Shepherding Books

One of the truths of publishing books—unless you make it to one of the big five, and even then it can’t hurt—is that you have to promote your own books.  Almost no publisher can afford to get word out that you’ve published your incredibly interesting tome with them.  So when I received an invitation from Shepherd to put together a list with one of my books on their site, naturally I said yes.  The way it works is your book page features a category of books, anchored by your own, and followed by five recommendations.  The idea is that people attracted to your subject will find this list and your book and, perhaps, just perhaps, buy a copy.  Since Nightmares with the Bible still hasn’t come out in paperback, I started my list with Holy Horror.  You can check it out here.

Authors often have no sense of scale.  Thousands of new books (perhaps up to two million) are published each year.  Think about that for a second.  Even the big five publishers can’t promote every single book, not at that rate.  There is a real satisfaction in having written and published a book, and many authors take that as a kind of entitlement.  “I’ve done my work, now somebody else should do the advertising.”  That may be fine if you have tenure somewhere and your prestige is assured.  If you’re a mere mortal like the rest of us, however, that means using social media.  Make a webpage.  Start a blog.  Get a Twitter and Facebook account.  The fact is, unless you do these things people won’t be able to find you.  They don’t spend their weekends at the local library browsing the shelves for new books.

Photo by Tanner Yould on Unsplash

Shepherd is a free service to authors.  I know many people who write (most of whom don’t read this blog) but if you know of anyone who does, point them to Shepherd.  The homepage has a convenient “Contact Us” link at the bottom.  Some websites will promote your work for a fee.  For me, I’m still waiting for royalties to come anything near what I have to spend to write my books—so far it’s been a money-losing venture.  I’m optimistic, however, that some day my books will be published in the affordable range—not just the big five do this, but most publishers have to be persuaded, through social media presence, that you can help find readers.  Shepherd is a good place to start.

First Second

The thing about self-published books is that titles sometimes confuse.  I’d read Linda Zimmermann’s Hudson Valley UFOs without realizing it was a sequel.  Part of the reason is that her previous book was titled In the Night Sky.  Since I have a compulsion for completion, I knew I’d have to circle back to read the first book, even though it might take months to get on my schedule.  I realize the title of this book is based on her documentary by the same title (which seems to be unavailable for viewing these days), and the subtitle, Hudson Valley UFO Sightings from the 1930’s to the Present, does the heavy lifting of saying what the book is about.  So why am I reading about this in the first place?  Well, UFOs have continued to be in the news lately, which is interesting in its own right.  But also I’ve been reading about the Hudson Valley for some time.

Although I’ve never lived in the Hudson Valley (or New York, for that matter), I have family connections.  My maternal grandfather’s family had deep roots in the upper Hudson Valley and I’ve always wanted to move there but jobs never aligned with hopes.  That hasn’t prevented me from maintaining an active interest in the area.  Besides, I like weird stuff—if you read this blog that’s self-evident.  There do seem to be places where strange things seem to concentrate.  (I mentioned this in regard to the Denver Airport recently.)  I’m one of those people who’s always found New York City a weird place, and it’s the southern end of that corridor.

In any case, Zimmermann’s book is pretty much like her second one on the subject.  She provides accounts of UFOs from witnesses who responded to her call for reports in preparation for her documentary.  I tend to think that many people can tell what’s supposed to be in the sky from what’s not.  I’m also aware that many people don’t have the background of trying to identify whatever they see and that mistakes are often made.  It doesn’t help that Zimmermann includes some accounts that are pretty clearly crackpot cases.  Some editing would’ve helped (which is true of many self-published books).  What’s so interesting about this collection is that what many people report seeing is so similar.  For those of us who don’t live in the Hudson Valley and who’ve never seen anything odd on our trips there, this may be the closest we get to the strangeness overhead.

Wicker Proofing

I’m currently reading the first proofs of The Wicker Man (due out in August).  While necessary, proofreading is a pain (and I work in publishing!).  You have to put everything else aside and concentrate on what you’ve already written, and if you’re like me, moved on from, to get your earlier work out.  I’m extremely time conscious.  I have many things that I would like to accomplish in the time I have left.  Right now one of my priorities is book six.  It’s already written, but I’m revising it for the umpteenth time.  Then the proofs come.  This is one of the issues a graphomaniac faces.  It’s part of trying to make a life from words.  And it distorts time.  I submitted my Wicker manuscript back in December.  Since then my mind has largely been elsewhere.

Proofreading—or is it proof reading?  I’m not a proofreader—isn’t the same as it used to be.  These days you proofread a PDF and use the markup tools for changes.  I had developed a kind of nostalgia for the old-fashioned proof markings.  Now you highlight the offending text and add a note to explain what you would like changed.  This makes me worry about time too, since I’m probably among the last generation who will even known what proof markings are, apart from historians of publishing (and yes, there are historians of publishing).  I am fortunate in having had a good copyeditor for The Wicker Man.  S/he didn’t change much but pointed out where my wording was ambiguous.  Those of you who’ve read me for a while know that some of that ambiguity is intentional, no?

A quick turnaround time on proofs is necessary.  Of course, mine would arrive on a Wednesday.  That very same day I was asked to be a reader-responder to a journal article, also with a brief turnaround time.  I wanted to say “No,” but as an editor I know how difficult it is to find reviewers.  Anyone who publishes should consider it a moral obligation to review when asked.  Just like jury duty.  Thursday and Friday mornings were spent reviewing the article (which I hope will be published, whoever wrote it).  All of this was done without picking up a pen (as much as I wanted to) or leaving my laptop.  As much as I enjoy those proof markings, nobody has the time for them anymore.  Even now I’m playing hooky from proofreading to write this blog post.  I’d better get back before someone notices that I’m gone.

Lost at Sea

Where do books come from?  It still comes as a surprise to many authors, but books tend to be shipped by, well, ship.  When publishers use overseas facilities, it’s far too expensive to send books across the ocean by air.  I had many people express disbelief when I explained their books were delayed by the Suez Canal blockage, but if most of the world’s international goods are sent by ship (and they are) what might seem like a quirky news story has very real ramifications worldwide.  I was reminded of this by a recent NPR story of two new cookbooks having been lost at sea.  The ship from Taiwan, bound for New York, ran afoul of a storm in the Azores, resulting in the loss of 60 shipping containers—including those holding the newly printed books.  There is a worldwide shortage of shipping containers (seriously) and one of the problems is they keep falling off ships.

Photo by Elias E on Unsplash

If you haven’t googled “cargo ships” and looked at the image options, do.  You’ll see astonishingly large ships with what look to be entire cities worth of cargo containers stacked on the deck.  Many of these containers are lost at sea.  Current estimates are that about 1,000 containers fall off of ships per year.  Although the authors of these particular cookbooks took a lighthearted approach to the news, the book that really brought this home to me was Moby-Duck, which I blogged about some years back (you can read it here).  That book was about trying to follow the plastic “rubber duckies” that fell off a ship back in 1992.  This isn’t, in other words, a new problem.

Videos posted of these massive ships being tossed about and losing cargo are impressive in their own right—they make the ocean seem omnipotent.  But the fact is, we’ve littered it pretty badly.  Books, in their defense, will decompose naturally.  We live in a society defined by consumerism.  We see things and we want them.  In order to make them inexpensive, American companies buy the items from overseas where labor costs are much cheaper (and where many nations have socialized medicine, I might add, making employees cheaper to pay).  As ships grow larger we might expect these kinds of accidents to increase.  The older I get, the more I pay attention to economics.  The dismal science does hold a macabre fascination, especially when entire printings of a new book end up at the bottom of the ocean.  Authors, if they’re curious, ought to consider where books come from.

How to Write a Book

When I worked at Routledge I was told never to mention William Germano’s name.  I’ve never been one to dabble in workplace politics, but I did wonder why.  Over time, as I tried to commission the kinds of books I knew Routledge for, I was told that they didn’t do those kinds of books.  Not since the Germano days.  Years later I still don’t know what all of that was about, but I do know that Germano wrote a book that would make nearly every academic editor’s life easier if it were handed out at every doctoral graduation ceremony.  From Dissertation to Book is a classic in the field.  Now in its second edition, in it Germano explains, in non-technical language, why and how a dissertation is not a book.  He also explains how to make it a book.

You see, academic editors, such as yours truly, see more dissertations than the most ambitious professor.  The doctoral student, flush with the praise of his or her examination committee, sends off their thesis, largely unchanged, and wants it to be published.  Hey, don’t be embarrassed—that’s what I did too.  The truly amazing thing to me, as someone who’s been both professor and editor, is how little publishing and academia know about each other.  If I had to guess who knows whom better, I’d have to say publishers take an edge over academics.  Their knowledge is far from perfect, however.  Academics have to publish for promotion and tenure, but they don’t bother to learn about how publishing works.  Germano’s book would help them too.

For many years well-known academics have been stating in highly visible places that academic writing is poor writing.  It is.  Germano explains why in this little book.  Better than that, he gives solid advice on how to improve your chances of getting published.  I’ve been working in academic publishing for a decade and a half and I learned quite a lot from this little book.  Dissertations are written to prove yourself to a committee.  Books are written for a wider readership that wants to be able to understand what you’re talking about.  Day in and day out, people like myself read dissertations.  Generally there’s a kernel of something good there.  (Sometimes, honestly, there’s not.  Not all theses are created equal, although that’s not one of the ninety-five.)  Germano’s book offers a way to find and plant that kernel so that it grows into something any editor would be pleased to receive—the proposal for an actual book.  It should be read widely—much more widely than it is.

Search Your Engines

It’s been fascinating to watch.  We tend to think things appear instantaneously on the internet, and sometimes they do.  Book announcements, however, are less prone to that.  The Wicker Man, my book for the Devil’s Advocates series, was first announced to the world (apart from me) on Oxford University Press’s website because they distribute books by Liverpool University Press.  It took several weeks before it appeared on LUP’s site (I’m projecting here, it still hasn’t showed up there).  Like an anxious father, I checked every few days to see if word was getting out.  After about two weeks it showed up on Barnes and Noble’s website, but not Amazon or Goodreads.  Then it appeared on ecampus, a textbook seller.  Days later it appeared on Amazon’s site in Spain only.  Word gets out slowly.

Some things hit immediately, of course.  Everyone in the world knows about them seconds after they happen, whether they should or not.  Some young folks, who grew up with the internet, are having trouble letting go of the, well, troubles of the world that jet through the 24/7 news cycle.  Books by unknowns travel much more slowly.  Of course, I’ve been trying to reinvent myself.  In as far as I’m known, I’m known as an ancient Semitic goddess scholar.  (The ancient part is correct, in any case.)  I turned to writing about religion and horror about a decade ago and if web searches mean anything, my most searched book seems to be Holy Horror.  That makes sense since Nightmares with the Bible is so expensive that I can’t afford additional copies even with the author discount.  The Wicker Man will be up near forty dollars, but that’s cheap these days.  At least it will be paperback.

Maybe I have been checking more than I let on, but I’ve also noticed something else odd.  Ecosia, the tree-planting search engine, comes up with more results (based on the ISBN) than Google does.  That astonished me.  Google apparently isn’t as good at searching as it would have us believe that it is, at least for obscure information.  (In my case, very obscure.)  Ecosia even outperformed Bing.  With this internet full of stuff, you’re obviously missing out if you don’t use multiple search engines.  Yahoo added yet one more site with the book.  I’m wondering when the actual publisher, or Amazon’s main site, will catch up.  Giants do move slowly, I guess.  Maybe once the cover image is released…

Another Exorcist

I learned from the wonderful Theofantastique that Russell Crowe’s new movie is The Pope’s Exorcist.  (I guess Crowe hadn’t read Nightmares with the Bible to think to send me a personal notice.)  I knew instantly, from the title, that it had to be about Fr. Gabriel Amorth.  Say what you will about him, he inspired William Friedkin to make a documentary titled The Devil and Father Amorth.  It’s pretty unnerving to watch, no matter what is really going on.  Catholic officials aren’t trilled about Crowe’s movie—I wasn’t impressed with his portrayal of Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s take on the flood story a few years back.  It takes a certain kind of director (like Friedkin) to be able to handle theologically dense material in a believable way.  I can’t say anything about Julius Avery’s The Pope’s Exorcist, of course, without having seen it.

I can say, however, that those who publish books at $100 miss many opportunities.  My book is one of very few written by a credentialed religious studies scholar on demons in movies.  A quick web search will reveal that it remains basically unknown and uncited.  (The only Amazon review is a two-star job by an evangelical who didn’t like what I was doing.)  Pay $100 for a book with a two-star review?  Most people, reasonably, have better things to do.  I once got around this in the past by posting a PDF of one of my book for free on, where, at recent count, it has been viewed over 6,000 times.  Academic publishers don’t realize the appeal of most of the books they publish.  Even demons can’t open a wallet to a Franklin level.

So while I’m waiting for enough royalties to afford seeing The Pope’s Exorcist, I’ll focus on my current book project.  Of course it’s on something completely different.  The Wicker Man should be coming out in September, but my mind will likely be elsewhere.  Those of restless intellect are condemned to wander, it seems.  Of course, I have Theofantastique to keep me busy.  There are other kindred spirits out there.  They don’t know the way to my website, I suspect, but I’m not alone in being excited about a new exorcist movie.  I’m not expecting anything to surpass The Exorcist, however.  Like The Wicker Man, The Exorcist turns fifty this year.  One guess which was the more popular film.  Given Crowe’s profile I’m surprised there hasn’t been more buzz about his new film.  Demons can be funny that way.

The Original

A dozen years ago, I had a novel under contract.  I write my fiction under a pseudonym, of course.  I was thrilled because I had never seen the conceit (in the sense of “concept”) anywhere before.  For once, I was going to be first in line.  But then the editor who’d responded “Loved it!” left the press.  After dithering for about a year, the publisher decided not to publish it.  This was a small, independent press—I wasn’t anticipating it would be a New York Times bestseller.  Then I saw a weekend add in the New York Times—just recently—touting a novel with the exact same concept as mine as “original” and worthy of being read.  Ironically, just the day before I had once again submitted my novel to an independent publisher.  I can’t blame the author, of course, but the system doesn’t work for everyone.

After the killing of my darling, I naturally tried to find another publisher.  I have been trying for twelve years.  I’ve been pushing the idea as original and of general interest.  Editors and agents disagreed about the “of general interest” part.  In fact, I’ve had rejections from nearly 100 literary agents over the years, one of them responding that I was a good writer but they couldn’t see where the story was going.  Maybe I didn’t handle it as well as this new book, with its glittering endorsements, but a guy likes to get credit for his work.  Now if it ever does get published I’ll be considered a copycat.  You see, my main driving force as a writer is originality.  My published stories are unlike others I’ve read and most of them go through multiple rounds of rejection before some editor “gets it.”

The publishing industry, however, is a strange one.  Most publishing houses want work that imitates bestsellers since they’re a known quantity.  Money in the bank (or what banks used to be).  The internet has changed that a bit, but not completely.  It does mean those skilled at such things as self-publishing can sometimes challenge the hegemony of the big five.  It also means a lot of sub-standard fare is out there as well.  I’m a little late establishing a literary reputation it seems.  Although being raised poor does qualify me as “diverse” it’s not in any way visible.  It is obvious if people get to know me because the poverty mentality never goes away.  So my novel has been waiting while the same idea occurred to someone else (not straight white male) and has received notice.  So I follow and hope to learn.

Book Writing

Not everyone wants to write a book.  A great number of people, however, do possess that desire.  Or that desire possesses them—that’s often more accurate.  For some it’s because they have ideas that feel compelled to share.  For others it’s the sense of accomplishment of having successfully strung together thousands of words and seen them encased between covers.  For still others it’s economic—books can be sold, and if done well, can become a living.  There are surely other reasons as well.  Since I read a lot, I frequently wonder about other authors’ motivations.  Often, I suspect, it’s because they underestimate how difficult it is to navigate this path to success.  You have to come up with an idea that is unfamiliar to your target readership—free advice: no book appeals to everybody—that has a hook that will make them want to read it.

I’ve read books where this hasn’t been thought through well.  Love them or hate them, this is what major publishing houses do well.  They figure out what likely will have appeal.  They make mistakes, of course.  Everyone does.  Still, they have a solid track record that makes them the hope of writers who have the burning need to, well, write.  One of the cases where this becomes an issue is where an author tries to be funny.  There is a lively market for humorous books, but if you’re trying to convey serious information but you find yourself cracking jokes along the way, you’re going to confuse, rather quickly, your readers.  What are you trying to do?  Make me laugh or teach me something new?  What should I prepare for when I pick up your book?

Don’t get me wrong—I clearly haven’t figured all of this out myself.  I do think that the combination of a doctorate (which teaches advanced research skills), and editorial work (which teaches how publishing works), should be a winning combination.  Ideally, anyway.  What I find is that it does make me approach books critically.  I look at the publisher.  I ask myself, what is this book trying to do?  You see, to read a book is to enter a relationship.  The book has an author.  That person is sharing what she or he has thought about.  By publishing it, they’re inviting you into intimate spaces.  That’s why I tend to be gentle in my book reviews.  I know the hunger.  I too feel compelled to write.  And if I don’t get the mix right, I would hope that any readers might, if they reflect on it, see that this is merely an awkward effort to begin a conversation.

Something I Said?

I’m very aware of my own insignificance.  I know that I’ll die and be forgotten, just like everybody else.  Even if I manage to survive by some “Kilroy was here” action, the sun will eventually red giant all of this out of existence.  Still, sometimes I wonder if it’s something I said.  You see, I really didn’t know where to start when I published Holy Horror.  I was an editor myself and thought maybe the secret handshake would earn some kind of attention, but no.  And when I wrote both Nightmares with the Bible and The Wicker Man, both were with established series.  And in latter cases, the editor I was working with (long-term employees, both) left.  Left before the book was published and I was left wondering.  Was it something I said?

Not to brag or anything, but I’ve got about the lowest self-image a person can have.  When life beats you up repeatedly, starting at a young age, you quickly learn your place.  But still, all this leaving.  I’m a member of a faith community (if you want to know which one you’ll need to get to know me personally).  This particular tradition requires a meeting with the minister before joining—something that makes good sense.  The first church where we tried this, the minister was in the process of leaving and couldn’t schedule us in.  Then we moved and in our new area, the minister left about a month after we started attending, before we could meet.  Was it something I said?

I ask this question half in jest.  Still, having a father leave when you’re only two or three, you start to question just about everything.  I’m sure retirements, new opportunities, or just fedupness with the job (which I certainly understand) caused these changes.  But then I was ousted from three jobs in fairly quick succession.  During my interview at Rutgers University the chair of the religion department said “You must feel like you have a target painted on you.”  Leaving is a natural part of life, I know.  As an editor I know that leaving such a post is somewhat unusual because where do you go from here?  Ministers, well, they’re leading the charge during the great resignation.  Maybe they’ll become editors?  As for the rest of us, we’ll just continue to spin dizzily on this globe until old Sol stretches his arms and lets out a big, red yawn.  I won’t be here by then, but wherever I am at that point, I’ll be wondering if it was something I said.

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