Paid Reading?

It’s like when you slowly pull a cotton ball apart.  Interrupted reading, that is.  Some people never cotton onto reading—we’re all different—but some of us find it such a beguiling exercise that we neglect other aspects of life so that we can engage it.  Almost an altered state of consciousness.  That moment when you have to close a good book, though.  There’s nothing else like it.  It’s difficult to pinpoint whether images or words make up the continuity a reader experiences.  For me it’s like a continuous conversation.  Since my life may be too regulated (“nine-to-five” jobs are like that), every day at work begins with interrupted reading.  If you’re awake early, you’ll find there’s no other uninterrupted time like it.  No librarian has to shush anyone at three a.m.

My job is largely reading.  It’s also a good deal of customer service.  As an author myself I guess I get that.  Content is what the world wants, and if you find a writer who does what your press likes, well, you try to keep her happy.  Why doesn’t enforced reading feel like reading by choice, though?  It’s that reading before work that feels like the pulling apart of fibers that’ve organically grown together.  By nighttime, which is still light in summer, it’s not so much pulling apart cotton balls.  Bedtime reading is more like stumbling through a forest.  When you come to that part of the path you know you’ve been on before—perhaps multiple times—it’s time to put the book down and hopefully reboot.

There may be jobs which consist entirely of reading for pleasure.  If there are I never learned about them in high school or college.  I have a friend who’s a musician.  Many years ago I asked him what he like to play for fun.  He looked at me and said “Music, for me, is work.”  I have to believe that somewhere deep inside he still found it enjoyable, but I instinctively grasped what he meant.  Once you take your passion and convert it into a source of income the magic goes out of it.  Once I get out of work the thing I want to do immediately is read, but what I want to read. And although studies show that the reasonable way to get your best work out of your employees is to give them more time off, employers tend to disagree with the data.  The more hours you put in the more “dedicated” you are.  But then, some of us are in publishing because we love to read.  But even now, as work time approaches, the cotton ball begins to shred.


Building Trust

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the Trump presidency was the four years of eroding trust.  People, it seems to me, no longer trust each other.  I’ve noticed it most since the reign of a pathological liar.  It’s kind of like a nation of children of alcoholic parents—trust is a real struggle.  I regularly deal with academics.  Now, critical thinking tends to make a person skeptical, at least to a degree, but it seems to me people would trust a very old, highly regarded institution.  Lately I’ve noticed that trust eroding in various ways, and that puzzles me.  If we can’t trust those who’ve done the heavy lifting of keeping a solid reputation for centuries, well, who can you trust?  It’s a real dilemma.  Maybe it’s because we had four years of equating “my opinion at the moment” with “facts.”  The damage will take many years to repair.

The basic way that civilization works is with trust.  We tend not to pay our money for something unless we believe it’s worth what we’re spending.  Skepticism, in appropriate measure, is a good thing.  So is trust.  One way that I often see this is in the hiring of contract managers.  Yes, there is such a thing!  Many younger academics now hire companies to make sure the publishing contracts they sign aren’t cheating them.  When I was in academia you simply went by the reputation of a publisher.  Everyone knew who had a good reputation because of, well, their reputation.  What a publisher represented was well known and respected for what it was.  Perhaps I’m mistaking the desire for personal advantage for lack of trust.

Companies sometimes engage in trust-building exercises.  Getting beyond someone’s politics to the person beneath seems to be a dying art.  Deep divisions are difficult to achieve when people trust one another.  Consider the anti-vaxxers who are now feeding the delta-variation of Covid-19.  They’ve been taught not to trust the scientists and officials who offer a way to ending this pandemic.  For free.  They even don’t believe the post-presidential interview with Trump where he encouraged (far too late) his followers to get vaccinated.  Trust has to be built slowly.  Over centuries sometimes.  One man’s selfishness tore down the modicum of trust that had been slowly growing since the 1860s.  Now uninformed skeptics think critical race theory is some kind of plot.  Trust isn’t a bad thing.  It is the only way to move forward.  Trust me on this.


To Write in Black and White

It can be seen as a black and white issue: either you’ve written a book or you haven’t.  Many people do write books.  Many more want to.  In a survey I saw sometime in the past few months—I can’t recall exactly where—a survey indicated a high percentage of Americans wanted to write a book.  What exactly does that mean?  There are many different kinds of books and several motivations for writing them.  And, depending, your work may or may not be taken seriously, even if you publish.  As someone who’s published four nonfiction books, all of them obscure, I often think about this.  Working in publishing I have some privileged access to the ins and outs of how this works, but that doesn’t necessarily help in writing success.  So what are the motivations?  Is there any way to tell the difference?

Obviously, I can’t speak for others’ motivations but I can see the results.  Most of the writers with whom I work are academic writers.  Their books are generally written for fellow academics and they’re the result of years of research in specialized libraries often off-limits to non-academics.  Those are pretty easy to tell at a glance.  Another class of nonfiction writer is the journalist.  It’s assumed by the industry that someone who majored in journalism is a talented writer.  If, after reporting on a topic for a few years, a journalist wants to write a book based on experience, that frequently gets a publisher’s interest.  The results may not be academically reliable.  I recall that as a grad student it was assumed there were even certain established publishers not to trust—mainly those that weren’t university presses, but not exclusively.

The self-published book has a more difficult trajectory to trace.  Some authors, no matter how good or insightful, just can’t get a standard publisher’s attention.  Others are convinced of their own wisdom and now have an easy route to become a published author.  Yet others realize some money can be made from writing (although making a living at it is very hard work).  I’ve been reading a book by a journalist that has lots of factual errors in it.  I try not to judge, but I do wonder when I know it’s shelved as nonfiction.  Now, these aren’t the kinds of errors that will cost a life if dosed incorrectly or will set off a war between dominant personalities that are heads of state.  I also know that most books do contain inadvertent errors—books are written by humans and we don’t have all the answers yet.  Still, I think of the readers and how we define nonfiction.  What counts as a book anyway?  Things are seldom black or white.

Writing my first book

Irony

It’s a funny old world, as the saying goes.  I don’t deal, as an editor, with many agents.  In fact, having been in publishing for nearly a dozen years it’s only happened three times.  The most recent agent is one to whom I sent a pitch for Holy Horror and from whom I never heard back.  The book he sent me isn’t too different from what I was doing in said volume.  That’s the way it goes, you say.  Indeed, I don’t disagree.  But who doesn’t like a dose of irony in an otherwise stainless steel world?  As I’m reading through the proposal I see that it cites the interest in the subject because of the great popularity of the Religion and Monsters sessions at the American Academy of Religion.  I was responsible for getting those sessions started.

Since irony loves company, none of the people I recruited to get that session rolling read my blog.  I’d been meeting with various scholars over the years and started to notice a common interest in religion and monsters, which I personally share.  I suggested to one of these gainfully employed scholars that we should apply for such a session.  She agreed and we invited another gainfully employed academic to join us.  I wrote the initial proposal.  The session was approved (the proposal being helpfully revised by my colleagues) for three years running.  Now it was being cited as objective proof of an idea that this very agent had dismissed when I presented Holy Horror to him.  Our society very much thinks having a university post means you have something to contribute.  No post?  No interest.

I’ve been working on religion and monsters for (conservatively) a dozen years.  I’ve written two high-priced books on the subject and I’ve received almost no traction in the field because I can’t put a university, or college, or seminary, behind my name.  I was formerly an associate professor, but who you are speaks louder than who you were.  Institutions speak even louder—much louder—than individuals.  The thing about privilege is that it works.  So in this funny old world I’m bemused to be watching my own idea helping propel a colleague’s case for an agent.  I’m working on my fifth book, and I sincerely hope this one will retail for less than thirty dollars.  That’s difficult to do without an agent’s intervention.  I know agents are swamped with proposals.  I know they’re very selective.  And I also know that the irony of being a biblical scholar interested in monsters will catch their attention.  Only, however, if you have an institution behind your name.  Funny, isn’t it?

Even the monster smiles

Online Research

Given my current lack of a university library, and my continued rapaciousness for research I’ve had to sample internet offerings.  There’s a reason academics are skeptical of the internet’s research reliability.  Just about anything you want to verify brings you up against a paywall where you can sometime buy an article you could read for free if you were a professor, for about $15 or $20.  The privileging of academic information.  (Hey folks, I give it away here!)  In any case, I often run into websites on the topic on researching that give “facts” with a breezy assurance that isn’t followed up with footnotes, making me wonder where they got their information.  Who was the publisher?  Who says they know what they’re talking about?  No wonder alternative facts rule the day.

One of the things I learned in the course of my doctoral work is that those three insignificant letters, if applied correctly, indicate that you know how to do research.  Earning a doctorate is often considered (and sometimes is) a matter of becoming a specialist.  Those willing to peel back the top layer realize that underneath what’s going on is a transformation of your way of thinking.  You can find facts, but you can also weigh them in the balances.  You take no one’s word for it.  Unless, of course, they’re published by a prestige press.  And even then, if the lesson really sunk in, you’ll have your doubts.  The internet is a frustrating place to try to find reliable information.  Oh, it’s great for looking up phone numbers, and even for getting directions.  Just don’t trust it with history.

Currently at work on my fifth book, I’m finding research somewhat of a hurdle.  I’ve reached out to local universities and they seem only to want to let you in if you’re an adjunct (which is considered a conflict of interest in my current post).  You’re therefore locked out of knowledge.  I recently learned that JSTOR may be offering a fixed number of free articles to independent scholars.  If so, that is a great and farsighted boon.  You see, the problem is you need to look at the footnotes to know which articles are actually based on solid research.  There’s a move afoot that makes academic presses shudder.  The move for free information.  It’s the business of academic presses to sell it, of course—that’s where the money comes from.  So I sit here facing another paywall and I wonder is wisdom can ever truly be free.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Post-Literate?

Who would’ve thought that publishing could be a scary industry in which to work?  Apart from the constant changes, that is.  Or maybe the changes are the reason it’s scary.  Our society has never been through a revolution quite like the tech revolution.  Yes, writing was pretty radical when it was invented, but it took millennia before literacy got to the point where it created widespread change.  Tech changes everything, and it does so very quickly.  Writing changes everything, but does so over the longue durée.  It began in a pretty humble way.  Crude drawings, called pictographs, came to represent things that mattered to pre-capitalists.  Take an ox head, for example.  It could represent the entire animal.  While some pictographs can be discerned in cuneiform (just as they can in some Chinese characters), the best example is perhaps Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Photo credit:: Jon Bodsworth, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether wedge-headed oxen or beautifully stylized hieroglyphs, both writing styles came to be representative for phonemes.  Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing tended to be syllabic rather than strictly alphabetic, and indeed, the invention of the alphabet made learning to write simpler.  Even after this innovation, however, it still took over a millennium before its practice became widespread.  Writing meant that ideas could be preserved beyond a lifetime.  Instructions and history could be recorded.  When a mistake was known and noted, remaking that error could be avoided.  (This seems to be a feature that has been lost to history, judging by recent fascist political parties.)  One of the great advantages to writing is the precision with which ideas could be expressed and preserved.

So how does this make publishing scary?  Some analysts are now claiming we are in a “post-literary” society.  Reading is no longer necessary.  We download visual content to gain the information we need.  When ideas need to be expressed in writing, we have emojis.  What happens, however, to synonyms when emojis take over?  Our humble ox head that eventually morphed into the capital A may now be represented by a stylized cow.  Or is it a bovine?  What does that cow image convey?  Books—novelties at the moment—are being written with emojis.  Learning to read is difficult.  It takes years and changes our brains.  Technology is encouraging us to become post-literate.  Even blogs are now becoming outdated.  Yet, looking at those emojis we see the history of writing moving in reverse.  From the precision of clear and accurate description to vague notions that look cool but leave us guessing otherwise.  Perhaps those ancient scribes scratching sketches into clay had it right to begin with.


You Have the Right to Remain

It’s strange sitting in a meeting where you’ve written a book on the topic under discussion and nobody knows about it.  This is one of the problems of publishing with an academic press.  Books get lost and buried.  Maybe the other way around.  A problem we academic editors frequently run into is that authors tend to think a book is a book.  Publishers recognize several different kinds of books, well represented among them those that are destined for the “library market.”  You can tell them by the way they’re priced.  Now I must confess that I’m behind the times in this regard.  I still tend to think twenty dollars is a lot to pay for a book.  I say this even though my job, day after day, includes pouring over book budgets to see how an academic book can be made not to lose money.

It costs a lot of money—most of it overhead—to produce a book.  In order not to run a publisher bankrupt, it needs to sell enough copies to cover its costs.  Library market books are priced that way because they are expected to sell only to libraries.  Certainly, if they were priced lower some academics would buy them, but the truth is not many academics do.  I realize I was an outlier when I was in the academy.  Without a research budget I would spend my own money on a book priced a hundred dollars if I really needed it for my research.  I was aware, even at that time, that others seldom did this.  As an academic colleague once told me, “I like to buy shoes.”  And let’s face it, there are just too many books out there to buy.  “Publish or perish” has more than one meaning.

So I’m sitting in a meeting where the topic of discussion is something on which I’ve written a book.  My opinion is not asked—my book is priced for the library market and I know it—so I don’t really expect it to be.  The question is whether general readers will find the subject compelling.  Speaking strictly for me I’m pretty sure they will.  I signed my contract for Nightmares with the Bible before I knew the series would be priced for the library market.  That designation also indicates minimal marketing.  What publisher is going to try to push a book that costs that much when they know individuals can’t afford it?  So I sit in the meeting and keep my mouth shut.


Pricing out of Business

Maybe you’re like most normal people and don’t pay much attention to who the publisher of a book is.  If you read a lot, and can get behind the glitz and glam of an Amazon page, you might come to trust certain publishers over others.  The fact is, despite the difficulty some of us have getting published, there are a lot of presses out there.  Some are clearly self-publishing vehicles, but many are small, independent houses that focus on specialized topics.  The sheer numbers can be bewildering.  I was looking for a reputable book on a certain subject the other day and, given my job, I always check the publisher.  Several in a row came up that I had never even heard of before.  I guess there is money to be made in publishing yet, if only one could find the matching pieces.

With academic publishing you can spend five or more years of your life writing a book and you’ll earn royalties that literally won’t cover a month’s rent when you’re done.  Even while this is happening there are people who make a living publishing books with presses you’ve never heard of.  They know how to get average citizens to buy their books.  I’ve been working in publishing for over a decade now and I guess I still don’t have it figured out yet.  It’s complex, and even with online publishing helps like agent-finding sites or Duotrope, you’ll find that each day brings its own changes.  I’ve learned through personal experience that many publishers simply don’t last.

What many of these fly-by-night publishers understand better than established academic presses is that price matters.  Well, let me put that in more precise terms, for all publishers need money—fly-by-night publishers know that average people will buy only the books they can afford.  These presses I’ve never heard of sell books for the industry standard of about sixteen bucks.  My least expensive book sells for about twenty-two and I’ve been told more than once that it’s too expensive for most mortal budgets.  Collectively, my four books cost almost $250, averaging out at sixty per pop.  Two of them were written for general readers who have no hope of being able to afford them.  I tried to find an agent for one of them, and the other was a series book (no agent will touch such a thing).  Perhaps I should’ve tried a lesser-known press that could afford to offer my books at affordable prices.   You could do worse.


Literary Life

Trying to live a literary life is, I suppose, irresponsible.  Especially if your efforts and writing bring basically no money.  It takes considerable effort to make daily time to read and write, and so much else remains to be done.  At times I feel guilty for trying.  My books have all been published, for various reasons, with academic publishers.  Academic publishers don’t try to sell many copies of an individual book, relying as they do on the long tail philosophy.  Most academics have good paying jobs that expect research and writing in return.  For the outsider, however, there are other pressing matters.  The nine-to-five being the largest among them.  And any social organizations you join to keep you sane and connected.  Then there’s social media to take your time.  And the lawn’s ready for mowing.

I’ve always believed lack of time was (is) a theological problem.  I came up with that when I was an academic and had time to ponder such things.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I did research and write.  Now I want to move into that world where you might earn a little from all the effort.  And yet, that old Protestant guilt has a way of getting its talons around you.  You’re reading?  Shouldn’t you be doing those minor repairs you can handle without a contractor?  (Or at least think you can handle?)  Or maybe shouldn’t you be looking for a job that pays enough to hire someone to do such things?  And don’t you dare let that word “retirement” anywhere near your head.  What are you, irresponsible?

Reading takes commitment.  I try to read, on average, at least a book a week.  It requires a lot of time.  And a literary life includes giving back.  You want to share your writing with the world.  Hoping that either your fiction or nonfiction might eventually bring you some notice.  That’s the plan anyway.  The starving artist paradigm doesn’t feel so comfortable when you’ve got a mortgage.  Still, the imagination refuses to be tamed.  I’ve often said I could be content on a desert island as long as I had a huge stack of paper and never-ending supply of pens.  But that’s not the reality I inhabit.  That mortgage pays for a roof over my books and writing computer, always complaining it’s full.  It may not be glamorous.  In fact, it’s about the exact opposite of that.  But it is, after all, a literary life.


Free Knowledge

I was struck with an idea.  Not just any idea—an academic one.  I find myself out of practice, and wondering where to find sources when I have no access to an academic library.  I’ve spent my precious writing time for the past several days trying to bang out a respectable academic article.  It represents an area that my personal library does not cover adequately.  The fully employed academic has a library and interlibrary loan to support ideas that won’t let go.  It’s a bit more tricky for the independent scholar.  I’ve contacted local schools but during these pandemic times there is no public access.  Nor electronic access—thanks to all the fancy deals publishers make to try to keep the industry profitable.

The past few academic publications I’ve had were difficult to write, particularly the footnotes. Something the garden-variety academic doesn’t understand is that the university library is a privilege.  I read a lot.  Probably more now than when I was a professor.  Still, research leads you in directions you’d never anticipate.  It’s quite a wild ride, actually.  So with my current project (I can’t tell you what it is because someone with library access would easily be able to scoop it) I’ve had to buckle up.  As I was reading an obvious connection became clear.  It reminded me of the thrill of discovery.  The researcher has a drive for new knowledge—a treasure-hunter of the mind.  It is wonderful to be reminded that there’s more out there still to be discovered.

I’d almost forgotten how an insistent idea can push other projects out of its way.  I have any number of projects going simultaneously.  They get a few minutes’ attention before the work day starts and some of them mature enough to be sent for publication.  At any given time there’s a lot more standing behind those ideas that actually show up on this blog, or in a journal, or even in the fiction venues in which I publish.  But that idea just won’t let me go.  Even while I’m at work it lurks in the back of my mind.  The professorate, for all its limitations, doesn’t pin you down to a nine-to-five schedule even when the time would be better used otherwise.  The thing is, you can’t tame ideas.  Who would want to live in a world where you could?  So I keep working away, hoping to find a library or at least electronic access.  It’s just an idea I have.


Werewolves Not Forgotten

Copyright is a strange thing.  Without it there would be no making a living as a writer or artist or even music composer (or so I’m told).  The idea is straightforward enough—someone comes up with a “marketable” idea (how marketable varies widely), and therefore owns the exclusive rights to the expressed form of that idea.  If, for instance, the idea becomes a published book the publisher (generally) owns the rights and pays the writer royalties for the use/ownership of those rights.  Copyright, however, like fresh food, expires.  Written work or music or art becomes part of the public domain and can be reproduced by any with the gumption to do so.  There are publishers, such as Gorgias Press, that got their earlier starts by doing just that—finding public domain material, scanning it, and republishing it for a price.  All above board.

Back before I worked long in publishing I was going through a werewolf phase.  No, I am not a lycanthrope, but I was reading about werewolves.  I knew one of the main sources of folklore was Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves.  Being strapped for cash (some things never change), I bought a copy published by Forgotten Books.  They’re rather prevalent on Amazon.  Although the content is free online, some of us prefer to have a book in our hands and leave the devices aside.  I soon discovered why my Forgotten Books version was so inexpensive.  It is simply a printout of the scanned book, apparently with optical letter recognition software utilized.  No serious formatting or proofreading required, a book is produced, covered, and sold.  It is a disorienting experience reading such a book.

Readers look for landmarks just as surely as a hiker or traveler of any sort.  Old books have layout and typesetting to help the reader navigate.  My copy has “Error! Bookmark Not Defined” instead of notes.  First editions of Baring-Gould, it turns out, sell for upwards of $6000.  So I continued reading.  A lack of italics and the occasional optically misread word make me wonder just how much of Baring-Gould I’m really ingesting.  Any book that begins with a disclaimer regarding possible errors should’ve been assigned a copyeditor.  SBG likes to use lots of foreign words.  They may be spelled correctly or not.  I have no notes to check.  Caveat emptor, n’est-ce pas?  The technology that allows scanned, unread by human eyes products to be sold as books makes me wonder.  No, I haven’t forgotten books.


What Have Faces To Do with Books?

I don’t write much about it because I don’t understand it.  Facebook, that is.  I’ve had an account there for many years now and with the rapid changes they make it seems you might want to major in it if you want to pursue it even as an avocation.  One of the bits of wisdom I’ve picked up from various marketers and publicists in the publishing biz is that you need to be visible on social media.  (I’ve encountered agents who actually won’t consider your project unless you already have thousands of followers, preferably on Twitter.)  The aforementioned marketers and publicists insist that you shouldn’t do all social media—who possibly can?  Just stick with the big ones, especially Twitter.  Especially Facebook.  If you’re a working stiff, like yours truly, you’re not allowed on these sites during the day, which means building a following is difficult.

The publisher of my third book, Holy Horror, hasn’t done much promotion for it.  (They also priced it higher than most of their books, forever dooming it to the dreaded library market.)  One thing I found in my few pre-dawn minutes on Facebook is a group of other authors who’ve published with this particular press.  We share ideas and ask questions.  We try to promote our work in ways that most publishers wish authors would.  In any case, we are hosting and event on Saturday, March 6, where we’ll be on Zoom talking about our books.  The event will be free and lots of interesting things will be on offer.  If you’d like to attend, you’ll need to see the link in my Facebook feed.  It’s free.  There will be a limited-time sale price on Holy Horror.

Working in the academic publishing world but not being in the academy I’ve learned that you “fall between two stools.”  Nobody quite knows what to make of you.  Editors aren’t supposed to write books, are they?  The funny thing about that way of thinking is that many editors (yours truly excepted) are among the smartest people I know.  Those who don’t have doctorates read more than most of the people who do.  It would seem that if you wanted to get some really interesting books you’d ask editors to write.  Of course, they may not be permitted to use social media during the day.  Falling between stools is a place familiar to me.  Facebook, however, seems more like an impenetrable forest.  It’s a good thing I write about horror movies, I guess.  If you’re interested in hearing more take a look at Facebook and join us on March 6.


Knowing Everything

Of all the jobs I’ve held, being an editor is the only one where strangers send random emails trying to convince me of God’s reality.  Granted, part of that may be because email is now so common as to be passé among the younger crowd.  When I myself was younger it was still just catching on.  Still, part of these strange emails is likely based on the evangelical compulsion to make others see things their way.  Someone who edits biblical studies books might seem like a good target.  I got another such email just last week, and as always, I wondered over it.  What kinds of assumptions must random strangers make about biblical studies specialists?  One of these assumptions, it’s clear, is that they suppose we are atheists.  They know this without even asking.

Technology has made such blindsiding communication easier.  It didn’t invent it, though.  It took a lot more effort to write up a letter, address it, buy a stamp, and mail it than it does to sit down at a keyboard, click, and they start proselytizing away.  In my earlier days, in other incarnations of a career, I received unexpected missives from time-to-time.  And certainly as a seminary professor you had students who had already figured everything out by the time they’d gotten to matriculation.  Many of them were coming to seminary to teach rather than to learn.  Such can be the arrogance of faith.  I fear that many of them graduated with their biases intact.  Education, perhaps, doesn’t work for everyone.

Photo credit: NASA

Having it all figured out is something many of us strive for.  We want things to make sense.  We want our spirituality to fit into this increasingly materialistic world.  Some of us go to seminary and/or graduate school to help us make sense of things.  We encounter minds further along the journey than our own, and, if we’re open, we learn from them.  For me, it’s difficult to understand how education isn’t always a humbling experience.  Oh, I get emails from academics who think they’ve figured it all out as well.  Such communications always make me sad.  The human enterprise, such as it is, has spanned millennia and true progress has only been made when people were humble enough to admit that they didn’t know everything.  They would eventually invent the internet and email.  Then those who already knew all the answers could send them to strangers to convince them of their own great learning.


Book Birthing

Books, like humans and other animals, undergo a process of conception, development, and birth.  It may seem, when holding a book in hand, that it is the singular work of one person, but in fact most books are a community effort.  I’ve read many books where the author was a specialist in one area and decided to write a book in a different field.  This used to be more acceptable, as various polymaths showed that specialization wasn’t the only way to understand the bigger picture.  Such efforts these days, however, take some convincing of skeptical editors.  And with good reason.  Factual books, especially, are subject to close scrutiny.  Does the author indeed know what s/he is talking about?  Is s/he qualified to write this book?

Recently I was reading such a book.  It was published by a university press, and the author was a specialist in one field, but writing in an unrelated one.  In my mind (so fictionally) I went through how this may have developed.  A writer goes to an editor and says “I have an idea for a book.”  From my own experience as an editor, this second party then asks her or himself a few questions.  Is this topic a viable book?  If so, who will buy it?  Is this author the right person to write it?  (It is possible that a person has an idea for a book better written by someone else.)  Depending on the author’s stature, the editor may cave and say, “Okay, but you need to let me help you.”  Editors (present company excepted) are some of the smartest people I’ve met.  They may not be specialists like professors, but they know an awful lot.  Many authors constantly question their editorial decisions nevertheless.

No matter how rational an author is, emotion plays into the process of writing.  I frequently tell my authors “the book has to be what you want it to be.”  Still, that may mean it should be published by someone else.  An author who publishes books s/he doesn’t like is not a happy person.  For nonfiction books other readers, such as peer reviewers and colleagues, also shape the final tome.  Seldom does the book in your hands represent something straight from the mind of the writer.  There are places for such things, of course, this blog being one of them.  (And there are many more.)  What makes the book authoritative, however, is that it has been fact-checked by many readers other than the author before it ever goes to press.  Gestation is important.  No book can be fully formed without it.


Mothers’ Instinct

Maternity leave (not for me, but still) demonstrates just how sexist capitalism is.  This becomes very clear in publishing where schedules are reinforced by incentives (instead of paying properly) for meeting agreed-upon deadlines.  If an author gets pregnant while writing a book—not an unusual situation—it can throw shockwaves all through a book’s schedule from production all the way back up to editorial.  Why?  Because incentives are on the line.  It’s possible to counter with what if an author falls sick?  Or dies?  Yes, these happen too, but pregnancy isn’t an illness and isn’t infrequently a biologically constrained event—there is an age at which it ceases to become an issue.  So incentives, which are based on schedules drawn up before an author conceives, put the capitalist machine into a tizzy.

If employers didn’t rely on incentives, but paid better wages, this could make the issue less acute.  The entire system is devised from a male perspective.  Sickness and death do occur from time to time, but the invariability of a schedule (which ironically takes about nine months) is based on a view that doesn’t account for the somewhat likely event of a pregnancy.  I often think about this.  The corporate structure was made by men, for men.  We now give lip-service to equality while refusing to change the masculinist structure that underlies it.  By doing so the valuable contributions and improvements that women might make are kept under the standard business model.  No wonder it feels like we’re stuck in a rut.

Societal change is generally slow, and that conservative tendency preserves our property and our means of making a living.  If we gave women more prominence in leadership I would hope that this would start to change.  The male-oriented viewpoints of the capitalist entrepreneur, the stolid religious leader, and the halls of government, and even education, are reluctant to let people think differently.  We want to move forward, but we’re afraid of losing what we have.  This is why the conversation needs to widen.  Maternity leave reminds us that some things are more important than work.  Care for a helpless human being is something nearly all people would support.  It’s when they grow up that society feels it can safely ignore their needs.  We need a mother’s wisdom here.  Every time a pregnancy sets publication schedules in a frenzy I ask myself why we have to rely on incentives beyond just being the most human that we can be.