Lecturer Practices What He Teaches in Book

Although his 2002 book, “The Question of Happiness,” was initially not very popular, Lecturer on Psychology Tal D. Ben-Shahar ’96 told his student Saviz Sepah ’06 that if it were truly a good book, its time would eventually come and more people would read it.

Four years after Ben-Shahar self-released his book via iUniverse, he is teaching the largest course on campus and his agent is looking for a trade publisher to reprint “The Question of Happiness.” His class, Psychology 1508, “The Psychology of Leadership,” boasts an enrollment of 842 students.

iUniverse’s print-on-demand package offers a fast and easy way for authors to publish their books and sell copies based on the number of orders received. Ben-Shahar said the agents and publishers he first approached were unresponsive, so he paid iUniverse about $300 and within three months, the book was selling on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Self-publishing is fairly uncommon in academia, where published work is an important measure of scholarship and promotion potential.

However, Ben-Shahar said that in the field of psychology, an article in a refereed academic journal has more clout than a published book. “It doesn’t hurt but it doesn’t help,” he said of his self-published work.

Psychology Chair Stephen M. Kosslyn said he was optimistic about the future of Ben-Shahar’s book.

“Sometimes when a person is just starting out, it’s very hard to get novel, ground-breaking work published. So, it isn’t a sin to self-publish at the beginning of a career,” Kosslyn wrote in an e-mail. “However, if the work is solid, it will survive peer-review, and eventually be published elsewhere. I believe this is what the future has in store for Professor Ben-Shahar’s work.”

Ben-Shahar said he was “very happy” with iUniverse, with whom he had previously worked to publish a collection of essays.

Among the advantages of self-publishing is retaining the rights to the work. “You have complete and full control over the content,” Ben-Shahar said, adding that he would not adhere to all the revisions a trade publisher might suggest.

Working with a trade publisher does include the advantages of packaged marketing.

While “The Question of Happiness” was not sold in bookstores, Ben-Shahar said that the 15 percent royalties he receives are higher than if he had worked with a trade publisher.

Fern E. Reiss ’85, CEO of PublishingGame.com and Expertizing.com, said she would not recommend that professors self-publish because they would not be vetted in the same way than if they had worked with a trade publisher or more preferably, an academic publisher.

But Reiss, who is a former Crimson news editor, said self-publishing success could be used as leverage.

“Once you’ve self-published successfully, and sold a number of copies, a trade publisher is more likely to pick you up—you’ve proven that there’s a market for the book,” she said.

With self-publishing, Reiss said that academics lose what she called “the cachet factor,” which comes with traditional forms for publishing. “It depends on whether cachet or cash means more to you,” she said.

Of his rise from self-publishing author to being represented by an agent and awaiting a contract with a publishing house, Ben-Shahar said, “I waited for an opportunity that came now.”

A former “Positive Psychology” student, Sepah said this fit with Ben-Shahar’s references to University of Michigan psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson’s research that positive emotions strengthen personal resources, increasing chances of success.

“This is a good example of how he encourages people to pursue their passions and success will rise out of that,” Sepah said.

Ben-Shahar will go on leave next year to revise “The Question of Happiness” and also work on a new book, “The Permission To Be Human,” which will not be self-published.

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at luluzhou@fas.harvard.edu.