Why self-publishing

I wrote this small book as an introduction, before entering the domain of self-publishing. I thought it would be a convenient way for my future readers to know my work and life in the Maya Highlands of Guatemala, prior to putting out my articles and books. Self-publishing on Amazon immediately struck me as an enticing idea. I sometimes feel as if I am living in a forgotten outpost of the world. Being used to publications that often do not extend much outside of Guatemala, self-publishing would widen the scope of my work enormously. Since e-books provide instant global access, it could promote my work as an academic, writing about Maya culture from within, and at the same time drawing the attention to its tremendous continuity. There is also the option of publishing in other formats, like hard-copy when demand requires. In all, it’s a powerful tool to strengthen my reputation as an academic and to engage in more networks.

One of the recurrent themes in the debate in favor of self-publishing is the element of control over your own publication. Traditional publishers may have a big say in the outcome of your work. In that sense, self-publishing furnishes the freedom you always wanted to have. Another argument in favor is the lethargy of the traditional publishing process. I remember one chapter in a book that took almost ten years to get published, ten years in which you keep on researching and developing your idea to the point that you feel like rewriting the chapter.

True, academia initially has been skeptical about it. Like every new opportunity, it is viewed with caution. The main reason for its reluctance lies in the fact that the self-publishing process skips the peer review, greatly revered in the traditional way of publishing academic work. I am quite familiar with it since I have some 50 articles out in academic journals. There is no doubt that the peer-review is important and can be very helpful in polishing your argument. But then, the material that I will be publishing will always be read first by my colleagues. I’d like to hear the opinions of others before sending a piece to the public. And as I see it, even though that I shall start now with self-publishing, I will not stop offering my work to journals or to other traditional publishers. To me it as a complementary opportunity for disseminating my work. Moreover, by now I have already published a sufficient number of books and articles through mainstream publishing to have established solid credentials. Yet, I still have so much material that I would like to share and have available for research.

In addition, we should not overestimate praise for the peer review either. I guess every scholar has stories of unpleasant reviews where one wonders if there are other aspects at stake than the mere academic scrutiny. I do remember receiving peer reviews where I sincerely doubted if the reviewer actually knew my work, of which, indeed, a large part is published in Guatemala, and written in Spanish. As I said, I often decide to write in Spanish, precisely because I work with Maya people and want them to be able to read my publications.

Apart from that, many scholars have already recognized the benefits of the internet. It is fast and it meets your immediate desire to share a new discovery with your fellow researchers, instead of having to wait two, three years to divulge an interesting idea. Blogs like Maya Decipherment in our field are completely accepted as a reference source. Thus, though self-publishing for academics may have started out somewhat hesitantly, the last years appears to be a fast growing enterprise. There is plenty of public debate (option one, two, three) about it, and even publications, like Self-Publishing for Academics.

Self-publishing also has some practical benefits. Several of the books I have published would never have been published the traditional way. I prefer texts with many images in full color on paper that does justice to the photos. It enhances the material, and I have noticed that Maya readers are very visual. But that is expensive and, indeed, these books would never have been published without the additional funding I found for them. Self-publishing in e-books would bypass these obstacles. Besides, I have several books that are out of print. Here again self-publishing can make these works available to the academic world.

Finally there is also the economic factor. I always liked being independent. My philosophy of life is: I am only living once; I am going to do what I really want to do. Thus, when I couldn’t get a scholarship for my doctoral thesis on the Rabinal Achi – Maya studies in Holland was very limited – I organized it myself. I rented a house in Rabinal and to earn income, I worked as a cultural tour guide for Dutch groups, as I explained above. This way, I was able to finance my own fieldwork and study, and write my PhD thesis which came out in 2000.

Since 2000 I have worked as a consultant on educational projects. It combines my drive to raise the level of pre-hispanic history in Guatemala itself, to return the history to the people, and at the same time to have the freedom to pursue my own investigations. However, it did mean that I had no steady income, and worked on a per-project basis. But then, living in Guatemala is not expensive, and the unique knowledge I was gathering outweighs the lack of income.

Yet lately, getting funding from aid agencies, be them international or non-governmental is becoming harder and harder in Guatemala. Self-publishing may be a way to earn some extra income stay, independent, and keep doing the work that I like to do.

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