Publishing Books: Some Advice and Warnings

Publishing Books: Some Advice and Warnings

How might an author choose an appropriate publisher and what are some of the processes involved in creating a book?

Philip Steadman (University College London) has authored a dozen books over 50 years. Reflecting on his own experiences, he offers some advice to new authors planning to publish books about architecture and building.

Choosing a publisher

There are some rather obvious criteria on which an author might choose one publisher over another. For books on architecture and the built environment, there are publishers who specialise in our field e.g. Prestel, Phaidon, Thames and Hudson, Princeton Architectural Press, RIBA Books, Abrams and Papadakis. Yale University Press has been strong in art and architecture. There are also conglomerates with divisions devoted to the subject e.g. Routledge / Taylor and Francis, Wiley and Elsevier. For more specialised academic works, it makes sense naturally to consider university presses.

A distinction is made by publishers between academic books and 'trade books'. The academic books will tend to be destined for libraries, may only be produced in hardback, will not be widely advertised, and will be highly priced. Trade books are aimed at popular audiences, are sold in bookshops (as well as online), and are priced more competitively. All publishers gamble on how many copies they think will sell, and set prices accordingly: the lower the predicted sales, the higher the cover price, and vice-versa. A specialised monograph might be expected to sell as few as 200 copies and be priced at £100; a trade book might be expected to sell in the thousands, for prices nearer £20 or £30. The way that trade books are written tends to be less formal, more conversational and more accessible. Some of the apparatus of the typical academic book, like a bibliography or footnotes, may be dispensed with.

I offered my book Vermeer's Camera (2001) to Oxford University Press as what I thought was a specialised technical monograph, but they decided to produce it as a trade book. For other books I have, with mixed success, approached commercial publishers who looked as though they favoured the topics in question, and whose production standards I have admired. Publishers send out hard copies of trade books for review, but I have a sense that university presses do this less than they used to. Also academics are perhaps reviewing fewer books, since this is a lot of work, and they are under pressure.

Sometimes a publisher may commission an author. I have had the good luck to be approached twice by small publishers asking for books. One was the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), who thought that something was needed on architecture and the 'new maths', so invited Lionel March and myself to write what became The Geometry of Environment (1971). My colleague Stan Openshaw and I gave a talk at a conference in Edinburgh on the effects of nuclear attack on the UK. An editor from Blackwell's was at the talk, came back on the train south with us, commissioned a book on the spot (Doomsday: Britain After Nuclear Attack, 1983) and drafted a contract on a paper napkin in the dining car!

What an author is expected to provide

Most publishers have standard forms for authors to fill in when proposing new books. These will typically ask for an outline of the contents of the book, broken down by chapters; information about the book's intended audience (i.e. students, teachers, the 'general reader'); whether it might be used as a teaching text, and if so for which courses; the length of the manuscript and the number of illustrations, colour or black and white. There will also be questions about the competition, that is to say what other books already exist on the subject and how the author's offering differs from these.

This proposal will be sent to a small number of expert reviewers, who will give their opinions; and the publisher will then make a decision. In my experience, with large publishing organisations, it can happen that editors, who are responsible for content, will take different views from the firms' accountants. Editors may think that book proposals are original and exciting, but gloomy accountants - who know the price of everything, and often have the final say - may decide that they are not commercially viable. If your book proposal is turned down, do not despair. This happens to even the most famous of authors. Take advice, and try another publisher.

If the author gets the go-ahead, he or she will receive a standard form of contract (of which more below) which is in principle negotiable. This will specify the financial terms, the date by which materials are to be delivered, and other legal matters. Essentially the contract puts an obligation on the author to supply the promised book by a particular date; and puts an obligation on the publisher to publish it. The author must then produce a manuscript, generally in a specified format and conforming to the house style of the press.

For almost all of the types of book that I have been involved with, it has been the author's responsibility to provide the illustrations as photographs or digital files. It is also standard practice for authors to be required to meet the costs of permissions for reproducing copyright material including illustrations. For highly illustrated books these costs can mount up. I have published two books with many illustrations in recent years, one on Building Types and Built Forms (2014), the other on entertainments in 16th and 17th century Italy (Renaissance Fun, 2021). Images from books that are out of copyright (which generally lapses 70 years after the author dies) are free to use, but others are owned by museums, libraries or agencies. Many of these organisations charge for the right to reproduce images of paintings, drawings, and pages from manuscripts in their collections, or simply for the supply of digital copies. This can involve a great deal of work and expense. Permissions for Renaissance Fun cost more than £2000.

Some organisations, for example the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris, are rapid and efficient, and charge roughly €20 per image. Smaller libraries can be infuriatingly slow, and on occasion want $100 or more per image. The big picture agencies can be particularly greedy. On the other hand, authors may be able to get grants from their universities or other sources to offset these costs. Many of the great national libraries and museums have digitised large parts of their holdings, and now make images available for free or at low prices. Increasing numbers of pictures are available for free through Wikimedia. I have on occasion been asked large sums for reproducing photographs from museum or library collections, have looked for and found prints of the same photos for sale cheaper elsewhere, bought them, and credited them as 'collection of the author'.

Once the manuscript has been copyedited, the author will be asked to check and sign off the text; and when it has been laid out, to check and approve the proofs. Large publishers tend to sub-contract much of this work today to small consultancies, who can be more congenial to work with than the big bureaucratic publishing machines. An author may well be asked by the publisher to compile an index; or else the publisher will commission this from a professional indexer and charge the author a fee.

The design of the cover and the choice of cover illustration are the responsibilities of the publisher. (For Doomsday, we told Blackwell's that we would be happy with any cover picture so long as it was not a mushroom cloud. They came back later, and said that they had a great idea for the cover...) Some publishers print endorsements of the book in the front material or on the back cover, and may ask the author for names of people willing to do this. This is the moment for the author to recruit the help of his or her colleagues.

Money and contracts

Do not expect to make much (or any) money from academic book publishing. (This may be different for standard textbooks, of which I have little experience.) Authors are generally paid royalties, calculated as percentages of the income received from sales of the book. Figures can vary quite widely: but it would be not unusual to receive royalties of 10%, rising to higher values if the book sells over some specified number. Royalties for an e-book might be 25%. Additional sums can be earned from the sale of other rights, including translations, and film rights (!). I have made profits in the low thousands of pounds on three books (Doomsday, Vermeer's Camera, and Energy, Environment and Building, 1975), each of which sold in the order of 30,000 copies. I have made large losses on other books because of the costs of copyright permissions, employing a research assistant and other expenses, and despite not counting my own time.

Authors can try to negotiate the terms of contracts, but tend of course to be in a weak bargaining position. Professional authors have literary agents who negotiate contracts and take typically 10% of their clients' earnings. You may wish to join the Society of Authors, which protects its members' rights. Members have access to legal advice on the terms of contracts. The melancholy truth is that many academics are so anxious to get published that they sign disadvantageous contracts without reading the small print or negotiating. I try to read the small print.

Even apparently respectable publishers can be very devious. I had a contract with a major university press, which I will not name. This contract specified standard royalty percentages. A significant proportion of sales of the book in question were in the US. This publisher has offices both in the UK and the US. At that time they ran a scam where their UK office 'sold' copies of books to the US office at a completely artificial and very low price, which the US office then sold on at full price to American bookshops. But the authors' royalties were calculated on the artificially low price, not on actual bookshop revenues. This was almost certainly illegal. I had signed the contract so could only complain. Happily the publishers were so embarrassed that they altered the contract retrospectively. Another of their authors sued them and won.


I have published one book myself, Building Types and Built Forms. I decided to do this because the book is long and complex, with some 400 illustrations, and I wanted complete control over the design and layout. I doubted whether conventional publishers would take it on, or do justice to the layout. And I wanted to try to keep the cover price within the reach of students. There are many companies offering to help self-publishers with the printing and production processes, as well as other services. I went to the UK National Book Fair, found representatives of Troubador Publishing who own the imprint Matador, and decided to employ them. The experience was positive overall, but had its downsides.

Authors have to produce finished artwork, ready for the printers - in the case of my book in InDesign software. This is laborious and time-consuming. But it gives total control. The book came out at 400 pages. I had 500 copies printed. I also commissioned an e-book from Troubador, which was very professionally produced, and a special website. The total price of all the elements was around £5000. I was able to put up this sum myself, which many authors could not. 'Unbound' is one of several organisations allowing self-publishing authors to advertise prospective books and get subscribers to crowd-fund them.

The main problems were in advertising and sales. Conventional publishers are responsible for both of these, but with self-publishing they fall to the author. I sent out direct mailings, delivered copies to London bookshops, and sent out review copies to journals. Some self-published authors take copies of their books to literary festivals in the boots of their cars and sell them from stalls, but I did not try that. I miscalculated the cover price however, at £25. I offered the book through Amazon, not realising what a very large percentage they take in profit.  This was as high as regular bookshops, but without their overheads - with the result that I actually lose money on each copy that Amazon sells. I only turned a profit in the end because a publisher in Beijing, much to my surprise, bought the Chinese rights for a lump sum and produced a handsome Chinese-language edition.

I have had dedicated websites made for several of my books, and have a personal website that advertises them all. These have links to Amazon and other booksellers, but I am not sure how many sales they produce. The website for Vermeer's Camera did however generate a very large correspondence from readers all over the world, which was the chief joy of publishing the book. Many authors have presences on social media, but I do not, so can give no advice.

Open access publishing

A growing trend in academic publishing is to make journal articles and books free to readers, as 'open access'. This move has been prompted in journal publishing by the stranglehold that a few large international publishers have previously had over the market. Because universities are effectively obliged to take the journals, journal publishers have been able to charge extremely high prices for subscriptions. Open access publishing has gained ground in the journal world in reaction to this situation, and has been encouraged by funders of research, many of whom now require the results of projects to be reported in open source journals. The UK's Research Excellence Framework (REF), by which the government assesses the quality of research in universities, is also requiring that papers and books submitted be open access and compliant with Plan S, a commitment by major national funding organisations to make research publications open access.

University College London has pioneered open access publication of books with its new UCL Press. They published my Renaissance Fun in 2021. The Press is a charity, authors are not paid, and authors have to pay for copyright permissions. Books are made available free to read online or to download. They are also sold in hardback and paperback. The standard of design and production are high. The Press now has more than 200 titles 'in print'. My book, which is by no means one of UCL's leading titles, has been downloaded 5000 times in a year. UCL Press tell me that they sell as many printed copies as conventional university presses, of similar titles. So putting the books online for free does not dent the print sales. I have been very pleased, despite the copyright costs for the illustrations, and would strongly recommend this route.

In conclusion

Be prepared to go to a lot of effort to get your book published. Search publishers' websites, look at books they have already produced, and speak to authors who have managed to get books published, for their advice. Copyright permissions and images will cost money, but you may be able to get small grants to pay for these. (For the first time in my career I have a grant, from the Leverhulme Trust, for the book I am currently working on.) Do not be discouraged by rejections, but do pay close attention to reviewers' comments, and keep trying. Read any contracts with care. Good luck!

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