Sri Lanka? A book on Sri Lankan history?

By Alison Fox, on 12 June 2018

Today’s guest post is by Zoltán Biedermann, editor of Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History and Senior Lecturer and Head of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at UCL.

and is part of a special series to celebrate UCL Press reaching one million downloads.

Sri Lanka? A book on Sri Lankan history? How many copies would that ever sell? I imagine that’s what people thought when I first spoke about the idea of publishing a collection of articles on Sri Lankan history – not the kind of British imperial, post-1800, or even post-colonial material that tends to find an audience in UK academia, but pre-modern themes, medieval, even ancient, history. My co-editor (Alan Strathern from Oxford) and I felt hapless.

We obviously thought that a big university press would be great, but we also realized how that might produce a rather pricey book that one of our main target audiences – students and academics in Sri Lanka – would never be able to afford. The kind of book that typically sells about 100-200 copies worldwide over a period of five years. We had both been there before with earlier projects. And then UCL Press appeared.

First we thought: how odd, a new press we had never heard of before. Someone told us that it existed a long time ago, and was just being resuscitated – not the most appealing narrative. Someone else told us not to bother, since new presses appear all the time, and producing books with them often results in failure. I still thought to myself: what harm can it do to contact the colleagues?

Lara Speicher came over for a chat, and suddenly I felt this might be going somewhere. Lara was calm but encouraging, professional but also warm and ready to embrace our quirky idea. Over at Oxford, Alan said why not… and so we began to move forward, slowly at first, as our authors were still finishing their contributions… and then more swiftly, as the UCL Press team read the material, sent it out for reviews, drafted a contract, held our hands as we did some more editing, and finally sent the manuscript into production. The copyediting was swift and professional. The designers did a great job not just with our numerous images, but also with difficult diacritics used to render South Asian scripts into our own. I cannot quite remember the exact timeline – I think that’s the kind of thing one tends to forget – but I do have a distinct recollection of that magic moment in 2017: when I suddenly held a beautiful paper copy of our volume in my hands and was able to see the same thing as a PDF online. The rest is history, as they say.

In less than a year, we have had over 5,000 downloads worldwide. Colleagues and students in Sri Lanka, who could never have afforded the book has it been printed by a traditional UK university press, have had instant free access to it even in remote locations. We have held two launch events here in London and are having another one in Colombo in July 2018. It’s been a long journey with a very happy ending – and who knows how many more people we will reach over the next few years?

Download Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History free here.