedules. If there’s a tiny silver lining to be found, it’s that libraries saw digital demand go up during the pandemic, and these problems in the print book supply chain won’t affect ebook and audiobook production.

Takeaways for Authors

  1. Take advantage of virtual conferences to connect with acquisitions editors. Some, like the Society of Architectural Historians 2021 Conference, have virtual exhibit halls where publishers have “booths” with links to catalogs, conference discount codes, and contact information for the editor. If an editor is listed, it means they want to hear from attendees, so don’t be shy about reaching out! If an email requesting a 15–20-minute meeting feels too formal for where you are in the process, many editors are on Twitter and use conference hashtags to connect more informally. (Check out this list of art history conferences we put together!)

  2. Pitch to editors as soon as possible. Between the slowdown in peer review at the front end and extensions to publication schedules to account for supply chain disruptions on the back end, the time from proposal to publication has lengthened. Especially if you’re on the tenure clock, you don’t want to add to that. Most academic publishers offer contracts on the basis of a proposal, so no need to put off pitching until you have the full manuscript. While your proposal is with the editor for peer review, you can keep writing and not lose any of that downtime.

    Make sure, however, that you’re not rushing—you also don’t want to waste time resubmitting because your proposal wasn’t ready when you sent it out. Consult the publisher’s requirements, and if you feel you could use a little help getting your proposal into its best shape, Epigraph offers book proposal services.

  3. If you need your book out by a particular time, be transparent and upfront about your timeline. Understand that there will be delays, and your publisher is likely juggling similar demands across their whole season, but your acquiring editor should be able to talk you through what they need from you and on what schedule to give you the best chance of meeting your goal.

  4. To expedite the publication process, prepare your final manuscript carefully. Make sure your manuscript is formatted as your publisher asks, and that all your references are in good shape. If your citations are a mess and you’re not confident you can clean them up, you may be able to hire a copyeditor to edit your references to conform to your chosen style.

  5. For illustrated books, make sure you have print-quality image files and all necessary permissions. Getting permissions can take a while, especially when staff are stretched thin, as they are during the pandemic. Images may need to be cut if quality files or permissions can’t be obtained in time. Wherever possible, seek options in the public domain or under Creative Commons licenses (Creative Law Center has a guide to museums providing open access images of works in the public domain). Where you must use images under copyright, first consult the Center for Media and Social Impact’s library of codes of best practices for fair use to avoid chasing down permissions unnecessarily.

Some of these changes are probably for the short-term and some are here to stay. Hopefully the supply chain and labor shortage issues will be resolved and peer review timelines will return to normal once the pandemic is over, but we can expect to keep some form of virtually accessible conferences going forward.

Fortunately, the advice offered here—reach out to acquiring editors early, be transparent about your timeline, and help your publisher expedite your book by providing a well-prepared manuscript—is good for all seasons.

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