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


Hiding What?

Who are we?  Do we really show ourselves to others, or do we wear masks?  That question applies to horror films as well as to everyday life.  Alexandra Heller-Nicholas addresses this directly in the former context in Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces.  As I write about horror films, peer reviewers suggest these more technical studies as means of adding depth to my analysis.  Most of them are revised dissertations and retain the academic language that makes such documents difficult to read in places.  Still, they contain a lot of insight.  I learned a lot from Heller-Nicholas and I was particularly impressed that she took the “shamanic imagination” as her approach to the films she analyzes.  The ritual aspect makes good use of religion and horror connections.  It’s nice to see this catching on.

Masks are more than disguises.  Yes, there’s something theatrical to them and there’s a great deal of ritual to theater.  Ritual and religion aren’t identical, but they are clearly related.  Often masks are discussed as simply a way of hiding a killer’s face.  There’s quite a lot more to it.  This is where the academic analysis comes in.  We can’t explore it in detail in the brief context of this post, but there’s a whole book out there to read on it.  Heller-Nicholas doesn’t feel constrained to major movie releases.  I did that in Holy Horror because I supposed more people would be interested in reading about movies they’d actually seen (most of them anyway).  There are a lot more examples out there.  I’m learning about more all the time.

There are many different masks in horror.  This book looks at several, some metaphorical, but most literal, and what they convey.  Or conceal.  The fact is we mask ourselves for many reasons.  It’s kind of like when we dream—our subconscious seems to know more about who we are than our waking minds do, and we really don’t share our dreams with others.  The mask in horror isn’t worn just by killers.  When it is, however, it often has a shamanic effect, or, as Heller-Nicholas points out, a trickster aspect.  This is very much like how anthropologists approach shamans in traditional societies.  Religious specialists are often tricksters and they provide an important element in cultures that are otherwise beset by rules.  Rationality is important, but so is letting go of it once in a while.  Shamans get away with things the average person can’t.  And it is just one of many masks we wear all the time.


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.


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.


Paperback Nightmares

I’m not assertive.  My voice is not loud and even when I have strong opinions I like to let others have their say.  Those of us who’ve been beaten down too many times can be like that.  So it took a lot of courage to ask.  “Is it possible that Nightmares with the Bible might be issued in paperback?”  You see, I know that “academic” books almost always sell the copies they’re going to sell in the first year.  Some follow-up sales continue into years two and three, but beyond that it’s about done.  And I also know that when authors ask for a paperback it almost never sells as well (or even more poorly) than the hardcover.  I’m hoping the paperback of Nightmares will buck this trend because it published into the pandemic.  That was a game-changer.

When you’re worried about staying alive you might not feel like reading about demons.  Of course, what better time to do so is there?  Paperbacks are often produced, in academic settings, to appease authors.  I have long believed—and this flies counter to the orthodoxy of the publishing world—that if books were initially published in paperback and priced affordably they would sell better.  The fear is that the higher priced hardcovers wouldn’t be purchased by libraries.  Librarians would, oh tremble, purchase the reasonably priced paperbacks and rebind them for less expense than the stratospheric price put on a 208-page monograph.  Publishers are often afraid to try anything different.  Assured sales are a blessing that can be bankrolled.

I’m hoping, once the paperback comes out, to do some more promotional work on it.  This blog was started long before I had books to flog.  It’s free content for those who like the less sweet kinds of treats in the bowl.  I do appreciate the occasional free advertising I can do.  It’s my hope that there’s always something to learn offered with it.  Successful content providers can make a living doing it.  Others pay for the privilege.  I often ponder what will happen to this blog when I run up against the size limits of my WordPress account.  The next level up, commercial, is beyond my price range.  Perhaps, like a phoenix, it will be time to start all over again when that moment comes.  In the meantime I’ll reuse images as often as I can, because each new one takes a byte out of my account.  And when it’s all said and done, Nightmares will still be available in print. Hopefully in paperback next year.


The Network

Although it’s not NBC, the New Books Network has quite a reach with academics.  That’s why I was glad they accepted my pitch for an interview about Nightmares with the Bible.  The interview is now live and can be heard here.  The experience of getting the interview made turned into quite a saga with my pitch going back to at least November, and acceptance coming early in January.  The actual interview was over a month ago and it was posted only yesterday.  I’m not naive enough to think it will boost the sales of a hundred-dollar book, but maybe a few more people will become aware of it.  Even in academia there are too many books published for all of them to get notice proportionate to the work that goes into writing them.

Some publishers are of the opinion that editors shouldn’t try to be authors.  Obviously I disagree on that particular point.  Author-editors share the ups and downs and know what it’s like to put in the work only to have a book disappear.  I haven’t received any royalties at all for Nightmares.  I have no idea how many copies have sold.  Many writers publishing into the teeth of a pandemic fall into the same category.  While trade books—including fiction—did remarkably well during the height of Covid-19, academic books languished.  Nightmares is, of course, its own kind of hybrid.  A monster, if you will.  Written for educated laity it’s packaged and priced for the academic monograph market.  That’s why I pitched it to NBN.  I’m glad to see the recording is now available.

Nobody writes this kind of book to get rich.  I’ve had friends ask me why I bother.  Believe me, that question occurs to me too.  Some of us have something to say but the auditorium’s empty.  The Bible’s at a low point outside a specific cross-section, and that cross-section generally doesn’t pay attention to horror.  Of course, that’s another reason I do this.  Bringing opposites together offers the world, even the staid academic world, something new.  Horror is at last being taken seriously by literary and cinematography scholars.  Some biblical scholars are realizing that apart from comforting words of love, and towering demands for justice, the Bible itself contains plenty of horror.  When unlike things mix, monsters are born.  I’m grateful to the NBN for taking a chance on my book.  If you’ve got some time, and the inclination, you can listen in here.


Another Article

Some insecure people feel the compulsion, but really don’t know why.  Speaking strictly for this insecure person it’s because (I think) I’ve been ignored most of my life.  I didn’t cause trouble so teachers seldom paid me any mind.  (I’m pretty good about obeying rules.)  I was a middle child with less than a year at youngest status.  I was abandoned in a house at the age of one for God knows how long when my father went out on a bender.  Who knows?  In any case, this piece isn’t really about any of that.  It’s about the compulsion to write articles.  I don’t know why I keep volunteering to do this.  They get me nowhere.  You’re not paid for them, and you get little exposure.  I seem to be addicted to appearing in print.

This blog is purely an electronic phenomenon.  It exists nowhere in print.  I post on it every day in the hope that, like a Pioneer probe, it will connect with somebody who comprehends.  As a non, but erstwhile, academic I am not compelled to write.  In fact, it sometimes complicates things.  (If you believe that freedom of written expression exists you’ve never read a publishing contract.)  So print publication appeals to me.  I had an email from a volume editor the other day and I couldn’t place the name.  I opened it to read that the volume had been accepted as I was struggling to remember what I promised I would write for him.  I had to do an email search to locate the chain.  So that’s what I said I’d do! (The previous article I’d committed to I remembered well, since the proposal was long overdue.) 

Print publication, you see, takes a long time.  An erstwhile editor (likely an academic), gets an idea.  They wrestle with it a while and then write it down.  Pitch it to a publisher.  The in-house editor has to pitch it to the editorial board.  Often after peer review.  It can, in my defense, take months—plenty of time to have forgotten I said I’d contribute.  Then the book has to be written.  That part can take years, but in edited collections many hands make light work.  After the disparate pieces are finally cajoled in (one editor had to keep after me for four months), the editor, well, edits them.  Then they finally get sent off to the publisher.  The production process takes about a year.  The volume comes out and you get a congratulatory email or two, and then it’s forgotten.  I’m not sure why I do it, but I’ve been published by university presses for taking these on.  When I was teaching I couldn’t seem to get their interest.  Now that I’m writing about horror they’re starting to notice.  But then, that’s how monsters behave.


Ghost Publishers

Ancient Near Eastern studies, where my academic work has the widest recognition, is still an area of fascination.  I have to hold myself back when I see a new book published in the area.  You see, I learned when I researched in this field that there is little academic opportunity in it.  As per usual, the public seems quite interested so academia is not.  A few practitioners, however, have been able to break through.  One of them is Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum.  He’s been writing popular books about ancient ideas and getting respectable press for doing so.  His most recent book (The First Ghosts), as described in an article in the Smithsonian, deals with the earliest depiction of a ghost.

Perhaps because of copyright complications, his book on the subject doesn’t seem to be widely available in the United States, despite having been published by a trade house.  It could be that the publishers don’t think anyone will be interested.  Hello?  Ghosts and Mesopotamia?  Haven’t you been paying attention?  This is part and parcel of the academic publishing world.  The editorial board has to decide which books see the light of day and which won’t.  And how to price them.  Is this primarily a library book or can it somehow claw over into the crossover market?  Academic publishers will casually add five or ten dollars to the price, assuming it won’t hurt sales.  Guess what?  It does.  As much as I’d like to read Finkel’s book, my interest doesn’t hover around the 60 dollar range.

When I first studied Hebrew I wanted to buy a textbook my professor mentioned, but it cost nearly $100 in the US.  This was back in the 1980s, so that really was steep.  When we moved to Scotland I discovered the same book was available there is paperback for a reasonable price, so I bought it.  That’s when I began to realize copyright laws direct the shape of scholarship.  Publishers decide what makes it into reputable book form and who will be able to afford it.  That’s power.  You see, people have believed in ghosts from as long as we could convey the idea.  The dead never really leave us.  Finkel’s book examines a clay tablet used to exorcise ghosts and may contain a line drawing of a spirit.  Who wouldn’t want to read such a book?  It’s getting press coverage but those who make such decisions have decided, apparently, there’s no market for it.  When that happens a book hasn’t a ghost of a chance.

Postscript: Checking Amazon one last time before clicking “publish,” I see the book has now come down to the $30 range. I can’t take credit for that, but my point still stands.


Eve’s True Desire

Psst—don’t tell anyone!  There is a free copy of my first book available on Academia.edu.  I thought I was kind of radical for doing that, but people who write books want people to read them.  Having a book priced $70 or more, heck, even $30 or more, means only diehards will buy it.  Nightmares with the Bible promptly sank at $100 cover price, released during a pandemic.  I’ve always admired scholars who’ve bucked conventions to make their work available.  Recently I needed to consult a book.  I won’t say what it is because I fear a take-down order will be issued where I found it.  The author, aware the book was hard to access, actually photocopied the entire book and put it on a website.  I stand up and cheer!  Photocopying an entire book is a lot of work, a labor of pure love.

Now, I’m all for authors getting royalties.  It takes a lot of time and energy to write a book.  It can cost years of your life.  You ought to get something back for it.  It seems to me, however, that a different model is required for academic books.  Why are they so expensive?  Not only that, but smaller publishers without the distribution channels often publish worthwhile books, but in small quantities and they go out of print after the initial run is sold.  The academic enterprise (knowledge for knowledge’s sake) has become a captive of capitalism.  There’s no other way to trade in that market.  Books that have willing, even eager, readers are sequestered in libraries only accessible to employees.  Is there anything wrong with that picture?

Academics at less wealthy institutions often find ways around the rules.  I did my research for Weathering the Psalms at a small seminary that had trouble getting unusual items on interlibrary loan.  Bigger schools were distrustful of this tiny enclave called Nashotah House.  Would they ever get their rare property back?  Meanwhile worldwide mail service crisscrossed with offprints sent for free from scholar to scholar.  It was like your birthday, or Christmas, when a long-awaited piece of research landed in your mailbox.  Nobody was in it for the money.  We were beguiled by learning.  Eve looking wistfully up into the tree.  Now it’s all business suits with dollar signs for eyes.  The academic who puts their book up for free on the internet is nothing less than a saint.  Seeking knowledge is never really a sin.

Tasty fruit of knowledge

Clash of the Titles

Well, it seems I may be stuck in publishing for a while.  At least it’s a place to learn.  The inside story, it turns out, would be very helpful for authors to know.  Let’s take titles for example.  An editor sees a basic misunderstanding on the part of many academic authors.  Hey, I’ve even done it myself.  To correct this misunderstanding it’s important to see that academic publishers see different basic kinds of books.  One of them is the academic monograph.  No matter what the author thinks (I know the feeling of working on a book for years and supposing everyone else will be interested in the topic) academic books are of limited appeal.  Their main buyers are academic libraries and academic librarians want to know at a glance what the book is about.  The title has to say this, even before reaching the subtitle.

We’re all used to the idea of seeing books with clever titles in the bookstore.  (Remember bookstores?)  These are trade books.  Some of them are from academic presses, but these are books that have often been worked over by editors and marketers and publicists to make them more appealing.  The title can be clever, with an explanatory subtitle, because the target buyer is a bookstore rather than a library.  It’s difficult for an author to admit that this tome that has consumed your waking life for years, and maybe even decades, is primarily something a couple hundred libraries only will buy.  And family and friends who feel they need to support your efforts.  It’s a hard reality to face, but it often comes down to title.

What are you going to call your book?  My own most recent effort, Nightmares with the Bible, was written for a trade readership.  The publisher, however, had the library market in mind.  For success in the library market, the title works against the book.  No matter how accessibly your book is written, no mere mortal will pay $100 for it.  (Some of us will feel compelled to dish out that kind of cash for a title we really must read, but we are the exception rather than the rule.)  I like my title, but it was a mistake.  It should’ve probably gone by its subtitle, slightly modified, The Bible and Cinematic Demons.  In my mind as I wrote it, I had an educated but popular readership.  The publisher had different ideas, unclear to me when the book was put under contract.  Now it’s time to give this post a popular title so that it will be read. And hopefully taken to heart.


Discount Nightmares

Now that we’re past the equinox it’s officially okay to obsess with monsters, right?  (Any excuse will do.)  Nightmares with the Bible was officially a pandemic book.  Academic publishers (especially) found out that books released in 2020 tended to flop.  People weren’t thinking about much other than the pandemic (or crying about losing an election fair and square).  Books, of course, take a long time to write and a long time to produce—it’s not as simple as it looks.  And if your production schedule falls during a pandemic, well, be prepared.  In the case of Nightmares there was the added burden of price point.  When all you’re thinking about is survival, cashing out a Franklin to read about demons seems hardly wise.

Just yesterday I received a flyer, that I’m passing along to you, for the book.  It has a discount code on it (look at part 2 below) so that the book is merely expensive rather than very expensive. Nightmares is part of a series titled Horror and Scripture.  The series, published by Fortress Academic and Lexington Books, is now coming out with its third volume.  The publisher, starting to recover from the pandemic, is promoting all the books in the series.  You see, Nightmares was not only a pandemic book, it also missed that highly sought-after pre-Halloween release.  Books that deal with horror get a boost during the holiday season.  Ironically the same thing happened with Holy Horror.  Both books came out in December when nobody but Charles Dickens is thinking about scary things.

Academic book pricing is based on a model that’s beginning to crumble.  It’s that capitalistic trope of what the market will bear.  The market is academic libraries, and it has been demonstrating lately that even they aren’t made of money.  I don’t know if libraries get to use discount codes or not—it can’t hurt to ask your librarian.  Fully employed academics, however, will sometimes pay a hefty price for a book they really want or need.  My shelves upstairs are filled with books that were overpriced but were required for the books and articles I wrote when it was an expectation of my job.  My next book, which is now in the negotiation stage with the publisher, will be more reasonably priced.  It will likely have a smaller appeal, but you’ve got to start somewhere.  I sincerely hope I’m through writing hundred-dollar books.  Please pass the flyer along to all your rich friends—it’s just in time for the haunting month of October.


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

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.