Category Archives: publishing

Write or Wrong

Lots of people write for lots of reasons. Some love it. Some hate it. Some can’t help themselves. For those who know me primarily through this blog, it may not be obvious which of these sorts I am. After having read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life I finally feel confident putting myself in category three. It’s not that I don’t like writing—I live for it. The kind of person Shapiro describes, however, is the one who defines their entire being through writing. Each day I post between 300 and 500 words on this blog. I’ve been doing it since 2009, which means I’m somewhere over the million-word mark. But those compelled to write will never be satisfied with just that. One does not live by blog alone, after all.

Once in a great while I get asked how many books I’ve written. Well, that’s not a question with a straightforward answer. Two of my books have been published. I’ve written at least ten. Some of them never made it from my desk to a publisher’s wastebasket. A few of them have. Like others who are addicted to writing, I can’t stop. Ironically, with a decade of experience working in publishing I’m not so good at getting my own work placed. Some of it is fiction. Some of it is non. Some of it is even poetry. If you’re a graphomaniac, I don’t need to explain any further. If you’re not, think of chocolate, or sports, or anything else you just can’t get enough of. That’s what it’s like.

Shapiro’s book, although not point-for-point, but more than not, is like wandering through my own gray matter. I had no idea that other writers—including a successful one like Shapiro—felt the same constant, nagging doubts and insecurities. I didn’t know that others considered staring off into the middle distance (there’s not always a window nearby) as work. Or that sometimes you write something and when you’ve finished it seems like it wasn’t you at all. Writers can be a trying lot. We tend to be introverts. We have odd habits (in my case, waking up at 3 a.m. to write on a daily basis). We tend to be able to spot one another in a crowd, but more likely as not we won’t say anything to each other. And strangely, we write even if we don’t get paid. With lifelong royalties somewhere in the low triple digits, economically it makes no sense to do what I do. Generally the world feels creative sorts aren’t terribly productive. It’s because we measure value differently, I expect. I’m glad to have met another traveler on this path although, as is often the case, our meeting will only be through writing.

Kindling

Paula Cocozza, writing for The Guardian, describes “How E-books Lost Their Shine.” Like most inveterate readers, she says she has stacks of books growing like mushrooms after a summer rain, in her bedroom. I was working in the publishing industry (I still am, so please take no alarm at my rhetoric) when e-book sales plateaued. Then declined. “Industry analysts” were baffled. I wasn’t. The reasoning goes like this: e-books are light and cheap and amazingly convenient—why would anyone want something different? Those of us who love books know. If you know what I mean when I write “library smell” I’m preaching to the converted. More beguiling than new car scent, that first deep breath when you step into a library takes you places your physical body may never go. All those bodies of books gathered together let off a bouquet that insists you follow your nose to an earthly paradise. I just tried sniffing my iPhone. Nothing. No synapses fired. I’ve read books on it, but have I really?

Studies tend to show we have trouble remembering books read electronically. It’s just too fast. Wham-bam-thank you whoever you are. Let’s get on to the next thing. But books, as Cocozza writes, are slow. Publishing’s a slow industry. You submit your proposal, and the editor reads it. The editorial board discusses it. The book is written and sent to a copyeditor. Then a compositor or typesetter. Then a proofreader. Then it’s off to the presses. Printed, bound, and shipped. It can take a year or more. And when you curl up in bed with a book, furtively sniffing it, gently rubbing your fingers along its pages, drawn into a world not your own, plastic’s the last thing on your mind.

A few Saturdays ago I attended the Hunterdon County Library book sale. I go every year. It’s a big deal. People line up in advance. You step into the barn-like sales floor and it hits you—the smell of all those books. The aroma of knowledge. You can’t repurpose an e-book. You can’t sell it back because nothing was ever really produced. You purchased electrons, you’re stuck with electrons. Hit “delete” when the storage is full. All these books in this room are valuable. All for pocket-change. Many of them were wildly overprinted in the exuberance that naturally comes from being over-stimulated. Like kids about to enter Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Industry analysts are puzzled. If they’d get their fingers dirty by thumbing through a used book once in a while they wouldn’t be. Yes, its dusty, grungy, and probably laced with germs, but I wouldn’t trade it in right now for a Kindle, even if it costs me nothing.

Taking Time

Good writing is hard work. One of the mixed blessings of the internet is that it makes publication so easy. Get yourself a blog and nobody has to approve anything! Ideas come tripping across your fingers onto some electronic substrate and, viola! You’re an author! The problem is that being an author’s not the same as being a good author. Writing well (and I make no such claim for myself—after all this is just a blog) is hard work. A piece has to be written, and then read again and again. I’m reminded of the story of a convicted murder whose name I’m forgotten (call it a defense mechanism). This was early last century. The murderer was caught, initially after having been found wandering, disheveled, in public. As a respectable man (he was a doctor, I think) part of his defense was that he’d never have left his house without being presentable. He would have on a collar and hat. People would see him, and he had to convince them of his presentability every single time he walked out that door. (This isn’t an affliction that I share, by the way.) Writing for publication is like that—you need to take care to look respectable every single time.

I can’t speculate about how other writers do their thing, but for me the main requirement for this is time. Any piece that I want anyone else to see, has to be written. Read. Edited. Re-read. And probably edited again. All before the public sees it. This is just for the informal stuff. I’m currently writing a book (which is pretty much a constant state with me). The draft was finished months ago. I started thinking about a publisher. Then I read it again. I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought it was ready for a publisher. Several rewrites followed. I’m in the midst of another one at the moment. I think of it like my ill-used rock tumbler. You want shiny rocks, you’ve got to send them through with finer and finer grit. If you do it right, they’ll come out looking like they’re wet, and they’ll stay looking that way. Polished writing takes time.

Some things can’t be hurried. As a middle-schooler I had a summer job with the school district. One of my assigned tasks was painting bus shanties. Many of these were, as you’d expect, way out in the middle of nowhere. I’d be dropped off with a couple other teens and we’d paint the shelter inside and out. One day I got tired of the constant, boring, and repetitive task of filling a paint pan with white paint, carrying it into the shelter, using it up, and then doing it all over again several times. I decided to pour the paint directly on the plywood floor of the shelter. All I’d have to do would be to roll it out and who’d be the wiser? I only did it once. Little did I consider that the best painting, like the best writing, is a thin layer over the substrate. You need to go over it more than once, leaving time between layers. More importantly, I didn’t realize that you can’t gauge how much paint you need this quick way. The best thing is to run out and refill. Then you can pour the remainder from the pan back into the can. The floor took hours and hours to dry. Not only that, but the top surface dried first, so when I stepped in, I pulled up a thick layer of paint off on the bottom of my shoe. Tom Sawyer I was not. I had to redo it. What I learned that day, though, was a lesson about writing. Take your time. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I just write a blog.

Weather Vain

The other day I was awakened by a severe thunderstorm. It’s been quite a while since that’s happened. Unlike when we lived in the Midwest, thunderstorms in New Jersey tend to be widely scattered and somewhat uncommon. (It’s all a matter of perspective, I know.) My basis of comparison is how often I notice such storms. I’ve never been able to sleep through one. Thankfully this one came at around 4:30 a.m., past when I’m usually awake on a weekend. I’d forgotten the raw power of just how loud and bright such a storm can be. Danger seems all around. The feeling is primal and urgent. As I got out of bed and walked into the dark kitchen, windows filled with electric blue followed by and tremendous blast, I thought once again of Weathering the Psalms and the story behind it.

By the way, when I speak to young scholars about publishing I tell them this isn’t the way to go about finding a topic. That having been said, my book was born in the Midwest. Life at Nashotah House revolves around required chapel twice daily. Weather does not stop it. In fact, holding the daily office by candlelight because a storm had knocked out the power was not uncommon. Morning and evening prayer—indeed, all of the canonical offices—are built around the recitation of the Psalms. Reading the Psalter in slow, stately tones while thunder raged outside, rattling the ill-fitting stained-glass windows, left an indelible impression. It was only natural in such circumstances to notice how often the Psalms mention the weather. Thus a book was born.

I’m currently at work on a new book. I can’t say the topic just yet because someone might be able to beat me to it. (Knowing the way I come up with book ideas, however, I doubt it.) Sitting in my darkened living room, in my writing chair with the fury just outside, I was strangely inspired by the storm. Then it was over. Silence followed by birds singing, just like in Beethoven’s sixth symphony. The thunderstorm is one of nature’s psalms. As at Nashotah House, in the Midwest we had perhaps too many of that particular kind of psalm. Nevertheless, in the silence that followed I was left strongly in touch with my muse. These are the states that lead to poetry and song. Every great once in a while they might even lead to a book idea. As I tell students, just don’t expect that anyone else will get it.

Independent Bookstore Day

Many modern mini-holidays are centered around things you might buy. I don’t mind that so much in the case of Independent Bookstore Day—of which I wish you a happy one. Quite by accident I found myself in an independent bookstore just last night, not aware I was prematurely celebrating. If anything might save us from the muddle we’re in, it’s books. We live in a society with plentiful distractions, many of them shallow. Books take some effort. They demand your time. They make you take some quiet space to think. Books came along with, and perhaps were the source of, civilization. Today we’re harried and hurried and frantic with an electric source of information and entertainment that never turns off. And we’re seeing the results of that playing out on an international scale. How different it would be if we’d grab a book instead!

The strange thing is that those inclined to action often suppose reading to be an utterly passive activity. The basis for human progress, however, has often been what someone has read. Surprisingly, books can be the source of progress. When we see reactionary elections taking place around the world, leaders who don’t read emerge as the hailed champions of regress. We’re living through that right now. Books can be dangerous. Think about it—you’re being given access, however briefly, to someone else’s mind. The combined power of minds is an impressive thing. If what I’m reading is anything to go by, the hive mind is a source of incredible strength. You want action? Put multiple minds together. There’s a reason that civilization has gone hand-in-hand with literacy.

In the wake of Borders going under, independent bookstores have started to make a comeback. Those of us who work in the publishing industry have to keep an eye on those numbers. A visit to a bookstore is all about discovery. Quite often I’ve walked in with a list in hand. When I exit my list has grown rather than shrunk, and the purchase I’ve made was likely not on the list to begin with. Independent Bookstore Day gives us a chance to think about how very much we do not know. Unlike those who claim power and brag that they don’t read, admitting that we have more to learn is the way toward progress. I may not be the most active man in the world, but I do recommend action in the form of getting to a bookstore. If we each do our part, we can’t help but to make the world a better place.

The Labyrinth of Copyright

Here’s another post originating from my daily work as an editor. (As an editor you tend to assume nobody’s really interested in what you do all day, but I’ve been told this isn’t so.) What is copyright? And do I have it? First of all, a caveat: I’m not a lawyer. Copyright is complex and, to answer my second question first, yes, you do have it! So what is copyright? Essentially it’s the protection of intellectual property. As long as that property remains in your head, it’s yours alone. Once it’s expressed in writing, art of any kind, music, or even as a chart, it is automatically covered by copyright. If you want to use something someone else wrote, or produced, in your book, you need permission. Small quotes are generally considered fair use, but don’t push that doctrine too far! Fair use is listed as just that, a doctrine.

What many authors don’t realize is that your book contract is an exchange—you’re selling your copyright to the publisher for their services (they publish your book, promote it, register the copyright (it already has copyright, but registering helps to protect it legally), and handle the financial aspects of selling your book). You can’t publish your own work again without permission of the publisher. Sometimes I’ve had people ask me to use my artwork (from my own published articles) in their work. I don’t mind, of course, but I don’t own the copyright! If I published my work, the publisher has taken that copyright and I remain simply the author. If I want to publish my own published work somewhere else, I have to ask permission. Copyright, however, doesn’t last forever.

The only safe date before which material can be used without fear of infringement is 1922. Works published before then are in the public domain. Right now new works (such as this blog) are covered by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 more years. After that, unless the law changes, you don’t need permission to reuse these idiosyncratic musings. Not that that’s ever been an issue. I’m not a litigious person, but I do like to be cited. (Who doesn’t?) In any case, if you’re working on an academic piece, and you want to reuse somebody’s drawing, or an extended piece of writing, or even a tiny bit of a poem, you must have permission to do so. That’s what copyright does for you. The “fair use doctrine,” like most doctrines, doesn’t hold up well in court. If in doubt, just ask. Before you do, though, you might want to consult a copyright lawyer, just in case.

All opinions my own.

Publisher’s Breakfast

I recently had the opportunity to discuss publishing to a room full of academics. (Ooo, I can feel the envy rising already!) Although I discuss books quite frequently on this blog, I generally don’t discuss publishing much. One of the reasons is that publishing isn’t easy to tie into religion sometimes. Another—and this may be the bigger factor—is that publishing is work. This blog, which is technically a form of publishing, is more for letting my mind wander outside the paddock after being penned in at work for too much of my adult life. Still, I’m glad to give publishing advice for those who want it.

The focus of these talks (of which I’ve given precisely two) is how to get published. My main approach to this question is to point out that higher education and publishing are diverging rapidly. The reasons for this are complex, but simply put, publishers need to make money. Having been on the receiving end of tuition statements for a good deal of my life, I have no doubt that institutions make ready money. They may have trouble meeting the costs of all those administrators for whom they keep creating positions, like any good business, so each semester the bill creeps up a bit until suddenly you realize your bank account’s empty and you’d better get to commissioning some more academic books. After all, this is all about money, is it not?

Like many in higher education, I courted academia as a hopeless romantic. I believed that love of subject and ardent devotion with ample proofs of said love would woo the academy into a permanent relationship. I’ve always been an idealist. Now I’m on the side of the desk where colleagues approach me to ask favors. It’s kind of like The Godfather, really. Only those who kiss Don Corleone’s ring tend to do so knowing that favors require some kind of reciprocity. The academy may not welcome you but would you mind helping us out now that you’re in a position to do so? No fear of horse heads here. Perhaps by now you understand why I don’t write much about publishing on this humble little blog. The focus of The Godfather, after all, is really young Michael Corleone and his devolution from an upstanding citizen (shall we say “academic”?) to a mafia crime boss. I’ll leave the other side of the equation blank. Trade secrets, after all, are worth money.