Take the Tour

If you read my blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads (Hi, y’all!), you may not be aware of my actual website.  Now I have no kind of fame, no matter how modest, but the website does contain more than my blog posts.  I’ve been working on it lately to try to update the place a little.  There are separate pages for all my books, for example.  And links to the various interviews I’ve had, as well as links to my YouTube videos (thank you to my original 14 followers!).  If you know me personally you know that I’m not the self-promoting type.  I have a monster-sized inferiority complex (so it’s good that I don’t run for political office), and I’m a champion introvert.  I spend a lot of time by myself.  So why do I do all this web-based stuff?

Good question.  You see, I work in publishing and one of the things I hear constantly is marketing and publicity folks talking about an author’s platform (or lack thereof).  Believe it or not, my humble efforts here outstrip many authors—I do have a website and I tweet and book-face, no matter how infrequently.  In other words I do this to write. Call it being a modern writer.  The days are long gone when you wrote a manuscript and mailed it in and let the publisher do their thing.  To be a writer is to have to promote yourself, no matter how inferior or introverted you may feel or be.  If you’re a regular reader you know I miss the old way of doing things.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaiev on Unsplash

We learn lessons when we’re young.  Those lessons are difficult to unlearn.  I didn’t really know what it meant to be a writer—I grew up among laborers in a blue collar family—but I knew whatever my job might be it would involve writing.  As it turns out I’ve had more success (such as it is) in getting published as a nonfiction writer.  A great deal of that is due to learning how the system works—being in publishing helps—and figuring out how to place a book.  I wasn’t an English or even publishing major.  It didn’t seem to be rocket science back then, but it has become a more technological industry today.  Of course, time for doing this extra stuff is limited.  Indeed, if you work 925 you know that time to do anything outside of work is already rare enough.  If all of this looks like an amateur built it, it’s because that’s true.  The urge to write is, however, elemental.  Some of us are willing to work for words.


All About Blurbs

A book recently arrived.  It was unexpected, but when I saw the return address I knew what it was.  My young colleague Daniel Sarlo from the University of Toronto had kindly asked me to blurb his book The Solar Nature of Yahweh.  I’ve known Dr. Sarlo virtually for many years.  He’s engaged me a number of times on issues surrounding my research on solar worship in ancient Israel and Ugarit.  I had a book project in the works on the latter topic when other colleagues suggested going with something biblical for my next book, thus Weathering the Psalms was born.  Books, particularly academic ones, are in constant conversation with one another.  I’ve been writing on horror and religion now for over five years but my material on ancient West Asian religion is just now starting to get noticed.  It’s a funny old world.

One day I stumbled across a blurb lifted off my website for a book from Johns Hopkins University Press.  I was impressed.  First of all, that some author or editor had found my remarks on their book from this blog and that they’d liked them enough to cite them.  Getting blurbs can be a difficult task these days.  Academics are under a lot of pressure and time for such things is at a premium.  The payment is generally a copy of the book.  For some of us, though, it’s a thrill just to see yourself cited at all.  Once you’re no longer an academic you’re easily forgotten.  It has been a number of years since I’ve researched Yahweh and the sun, but someone, at least, still remembers.

Like book reviewing, reading a book for a blurb is one of those things you really can’t talk about pre-publication.  Book production is a slow process.  Like most things in life, it takes a complicated chain of events to lead to something as humble as a printed book.  And you need things like blurbs well before the release date.  As an author you often worry that—even in a field like ancient West Asian studies—your book will be outdated before it’s even published.  Some new find, or new idea might invalidate all that you’ve worked for.  Higher education should be one of the best venues for building humility in a person.  Your great learning is only one example among myriads of other scholars.  It’s a great accomplishment to get a book published in the midst of all that.  And this one, as the blurb indicates, is well worth reading.


Split Personality

This may be the way to develop a split personality.  For the majority of my waking hours of the week I’m a biblical studies editor.  I do the usual, boring editorial work associated with that job.  Academics contact me supposing I’m just some Joe who majored in English and who has to pay the consequences.  Once in a very great while the person contacting me knows that I once was a professor as well, but that’s rare.  So I have one part of my life.  When I’m not at work I continue to research (in my own way) and write books, as well as this blog.  Being in “the biz,” I have a fair idea about how to get published in the academic realm.  Ever since Weathering the Psalms came out I realized I could use that knowledge to steer my books toward appropriate publishers, but all of this is very separate from my day job.

A third compartment of this personality is as the closet fiction writer.  I’ve had thirty short stories published (under a pseudonym, for work purposes) and anyone curious about that pseudonym’s life can’t really tap into this one because I have to keep them separate.  I’m also involved in a faith community.  Most of the people there are surprised that I watch horror and write about it, and even write it.  Only two have expressed any interest in reading what I write.  So it is that each of these discrete elements—and they’re not all!—prevent me from being an integrated personality.  I know other religion scholars who watch and write about horror.  Because they’re academics they can integrate it into their profiles in a way a mere editor can’t.  To be fair, they’re misunderstood too.

The possibility of living an integrated life is limited in the workaday world of capitalism.  Companies want you to spend as much time as humanly possible making money for them.  You shouldn’t try to shine any light on yourself, and if you do, well, keep the company name out of it!  Who wants to be associated with some horror pariah?  And yet, statistics reveal about half the population of the United States enjoys horror movies.  A significant number of those people attend religious services or belong to religious bodies.  So what’s a graphomaniac to do?  I write because that’s what I do, and have always done.  I started in fiction and moved to academic and now I blog.  Somewhere in there there’s a person and someday I may discover who he is.


Life in the Woods

Early influences are often the strongest.  “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”  Thumper was the dispenser of this particular wisdom, as prompted by his mother, upon noticing how shaky newborn Bambi is on his long legs.  Now I recall having seen Bambi only once, at an age so early that it’s buried in my personal ancient history, but I’ve tried to live by those words ever since.  I don’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings if I can help it.  When I do, I feel awful myself, often for a prolonged period.  Add that to the fact that I read a lot and review the books, in some fashion, here, and I sometimes face a dilemma.  Particularly when it comes to self-published books.  Most of them just aren’t that good.

My wife once asked me whether I was concerned about my own critical reputation by not pointing out the problems in self-published books.  I had to ponder that a bit.  Just when the keystrokes start to point out the issues, Thumper hops into my mind and I think how I wish my own reviewers would be nicer at times.  You see, we’re all the victims of circumstance.  I’ve read self-published books where the author was clearly trying to make a living and honestly believed that s/he could write.  Ham-fisted keyboarding clearly stood behind some of these books and I realized that an editor serves a vital role in the literary ecosystem.  It’s also why I’ve resisted self publishing.  Before Holy Horror, I’d been compiling a book on monsters that I was ready to take to CreateSpace.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Books need editors just as surely as sparks fly upward.

The problem is the review.  I don’t mind saying critical things about books published in the standard way.  I’m still petting Thumper, though, and keeping it nice.  When it comes to self-published material I realize just about every time why the authors really should pursue a different line of work.  Many of us who write books do so while holding down full-time jobs.  Writing productivity suffers, yes.  I could write a lot more books if I didn’t spend nine hours at work most days.  As much as the criticism of editors (or peer reviewers) always stings, the resulting book is better for it.  You have to convince an editor, first off, that a book is worth doing.  If you can’t, perhaps there’s a hint to be taken.  I’ve never read the story behind Bambi to know if Thumper’s line came from Felix Salten or not, but I know the book was published by the prestigious German publisher Ullstein Verlag.  And self-publishing is, in many ways, a life in the woods.

Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde by Salten, Felix

Cone of Silence

I still get asked occasionally.  Actually, I was never asked when I was employed as a professor.  Peer review is essential to the academic process.  Although I hung my shingle at Nashotah House for a decade and a half, nobody was passing by.  Now I get asked from time to time, to do some academic reviewing.  As an editor I have to ask people to do this on a daily basis.  It always bothers me when some privileged professor says, “I don’t do peer reviews; I’ve got my own writing to do.”  Well, professor, if everyone felt that way you would never be published.  We’ve got to pay our dues, no?  Getting a Ph.D. doesn’t necessarily make you humble (although it should) or considerate.  Although I’m hoping to move away from academic publishing to the more popular trade venue (believe me, I’m trying!), I know that holding a Ph.D. means I should review when I’m asked to.

Right now I’m reviewing a book manuscript that I really wish I could talk about here.  Problem is, peer review is either a singly or doubly-blind process.  The author doesn’t know who the reviewers are—that’s crucial.  And sometimes the reviewer doesn’t know who the author is.  Although this blog doesn’t get a big readership, it’d be just my luck that I’d be spouting off about some ideas I read and the author of said manuscript (I don’t know who it is, in this case) would happen upon my remarks.  That means I have to make this post about the process rather than the content.  Too bad too, because I’ve had a number of conversations about this very topic recently.  Ah, but I must keep my fingers shut.

Peer review isn’t a foolproof process.  I try to remind people frequently that nobody—and I mean nobody—has all the answers.  As the Buddha reportedly said, “Don’t take my word for it, check it against your experience.”  I used to tell my Rutgers students that same thing.  Don’t take my word for it just because I’m standing in front of an auditorium full of students.  Ask others.  Ask yourself, does it make sense?  And don’t believe anyone who claims to have all the answers.  That doesn’t solve my dilemma, though, of wanting to tell the world about the hidden book I’m reading.  It ties in so well with what I try to do on this blog.  And, really, it’s an honor to be asked.  Someone thinks I have knowledge worth sharing.  Only I can’t talk about it.

Photo by saeed karimi on Unsplash


No Words

I read something scary recently.  And no, it was not a horror story.  I work in publishing and we have to keep abreast of developments, so I’ve had a glimpse of the future.  Publishers are now starting to look toward the time when information will no longer be conveyed by the written word.  A picture’s worth a thousand of them, after all.  This new future will convey information by video, or whatever the replacement of video will be.  Perhaps some are looking forward to the Matrix direct downloading model.  Perhaps the computer will be able to simulate the pleasures of reading a book, of browsing in a bookstore, of writing with pen on paper.  Something about the process and discipline of reading has made us what we are.

Star Wars, as others have noted, is set in a world with no paper.  You won’t find a scrap blowing in the wind, even on Tatooine.  Nobody is shown reading.  Plenty of action, but no wizard behind his big book of spells, no princess writing down her inmost thoughts.  Make a recording and plug it into your R2-unit.  Perhaps this is heresy, but compare this to Star Trek.  The episode “Court Martial” has Cogley (Elisha Cook, before he applied to become Rosemary’s landlord) saying to Kirk, “Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn’t so important, I’d show you something. My library. Thousands of books.”  We always thought even the future would have plenty of reading material.  Now we’re being told the technology is passé. 

The constant emphasis on “data-driven analysis”—mostly in an effort to get more money—seems to mistake the downloading of knowledge for the pleasure of reading.  They’re not the same.  I love movies, as any regular reader will know.  Perhaps ironically, I write books about them.  The thing is, I watch them largely to write about them.  Knowledge downloading is getting the cart before the horse.  I’ve read even nonfiction books wrapped in awe.  An author’s way with words, the phrasing, the craft, the artistry.  These are pleasures.  Sure, images can show an interpretation but there are those of us who will always want to read the book before we see the movie.  Can you get the actors’ faces out of your head if you do it the other way around?  There are those who celebrate this sterile future.  And there are those of us who won’t even go there if we don’t have a book in hand to read, just in case.

Image credit:Bender, Albert M., artist; Federal Art Project, sponsor. Public domain.


Shatner’s Space

We constantly underestimate the power of fiction.  It’s difficult to break into getting fiction published.  It wasn’t always that way.  When the pulps were still a thing often it took a thimble of talent and a handful of persistence.  Publishers were looking for content and those with typewriters were clacking away as fast as they could.  Ding!  Carriage return.  These days it’s harder.  This came to mind in thinking about William Shatner’s trip to space and his subsequent reaction.  As several news outlets said in anticipation of Shatner’s new book, the experience made him feel profoundly sad and not a little cold.  So much empty space and we still haven’t figured out how to travel fast enough to reach our nearest neighbors.  We don’t even know if we’ll like them when we meet them.

Others, in defense of space exploration, were quick to counter Shatner.  He’s not a real astronaut, after all, having spent nine decades earth-bound.  Or so they said.  But I think I understand, as a fellow land-lubber, where he’s coming from.  We’ve only really got one chance on this planet, being the only creatures evolved enough to type, to capture our thoughts—our essence—in words that can be preserved.  And wildlife statistics are showing an alarming decrease in other animals since the 1970s.  If we’re all that’s left and we can do no better than to elect fascists, well, stand me with Captain Kirk.  We look to the skies and see, well, empty space.  And besides, we need to get home because it’s supper time.

Image credit: NBC Television, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The reason Shatner got a free ride to space was, of course, fiction.  Star Trek captured the imagination of my generation and those with actual science ability started to put that kind of future together.  Today we can talk to computers and they still mishear us, often with laughable results.  But if writers of fiction hadn’t been available the show would never have succeeded and what would a Canadian actor have had to do?  Maybe a crime drama or two?  And even those require writers.  It seems to me that we should be encouraging fiction writers with talent.  Believe me, I’ve read plenty who really haven’t got it (often in the self-published aisle) but I know firsthand how difficult it is to get fiction noticed.  It’s like, to borrow an image, being blasted off into a dark, cold, empty space and looking at the blue orb below and wanting to be home for supper.


Footnote Lament

I listened to a presentation on a famous novelist the other day.  It was noted that this writer was a master researcher, having read a lot for each book he wrote.  I don’t doubt it.  This novelist didn’t hold a doctorate, however, which makes even his historical novels suspect in the eyes of the academy.  I often think of the humble footnote.  You can’t read everything on a topic, not if it’s broad enough on which to write a book.  As soon as you send the proofs back to the publisher you’ll inevitably discover a source you’d overlooked.  And critics will delight in pointing this out to you.  I sincerely hope that my next book project will be devoid of footnotes.  There are personal as well as professional reasons for this.  One is that I like to believe what I have to say is important.

You see, the footnote is a way of backing up an assertion.  I remember many years ago reading a piece by a journalist who was scandalized that professors are so pressed for time that they rely on reviews rather than reading the actual book.  That journalist may not have been aware of just how much is published.  As an author you have to learn to say “Enough!”  The work is done and I’m not going back to it.  Footnotes will give you respectability.  Show that others agree with you—indeed, said it even before you did.  One of my great struggles with academia, besides the obvious, is that I’m more inclined toward creativity than your garden variety professor.  I like assert things because I know them to be true.  And those people I’m footnoting, they’re doing some of that themselves.

Finding yourself in a footnote

Academic respectability really comes into its own after death.  Even so, looking back at some of the “giants” in the field you can see that their ideas haven’t aged well.  They were important at the time, but now we look and see their western bias, how they didn’t take diversity, equity, and inclusion into consideration.  They simply accepted the dead white man’s version of the way things were.  They live on in footnotes.  You have to earn the privilege to be original.  Otherwise you’re just some patent clerk or editor and why should we take your word for it?  One of my zibaldones has written inside the cover Nullius in Verba—take nobody’s word for it.  I believe that, and yet I find myself having to put my source in a footnote.


First Choice

One of the first things I do when I finish a book, unless I know about the author already, is ecosia (google) her or him.  I want to know who it is that wrote this, and the internet’s right there!  So it came as a surprise to see my first (two-star) review for Nightmares with the Bible on Amazon, where the reviewer did no follow-up.  The reviewer is quite upset that I don’t take the Bible literally, but at least s/he bothered to leave a review.  A more positive rating might bring me up to three stars, but I’ve failed classes before.  I’m a big boy, I can handle it.  In any case, if you ecosia me you’ll quickly come upon this humble website that’ll tell you what you need to know.  No, I am no longer a Fundamentalist.  And the book was about demons in movies.  (I was actually searching for reviews of the series.)

I scrolled down.  The named reviews solicited for the book I knew, so I was surprised, and delighted, that further down the page I had a Choice review.  Even a disgruntled evangelical couldn’t bring me down after that!  In case you’re not a librarian, or an academic publisher, Choice is THE periodical librarians use for deciding on which books to buy.  It is very difficult to get a review in it—I work at a prestige publisher and seldom see our books in there.  If you’re a trade author that’s not so important, but if the only sales, or majority of sales, are for libraries, to get a “recommended” status is a big deal.  That’s worth celebrating.

If you’re wondering, authors do not get notified of reviews.  Some editors will let them know (my editor at McFarland hasn’t been in touch for years).  The journals are too busy doing what journals do to send every author a copy of their review.  So I swung by Amazon’s Holy Horror page.  I’ve got four ratings there now, mostly on the lower end of the scale.  If you’ve read it and liked it (not something I assume, of course) a nice review would go a long way.  Disgruntled evangelicals (aren’t they all, these days?) may make the books look bad, but colleagues who’ve read them seem to think differently.  I hold to the publishing adage that there’s no such thing as a bad review, but good reviews feel so pleasant.  I’ve only written one negative book review in my life, and that was because I felt any other would be utterly dishonest in that particular case.  It’s a choice I make because of the Bible: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”


Aging Writers

The fact that V. C. Andrews didn’t have any success as a novelist until her late fifties (a benchmark that has already slipped for me), gives me hope.  Another thing I didn’t realize about Cleo Virginia Andrews is that she was confined to a wheelchair.  She didn’t want that fact advertised and she didn’t want peoples’ pity.  She wanted to write.  Many of the books published under her name were ideas she had but that were only brought to fruition by others after her death.  She became a legacy.  Writers are fascinating people.  I only recently learned that Anne Rice was transgender.  I had assumed from her public persona something that I had taken for granted.  Gender is a complex thing, no matter how loudly religions shout.  The sheer number of people born intersex should make that obvious.

Writers express the human experience.  Some perspectives aren’t really considered worth pursuing, as I know from personal experience.  But learning about writers’ lives always gives me hope.  There are those whose lives will always contain mystery—was Washington Irving homosexual or just inept with women?  What really happened to Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore?  Who was Homer, really?  No matter how much those of us inclined to write do so, there are still huge swaths of life that are left off the page.  (Much of it boring, spent at work, or mowing the lawn.  I try to imagine Herman Melville on a riding mower, but I just can’t do it.)  Writing successfully involves a publisher or agent willing to take a chance on you.  But if you’re old enough to be a one-hit wonder (sorry John Kennedy Toole), they don’t see dollar signs down the road, so move on down to the next door, please.

I had a novel under contract a decade and a half ago.  It never materialized, so don’t look for it.  My nepenthe consists of learning about writers, whether one-hit wonders or not.  I can still look to the Frank McCourts, Laura Ingalls Wilders, and Harriet Doerrs of the literary world.  For most writers it’s the story of what happened before success that is the most compelling part.  Especially those who were older and just kept on trying.  Some had to die, ironically, before the world realized they had something important to say.  You can’t blame the world.  The world’s busy.  But the fact is nobody would remember what it was like if somebody hadn’t bothered to write it down.  So we continue to chronicle the human experience.


Sabbatical Request

I don’t know when I became one of them.  It seems that I was pretty busy in my early teaching days, and starting a family.  I didn’t feel, however, that every single minute was programmed down to the second.  I had time for writing, vacation, and family, as well as work.  The other day when I was sending out those reminders to authors that their books are a bit (years) overdue, I realized just how busy they are.  Then I took a moment and considered that I’m not sure how I became one of them.  The people who are too busy.  Clearly buying a house was a big part of it.  I’d been pretty busy before, but now I need to invent time in order to get everything done.  The staycations I allow myself end up with feelings of guilt for all that’s been left undone.

Maybe it doesn’t help that I can see the neighbors out my office window.  When I see one of them weed-whacking or mowing during the day, I think I need to do the same.  But I’m also out of string for the whacker.  I really need to get to Lowes so I can stock up—last time they had only one spool left, which is probably why I ran out.  To get to Lowes I need a weekend.  Preferably not one with temperatures in the high nineties.  And without meetings cutting into weekend time.  And when it’s not raining.  Time is slippery.  Even as I work I often have other things—many other things—I have to do running through the back of my mind.  How did I become so busy?

Speaking only for myself, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than reading and writing.  I do these daily only by carving out inviolable time for them.  It is costly time, I know, but to me it’s beyond price.  Thinking of these colleagues too busy to submit their books, I think back to my own professor days.  There’s no doubt that I read and write more now than I did then.  There were times (grading, accrediting body visits, commencement, etc.) when there simply wasn’t time to do anything else.  Many colleagues mention health issues on top of all this.  Academics, as those who supply (partially, but responsible for a goodly number of) books, the number published each year truly boggles the mind.  I would try to figure all this out, but I’m afraid I simply don’t have the time.


The King

Stephen King.  I haven’t read all of his books, but I’ve done quite a few.  I’ve watched movies based on some.  I read my first story by him in Junior High School.  I’ve even read books about him.  From what I can tell, he’s actually a man with his head on straight.  While some may find that a strange thing to write about a horror writer, it’s been my experience that those who enjoy horror, either as producers or consumers, are generally good people.  Recently King was testifying against the proposed buyout of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House.  Penguin Random House is already the largest trade publisher in the world.  The buyout would probably benefit King personally, but he testified it would make things worse for other writers and for independent bookstores.

How many people these days argue against things that benefit them personally?  Certainly not elected officials, particularly of what used to be a grand old party.  It’s all about me!  That seems to be the mantra of late capitalism.  King has publicly called for his own taxes to be raised.  This is nothing short of heroic.  While the Good Book advocates over and over for this kind of behavior, “Bible believers” have somehow overlooked it.  Leave it to a horror writer to get to the heart of the message.  I have no idea if King is part of any religious group or not—he certainly uses a lot of religious imagery and many religious concepts in his writing.  Of course, you don’t have to be in such a group to embody their proclaimed principles.

Thinking of the needs of others was drilled into me as child raised in a Fundamentalist faith.  Looking around me these days, I don’t see many Fundamentalists that hold to that any more.  Enamored of power—especially the power to control other people’s lives—they flock after rich pretenders who care nothing for the Gospel.  Sacrifice (for that’s what we’re talking about here) is something horror writers know well.  It’s never easy giving up something that’s valuable to you.  Or even thinking about it.  Writing, while very enjoyable, is hard work.  Training your mind is like physical exercise—it doesn’t just happen.  I’ve got a few Stephen King novels on my “to read” pile.  They’re big books, often intimidatingly so.  Once I start reading, however, I know I’ll find the work engaging.  And if I pay attention, there will be a message there too.

Not that kind of book.

Paperback Reader

Sometimes I wonder why I do it.  Horror is a strange category for books and films, but one thing that may be a draw is that they take me back.  Life, it seems, is cyclical.  I liked monsters as a kid, and grew out of it when college and graduate school taught me to be serious.  As a working academic this genre can spell death to your career, so when my career died anyway, I was left grasping at my childhood to try to make any sense of this.  Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell took me back.  Not that I’ve read all the books listed here—I came away with a list I want to read—but the lurid covers are a reminder of the kinds of things that caught my young imagination.

Subtitled The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction, this is actually a very fun book to read.  Hendrix has a light touch and had me nearly laughing out loud (quite an accomplishment) a time or two.  And I learned a lot.  Although I write books about horror, the genre is a large and sprawling one and this book takes a clear focus at the paperback market.  Just a reminder: paperback originals were designed to be sold and consumed quickly.  No waiting around for 18 months while profits from the hardcover roll in.  Hendrix really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the history.  It also seems like he may have read more horror than is necessarily good for you.  He clearly knows how the publishing business works.

Several of these books were big enough that I knew about them.  He starts off with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.  (And The Other, which I’m now obligated to find and read.)  In fact, the first chapter focuses on religion-themed horror.  This is something that only began in earnest in the late ‘60s.  While the horror paperback market may have tanked in the ‘90s, the film side of the genre has been doing quite well and continues to do so.  The late sixties also got that kick-started.  It seems that when people stopped running from the fact that religion is scary, horror itself grew up.  I was shielded from that part as a child, but now, looking back, I can see that things weren’t quite what they seemed.  This full-color, grotesquely illustrated book has great curb appeal.  And if you’re not careful, you can learn a thing or two as well.


Who’s It For?

I suspect editors see this all the time.  I also suspect that I’ve unknowingly participated in it as well.  If you’re a book writer, you have to be clear of your readership.  As an academic editor I receive many proposals for books that either cry for popular treatment, but are too academic, or books that are written for laity on topics of interest only to academics.  A writing life is a struggle to find that correct balance.  Particularly for your typical academic.  You see, doctoral programs don’t generally include instruction on how publishing works.  Or in writing.  It’s assumed that any string of 100,000 words from a credentialed expert is worth publishing.  Worse, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, academics are rewarded for writing poorly.  No wonder people are confused!

Lately I’ve been on a kick about people not paying attention.  It is important to observe.  When writing a book it’s important to gauge who might want to read your potential book.  Indeed, this is something seldom asked early enough in the process.  Who is this book for?  Will they want to read it?  You see, we have this lone ranger attitude to book writing.  In actual fact, most books you see in bookstores are the clear result of teamwork.  Yes, authors do most of the writing.  In many books editors do quite a bit of the fixing of the writing.  Agents, marketers, publicists, sales reps—there are a host of people behind successful books.  It’s easy to think, while writing, that your book will be a bestseller, no matter how academic.  That you will see it in Barnes and Noble and point it out, ever so casually, to your friends.  That it will sell for less than $20.

It’s important to pay attention to what other people think.  We’re all busy, I know.  We have our own lives to live and plans to enact.  Who has time to bother thinking about who might read their book?  Obviously, other specialists such as themselves.  But how many people is that, really?  With the sheer number of books published each year, are there topics that will draw in thousands, instead of hundreds (or less) of buyers?  Writing a book naturally makes you think the topic is important—vital, even.  It’s easy to transfer your personal interest onto the masses.  My advice, for those few who ask or care, is to think carefully about who you wish to reach.  Be honest with yourself.  And try to think from the point of view of somebody else.


Cover Copy

If you’ve ever wondered why the same images appear on book covers over and over, there’s a fairly simple explanation.  (I should specify, by the way, that I mean academic press books.  The pockets of trade publishers are apparently bottomless.)  For many in the humanities the choices come to the same set of classical paintings that are out of copyright.  Now, in a capitalist system, copyright is a necessary idea.  It protects those who create intellectual property from being taken advantage of.  Their work is treated like a physical object, so an accurate image of a painting is the same as the painting itself.  But if you’ve ever been to an art gallery you know that’s not exactly true.  Art galleries show us that being in the presence of the real thing is different than seeing a reproduction.  But I digress.

Books are not only recognized by their covers, but sold by them.  It’s a strange industry and part of the reason why goes back to one of those eye-glazing-over court cases involving (yawn) taxes.  In 1979 the Supreme Court ruled that companies could no longer devalue old stock for tax purposes.  This was the Thor Power Tool Company v Commissioner case.  The court ruled old stock had to be assessed at value.  While this was about manufacturing, it deeply impacted books.  Publishers now had to destroy old stock (and books are printed in quantity) or face heavy tax consequences.  This led to books being pulped much more quickly than usual (they could then be written off as losses) and directly impacted the book cover.

Despite the old adage, every publisher knows people do judge books by their covers.  Since 1979, extra care has been given to covers to make books sell quickly, and in significant numbers.  Now granted, your nuts and bolts will still be useful in future power tools, but books sell differently.  A typical book has a three-year lifespan.  Sure, there will be those (like yours truly) who’ll buy a book that’s been out for a while, but most books are considered dead after year three.  That old stock is a liability and pulping is common.  It seems an inglorious end for such a noble product.  Not to mention wasteful.  Academic books have similar covers because copyright images are often too expensive to license for covers.  Constantly publishers have to guess as best they can how many copies will sell because old stock is too expensive too keep.  Print on demand has changed a lot of things as well, but that’s a different story.   Covers still do count.