Wag the Book

I was pulling together a bibliography, you know, like one does, when I realized just how outdated the usual formats are.  Particularly the trinity invoked at the end of Chicago/Turabian—city: publisher, date.  Now, to their credit a number of more recent formats have dispensed with the “city” part.  Most presses have multiple offices and even those of us in the biz can’t always tell which one produced the book, which was, in all probability, printed elsewhere anyway.  Why list the city?  In this internet age, no physical copy of the book may have even been in the office.  The real problem, however, is the date.  Scholars want to know when something was published.  Publishers want to prolong the copyright (seventy years after an author’s death apparently isn’t long enough).  They can do this by using the next year as the copyright, as long as a book’s published in the latter half of the year.

Maybe you’ve had this happen too.  You put a book in your bibliography which, at the time, has a date a year later than it is in real-time.  You’re writing the future, apparently.  Or maybe publishers are just optimistic.  The fact is it’s a fiction.  Citations were invented so that you could find where an idea originated.  Dates can be important for a book that’s gone into multiple editions and you want to be sure to look in the correct one.  I had any illusions about permanency shattered when I realized that publishers routinely fix errors in books with no indication that they’ve done so.  It used to be that, if you knew how to read the printer’s key on the copyright page you could even figure out which printing of a book you held.  All of this fun disappears when we go electronic.

This sense of temporariness is problematic.  People ask me “Why don’t you get a Kindle?”  Books are an investment.  Consider iTunes.  How many times have you had to “rebuy” a song because you changed devices?  Or has your battery died right in the middle of something?  Have you tried to sell an MP3 you no longer listen to in a yard sale?  Books are physical objects—more than the words they contain.  They may be dated before they’re published, but they do have staying power.  Besides, citing an electronic source, what with broken links and all, is a tenuous business.  Those who write books want some indication that what they labor over for so long has a real presence in the world.  Even if you can’t say, precisely, when or where it was published.

Price of Learning

Holy Horror, as some are painfully aware, is priced at $45.  Even those of us in publishing have lessons we must learn, and one of them is that writing a trade book involves more than just a “friendly narrator” style and non-technical language.  It also involves a subject the public finds engaging (or at least what a literary agent thinks the public will find engaging).  Holy Horror throws two apparently disparate topics together: horror films and the Bible.  The fans of each don’t hang out in the same bars—the fans of the latter, in some circles, don’t go anywhere near bars!  My thinking was that this juxtaposition was odd enough to qualify as trade, but I also knew that you have to work your way up to that kind of readership.  That’s why I’m on Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook (followers and friends welcome!).  It’s not like I’ve got tons of spare time, but platforms must be built.

Book publishers face a dilemma: they have to sell books, but as I’ve noted before, they must do so profitably.  There are people like yours truly who’ll occasionally pay essentially a dollar a page (or at least a two-page spread) for a book that’s essential to their work.  As the capitalists grin, it’s “what the market will bear.”  I never thought of myself as a market.  To me, knowledge is priceless.  The effort that it takes to write a book is truly unimaginable to those who haven’t done it.  Obstacles exist almost from the inception.  Getting the resources you need, unless your employment comes with a free library pass, involves sacrifice.  I still look at other books I must read priced at about $45 and groan—how can I justify the expense?  It’s a strange club to which to belong.

My mother asked about Weathering the Psalms: “Is it the kind of book you get money for?”  In theory, yes.  I’ve yet to see any kind of profit from it since the tax forms you need to file for royalties cost more than the actual checks contain.  At least it’s not vanity publishing.  And you truly learn what it means to rob Peter to pay Paul.  It has nothing to do with gentiles.  Publishing is the price you pay for following your curiosity.  My books are very different from each other, a fact that comes with an invisible price tag that has little to do with money exchanging hands.  Well, maybe it does.  And maybe it does have something to do with gentiles.  Or maybe it’s an appeal to a higher power.  In a capitalist nation we all know what that is; herein lies holy horror.

The Heart of Publishing

My heart goes out to academic authors.  It really does.  They labor over a book important to their field and see it come out costing near triple digits and wonder why it’s not in the local bookstore.  There is, however, a very wide gap between academic and trade publishing.  It is bridged here and there by authors who value readers over reputation, but unless you deliberately try to learn how all of this works, it is bewildering.  Academics, you see, are area specialists by and large.  You don’t write a dissertation on the Bible, for example, but on a specific part of the Bible (New Testament or Hebrew Bible).  And within that section your specialization is not a single book, but often a small part of a book, or a theme.  I’ve seen dissertations written on a single Hebrew word.  Specialization.

With all of this tight focus, it’s easy to forget what browsing in a bookstore’s like.  Even with some of the incredible brick and mortar stores in Edinburgh, technical books had to be ordered—this was before Amazon.  When you check the books of colleagues out of libraries it doesn’t always occur that you do this because libraries are the only places that buy such books.  And with the explosion of doctoral degrees in shrinking areas of studies (there are no jobs here, folks!) the number of published dissertations has skyrocketed.  Even advanced scholars forget the average reading public would find their work impenetrable.  It’s not going to be in the local bookstore, and it costs so much because it sells so few copies.  I do feel for academic authors.

In addition to all the area specialization, it would make sense to research the academic publishing industry.  Yes, it is an industry—it has to try to turn a profit when sales are minimal.  And with so many books being published, libraries can’t keep up.  The end result is high prices.  I’m as guilty as the next academic at wishing economics would just go away and leave me alone.  I want to believe in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.   That’s not the way the world works, however.  At least not the publishing world in a capitalistic context.  The internet itself has become competition.  Much of the information’s out there for free.  So your academic book, when it comes out, will be priced out of your comfort range (been there, done that).  It’s not that your publisher doesn’t believe in you, but that they have to try to turn a profit.  All it takes to understand why is a bit of research.

Not that kind of book.

On Publishing

I fear I may be transitioning.  I may actually be becoming someone who knows something about publishing.  Reading about the merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill actually seemed interesting.  What’s happening to me?  Actually, the largest impact has been the realization that scholars need to become more aware of the world around them.  As a doctoral student I was taught to find an unexplored subject and write obscurely on it.  Then, when it’s time to publish, to say to the editor that general readers will understand and find it compelling.  It took some time, however, even though I frequented Waterstones and Blackwells, to realize that the books they housed were not the kinds of books I’d been taught to write.  Back in America, where the brands were Borders and Barnes and Nobel, the same thing applied.  People want books they can understand.

Two articles that caught my attention recently addressed the plight of the academic monograph.  One was “Worried About the Future of the Monograph? So Are Publishers” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The other was “Making Monographs Open” from Inside Higher Ed.  Both share some common themes: scholars write books so obscure that even academic libraries won’t buy them and since it’s “publish or perish” it becomes the publisher’s problem.  Listen, I understand that mentality.  Isolated in the woods of Wisconsin with the wind howling through the trees, writing about weather in the Psalms seemed perfectly natural.  Forgetting that the average reader doesn’t know Hebrew, I assumed everyone would find my disquisition irresistible.  Even back in the early 2000s publishers disagreed.  Life is so interesting!  There are so many minutiae to explore!  If you haven’t had the pleasure of following in the tracks of a thought that won’t let you go, you’ve never been really seduced.  But then, somebody’s got to pay for all this.

Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that publishing is a business.  Indeed, higher education is now a business as well.  Everything’s a business.  To stay solvent publishers have to sell enough books to cover the cost of making them.  As these articles point out, that cost isn’t negligible.  The scholar who explores the publishing industry (as rare as that may be) will discover plenty of resources to help rethink academic writing.  Even without reading the industry rags, just paying attention when you’re in your neighborhood bookstore can be an eye-opening experience.  I was looking for a book (hardly even academic) last time I was in Ithaca, New York.  If any town is likely to have such books on the shelf, it’s Ithaca.  I had to ask and leave empty-handed.  There are lots of books out there, colleagues!  And if you want to get yours published, it pays to do a little research.  Your time will not be wasted.  And I fear I’m becoming someone who knows a little about such things.

Writing Life

Writers are a conservative lot, in many respects.  Consider the epigraph.  I’ve written about this before—in modern-day publishing epigraphs require permission to reuse and serve little purpose beyond two negotiable factors: to prove the writer is well-read, and that someone else just summed up your chapter in a single sentence.  Most modern books have stopped using epigraphs, but scholars read old books produced before aggressive copyright laws.  There is a trick you can use, however, that brings an epigraph into the realm of the fair use doctrine.  It involves moving it into the body of your chapter.  Make it a quote.  Comment upon it.  For all their research skills, many academics do not take advantage of easily found advice on academic publishing.  Just ask an editor.

We all, I’m sure, have tunnel-vision.  Life is so incredibly busy and demanding that choices have to be made.  For most academics publishing is part of the rubric for tenure.  Perishing is the only other option.  Been there.  Done that.  Those of us who make a more modest living on the other side of the book sometimes write for different reasons.  We may need to supplement our income (as if academic publishing really ever helps with that!), and thus we must pay attention to the finer details of the business.  Write what people want to read.  Think like a reader.  And, yes, get rid of the epigraphs.  We know you’re smart; you’ve written a book.  Another reason for writing beyond the tenure-dome is the compulsion.  The need to do it.

While the struggling artist is a tired trope, it’s also true.  Many of the writers most admired today had lifetimes of struggle and obstacles which often stopped them too soon in life’s tracks.  I often think of the Brontë sisters.  In a family apparently cursed with premature death, living in a time when women writers were rare, three sisters set themselves the task of becoming novelists.  Not one of them lived to forty.  Anne, who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, made it to twenty-nine.  Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, died at thirty.  Charlotte, who gave the world Jane Eyre, survived to thirty-nine.  They defined, in many ways, the English novel.  And while they lived to see some measure of success in their brief lives, they wrote against the obstacles of life and the specter of early death.  Writing is a passion.  A craft.  And even academic authors provide a favor to the world if they do it well.

Brontë sisters by brother Branwell

In Praise of Paper

I’m working on embracing the electronic age.  No doubt it’s convenient.  And fast!  Publishing is, and always has been, a slow industry.  As connoisseurs of anything know, quality takes time.  This brings me to my paean to paper.  I generally write these blog posts on a computer.  That makes sense since they have to go onto the web and to do so they must be keyboarded.  Many of them start, however, on paper.  Sketching and free-flowing lines can become ideas, yet to draw on a computer you have to buy specialized (and expensive) equipment and software (which costs even more) to use it.  You’ll lose months of you life learning how to use said software.  In the end you’ll probably have forgotten, what?  I forget.

The other day I ran into an author who wanted maps.  In an electronic age the easiest way to get maps is to take them from the web.  Google Maps seems innocent enough.  Only it’s covered by copyright, and commercial use requires permission.  As I went through the whole permissions process I was thinking of tracing paper.  Copyright covers the execution of ideas, not the ideas themselves.  Coastlines, rivers, and mountains added through the miracle of tracing paper become the copyright of the maker.  (Don’t try this by rewriting written words through tracing paper—that doesn’t work.)  Tracing paper’s old school.  The illustrations in many older books used a similar technique.  In A Reassessment of Asherah all the illustrations were ones I drew by hand.  You can do that on paper.  The only investment is a single sheet and a pencil.  A scanner can handle the rest.

Technologists like to espouse that there’s no such thing as a page.  Authors, they aver, must learn to write without references to page numbers.  Avoid the words “above” and “below” to refer to something discussed elsewhere in the text.  This “format neutral language” (for it has to have a fancy name) is intended to ease the reading experience for the ebook.  With my Kindle software, however, there are still pages.  Don’t we call them webpages?  Don’t we bookmark both our place in Kindles and on the web?  Why then can’t we have our page numbers?  Have you ever tried to make your laptop into a paper airplane when you’re bored?  It’s often hard for progressive creatures like ourselves to admit that maybe we have had it right the first time.  Maybe reading and paper need each other.  A future without paper will be very sterile indeed.

Seeing the Future

Nine.  That’s the number of people before me in line.  It’s not yet 4:30 a.m., and our day began at least an hour ago, but work won’t start for another two.  As the bus pulls up to the stop, I think about work.  Well, like most people I think about work a lot.  You see, I’m often asked about how to get into the publishing business.  There’s a cosmic irony to this because I had never planned to be an editor and never undertook any of the usual training.  The anticipated trajectory of a doctorate in the humanities used to be teaching, which is what I did for many years, but when an educational career slips off the rails in a capitalistic society you have to be willing to learn real fast.  (Fortunately the long years of schooling do help with that.)

I’m sure that I’m not the only person whose career plans didn’t pan out as anticipated.  Back in seminary one night long ago, three friends and I had a “future dinner.”  We prepared a supper and each came as who we would be twenty years down the road.  I recall that I was a world-traveling professor and the author of several books.  “Come on,” my friends complained, “be realistic!”  It’s a bit beyond those two decades now, and I was a professor for many of them.  I have written several books, although so far only three have been published.  World-travel?  Well, that’s been a bit modest in recent years, I have to admit.  One of the other friends I’ve lost track of.  Another committed suicide after graduating.  We really can’t see far into the future.

Publishing is a challenging gig.  My rapid career contortions perhaps prepared me better than I think.  I have a kinship with those who ask about how to get started in it.  Generally we’re educated people who like books and wonder what kind of career you can find with that combination these days.  (There are more of us than you’d think!)  Compared to higher education academic publishing is a small world.  I’ve come to know many more academic colleagues since being an editor than I ever did as a professor.  I have something they want—a reputable venue for publishing their latest book.  Often I have to do a lot of educating since publishing doesn’t work the way that most people think it does.  It’s like being a professor without the status.  No, I didn’t see this in my future.  As I look for a seat on the already crowded bus I wonder how many of these other early risers planned their careers just like me.

Difficult to see where this is going.