Trumping the Bible

The media is chattering about one of the very many contradictions of evangelicals who support Trump.  Since I have a foot in the world of the Bible business, I read with interest how Trump’s tariffs on China will put Bible publishers in a bind.  You see, the Good Book is generally sent offshore since printing costs (and technologies) are too expensive to replicate in God’s new chosen nation itself.  This lack of divine foresight should be a bit disturbing.  The entire evangelical enterprise is based on their reading of Scripture, and the belief that the divine choice of America is behind such momentous events as 45’s election.  Maybe we should check our pipes for lead.  In any case, Bibles, which are printed cheaply in high volume overseas, are set to become too expensive to give away because of the great pretender’s tariffs.

A few media outlets have picked up this story, including one that noted Trump’s favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  The famous lex talionis statement was famously, well, trumped by Jesus who said that the ideal was to turn the other cheek.  In a rather Philistine way, evangelicals have sided with a man who says Jesus was wrong.  If you want to check up on me in your Bible you’d better get your wallet out.  Ironically from a Republican point of view, tariffs are themselves the breaking of the commandment of free trade.  Still the party that claims to believe that does nothing to prevent the sale of their souls, cash on the barrelhead.

Many evangelicals may find the idea of Bibles as a business distasteful.  It is, however, extremely profitable for those on the supply end of the deal.  Bibles are printed at a volume that would make most authors green, and due to its size the Good Book requires specialized paper most of the time.  This is so much the case that Bibles not printed on “Bible paper” just don’t feel like sacred writ.  Since costs of living in the United States are quite high, and since this kind of specialized printing would be too expensive in this situation, publishers outsource God’s word.  Some publishers have been pleading with the government to exclude books from Trump’s tariff so the Good News can continue to spread.  The fact is that only one deity, called Mammon in the Bible, runs this enterprise.  And to continue to buy Bibles at the evangelical rate will soon be requiring an act of sacrifice.  I guess the lex talionis still applies.

Best If Used

Used bookstores are like a box of books—you never know what you’ll get.  I perhaps overindulge this particular vice, but it doesn’t feel too sinful to me.  Part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for the year is three books by one author.  I decided since I’ve been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick that he would be the one.  I figured (mostly wrongly) that his books would be all over the place in used bookstores.  I always found a plentiful supply at the now mourned Boston Book Annex.  At a used shop in Easton I asked where they might put Vonnegut.  “In science fiction,” the owner promptly replied.  I don’t think of Vonnegut as a science fiction author.  Some of his work does fit, but this little exchange got me to thinking about genres again.

Writers, unless they’re strictly commercial, don’t think of genre.  We write.  The novel I’ve been trying to get published for the last decade doesn’t fit into any neat category at all, and that’s probably part of the problem.  Neither fish nor fowl—what is this thing?  I’ve noticed this with my brother-in-law’s books.  Now, I’m holding out on retirement to dig into Neal Stephenson’s books because they require more time than I have in my workaday world, but they aren’t always science fiction.  Still, that’s often where you find him in bookstores.  I was in a local shop in Bethlehem the other day and there he was, in sci fi.  Although I understand why booksellers (and critics) want to use genres, but it seems to me that they limit human creativity.

The past couple of non-fiction books I’ve written aren’t really in genres.  They’re not academic books, but academics (once guilty, always guilty) have a hard time convincing publishers they can do anything else.  Non-fiction may be a more difficult gig than fiction after all.  Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible don’t comment on horror necessarily, at least not directly.  They’re not religious books either.  When I try to explain them in one sentence, it quickly becomes run-on.  I began both the same way—I noticed something and began writing about it.  With a little structuring and a little time, you’ve got an entire book.  It may not find a publisher.  It may not fit a genre.  Nobody on Medium is going to come looking for your advice.  And if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself put on a shelf with others who don’t conform to genre expectations either.

See Above

As we slide beneath the hegemony of technology, I’m impressed by the redefinition of vocabulary it demands.  Because new printing technologies assume, for example, that the XML (one of the many mark-up languages) is primary, directional references in texts are inadequate.  An example might help.  If you’re a human being reading a book, and the author has discussed something a few pages ago, s/he might write “see above.”  Now, it’s not literally above in the sense of being higher up on the same page (but it may be considered literally if the book is closed.   And lying face up).  The pages you already read are above those where you left the bookmark.  I remember the first time I encountered this language; having been raised a literalist (and a naive realist) my eye hovered over the header and I wondered about the accuracy of “see above” or “see below.”  The terminology soon became second nature, however, and I knew it wasn’t a literal reference.

In the days of XML (“eXtensible Markup Language,” therefore literally EML), the sense of play is now gone from writing.  I’ve heard editors explain to authors that, in an ebook there is no above or below because there are no pages.  A time-honored metaphor has been sacrificed on the altar of a tech that sees the world in black-and-white.  You can’t point vaguely in the direction from which you’ve just come and say “it’s back there somewhere.”  I sense, given all of this, that most copyeditors haven’t written a non-fiction book (for this is mostly an academic affectation).  As a human being writing, you get into the flow and you don’t think, “Ah, I mentioned that in paragraph 2749; I’d better say it’s there.”  And the reason you need to know the paragraph number is so the ebook can have a hyperlink.  The argument itself suffers for XML precision.

As someone who writes both fiction and non, I am bound to look at this from the viewpoint of a human author.  I’ve been known to paint and make sketches on occasion.  All of these forms of expression have flow in common.  At least when they’re good they do.   If you want to stop a project cold, just say “Hey, I’m writing!” and watch yourself drop like a cartoon character who’s run off a cliff and just realized it.  I’m sorry, I can’t point you to exact where that’s happened.  It’s in many vague recollections of many cartoons I watched as a child.  If the technomasters aren’t watching I’ll just say, “see above.” 

Epistemic Epistemology

I’ve been thinking about thinking, if you’ll pardon my meta.  More to the point, I’ve been thinking about what happens to thinking when it becomes writing.  Thoughts may or may not be safe if they’re left in your head, but once they’re on paper other people start to get concerned.  A diary, of which the weblog is a public variety, is often private.  You may write to remember.  You may write to stab at mortality.  You may do it just for fun.  No matter why you do it, if enough people read it, your writing will be misunderstood.  Ironically, even in a nation with freedom of speech, and the press, the writing rights of individuals aren’t guaranteed.  Take this blog, for example.  Over the decade I’ve kept it, a few jobs—two actual and one potential—have instructed me in what I could or could not write.  Like Niagara Falls, you’re getting only a portion of what flows in my river of thoughts.

Thoughts can change the world.  Considering the news lately that might not be such a bad thing.  In any case, the vast majority of writing remains private.  Even with Amazon and others making self-publishing simple, it’s not easy to get ideas out there.  Getting the attention of a major publisher has odds that are vanishingly small.  And the internet’s a big place, getting bigger by the day.  In cyberspace nobody can hear you scream, I guess.  Even on a smaller scale, my own computer complains that I write too much.  “Not enough space for updates,” it says in its dialogue box dialect, “too many documents.”  Never mind that I purchased it for writing, and a bit of surfing.  It wants more of the latter.  Other’s words, in other words, commodified.

My writing life began young, but not as young as that of many fictional writers like Jo March or Francie Nolan.  Our apartments and eventually small house had no space for one of the kids to hole up and write.  When I did start, in my early teens, I breached the dam without anticipating the results.  I’d been reading a lot, and writing seemed the right way to join the conversation.  I started composing novels before high school, but my first published book (and for many years my only one) was my dissertation.  I always believed that writing could be done on the side for any job, but that’s not the case.  Well, it is if you keep it in your diary, I suppose.  If you open the tap, however, you’d better make sure you have a mighty big glass in hand.

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.