It is possible. You just have to be organised. More easily said than done, I know. But many of us are doing it. Writing books as an independent scholar means that nobody pays you for the time you need to research, read, travel, dig in archives, draft and re-draft your chapters.
You are doing it in your own time and, most of all, you have to find that time. I have spent many an evening after work, an early morning before work or a weekend or holiday to make some progress on my current book.
The annoying thing is, as many of you will know, that it always take a while to get back into the writing process before you actually produce something. I usually have to re-read the last thing I’ve written to remember exactly where I left off, and I frequently get side-tracked reading around and waste an entire session I had set aside for writing only to catch up with what I was doing.
So it is important to find larger chunks of time – to start on a Friday evening when you come home and continue working with appropriate breaks until you need to go back to your day job on Monday morning.
Naturally, this kills any remaining social life you might have, and those of your friends who are not the bookish types might get tired of you and look for better things to do than wait for your excuses why you can’t go out this weekend.
You might also take some books to work and sneak to a quiet corner during your lunch break where you can read half a chapter between bites of your sandwich, although it is likely that you either run into someone, sit next to a noisy group in the canteen or end up playing with your phone, so that you will not get much done in the end.
However, magically, I managed to complete the manuscript I had started way back in 2012, when I was still working at Northumbria University, earlier this year and I hope its publication date will still be in 2020.
I have to admit, however, that a large part of the research for the book was done when I was still officially in academia. I received a Small Grant from the British Academy in 2011 and used most of the money I was given to travel to archives across Europe to follow the three republicans exiles that were to be the subject of my book to the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany.
I gathered so much material over two years that I still have not reviewed everything I photographed in the many libraries and archives I visited, and a lot of material might never be used for anything.
With most of the research already under my belt, it was easier for me to finish the writing after I left the University in March 2015 to work as a journalist. Also, funnily enough, the fact that I had to write all day in my paid job meant that it was somewhat easier to continue writing when I got home in the evenings.
Journalism is a very good drill because you cannot afford writer’s block. You simply have to find the words to explain what is going on, and it is very useful to transfer this practice to academic writing: just explain in simple words what was happening to the subjects of your book and try to understand why it was happening. But I digress.
Writing books as an independent scholar can also be very unsettling. It is likely that you will get a lot less feedback from your peers in the field because you do not have time to attend research seminars and conferences, and there might not be any colleagues around who would happily read a chapter of your book in exchange for you proofreading their latest article. You might also find it harder to gain access to materials, even to secondary literature, unless you find a well-stocked university library that takes pity on you.
I was lucky enough to be granted the status of honorary associate professor at Warwick University for the space of three years, so I had full library rights and could access every available online database. But it is still not the same as being on campus on a daily basis and browsing the shelves where you might accidentally stumble across a useful book while looking for another.
And, finally, getting a contract for your book is not as easy as it might be if you were in a prestigious academic post. University presses are very cautious about which books they publish, and they might be extra cautious when the author does not come with an appropriate affiliation or recommendations from senior scholars in the field. Nevertheless, it is an open market, manuscripts will be read and, hopefully, the press’s decision will be made on merit. So everyone should have an equal chance.
Once you publish, however, you might not get that book launch with colleagues in the University’s lecture theatre or the reading in your University bookshop. You cannot promote your research at international conferences because you are at work and do not have the time and money to travel. And if nobody knows you your book is less likely to be read – unless you are famous, of course, in which case none of the above will apply to you
Anyway, what I am trying to say is: do not give up on your dream to publish a scholarly book just because you are not working in academia. Some of the best books I have read in my field were written by retired civil servants or history enthusiasts who write because they care, not because they are scared of the next REF. But that’s another blog post waiting to be written.