The Academic’s Guide to Self-Publishing

Why Self-Publish?

Self-publishing draws as much praise as it does condescension for the exact same reason" democratizing literature. The voluntary lack of editorial and marketing oversight means authors control the entire means of production, from pitch to promotions. This route particularly benefits more independent-minded writers who want to reach audiences on their own terms, bypassing the usual publishing games involving pitches, agents, editing for marketers, and book tours. It grants them an opportunity to share what they have to say with readers who want to listen. Traditional publishing does not always allow that, no matter how insightful or worthy an author may be.

"Self-publishing online has many benefits; it's faster, free, and content is immediately accessible for everyone," says Danielle Bengsch, a ResearchGate speaker. "Researchers get the possibility to present parts of their research individually, e.g., datasets can be published in advance of a full-fledged article. Researchers can also share information about experiments that didn't work out" a huge benefit for those who are unavailingly working on similar projects and for future researchers."

No statistics exist regarding how many academics choose self-publishing. Many might soften toward the concept over time, but these days they remain largely conservative when adapting and embracing new methods.

"Self-publication of research is fairly rare other than depositing papers in a public access archive. The reason is both pragmatic and professional," explains Dr. Fabio Rojas, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University and self-published author of Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure.

"Pragmatically, you are almost never rewarded for self-published work. The reason is that promotion committees want to know that the research has been vetted by third parties. Professionally, we want people to read our work and help us improve. While I may complain about rejected papers, I usually do admit that the reviewers often make good points," he says. "So there are few reasons to self-publish. For example, maybe the work is too controversial, or you prefer speedy publication because it can take years to publish the normal way. How does academia perceive self-publishing? Very poorly!"

What's Wrong with Tradition?

Nothing is wrong with the traditional academic publishing track for faculty, students, and other scholarly types comfortable with the process. But self-publishing opens them up to a far higher degree of flexibility, even creativity, than before. Academics hoping to push the limits of media or expedite the process of sharing their studies would likely find this option far more appealing.

Between writing and distribution, academic publishing takes anywhere between six months and two years. Depending on which self-publishing route one decides to take, releasing research to audiences could be instantaneous. But even if they elect for something a little more intense, they still control when their work is made available.

Traditional academic publishing comes at a major cost to the consumers who need the articles and books most. In the U.K., for example, schools pay an average of  £200 million annually for journal subscriptions.

Over the next two years, the British government will make all academic research conducted using federal funding open to the public at no additional expense. Such a measure allows the very institutions and individuals who sponsored the undertakings to read what they paid for without paying even more for it.

"I am a fan of self-publishing for some work," says Rojas. "In a world where journals charge thousands of dollars for work that was produced for free" remember, professors get no compensation from journals" we need to seriously consider new forms of getting our work out."

Some institutions, most notably MIT and Stanford, front open courseware initiatives where educators may opt in and share their lectures, notes, and other research materials for free. General and discipline-specific websites, social networks, and databases (more on them later) also streamline the process of finding papers at little to no cost to readers.

"There is a form of self-publishing that is standard in some academic fields," Rojas continues. "It is normal in physical sciences, and some social sciences, to deposit a paper in arXiv or Social Science Research Network."

Self-publishing saves schools and individuals money by allowing them to ‘cherry-pick which resources they want. While time is a major concern in the traditional academic publishing process, money is the primary issue. More independent routes might provide a comfortable middle ground where consumers pay less, but researchers still earn some compensation for their work.

The Path to Self-Publishing

"To date, academia has been slow to embrace ebook self-publishing," says Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords. "However, I think this will change as more reading moves to screens, and as academics find inspiration from mainstream self-published authors."

Regardless of whether an academic chooses to publish in an ebook or bound format, or if the work in question is an essay or a book, the same rules apply:

  • Know the material. Establishing and maintaining credibility in academia relies heavily on presenting reliable, verifiable research.
  • Test, retest, edit, re-edit, and take any other precautions necessary to publish solid materials. If readers don't feel like they can trust a writer, they will seek information from someone else.
  • Think of audiences as a privilege to be earned through hard work and honest research. They are not a right to which anyone is entitled merely because they list "published author" on their CVs and Twitter profiles.

To attract and retain a loyal audience, an author must also know what that audience wants. Readers aren't stupid, and they resent being treated as such. Pick a specific target audience and write to their comprehension levels. What a physics professor writes for the general public should be significantly different than what he or she would feel comfortable showing to Stephen Hawking, for example. No author is capable of satisfying everyone, so concentrate on reaching a more narrowly defined demographic.

Self-publishing requires research well beyond an article's content. Authors need to choose which format best suits their needs. They need to find a publisher whose interface and pay structure (if any) stand in congruence with their ultimate goals. They need to decide whether they need an agent, and how they plan to promote the publication. It's an overwhelming amount of information to process. Organize time around specific goals. Streamlining reduces stress and affords a greater degree of flexibility when paired with explicitly-defined objectives. For example, one author might want to devote an hour a night to comparing and contrasting publishers; after selecting the most appropriate fit, they can move on to the next goal of deciding whether to hire an agent. And so forth.

Getting Started

Academics who find self-publishing a tantalizing prospect have plenty of platforms and options to pursue. There is no "one size fits all" solution. So any authors attempting to release their papers, books, and other research materials on their own terms need to explore what each format offers in terms of compensation, communication, and other factors.


ResearchGate‘s community extends to 2.7 million academics, most of them in medicine and the biological sciences, though all disciplines are welcome. Tens of millions of papers have been uploaded to the site, which serves as a blend of publishing company and social network, nurturing collaboration between researchers worldwide. Best of all, it costs nothing to sign up and share.

"Everything on ResearchGate is centered around and for the convenience of the researcher," says Bengsch. "They can follow their peers' work easily and share their research with them. If researchers have a question, they can ask their peers in our ‘topics' feature and receive a helpful answer within a few hours. This is also how researchers often find their collaborators on the network."

Bengsch also points out how users take advantage of analytics to gauge the popularity and perceived validity of their work. "Researchers can build and monitor their reputation on ResearchGate. This is especially useful for researchers who chose to publish their work online. Everything they contribute can be evaluated by their peers. This evaluation is the basis for our RG Score, a new way to measure scientific reputation."


"Lulu has helped countless academic authors who seek more control of their ideas and curricula publish books that they can then make available directly to their students and peers at a price they dictate," says Dan Dillon, Lulu‘s director of product marketing. "Lulu offers authors, both academic and not, the opportunity to take full control of their work and focus on creating the best content rather than finding a publisher. Taking their work directly to their audiences has helped countless academic authors create an impact."

For academics with longer works looking to publish in ebook or bound formats, companies like Lulu might be best. Prices vary depending on what an author wants, ranging anywhere from free to $3,199 for the most generous package. Complimentary consultations are available to help authors decide which format and services suit their specific needs.


Although Smashwords cannot quote an exact number of scholarly participants, researchers and professors like Rojas use the site to create and distribute ebooks for general and academic audiences alike. Rojas called the site "excellent, easy to use, and user-friendly."

Every academic's self-publishing journey varies, and Rojas explains how he came around. "Grad Skool Rulz began as an advice column on the blog. People kept telling me that it should be a book. Eventually, I agreed. Once I got tenure, I compiled all the columns into a book," he explains.

"Then I decided to self-publish for the following reasons. First, the book is blunt, and I didn't want anonymous referees interfering with the message I wanted to get out. My views on graduate school are much more blunt and direct than most professors are comfortable with," he says. "Second, I wanted the book to be accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Smashwords is easy to use, and the authors choose the price. I now charge $3. Third, I make more money per sale than I would with a regular publisher. So: blunt material, access, and money all factored into my decision."

Once a writer formats their manuscript according to the Smashwords style guide, they can upload a cover image and distribute the final product in a variety of formats, including epub, PDF, mobi (Kindle), and more.

"If the book is properly formatted and meets the legal and mechanical requirements of our retailers as described in the Style Guide, we distribute the book to the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and to public libraries," says Coker. "The author sets their own price and retains all rights to their work. The author earns 60-80% of the sales price as their royalty. Smashwords takes a small commission on all sales of approximately 10% of the retail price. The retailers report the sales back to Smashwords, and we pay the authors quarterly."

Other Great Options

Although academia remains a little sluggish when it comes to independent, self-published research, communities and services providing such opportunities continue to thrive and grow. Some of the following resources also stand at the forefront of broadening what all academic publishing can be.

  • More than 2.5 million academics congregate at this hybrid of social network and research database. Like ResearchGate, lets authors upload their work, connect with contemporaries in their field, receive peer reviews, and discover how popular their work is through detailed analytics. Users may also download other scholars' papers for reference and inspiration and follow online journal archives.
  • arXiv: Cornell University heads up this initiative collecting free research covering statistics, physics, computer science, mathematics, quantitative finance, and quantitative biology. It currently houses more than 836,000 works, and currently accepts submissions meeting the school's stringent requirements.
  • Mendeley: Academics seeking a free, painless conduit for collaborating with contemporaries, sharing their research for review, and staying abreast of the latest findings should check out Mendeley. It even allows for quick editing right there within the interface.
  • Social Science Research Network: For social science-oriented academics, SSRN is an excellent resource for sharing, buying, and selling relevant research. Despite the name, the site supports a wide range of business, liberal arts, humanities, and health topics. It costs nothing to simply upload a paper.
  • PhD2Published: PhD2Published specifically targets academics sharing their research for the very first time. Although it doesn't offer publishing opportunities, its frank, informed advice makes it an essential read when beginning to weigh self-publishing and traditional options.

Is an Agent Right for You?

Self-publishing academics probably don't need an agent. Because the format inherently means authors "broker deals" (as it were) themselves, hiring one might be a superfluous undertaking.

"I have never used an agent. Most academic work has a limited audience, so I am not sure how an agent would make money from self-published academic work," says Rojas.

However, many agents now work as consultants in direct response to the swelling popularity of self-publishing. Academics with an uncertain grasp of promotions, distribution, and editing minutiae could benefit from their advice. Both WritersMarket and provide opportunities to discuss such matters with experienced literary and publishing professionals. The latter even hosts a database for visitors to seek out a specific agent or consultant who might answer their questions and serve as a sounding board.

The Benefits of Peer Review

Unlike mainstream authors, academics turning to self-publishing need to consider the peer review process.

"To secure quality of content that is published via the self-publishing route, we recommend to publish online and within a community where peers can review in a transparent and time efficient manner," says Bengsh.

Crowdsourcing has become a popular strategy for peer reviewing, providing the same level of legitimacy to an approved publication without all the time devouring. Self-publishing academics posting their research to social platforms such as ResearchGate or enjoy access to a community of contemporaries. Participants take part in vetting research, offering up commentaries and corrections to make a piece even better. Because these discussions take place in real time (or, at least, "real time" when compared to the traditional academic publishing process), this allows the author to make revisions and retractions immediately.

Promoting Your Work

Academics looking to self-publish must take the initiative to promote their own work if they hope to reach the widest and most receptive audience possible.

Social media, whether it comes in the form of peer review- and collaboration-oriented resources like Mendeley or ResearchGate or standards like Twitter and Facebook, is almost a necessity. Use these networks to get acquainted with industry professionals and other academics. Actively participate in conversations and offer feedback, insight, and advice. Be polite. Be knowledgeable. Avoid spamming or otherwise appearing desperate. Once it comes time to share that a self-publication is now available, followers will show the same support in kind.

There's also the Goodreads Author Program, which connects writers directly with their readers for free. Some of the more active participants organize Q&As, chats, virtual book tours, and meetings with book clubs via Skype or Google Hangouts. Some academics, such as Columbia University's Oliver Sacks (who is not self-published), participate in this initiative to promote their research.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Good spelling. Good grammar. Good content: You could write with the eloquence of Eliot, the wit of Wilde, and the insight of Ishiguro, but nobody will pay much attention to your work if it reads like a kindergartner wrote it. Edit your work. And if editing isn't your strong point, commandeer a trusted colleague or hire a professional to do it for you.
  • Peer review: A formal peer review process is obviously not part of self-publishing, but it's something you should consider. The lack of academic oversight might prevent many researchers from taking your work seriously, even if all the points and findings are solid. Consider paying for a peer review service to show readers how devoted you are to furthering your chosen field.
  • Don't slack: It's called self-publishing because you're the one exerting the effort. Stay on track with to-do lists, calendars, reward systems, and any other organizing technique that keeps you motivated and working.
  • Set clear, realistic goals: We hate to break it to you like this, but you probably won't end up the academic self-publishing world's J.K. Rowling. You have to set achievable, clearly defined goals for yourself when pursuing this path. Break them up into smaller pieces to stay on top of the myriad factors self-publishing involves.
  • Do your research: Beyond the research for your paper or book, of course. Don't just plunge into a self-publishing option without a plan. Find out what each company offers in terms of author compensation. Choose between ebook, print on demand, or traditional print formats. Analyze your needs and decide whether you really need an agent. Decide what promotions work best for the type of audience you want to reach. Self-publishing is an intense undertaking. Approaching it recklessly will probably not yield the results you want.
  • Know your audience: The easiest strategy for reaching an audience? Actually taking the time to know them. Write to them in the language they'll respond to most. College freshmen, for example, probably won't be able to focus on more jargon-driven rhetoric, while fellow professors might find reductive language and ideas too dull and obvious. Knowing your audience also involves researching the best promotional strategies to reach them.
  • Consider multimedia: If ebooks seem the right fit for your goals, you might want to stand out by incorporating multimedia.

The traditional structure of academic publishing may not entirely go away anytime soon. But professors and other researchers have far more opportunities available to control the publication, distribution, and promotion of their work. Whether they opt for a collaborative social networking experience, upload a paper to a database, or spring for a bound book, these opportunities empower above all else.