The Liberties Press in Ireland is introducing a €100 charge for assessment of over-the-transom* manuscripts. The Passive Voice tells the story which comes from The Irish Times. The Liberties Press website gives a perfectly coherent justification of their policy, which will of course stir the ire of self-publishing aficionados. As Liberties Press say “Unfortunately, these things all have to be paid for – and the traditional retail book trade remains a challenging commercial environment.” However, it will always be true that if you want to find reasons to hate traditional publishing, you will have no difficulty finding them. I don’t know of anyone else making a similar charge but discouragement is not uncommon. Oxford University Press tells potential over-the-transom authors “We do not accept and will not return unsolicited manuscripts or original artwork.”
Realistically the downside of this policy is probably close to nil. The number of brilliant and successful books to be found in the slush pile is not large, though it is undeniably a number bigger than zero. The Liberties Press policy will probably be a short-term “scandal”. Anyone who objects will just go elsewhere, while someone determined to be published by that house will no doubt have dealt with them by correspondence, evoking an expression of interest (or being turned aside), thus exiting the slush pile.
Assessing manuscripts obviously does cost money. People might reasonably assume that this is just part of the cost of being a publisher, and of course mostly we agree. But as unit sales decline, the income from sales of any single book make the cost of assessment a bit harder to cover. Editors are employed to seek out books, and also to assess the resulting manuscripts. Trade publishers have a stable of (freelance) readers who will provide a supporting opinion. In academic publishing it is the norm to get two reports on a manuscript so that a range of opinion can accompany the proposal to the publication board. These will tend to be written by professors expert in the book’s subject matter. Part of the editor’s skill set will be the ability to select the “right” reviewers. Editors should steer between Scylla and Charybdis in their selection of referees. They should be aware who are friends of the author, and who are enemies. If cash is involved it tends to be minimal. Often a few free books will be offered as a “remuneration”. The academic world is thus effectively subsidizing university presses, but of course, as departments of universities, most university presses are part of the university system, so in a way they are supporting their own when they review an academic monograph.
If reports are negative the book may be declined, though more often the editor will ask permission of the referees to share their reports with the author who can use their criticisms to revise the manuscript. After this is done the revised version will be submitted to one or more of the referees to see if it all works now. All this costs time and money, and university presses in particular do not have bottomless pockets. This peer review process, which functions vigorously in the world of academic journals too, is under severe stress. Of course when you report on a manuscript you are doubtless learning something about your specialism, but referees have jobs to do, and the volume of potential reporting just grows and grows. I rather suspect publishers will continue to bite this bullet, seeing it as just part of the cost of doing business; yet Liberties Press may surprise me by becoming a front-runner in making an assessment charge.
*Last year I speculated on the origins of this rather odd expression.