Category Archives: Publishing

Writers Reading

A lot of misconceptions about books abound out there.  One of those misconceptions that has become clear to me is that authors write books to teach.  (Or to make money.  Ha!)  That may well be part of the motivation, but for me, the larger part has been writing books to learn.  You see, the frontiers of human knowledge cannot be reached without stretching.  Writing a book is a way of learning.  Long gone are the days when a person could read every known published work.  Indeed, there aren’t enough hours on the clock for anyone even to read all published books on the Bible, let alone the far bigger topics these days.  And so writing a book that deals with a biblical topic—let’s say demons—is the ultimate learning exercise.  It’s a very humbling one.

I recently read an article where book pirates (yes, there is such a thing!  I should explain: there are those who believe authors are ripping off society by getting royalties for their books.  These pirates, like those of galleys of yore, take ebooks and make them available for free on the internet.) call authors “elitists” for wanting to earn something from their labors.  These folks, I’d humbly suggest, have never written a book.  Most books (and I’m mainly familiar with non-fiction publishing here, but the same applies to the other kind) take years to write.  Authors read incessantly, and if they have day jobs (which many do) it is their “free time” that goes into reading and writing.  They do it for many reasons, but in my case, I do it to learn.

The doctoral dissertation is accomplished by reading as much as possible beforehand and writing up the results quick, before someone else takes your thesis.  It is the practice I also used for my second book as well, Weathering the Psalms.  The third book, Holy Horror, was a little bit different.  Yes, I read beforehand, but much of the research went on after the body of the book had largely taken form.  I had to test my assumptions, which are on ground most academics, needing and fearing tenure, tremble to tread.  I read books academic and popular, and having been classically trained, often went back and read the books that led to the first books I read.  It is a never-ending journey.  I could easily spend a lifetime writing because I’d be learning.  But like other misconceptions, those who write books don’t lead lives of luxury.  They work for a living, but they live for the chance to learn.  And that’s worth more than royalties.  Besides, the nine-to-five demands constant attention.

Banned Wagon

In celebration of Banned Book Week (go ahead, let your hair down!), I thought I might muse about some good news.  Since I already posted on my banned book (Slaughterhouse Five) I need another angle of approach.  One of the less envious aspects of being an editor at an academic press is being yoked to facts.  Many authors have a basic misconception about numbers in their heads.  They think their book will sell on the scale that Barnes and Noble, such as it is, will stock them on the shelves.  I have to admit that I dream of walking into a bookstore and finding one of my titles on the shelf—and I know it’s not likely to happen.  Those of us who work in publishing see the hard figures, how many copies have actually sold.  And the results can be quite sobering.

The news isn’t all bad, though.  I ran across an article by Andrew Perrin titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?” and the way the question was phrased made me think.  I’m used to thinking of it the other way around: how many people read, or buy, books?  I once read that about 5% of the US population constitutes the book-buying market.  Now, that is a large number of people, even if it’s on the smaller end of the overall spectrum, but Perrin’s article from the Pew Research Center states that only 24% of Americans state they haven’t read a book, whole or in-part, over the past year.  This, I think, is cause for celebration.  It means more of us are reading than are not, even if we don’t always finish the books we’ve started.

Think of it like this: whether print or electronic, people know to turn to books for information.  Oh, there are all kinds of details I’m leaving out here—the safeguards of a reputable publisher over the self-published manifesto, as well as the self-published brilliant book over what managed to squeak through the review process at a university press because an editor felt the pressure of a quota—but the numbers are encouraging nevertheless.  Looked at this way, more people are reading than are not.  And the best way to promote books is to suggest they should be banned.  That’s why I don’t despair of the shallow books praising Trump—if they’re banned they become prophetic.  Academic books, my colleagues, don’t sell as many copies as you might think, even if they’re not banned.  The good news is, however, that we haven’t forgotten whence to turn for knowledge.

Free Reading

I think I was driving through Montclair, New Jersey when I first noticed one.  A “little free library” in someone’s front yard.  Then I began to notice them around elsewhere.  Neat little outdoor kiosks filled with books.  Despite my love of literacy I’m not inclined to take books from such places.  For one thing my reading tastes are odd, and for another I want other people to catch the interest in reading.  And “free” is a great motivator.  The idea is simple: set up a little free library on your property, seed it with books, and watch it work.  People are encouraged to take what’s there for free.  And leave books they want to donate, if so inclined.  Now that we’re in Pennsylvania we discovered one in a nearby park.  A community feels more homey with books.

Searching for the concept online, I came to LittleFreeLibrary.org.  I’m not sure if they started the trend, but it provides the basic idea.  They even have plans for how to build your own and get your neighborhood reading.  If anyone wants a clue for making America great, here’s a free hint: it will involve books.  They’re a commodity unlike any other.  Mass-produced (often too enthusiastically so) they are generally inexpensive and can be used over and over again.  One of the biggest headaches for publishers is the used book market—since a book is a handful of ideas, once they’re released they’re difficult to control.  They can be sold again for less than market value, and yes, even given away.  Those who read see the value in giveaways, even if there’s no personal profit in it.

Early in our tenure here we decided to take a book to donate each time we go to the park.  Sometimes we forget, of course.  Our first donation was there for two weeks, but then found a new home.  A strange kind of joy accompanied finding the book gone.  Perhaps we’d done some good simply by opening a door and leaving something we were no longer using.  Then something unexpected happened—I saw a book from my reading list in the local.  Should I take it?  I have a list of books to seek in used bookstores, for, to the chagrin of my own industry, I participate in the used book market.  I had been looking for this tome for a few years, reluctant to pay full market value since it has been around since the sixties.  In the end I couldn’t resist.  Next week, I told myself, I’ll take two books to give back.  Literacy’s that way—it’s something even introverts can share.

Searching Again

Research can be addictive.  Those who know me are generally aware of how I can’t let ideas go.  I suppose this is necessary for those who write books—concentrating on one subject for a long time is mentally taxing and can lead to early loss of interest.  Those of us inclined to embrace this activity live for the thrill of uncovering new ideas and making connections that we’d overlooked.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is a case in point.  Before submitting this book proposal I’d done a lot of reading on the subject of demons.  This is a dark topic, but those of us who live in temperate zones spend quite a bit of time without daylight, so I might think of this as a kind of therapy.  Or an excuse to do research.

Here’s often what happens: I’ll be writing along when suddenly a new question pops into my head.  Why was this or that the case?  The internet makes amateur research quite easy, but as someone raised on solid scholarly food, I need to check my sources.  When a professor I would’ve headed to the library with interlibrary loan slips in my hand.  These days I tend to turn to my own books and lament that I don’t have just the right one (there’s a reason, you see, that there are so many tomes in this house).  I try to find workarounds and used copies.  Perhaps I’ll pick up an adjunct class or two to be given library access again.  Meanwhile, the idea, like an ear worm, is burrowing into my conscious mind.  Until it’s time to go to work.

That great eight-hour stretch of day drains my energy.  Indeed, many employers count on taking the best you have to offer and making it their own.  What you do with “the rest of your time” is up to you.  Thing is, research is a full-time job.  Fortunately some of what I learn while on the clock will help me with my own research agenda.  The overlap isn’t especially strong, but now and again something I read in a manuscript will sync with what I do in the pre-dawn hours before I commit myself to the time-clock.  It’s a strange way to do research.  Back at Nashotah House I’d use the summers to follow the clues laid before my mind and, as long as I went to chapel, it was considered part of my employment.  Now it’s considered an avocation.  I can’t help myself, though.  Personal research is not part of the job description, but I’m an addict when it comes to learning new things.

The Hardest Part

The waiting, Tom Petty suggested, is a most difficult portion (no copyright violations!). The late, great departed rocker had a point. When I was younger I thought waiting was a theological problem, but the fact is it’s an unavoidable part of life. Right now I’m in that holding pattern between having submitted my files for Holy Horror and awaiting anxiously the proofs. Anxiously because there’s so much going on right now that I’m not sure how I can carve out the time to read them. Time and tides, they say, wait for no one.

I suspect a big part of this is that I have high hopes for this book. Not that I’m being unrealistic. I’m hoping to break that 500 copies barrier that holds most academic books hostage. Holy Horror isn’t really academic—it’s not technical at all like my last two books were—it’s just that the premise is academic. What do horror movies tell us about the Bible? I take that question seriously. You see, I read about the Bible a lot. Whether we want to admit it or not, western culture is based on it both implicitly and explicitly. People who castigate it don’t seem to realize that our very way of thinking is based on it. If you doubt that, talk to someone raised in eastern Asia. Someone thoroughly Buddhist or Confucian in outlook. The way we frame our thinking is based on a biblical worldview over here. It’s smart to pay attention to things like that.

At the same time, we are believers in media. Looking out the bus window on the way home I’m always amazed at how many people on the Parkway are texting while they’re driving (yes, you can be seen from above!). We can’t live without our media. When it comes to the Good Book, most people rely on media to tell them what it says. Horror, although not popular with many people, always does well at the box office. And one of the things I explore in Holy Horror is just how often the Bible appears in such movies. It’s not ubiquitous, but it certainly isn’t rare either. We should take to heart what other people say about us. Not that they know the truth of the matter—they seldom do—but we are social animals and we make our reality based on interactions with others. Those who make horror movies know things about the Bible that scholars don’t. And they know that suspense—waiting, as it were—is the hardest part.

Book Recommendations

Working in publishing has its perils. One from my personal experience is that you run into many books you just have to read. Not necessarily for work, but because you want to. This varies from publisher to publisher, of course. There weren’t too many Gorgias Press titles I felt compelled to read, although there were a few. Since then, however, my employers have transported me back to that kid in a candy store feeling time and again. Friends will sometimes send me book recommendations—I always appreciate that. Often the books are from the very publisher for whom I work. In some cases I was actually in the editorial board meeting where the book was approved. It makes me feel like my small contribution matters when someone recommends a book on which I voiced an opinion.

In these days when thoughtful approaches to life are under constant duress, it’s nice to be reminded that people pay attention to books. Relatively few buy them, of course, but books are the storehouse of our knowledge. We all turn to the internet to get information quickly. If you linger, however, you find that much of the web fall into the “opinion” column rather than that of factual reporting. Books from established publishers are vetted on at least one or two levels before a press makes a commitment to print them. Self-publishing has muddied those clear waters a bit, but the seal of approval of a reputable publisher is what makes a book. For example, if a publisher discovers a serious error in a work it will often be pulled from the market. We don’t like to spread errors.

The problem is volume. We long ago surpassed the point during which one individual could read every known book in her or his lifetime. In fact, those who were credited with doing so in the past are given a pass because many ancient texts lay undiscovered under the soil during their times. For all our foibles we are a prolific species when it comes to writing things down. For academics, publishing is often a requirement for tenure and promotion. There are a lot of books out there. This is one surplus, however, that isn’t as celebrated as it should be. I have had people suggest we have too many books in our home. Unlike too much food in the fridge, however, these pieces of intellectual nourishment don’t go bad. And if you point me to a book about which I’m already aware, I always appreciate the conversation anyway. Of some good things you can’t have too much.

Indie Bookstore Day

Although a year can seem like a long sentence, holidays are the punctuation marks that help us make sense of and organize it. Ordinary time, such as time at work, or commuting, can be endlessly tedious. Holidays, some personal, some local, others national or international, help us break up the time. Give us something to look forward to. My pity goes out to those religions that recognize no holidays and face time with a grim, Presbyterian determination to get to judgment day. The rest of us like to celebrate once in a while. So what’s today? It’s Independent Bookstore Day! Anyone who reads more than a post or two on this blog knows that I’m a lover of books. I first started taking solace in reading when things were difficult in my younger years, and reading has never let me down. In fact, I’ve often told myself that I could put up with just about any job as long as I could write.

It’s because of being in publishing that I learned about Independent Bookstore Day. Yes, it’s a promotional holiday, but it’s also a genuine celebration. As the outside world daily reminds us, those of us who read are a minority. The realistic author knows that the reading public is a small fraction of the whole. The number of people, percentage-wise, who spend their money on books is minuscule compared to those who fling their lucre elsewhere. But those of us who read appreciate the depth and reflection of each other. We may read different things, but we read. And that’s why I don’t mind going to an indie bookstore today and buying something.

One of the simple pleasures in life—call it a punctuation mark, a comma maybe—is being surrounded by unfamiliar books. Oh, I often worry what happens when we decide to move; we have lots of books at home. The last time the movers actually complained in our hearing that we had too many boxes of books. Talk about me at the bar afterwards, but don’t castigate my simple pleasures to my face, please. Books are the rare opportunity to commune with others on a deep level. How often have you put down a book and felt that you knew the author? Their soul was revealed in their writing and you had touched it. Just being in a bookstore is cause for celebration. If you have no plans for today, why not make your way to your local indie? Stand up and be counted as the literate resistance. It’s our silent Bastille Day, after all.