Chris is co-founder of Prolifiko, writing productivity coach, writer and content consultant.

Academic publishers don’t like to admit they struggle to get their authors to submit on time, but delayed books or ‘slippage’ is a problem shared by publishing businesses across the world. It’s also a problem crying out for a new approach – this is how you get one. 

Slippage is the jargon publishers typically use for commissioned content that’s late, delayed or in one way or another, stuck in the pipeline. Our conversations with academic publishers over the past few years indicate that between 25 to 60 per cent of front list titles (new and forthcoming books) are normally subject to slippage and delay – sometimes even more.

Slippage costs

The business problems caused by delayed books are huge. Revenue is lost, planning gets impacted, targets are missed and financial forecasts get thrown up in the air. There’s a human cost too. We’ve spoken to editors who say that high levels of slippage in their departments mean they get unfairly labelled as ‘the people who can’t deliver’ – impacting career progression and prospects.

“25 to 60 per cent of front list titles are normally subject to slippage and delay.”

Publishers tend to see slippage as a business problem requiring a business solution – many initiatives have been tried. Some have introduced financial incentive schemes to encourage authors to keep to deadline whilst other publishers have revamped their communications processes to give authors reminders and nudges to submit. Many of initiatives are costly – we know of publishers who’ve invested large sums in digital submissions platforms to reduce friction.

But few initiatives work well – why so? To understand this, we need to take a step back and understand what motivates, demotivates, blocks and holds back authors from writing and submitting. In other words, to get a handle on the root cause we need to understand the individual.

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Time to get personal

We’ve worked with over 10,000 writers since we started Prolifiko in 2013 and have undertaken large research projects amongst authors of all types. At the London Book Fair this year, we launched the results of our large-scale study into academic writing practice where we surveyed 600 academic authors – from post graduate researchers to senior professors – about what helps and hinders their writing and publishing productivity.

The research reveals the pressures academic authors feel across the course of a career, what helps them write and the barriers and blockers they face. What we find is that authors get stuck in the writing process for complex, personal reasons and that these reasons change over the course of a career.

Different life stage, different pressures

For example, early on in their academic careers, authors primarily get stuck because they experience what we call ‘psychological’ barriers to writing. They stop writing because they feel overwhelmed by the writing process, they lack confidence and they frequently suffer with low-mood and self-doubt.

However, as an academic author progresses in their career these blockers change. Psychological barriers don’t disappear but they do they diminish. The emphasis switches to ‘time management’ blockers – practical challenges most likely related to the demands of their life and career stage.

“Authors get stuck in the writing process for complex, personal reasons.”

At mid-career, academic authors are super-busy. Their PhD is done and dusted but now they have new challenges at work and perhaps emerging family responsibilities that mean that they find it hard to prioritise writing. Juggling teaching and student interruptions becomes hard and the writing suffers.

At late career the pressures change again – and many disappear. Whilst an academic author now has reached or is reaching the pinnacle of their career, this means there are constant calls on their time in particular increased travel and public speaking. Finally, they experience pressure to leave a legacy of some kind in their chosen field.

But, some cope better – why?

The research also finds that some are better at dealing with the stresses and strains of academic life than others – and this is where it gets interesting for publishers wanting to find a solution to their books slippage problem.

We find that regardless of age, experience and seniority, the most productive and satisfied academic authors had all developed a ‘system’ of some kind to help them write. And by a ‘system’ we mean a collection of behaviours, routines and habits which help them prioritise their writing, get down to work, keep going – and finish. And the good news for publishers is that these positive behaviours can be learned – with the right intervention.

Related reads: Publish or perish, the barriers facing early career authors >>

Human hang ups

Whilst initiatives to reduce friction in the submissions process or to incentivise authors to keep to deadline may help, they don’t address the underlying reasons why authors get stuck with the process of writing.

Authors who get stuck with their writing do so for complicated human reasons. Because they lose confidence and self-esteem, struggle to prioritise, compare themselves unfavourably to their peers, feel overwhelmed or procrastinate endlessly to avoid the writing.

“The good news for publishers is that positive writing behaviours can be learned.”

People are at the root cause of slippage. It’s Individual authors – with all their hopes, hang ups, challenges and strengths – are who publishers must first understand if they want them to write and publish more. So far, publisher initiatives to address delay and slippage have focused mainly on the barriers to publishing – to submitting on time. Now it’s time they focussed on the barriers to writing.

By focusing on these human barriers, academic publishers can give their authors the support they need to hit their deadlines – and that is in the interests of writers, editors and publishers alike.

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