Category Archives: Publishing

Some Bible Lovers

I’m on a train heading to Boston. If you notice a dearth of religion scholars in your neighborhood this weekend, it’s because it’s time for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. If a religious emergency comes up, take two of your favorite scripture and call the office next week. Viewed from the outside, this must be one of the stranger scholarly gatherings. A few thousand people get together in posh hotels and convention centers to exchange ideas about which the larger world cares very little. Ironically, the vast majority of people in the world are religious, but as a society if we know enough about the Bible to get us through the most recent indiscretion, so we’re good. Let the scholars have their fun.

This year there’ll be a session on monsters and monster theory that I helped to organize. That doesn’t mean I’ll get to attend it—the conference is a very different beast for those on the exhibit hall floor—but I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s happening. Years ago I discovered that many of my colleagues who are teaching shared an interest in monsters. Many of us weren’t aware of the others because this isn’t the kind of thing you talk about in polite company. One thing an editor may be is a vector. We hear what widely separated people are working on. Every great once in a while we’re able to put the pieces together. So it was with monsters. There seemed to be a critical mass, and two or three colleagues took the idea and ran with it. Or ran from it, whichever you do with monsters.

For me Boston will be a series of meetings that will blend into one another until I’ll have to consult my notes to remember anything at all. If I could feel this wanted outside the conference I’d never have to dream of being a rock star. You see, editors are the gatekeepers of academic publication. For those lucky enough to have teaching jobs, it’s publish or perish, so the editor is a vital link. The rest of the year we fall into the background. Emails go ignored. Reminders are forgotten. Requests unanswered. But here, out on that carpeted concrete, we’re the ones they’ve come to see. What we do in the conference matters very little to the world at large. But we do it anyway. We gather together just before Thanksgiving, thankful to be reminded that there are others like us.

Contracting Something

Book contracts make me happy. After slipping from higher education into the limbo of editing, it took a few years before realizing that not all books have to be academic monographs. For the past couple of years I’ve been silently writing a book intended for general readers. The subject will remain hidden for now, but a contract for the book has arrived and I’m happy. As my friend Marvin says, “for a man being published is about the closest you can come to giving birth.” There’s a bit of truth to that. Several months of thoughts growing in your head finally culminate in a full developed form, capable of surviving outside the confines of your protective mind.

The motivation for many academics to write is “publish or perish.” In my career track I both published and perished. The thing is, I write because I read. It seems unfair to read so much and not to share a bit of what I’ve learned. If you read this blog regularly you know that I have a restless intellect—the kind of thing that in the old days would’ve made you a professor. I no longer have access to university libraries with their arcane journals and massive collections, but reading on the bus is its own kind of research. (Anyone who’s tried to write notes on a bus, however, knows that the research is limited strictly to what can be remembered after a wearisome 90-minute-plus ride in stop-and-go traffic.) A few years back I decided to start writing up what I’d been observing. Slowly a book was formed. The process is not a swift one.

Many people question the ability of editors to write books. No, seriously. Agents are generally only interested in professors, celebrities, and journalists, not those who may have been one of the above once upon a time. That’s why this book contract feels like a small victory. Weathering the Psalms was written for other professors while I was still one myself. A lot has happened since then. I’ve read hundreds of books in the intervening years. Slow study that I am, it took some time before I realized I could begin to analyze all of this and write it in a way the average educated reader could find engaging. Agents declined the project, but now I’ve found a publisher who believes. When you work on your own, like many authors do, finding just one believer is sometimes all that it takes.

Justice for All

One of the perks of working for a publisher is author talks. I’ve worked for three publishers now, and the last two have made great efforts to bring authors to their New York offices to present their work, in a kind of dry run, to those in the industry. When an author (whose book will eventually feature on this blog, so I don’t want to provide any spoilers just yet) was to speak on misogyny this week, I quickly signed up for a seat. Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, but I could never understand how one human being could ever feel superior to another. As a child with no father around, my experience suggested that women were the strong ones. Yet when out in society I saw men always stepping in to take charge. What was wrong here?

I realize that I view life through male lenses. I’m also aware that gender isn’t nearly as definitive as we tend to think it is. Biology fits us with bits and pieces, and some of those constructed somewhat like me assume this gives them the right to dominate others. And they say we’re better than animals. Better at what, I ask? No, this isn’t about chauvinism—a man stepping in to support weaker women. This is about justice, plain and simple. We’re all born human. Humanity is nothing without those of both genders as well as those somewhere between. What should separate humankind from the vicissitudes of nature is the inherent commitment to fairness. Life is harsh and not all receive fair treatment. Do not listen to the narrative coming out of Washington, DC! The father of lies dwells there. And yes, I mean “father.”

We used to take pride in having climbed above the mere animals. We have constructed something that used to be known as democracy. Lawmakers, while fighting against women’s rights in word, nevertheless tacitly supported them at home. Now our government has declared open war on women. Men who have no idea what it is like to be viewed as and treated like an object every single day of their lives are making laws to punish those who do. I feel as though the sky is about to crack open and that blind principle we call justice is about to shout “Enough!” That’s not, however, the way that nature works. It is only when women are treated equally with men that we’ll ever be able to call ourselves civilized. Or even human. Until that day we’ll hunker down in our caves and await lawmakers who have any inkling at all of what fairness, what justice, even means.

How to Talk to an Editor

There are right ways and wrong ways to get your book published. When approaching an editor, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, we’re human. Yes, I know that I have something you want. The usual career track for an academic is Brown, Harvard, dissertation published by a certain academic press with which I’m familiar. I get that. The internet, however, has made publishing into something different than what it used to be. First of all, you can self-publish. Sorting through all the self-proclaimed experts can be a full-time job when you’re trying to find the latest authoritative treatment of a subject. Also, the internet has made research into publishers much easier than it used to be. My first book, back in the day, was simply sent off to a European publisher that specialized in academic monographs in my subject area and then I moved on. Today authors see flashy first books online and want just that. You can have it all, they’re told.

My LinkedIn profile took a definite boost once I became an editor. Now I often think it would be great if someone asking to connect actually knew me. But I digress. One way not to get your book published is to state right on your LinkedIn profile—or other social media—that you have a great book and you’re letting all publishers know. You then invite them to connect on LinkedIn and your book announcement, like a peacock’s tail, is supposed to attract the hungry editor. In reality what attracts an editor is professionalism. Research publishers, find out what they actually publish. That’s pretty easy these days; there’s more than funny videos on the internet. Even browsing titles similar to your own on Amazon can help. Pay attention to the publishers of the books you’re using for your research. If a publisher has done several books in your area they are more likely to be interested in your proposal than a publisher who’s never ventured into those waters.

It may be easy to think of us editors as sitting bored in our lonely cubicles, awaiting the next great thing. The fact is we receive plenty of submissions and we have to sort through them. Treat the subject professionally. Many of us hold doctorates and are keenly aware of hyperbole when we see it. You don’t need to tell the editor your book is ground-breaking. They will make that decision based on the evidence before them. And trust your editor when it comes to things like how a book should be titled or placed or marketed. Publishers—some of which have been around for centuries—daily face the harsh realities of producing books in an era of YouTube and online television. We know it’s difficult out there. Many of us want to help. Some of us write books and have to go through the same travails as other authors in finding publishers of our own. Do your research on publishers. When an editor offers free advice, take it. A little bit of extra work by an author goes a long way in helping a book proposal succeed.

The Struggle for Relevance

Futility is a specialization of those of us who consider ourselves fans of Ecclesiastes. Thus it is that the blog of an editor gets so little attention among academics. Since you’ve been kind enough to drop in, I’m going to share some secrets with you. Make sure the door is closed. Ready? I want to talk about academic publishing. If you, like me, have written academic monographs, you’ve probably figured out that we aren’t famous yet. What’s going on here? What happened to the day when “I wrote a book” meant something? Like all organisms, academic publishing evolves. Many academics want to write for a wider audience, but sometimes miss the bigger picture. Here are some tips to help out:

If you want to write for non-academics get to know some. A good first step is ditching the jargon. “Prosopography” wasn’t on many people’s SAT vocabulary flash cards. Even if you know how to use a thesaurus to find an archaic synonym to use, don’t assume your reader will do the same. Try reading a novel once in a while. They can teach academics quite a bit about how to communicate. Learning to speak the vernacular is only part of the battle, though. The larger part is learning what is of interest outside the academy. Some things, such as Ecclesiastes, aren’t. Oh, I know, I know! Five years of your life spent on some obscure topic should be worth publication. It probably is. A handful of people will read it (print run numbers would only make you weep). If you want to reach a wider readership, you have to go where people actually live. What’s of interest to them? Hoi polloi. They won’t bite. To write for a wider readership you need to learn what people find interesting and what they simply don’t.

An editor can be your friend here. You see, editors are measured by how well their books sell. We can usually tell at a glance if a topic is in the “less than 200 copy” camp or not. I know that you were taught in your doctoral program to find some abstruse subject never before addressed and research it from every possible angle. Write up your results and publish. A far better way to write for a wider readership is to begin a conversation with your editor. Are you thinking of a book on a specific topic? An editor can tell you if it’s likely to work or not. The idea of writing the book your colleagues said would be hot and then finding a publisher seldom works to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s all about communication. And you, dear readers, now know something most professors don’t.

Citation Anxiety

As a recovering academic, I sometimes am compelled to look when Academia.edu sends me notices. Academia, most of my academic colleagues don’t realize, is a for-profit website that advocates open access. “Open access” (or OA in the biz) is academic trash talk for making the published results of research available for free. It’s a great idea, but it often doesn’t take into account how complex publishing really is. Peer review, printing, and distribution of articles all take money and to make all research free cuts out what those who publish the research can use to fund the venture (with a cut taken out, of course, to make the whole thing worth their while). That’s the way capitalism works. (Look it up under economics.) In any case, not realizing that Academia is also a profit-making venture, lots of us put our published papers on it, making them freely available to anybody who cares.

Once in a while Academia will send its users a flattering notice: “X-hundred people have cited your papers.” Be still, my throbbing heart! Desperate for any attention, most academics (let alone us exes) are thrilled that more than 100 people have read their stuff. So I clicked their link. “309 papers mention the name ‘Steve Wiggins’ or ’S.A. Wiggins’” it cheerfully reads. I know something the robot apparently doesn’t. I’m not the only Steve Wiggins on Academia. There is a slightly older agronomist whose name I share. He’s employed in academia and has more papers than me. And “S. A. Wiggins” could be anybody. My 309 paper mentions shrinks to double digits. Not high double-digits either. Names are hardly unique identifiers. With some seven-and-a-half billion people, there’s bound to be some reduplication. I always tell the few curious to search “Steve A. Wiggins”—with the quotation marks—to find the few, true references.

Taking on the internet is a fool’s errand. This blog gets a few piddly hits a day. I often consider closing it down. Readers don’t share it enough to get any attention. It takes a lot of effort on my part since I write books (both fiction and non) in my hours not at work. So when Academia shows up in my inbox my excitement spikes, just for a moment, and I go on with my other work, which never seems to get done. And then, when I’m sure nobody else is looking, I go ahead and click on the link.

1985

My edition of 1984 contains an afterword by Erich Fromm. I’m afraid I’ve been in publishing long enough to be somewhat cynical about “value-added content” that’s used to sell subsequent printings. Those who buy a book off the shelf want the text of George Orwell’s classic, not the comments of some academic, right? The intended market, however, is for classroom use—the sweet spot for academic publishers. A few adoptions at major university and what is otherwise any old tome from the used book market becomes a profitable venture. My edition of 1984 is a 62nd impression with a copyright of 1961. The class I took where it had to be read was two decades later than that. In any case, Erich Fromm. I first learned about him in college, and given the underlining in his essay I know I read it back when I took the class. In rereading it decades later, an un-remembered point came clearly to me—Fromm’s brief essay is on prophecy.

In the popular mindset, prophecy is predicting the future. While there’s some element of that in the Bible, by far the majority of prophetic texts serve as a warning to change how things are done before it’s too late. There’s a contingency about it. “Or else.” If there’s no possibility of change, why castigate people you’re only going to destroy anyway? Prophecy, despite its often dire outlook, is ultimately hopeful. Wrote Fromm “it was quite obviously [Orwell’s] intention to sound a warning by showing where we are headed.” But more important are the next words: “for unless we succeed in a renaissance of the spirit of humanism and dignity” all will be lost. The spirit of humanism.

Fromm was writing during the nuclear fear that I recall very well from childhood. As soon as I was old enough to comprehend what we had created, I feared we would eventually loose it upon ourselves. I was hardly a humanist at the time, but I was, even in my young days, an unwitting advocate of its spirit. I believed all people had a chance, or should have a chance. Foreign evil, as it was being presented by Ronald Reagan, seemed more fictional than Orwell. The average person didn’t want war. It was the Party that needed our fear. I graduated from college, seminary, and my doctoral program, eventually forgetting Fromm’s words. The Whitehouse had finally found its way out of the Bushes and into moderate humanism. Then Fromm came back.